How To Talk About Art

How To Talk About Paul McCarthy

Not all of us can say as much.
Not all of us can say as much. (via @PuissantLobbyLGBT/Twitter)

What, I ask you, should one expect if one asks artist Paul McCarthy to create a Christmas tree for the place of honor at a renowned, must-attend art fair? Well, it’s Paul McCarthy, so there are only two possible outcomes: a turd or a butt plug.

This year, Paris got a butt plug. A — sah-weeeeet! — whopping, elegantly unembellished, minty green butt plug! Nicer than that gaudy, decked out whore of a tree that New York City erects at Rockefeller Center every year. Even, I’d say, in better taste.

“Of course this work is controversial,” said Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain (FIAC) director Jennifer Flay, “it plays on the ambiguity between a Christmas tree and a plug: this is neither a surprise nor a secret.”

But despite his predictability and rather tasteful, understated delivery, the art world’s most reliably scatological artist managed to shock people with his contribution to FIAC’s “Hors les Murs” (or “Outside the Walls”) sector.

How did that happen?

Artist Paul McCarthy’s gallery coos about the new public work. (via @HauserWirth/Twitter)
Artist Paul McCarthy’s gallery coos about the new public work. (via @HauserWirth/Twitter)

Flash Back to the Previews

In July, Flash Art Online previewed McCarthy’s Chocolate Factory, which would, in October, fill the newly renovated Monnaie de Paris with a giant solo show, and grace Paris’s Place Vendôme with a giant inflatable “Christmas tree.”

The Flash Art story described a “wonderland experience” that “lures” visitors into a “fairytale forest of giant inflatable Christmas trees.”

Without cracking a smile, the article went on to describe an Eyes Wide Shut sort of experience whereby one is drawn by curiosity into a tunnel of increasingly freaky rooms. First “we find a team of confectioners hard at work in a life-size, fully functioning chocolate factory,” and, if we elect to go on after gorging on sweet brown confections, we open doors in a labyrinth of experiences and “a place of endless possibilities” where “reality gives way to the absurd.” The preview was illustrated with an image of a chocolate Santa holding a huge butt plug.

Paul McCarthy's "Buttplug Gnome" in Rotterdam, 2012 (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Paul McCarthy’s “Butt Plug Gnome” in Rotterdam, 2012 (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

The Straight Man Approach

Anyone familiar with McCarthy and equipped with a fully functioning funny bone knows that this is tongue-in-cheek stuff. Just as we knew what those “giant inflatable Christmas trees” would be — after all, we’d seen an example before — we knew what McCarthy thinks of Christmas — his “Santa Claus” in Rotterdam’s Eendrachtsplein Square is popularly known as the “Butt Plug Gnome” — and, similarly, we also knew what “chocolate” would entail.

Yet the grown-ups at Flash Art kept it so serious that most readers likely forgot to take note of the impending plugging of Paris. By the time the pneumatic probe made its stubby appearance alongside the lofty Vendôme Column, we’d all forgotten about it.

That’s the straight man approach to discussing Paul McCarthy. It demonstrates the power of the high-minded to thwart indignity while creating spin for a towering bunghole stretcher.

Those who sell, those who buy, and those who choose what will go on to represent us to future generations and civilizations, those keepers of the cultural keys, know how to keep things clean — no matter how dirty they are. Which is why, dear readers, when it comes to talking about Paul McCarthy, mastering the straight man approach will mark you as a true art world insider.

A Lesson from the Pros

The Flash Art piece was rivaled in sobriety only by FIAC’s own press release, which presented McCarthy as the artist cherry-picked not only to re-open the venerable Monnaie de Paris — which has been closed for renovation since 2011 — but to represent FIAC’s collaboration with Comité Vendôme — the business association for Paris’s most expensive shopping destination — which every year places large-scale works in Place Vendôme.

The humorless press release droned:

An exquisite location with elegant stone façades lining its four sides, the square represents the excellence of craftsmanship in service to art. Here, visitors can discover an exceptional in situ project by Paul McCarthy, in association with the Monnaie de Paris.

The phrase “in situ” alone should have set off a major snicker alert. But buried in a press release full of grand announcements and decorated with lists of power players, it raised no eyebrows at all.

“Funny” Is Just Another Word for “Nothing Left To Lose”

If imagining all that staid architecture sharing space with McCarthy’s “exceptional in situ project” did not make you laugh, good for you: You have already half-mastered the straight man approach!

But there’s another way to talk about Paul McCarthy.

Instagram photo by @phil_a_paname
Instagram photo by @phil_a_paname

Cut to October 2014, when the hilarity of FIAC’s plans became suddenly evident by the looming presence of a giant green butt plug in the revered Place Vendôme. Headlines, tweets using #Vendome or #buttplug or #PlugGate, and Instagram photos of playful tourists lewdly “interacting” with the piece immediately lit up the internet with oafish, down-and-dirty, dime-a-dozen puns.

This is the funnyman approach, marked by puerile vulgarity —and banishment from the market.

Those who wish to court collectors, auction houses, or museums are not allowed to cave into the maddening urge to elbow-nudge viewers and readers. But for those who live in the margins (“Paul McCarthy’s XXXmas Tree Plugs Up Paris,” quipped our own Hrag Vartanian) it’s a release equivalent to drawing a dick in a library book and giggling, red-faced, behind the stacks.

The market-free, dogma-free masses can unapologetically indulge in full-throated hilarity when faced with a brilliantly colored sex toy squatting rudely on the Place Vendôme.

Paul McCarthy's "Brancusi Tree" at Home Alone Gallery in 2012 (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)
Paul McCarthy’s “Brancusi Tree” at Home Alone Gallery in 2012 (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)

You Can Handle The Truth

The bottom line is this: A professional art speaker will not cave to fatuous cracks about seminal works!

For one of the finest examples of a stiff upper lip at work, get a load of the good folks writing copy for the FIAC website, keeping things civilized:

Towering at almost 25 meters on the Place Vendôme is Paul McCarthy’s “Tree,” a site specific sculpture conceived in relation to his concurrent exhibition Chocolate Factory at the Monnaie de Paris, his first major solo exhibition in Paris. A reference to both modernist sculpture and the iconic Christmas tree of western culture, McCarthy’s sculpture stands proudly to celebrate his presence finally in Paris and alludes to the chocolate figurines his factory produces.

True, sometimes a giant sex toy is just a giant sex toy, but sometimes it is — take it from the artist himself — “more of an abstraction”:

It all started with a joke: Originally I thought that the anal plug was shaped like a Brancusi sculpture. Then I thought that it resembled a Christmas tree. But it’s an abstract work. People who find it offensive call it a plug, but for me it’s more of an abstraction.

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