Essays

The Infantile World of Paul McCarthy

by Mostafa Heddaya on July 23, 2013

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Park Avenue’s Seventh Regiment Armory, constructed at the end of the 19th century, was and remains the only such military structure funded by private monies, an excess of the Gilded Age’s queasy alliance between statesmen and robber barons. It’s easy to read an obscene vulgarity into the opulence of its architecture, though we are reminded that it was meant to house the first volunteer militia responding to Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms twenty years earlier; it’s a spiritual birthplace of the Union Army. Out of noble purpose many excesses are forgiven.

Today, it plays host to an installation by Paul McCarthy called WS, which are Snow White’s initials in reverse. To call it obscene would make it sound transgressive, maybe even titillating. But it’s just bad, pretentious kitsch, and the critical reception to it embarrassing. The premise of the show is ripped from standard-issue psychoanalysis, the juxtaposition of childhood tropes — Disney World — with the aggressive fetishes of a tweedy, impotent character, a dumbed-down Humbert Humbert type named “Walt Paul” played by Paul McCarthy himself. He “acts” opposite an obvious, bulb-nosed Snow White, and together they form the show’s protagonist/antagonist duo, though they are joined in many of the footage screened in the multi-channel installations by a cast of dwarves (the titular Seven Dwarves of Disney legend). The total length of the video installation is seven hours, a duration which would beggar belief even if the work on display were less insipid.

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In the fore of the massive main exhibition space, the 38,000 square foot Drill Hall, is a reconstruction of McCarthy’s childhood home, trashed in a manner that would completely recall Andrew Ohenasian’s 2012 “House Party” installation at Pierogi Boiler if it weren’t for the (possibly dead, definitely naked) bodies strewn about. In the back half of the hall is a Rainforest Cafe–like artificial jungle, and on either end, high above the whole mess, large projection screens play multichannel video. Bunker-like spaces play videos in the side rooms, and off the entrance hall is a gift shop and a few additional rooms holding screenings and artifacts relevant to the show. There are dozens of staff prohibiting photography and excessive leaning at every turn.

There is no room here for the fine brushstrokes of psychoanalysis, just a fruit salad of pornography dressed up with bad tropes (or is it the other way around?), the kind of thing for which there is no possible reaction beyond a desultory “Oh, wow.” Indeed, the only thing interesting about the show has been the critical reaction to it, the salivating appreciation of Holland Cotter at the New York Times, whose review is blurbed in foot-long letters on a banner on the side of the Armory itself. Joining him in praise are Jerry Saltz and the New York Observer, whose Maika Pollack seems reluctantly enthused about the whole affair:

“If a little too much money was thrown at ‘WS,’ it is merely a reminder that we have created a society where far more obscene things are happening all the time. Considering that too much money is in the hands of the undeserving few, we are relatively fortunate that some has trickled down into the messy lap of Mr. McCarthy.”

The praise here echoes something else that is emphasized in psychoanalysis, the toilet training of the toddler, whereby the parent receives the fecal success of the small child with showered praise — “he did it! In a world full of shit, at least some of it trickled into the training bowl!” Holland Cotter, whose review reads like an abstract for a bad grad school paper, goes to such lengths educating us on the various references and significances of the work that once again we are reminded of the role of the parent in initiating the toddler, the artist, into the world of adults. Actually having an opinion would require the critic to assume the mantle of criticism. How much easier it is to instead dignify the toilet bowl with a seminar on Duchamp and Swift and forget the whole unpleasant business of forming an original thought altogether.

Which brings us to Jerry Saltz, who, predictably enough, wrote the most worshipful “critique” of the show imaginable, simultaneously giving in to his criticism that the show is essentially terrible while lavishing praise on “McCarthy’s ability to occupy and take over space,” which he calls — echoing the plaudits of a proud parent beholding their toilet-trained child — “undeniable, impressive, singular.” But Saltz, who apparently has never heard of the Disney-owned Rainforest Cafe franchise, finds the artificial forest to be his “favorite part by far,” whereas the rest of the show “struck me as hokey, something that might almost be at home in the center of the Mall of America, or any theme park, or haunted house.” The comment, which is the critical punchline of the whole review, is reminiscent of that scene in Amadeus when the obsequious Count Orsini-Rosenberg dimly suggests that Mozart’s piece has “too many notes.”

But this is the precise problem, not of obscenity, which the Stoics were defending thousands of years ago and of which Catullus was perhaps the greatest practitioner, but of asinine autobiographic spectacle, the kind of work that relies on certain critical landmines to evade scrutiny. Oh, he recycles some old ideas of psychoanalysis — we went to college, we get it! And Disney World! And a massive, big-budget installation! Every once in a while a show like this comes along and lights up art criticism’s courtier culture like a Roman candle.

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The reason these types of shows succeed is that they lean upon a reliable and boorish antagonist — here New York Post outrage at taxpayer-funded obscenity, which arrived like clockwork — to set the stage for mainstream critics to appear as though they are taking a courageous stand for progressive culture. This is only convincing when the threat is real; épater la bourgeoisie is big business, after all. I mentioned Holland Cotter’s article for the Times above, but it was actually their second of two. The first was penned by Randy Kennedy for the Magazine, and it’s not even worth engaging save for the fact that it ends with a quote from an Armory board member promising that visitors will find the McCarthy carnival to be “one of the most powerful works of art they’ve ever seen.” After 2,400 words of praise in America’s paper of record, it’s doubtful anyone was waiting for Jerry Saltz to suit up and neutralize the Post’s threat to that sacred firmament of our democracy, free expression.

And yet it is here, in the very Drill Hall where over a century ago young men trained to give their lives in defense of a real threat to the republic, that we might take a principled stand of our own, against the half-baked demagoguery of critics whose nose has been thrust into big-budget art, to smash the proverbial false idols of the ersatz and decontextualized pretending to be profound — in this case, $5,000 porcelain Snow White dolls (available for sale in an annex, no photography allowed). Given the deeply psychosexual nature of the affair — to top it all off, the video portion was shot by McCarthy’s son — we would do well to remember why therapy takes place behind closed doors, under a strict tradition of doctor-patient confidentiality. It’s not because the details revealed are salacious or interesting, but because human hang-ups are mundane and tragically rote. It also reminds us of the function of the real Disney World, which Jean Baudrillard famously wrote about in Simulacra and Simulation:

It’s meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the “real” world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere …

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