Consider, for a moment, the current state of sex and violence in the American imagination. In sports, there’s a whopping success called the World Wrestling Federation in which human beings try to act like gorillas – which is an insult to gorillas – and stomp opponents into roach oblivion. Other sports depend upon actual injury and death; stock-car racing amounts to little without the possibility of a hero slamming into a concrete wall at 170 mph. On television, the hot new show, Temptation Island, invites human beings onto an island in the hope that they will sexually trash one another. In politics, the former president has oral sex in the Oval Office with the pizza girl. In the military, soldiers learn to kill their enemies by using weapons that work like playful video games. In the movies, Hannibal sups upon the brains of his victims. Eminem is dominating pop music by writing lyrics like “Bitch, I’m a kill you … I got the machete from O.J.”
And the mayor of New York expects a contemporary artist to be what, exactly? An altar boy? There continue to be high-minded artists who ignore the hurly-burly, but it’s naïve to expect that many others won’t respond to the powerful, often bizarre pop currents that continually shoot across the imaginative landscape of America. If Mayor Giuliani really wanted to throw a decency fit, he should have ignored the Brooklyn Museum of Art and visited the New Museum of Contemporary Art, which is now presenting the retrospective of a man who violates every possible convention of taste and behavior with delirious abandon. Paul McCarthy is the ideal bogeyman for William Bennett and George Will. Perhaps he works as their double agent, for no artist is better suited to symbolize in the minds of conservative moralists the collapse of art into terminal decadence – a mess of ketchup blood, blabbering profanity, and sexual vulgarity. The most prominently placed work at the museum, Cultural Gothic, is a “moving” sculpture that depicts a life-size dad gazing into the future as he rests his hands lovingly upon his young son’s shoulders – while the son, hips grinding, has sex with a goat.
Appalling? Radical? Outrageous? To some people, of course, but not unexpected to those who follow contemporary art and fiction or who know a little history. In certain ways, McCarthy is actually a rather traditional artist – another in a long line of shockmeisters who specialize in life’s underbelly. If you take a distant view, for example, you could connect him to artists who once reveled in squalid and fantastical depictions of hell, such as Hieronymus Bosch. In the shorter term, his work echoes the melodramatic Grand Guignol, the Parisian theater that began in the late nineteenth century and specialized in blood, guts, murder, and rape. (At the Grand Guignol, a cherished special effect was to pop out a virgin’s eyeballs, which often provoked fainting and vomiting in the audience.) McCarthy’s work is also part of the longstanding tradition of Dada-like social and political criticism in art, which depends upon arousing people like Mayor Giuliani into the customary rage.
The tradition is so well known in art, in fact, that only the most extreme effects can now make a ripple. In this retrospective, which was organized by Lisa Phillips and Dan Cameron and includes a large piece at Deitch Projects on Wooster Street, McCarthy breaks free of every last repression and inhibition. He releases the idiot within. He is the master of merde. He is the id triumphant. He will do anything to defile, no matter how gross or embarrassing. In one filmed performance, called Bossy Burger, a chef working on what was once the set for a family sitcom turns into a blabbering schmuck who becomes crazier and crazier, chopping and carving and smearing ketchup and mayonnaise around until the place looks like the residue of a Texas chain-saw massacre. Everywhere, McCarthy emphasizes eruptive tantrums and regressive, childish behavior. He attacks the pop icons of “normal” childhood as if he were an insane clown pulling down the pants of a Boy Scout. In one of his largest works, he upends that little Swiss maid Heidi in every way you can imagine, and his Cultural Gothic not only recalls Robert Rauschenberg’s legendary goat but also besmirches the cheery platitudes of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. On the cover of the catalogue, there is a picture of a “tree hugger” who has dropped trou and is humping a tree.
The aura of a mad childhood is created mainly by McCarthy’s constant use of cartoon figures and grotesque rubbery masks, often with protuberant noses. In one piece of video, piggish art collectors with obscene noses opine about art; a grunting painter drags around a giant tube of color called “Shit,” into which he often plunges an arm in order to smear his mark upon the canvas. Standing in the middle of this show is sort of like living inside a baby’s diaper. You are surrounded by messes, smears, genitals, bottoms, and incoherent babbling sounds. When you try to lift up your eyes, you see enlarged toys in nasty poses. (I would like to let McCarthy loose in Disneyworld one night and see what the place looked like in the morning.) Spaghetti Man, a large bunny with a long noodle-doodle of a penis, is one of the mildest pieces in the show.
The argument made for McCarthy is that he reveals to us, with ferocious anger and Rabelaisian humor, the dirty secrets that lie beneath the sentimental posturing of official American society. He theatrically exaggerates the sort of insane behavior – such as eating human brains – people routinely buy tickets to see. He thinks the unthinkable and reveals, with cathartic urgency, the cartoonish power of the idiot id. And so on and so forth. This sort of art-argument is old. Most people know it by heart. The trouble is that McCarthy has only one note, one speed. His art is a kind of endlessly repeated punch line, always telling the dirty secret, but the secrets revealed so melodramatically are actually unsurprising. Is there an aspect of merde in paint? Sure, and we’ve heard that before. Do fathers screw up sons? Sure, and we’ve heard that one, too. To headline the usual secrets, McCarthy must leave out so much else, making a burlesque of art. Perhaps he is what he satirizes.
At the New Museum of Contemporary Art; through 5/13.