After reading all the hoopla about Paul McCarthy’s latest installation WS ( “White Snow” – McCarthy’s take on Snow White) which opened at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan this week, I think it’s time that I air my longtime pathological (and, in my opinion, well-founded) dislike of Paul McCarthy’s “art.” Whether shoving Barbies in his anus, parading his naked ass in a dirty Santa suit, smearing his body in faux feces (chocolate) and blood (ketchup), or turning fairytales and Disney characters into grotesque Art Porn, to me McCarthy’s work smacks of insincerity, gimmickry, spectacle and shock simply for the sake of producing spectacle and shock.
Sure, McCarthy is pushing buttons, but simply pushing buttons for the sake of pushing them doesn’t necessarily make art, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the end product is politically transgressive. Every time a ArtForum arrives in my mailbox and I flip through the pages and land on an ad for a McCarthy exhibit (Look! It’s another Santa with an erection getting his ass stuffed with a toy!), I become infuriated. It’s not that I object to the material content of McCarthy’s work. I have no problem with artists who have used their bodies and taboo sexual subjects to make a political statement through art. I have a problem with McCarthy’s insincerity, his faux transgression, and the fact he creates lavishly offensive spectacles in the guise of critiquing capitalism when ultimately he is the only one who benefits from his bombastic ego-maniacal productions. What bothers me about McCarthy is how much he has ripped off the work of truly transgressive artists and repurposed their ideas to create a high dollar spectacle from which McCarthy is the primary beneficiary.
During the peak of the queer art movement in the 1970s, many gay artists deployed pop culture icons as a way of critiquing socially imposed sexual identity and the politics of sexual assimilation. After Stonewall, queer art became a political movement much aligned with the feminists. Artists used their bodies as acts of art on revolt. When I first saw Paul McCarthy’s art, I thought that he was coming from this tradition. The iconography that McCarthy deploys and the content of his work scream “queer,” but my research revealed a stably married heterosexual man (the son of Utah Mormons) who has pilfered the creative legacy of a whole generation of queer artists who were wiped off the planet by AIDS. McCarthy has exploited the tenets of queer art (using Disney characters, mass produced toys, and childhood icons and myths) to gain fame and fortune. He references the very substances that allowed the great AIDS Die Off to occur (blood and feces), yet McCarthy never once gives a nod to AIDS. He is reaping the limelight off controversial material he ripped off from the dead.
When AIDS wiped out a whole community of artists, sexual transgression in art became the purview of hetero men who have repackaged it with a wink. McCarthy and his ilk (e.g. Jeff Koons) have said that they are offering a critique of consumer culture in their sexually explicit and intentionally provocative art, but in the end they are creating Spectacle for Sale. The world derives no benefit from their exploits while the so-called artists reap the profits. Artists like Koons and McCarthy are like self-created corporations. They have production studios and factories where their minions assemble their work for them. They are like private operations that have taken on the art world and exploited it not with any revolutionary outcome, but only to fill their own pockets and egos. Any politically transgressive message is lost in excessive kitsch, grotesque spectacle, and the large dollar sign attached to their work. McCarthy’s nightmarish cartoon figures and supersize inflatable turds sell for over a million dollars a pop. In 2011, he sold a cartoon character with a huge tomato as a head and holes in the body for inserting sexual objects like dildos and penises for $4.5 million dollars at Christie’s.
Say what you want about the faults of identity politics (and there are many), but at least when applied to art in the 70s and early 80s, before AIDS wiped out nearly all living gay artists, there was a true sincerity, authenticity, and passionate focus to the art that the queer community produced. Art and politics, the personal and the political, were united. There is no sincerity in McCarthy’s self-aggrandizing Disneyland Hell. Sure, McCarthy bares his rectum and his penis in the name of art. He fucks toys, dolls and childhood icons. He engages in fellatio, anal sex, and orgiastic spectacles to disgust the public and send shock waves through the art world. But what is the end result? McCarthy gets a lot of press and eventually a lot of money. He slinks back to his home, and all he has left the world is some chocolate flavored shit.
It’s not that I object to the use of feces, urine, blood or controversial sexual content in art. I’m a big proponent of the Vienna Actionists who truly used their bodies as a way to debunk the commodified art world. Using blood, piss and shit, covering their bodies with entrails, deploying their bodies as tableaux of gore and violence, the Actionists reflected the violence of the world and capitalism while dismantling the idea that art is a marketable commodity removed from the body. They connected transgressive bodily art directly to political revolution and were frequently jailed for their public art performances which also served as acts of political protest. I can guarantee that Hermann Nitsch and Günter Brus were not receiving million dollar checks from Christies for their art actions.
Additionally, the “product” was removed from Actionist art. There was nothing to “sell.” Artists used their bodies in singular actions and situations that were ephemeral. They only existed in the moment, and all that remains of their “art” is the photographic and film records, notebooks, and pamphlets. Nothing to sell at Christies.
McCarthy likes to say that his so-called art is a critique of American consumerism, but his “product” lacks the “meat” of the Actionists. McCarthy creates his grotesque orgy of cartoon characters, erections and feces, but he is neither an artist nor a revolutionary. He’s a fad, a product, a self-created X-rated Disneyland for those who want to get their transgressive jollies without really crossing into the territory of the transgressive. If they’re rich enough, they can buy a million dollar piece of crap.
McCarthy creates spectacle for spectacle’s sake, shock for shock’s sake, and frankly I refuse to buy his schtick. It is neither politically transgressive nor sincere. It is contrived and exploitive. It rips off the legacy of the Actionists and of the now-dead pre-AIDS queer art community while producing high-profile sanitized shit.
Call me old fashioned. Call me an idealist. But I like to believe that art is one of the last saving graces of humankind. That people can produce art and give the world something that comes from the heart (both personally and politically) free from the dictates of the market is one glimmer of hope I find in the increasingly hopeless human landscape. That people are still capable of great acts of creative sincerity, artistic activsm and beauty (even if the beauty comes in an ugly package reflecting the ugliness of the world) is something I hold onto every single day of my life. McCarthy produces ugly for ugly’s sake with not an iota of political or personal sincerity. He stands in his dirty Santa suit or with his dwarf pants down to his knees, holding his erection and pissing in our faces while running all the way to the bank. Frankly, I’m not buying it. I would tell McCarthy to go fuck himself, but of course that is what he does for attention in the first place. So actually, I’d like him and his soulless rip-off art products to just go away.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.