[Note: I wrote this and then went to dinner. When I got back the piece had already been deflated. I had to add an addendum at the bottom of the article, and update my featured image.]
At first I dismissed “Tree” as just a one liner, and thought it looked like a Monopoly piece from the 70’s (yeah, somehow I’ve never seen a butt plug before). It also could be any old inflatable, such as daily crop up all over the world to announce sales on appliances or T-shirts. It’s just a matter of commissioning the service that creates them to do so. Then, when The Young Turks covered it in one of their internet news programs, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the artist in question was my notorious former “New Genre” teacher at UCLA, Paul McCarthy. It’s still a one-liner, but one I have a special connection to through my blessed contemporary art education. Even better, in the way that reality imitates fiction, the whole spectacle mimics a parody I made of McCarthy over a year ago.
The recent controversy is that because of McCarthy, there is now a 24 meters-tall (79 foot) green butt plug at the Place Vendôme, in Paris. Anyone who knows McCarthy’s work knows it really IS a butt plug, and not a Monopoly piece or a Christmas tree or something like a sleek modern sculpture. Some Parisians took offense to having a monolithic anal erotic implement erected in the public square, and one punched McCarthy a few times in the face. Later, McCarthy made a sort of apology for his work:
It all started with a joke: Originally, I thought that the butt plug had a shape similar to the sculptures of Brancusi. Afterwards, I realized that it looked like a Christmas tree. But it is an abstract work. People can be offended if they want to refer to the plug, but for me it is more of an abstraction.
Just to settle any debate and situate ourselves in consensual reality, it definitely is NOT abstract, as not only has Paul NEVER done anything abstract, he’s ALWAYS done shockingly disgusting work which quite frequently revolves around feces, and debasing sexual behavior. For example, consider the sculpture below,
Or this one:
If you are not persuaded by that argument look at the sculpture and see it as a tree. It’s a horrible tree. But I gather it’s a pretty good butt plug. There you have it, folks.
And I’m a little surprised Paul lied in his interview, or, shall we say obfuscated? I’d rather he’d gone ahead and made the case for why he thought it was relevant, interesting, and worth the investment to put a massive butt plug in a public space in Paris. A quick internet search reveals that he apparently made a later elucidation on his real motivation, however, in a spoken interview.
If you don’t feel like listening to the recording, here’s a transcript (but you won’t have the mixed pleasure of hearing his unique voice and enunciation):
Well, yeah, um, I don’t know what I, I think. Give me a minute. Well, what I was trying to do was show how an object could be either something, or something else. Like, uh, it could be a piece for playing monopoly, or a butt plug, and one could be used either way under different circumstances. And in art you can do… Anything is art. Um, and I wanted to make people aware of the repressed infrastructure something like Freud or Carl Jung talked about. And to make it come out into the light of day like, um…(indecipherable guttural sounds)
And then, after I was finished, I thought it looked like a Christmas tree. But people got angry because they knew what it was, so I said it was abstract. But I don’t like abstract art because I’m more attracted to, um, showing things that are real and not pretty.
I can safely say I don’t “like” Paul McCarthy’s work, but I’m not sure if even his most ardent fans actually “like” it. I probably disagree with his worldview, since I don’t think it’s particularly valuable to have a giant butt at the at Place Vendôme, even if it is supposed to bring repressed behaviors out into the liberating and accepting light of day. And I don’t see his art and performances as excavating the dark underlying substrata of the facade of American culture – the white picket fence ideal of the Beaver Cleaver family is long gone – but rather as unleashing his own particular, disturbing, and revolting vision. The plus side of this is that when an artist shares his or her unique angle on the universe, we in the audience can expand our own consciousness by accessing and integrating the vantage of another. The downside is that Paul’s angle of vision is decidedly dark and repulsive, and when it isn’t, it’s disappointing because it’s not him at his grotesque best.
I admit to liking having the world’s most shockingly disgusting artist as one of my own teachers. And I can’t say that I’m not entirely uninfluenced by his aesthetic or his arguments about art. Where I’ve come closest to working along the lines of McCarthy is predictably in my parodies. One is a giant Sigmund the Sea Monster Dong, and the other is an Exhibitionist Fly. When I clicked on The Young Turks news clip, I didn’t know what the story was about in any detail. As it unfolded, it initially sounded like they could be talking about my sea monster, and I wondered if someone had thought the prank was real. And then they mentioned McCarthy.
I’m a believer in reality being stranger than fiction, but, this time I think the sea monster trumps the butt plug. Even the story is better. And I’d say the same for the giant exhibitionist fly and its background article.
This brings me back to the problem of most people seeing this kind of monumental art on their computer screens. While in person the “Tree” may have a certain weight of presence, once it’s reduced to a jpg on the monitor, it’s no more real than my parodies done in Photoshop, and seems kind of dull in comparison. This raises questions about art and reality, which I’ll examine in more detail elsewhere, because right now I gotta run and get something to eat.
I just came back from dinner to find out that the piece has already been deflated, which happens to have been exactly the fate of my giant green Sigmund the Sea Monster Dong.
There were two incidents of aggression: the man striking McCarthy three times in the head while the artist was putting up the sculpture; and now the deflating of the piece. The knee-jerk reaction would be to take offense and lament the ignorant public attacking artwork they cannot fathom. However, given that it’s Paul McCarthy’s work, he might himself ask of their actions, “But, is it art?” That was always a set-up in his class, because the answer would never be “no”, and if you said “no” than you were hopelessly lost, like someone trapped in an episode of the aforementioned, Leave if to Beaver. He taught us that, “just taking out the garbage can be art”. I’m not sure if deflating art – like the time Rauschenberg erased a de Kooning drawing – is or isn’t art in McCarthy’s book. He might say something like, “Uuuuh. Umm. I kinda’ like it better deflated. It’s like a performance… because the people were involved. Now it’s green eggs and ham.”
I’m sure the sculpture can be repaired, and will have even greater notoriety, as will the artist’s career. I don’t know how much thought he gave to what the implications were of a giant butt plug plopped in a public space in Paris. Maybe he delved no further than that the people would be blessed with ART by a seminal contemporary artist.
As for his insistence that the work was a joke, well, not unless the rest of his career was and continues to be a joke. McCarthy’s message is always subversive, in-your-face, destructive, revolting, and, if one wants to put an artsy, intellectual sheen on it, Dionysian. If the work were safely housed within a gallery or museum people could see it as just another attempt at shock art, but I think the artist didn’t take into account how his work would project meaning onto a public space. As one of the commentators on The Young Turks suggested, “and think about how angry we’d be if some random French guy put a giant butt plug in the middle of Time Square”. When you look at it in that context, it does seem like it would be a comment on NY, in which case I can see why some Parisians would take umbrage.
It’s unfortunate that the public resorted to violence and vandalism, however, whistleblowers are being jailed for speaking out; journalists are being decapitated; thousands are dying of Ebola because of indifference and neglect; innocent civilians are being blown apart by drone strikes; and students in Hong Kong are being pepper-sprayed for not wanting their futures subordinated to the agenda of the PRC… A few jabs in the face and a temporarily deflated gargantuan anal sex toy isn’t such a terrible fate for a millionaire artist.
I would rather live in a world that is progressive and tolerant enough to not attack artists or their art, but also one that doesn’t award a giant butt plug the prestige of being worthy of overwhelming the Place Vendôme. Maybe bad taste isn’t really good taste anymore, the ghastly isn’t the most beautiful, and the insultingly low isn’t the height of profundity.
The whole episode is a joke – even if the art wasn’t really intended as such – but not the kind that makes you laugh.
* The audio is also a parody.