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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)

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 “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

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)

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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Cat Weaver

Independent curator, Cat Weaver is the Brooklyn-based writer and editor of The Art Machine, a blog that covers the art market in all of its gossipy glory....

49 replies on “How To Talk About Paul McCarthy”

    1. And… taking advantage of forums, Lee, (sorry Cat) I must share this which has been floating around:

      Saving Beauty – The Painful Rebirthing

      Of Visual Aesthetic in Contemporary Art

      By No One In Particular

      Beauty and craft are the two dirty words of the longest running trend in modern art history. Currently, the contemporary fine art – market / criticism / exhibition / education sphere has a dark cloud over it, coated in shiny glitter on the bottom. The story of ‘The Emperors New Clothes’ has become the standard and most accurate analogy for what has been happening for the last half century in the realm. Simply put, while conceptual beauty seems to have remained quantifiable in contemporary circles, well-crafted, visually beautiful (yes beautiful) works of art are rarely being accepted today as serious and worthy of fine art status.

      “But beauty can no longer be defined, there is no absolute!”

      Bull hockey! Don’t let that old argument depress you any longer friends. It’s not true. You know beauty. There aren’t many ugly sunsets out there and we all know slop when we see it. Artists have been hitting the beauty button in our brains for millennia. Conceptually and visually. That’s what artists do.

      Beauty was banned as an “absolute truth” decades ago by a construct called postmodern. Truth can only be defined as what IS for certain, and the only thing known for certain, is what IS at this moment. Beauty is what brings us into the moment, where extraneous thought is silent because we are listening, raptured. The music of an artwork that makes one want to listen is visual aesthetic. Its poetry, the conceptual.

      I don’t have a name. There is no copyright… read on. Spread the word.

      When visual art isn’t visual

      What happened at the end of the 19th century, when we began defining experiments in art history as movements every few years? Like adolescents, we drop anything fashionably outdated — however innovative or incredible, aborting enlightening work that could have been, yet isn’t considered timely. Today, a skill, a technique, a form cannot remain relevant, contemporary, even when new mastery or ingenuity is shown. A movement used to be left to simmer, to soak up the spices in the pot, to refine… not even named until fully burning itself out.

      We have run out of isms… Perpetuating the ‘new’ has become a game of trying to break all the rules, generating the least art-like objects and certifying them with the most clever infusions. Add a few sticks to qualify it as an object and voila, you have something new. The formula has become the norm. The easiest way to make visual art that is unlike any visual art before is to make non-visual, visual art. The Visual has increasingly become secondary to witticism, pomp, ego, marketing and concept; converted into theoretical rhetoric, a mere means to making a statement, a proving ground for wit. The uninitiated are left wondering why, but afraid to ask for fear of being scorned as ignorant.

      Noam Chomsky, referring to the over-intellectualization of art theorists, made this comparison to scientific theory in an interview: “They have big words. We’ll have big words. They draw far-reaching conclusions. We’ll draw far-reaching conclusions. We’re just as prestigious as they are.”

      The perpetual adolescent

      Dada and Abstract Expressionism at their infancy (along with other movements) were indeed, wild experiments, a revolt and a slap in the face of the establishment. As a taste for these efforts grew, then so did the need to rebel further and the notion that new art must be just that: wild experimentation, revolt and a slap in the face of the establishment. This was indeed wonderful at first! It had to happen! We were freed to investigate as many new forms, media, and styles as our hearts desired. However…

      The well-intended postmodernist rejection of ‘absolute truth’ claims began as a reactionary move from the stage into the street like Dada, but seems to have ended up a stage dive into a drunken crowd. The endless irony, purposefully careless spatter on anything other than canvass, the resolutely tacky assemblage, the oh-so-shocking penis depiction and the classic tongue-in-cheek, comical, pop-culture icon smear have become ever so common, and even more boring than the verbose bullshit which certifies it’s art. Imagine if punk rock had evolved from its revolutionary genesis, into accepted norm, to ultimately become the standard musical genre of the century.

      Problem is, the art department hasn’t moved on like the music and fashion departments, where the idea of cool has evolved into a healthier integration. A walk today through a record store will reveal a diversity of individuals of varying ages and cultures who are listening to any combination of musical genres and wearing anything from the last seven decades; finally realizing after a century, that experimental can entail refining the classics. There is good in all that had come before and worth a try on. Music and clothing are easily affordable so brand popularity is ultimately dictated by the masses. Fine art trends, however, are manipulated by the few in power. More on that in a bit.

      Craft? God forbid!

      When Ai Weiwei pours a hundred million hand painted sunflower seeds onto a museum floor, we are impressed, moved by the Herculean effort, prompted to ponder labor abuses in the third world. Primarily we are conceptually challenged, whereas a painterly, surreal, Mark Ryden illustration may affect us on a different primal level. Neither artist should be overlooked. It’s the exclusion of any expression having merit that is depraved. But stroll through the late twenty-ish century wing of the art museum of the future: There’s little to marvel at other than a bit of history, worn jokes, the mystery of why penises and vaginas were so shocking and a profusion of experiments without conclusions.

      This isn’t, of course, about negating the experimental, the novel, the political, conceptual or the ironic. This is about invalidating the intuitively known values of aesthetics. The astounding craft and undeniable picturesque beauty of a political Diego Rivera mural leaves us with something brilliant, though the depictions have played out and become history. The knowledge that a bronze is not painted Styrofoam is part of the value in experiencing a Rodin. The seamless construction of a Koonz, the complexities and material use in a Kienholz are all part of what make the work ‘work.’ Craftsmanship is the art of seducing materials into speaking ideas. This, few can pull off well.

      Who is mucking this all up?

      Collectors share some of the blame for following the queue of investment buyers or the advice of dealers as their main direction instead of listening to their own darkening hearts. But there’s little today for them to truly fall in love with or understand from an aesthetic or spirit borne perspective that isn’t suffocated under hype.

      Museums, our certifiers of historic significance, can take a chunk of the fault. The contemporary curatorial position is a ladder climbing institution. To be at the top one must be in the know of secrets, and in curator terms that means finding and ‘interpreting’ something no one else comprehends. That work is getting easier and easier to find. We have such a glut of lazy young artists today; the lure of easy fame and money seems accessible by merely manifesting clever ideas in the most economical way possible. This is what academia and the market are telling them sells.

      Critics will commonly follow the trend of what looks like a cutting edge. It’s the fulfillment of being in authority that has driven so many throughout history.

      And dealers. We come full circle here. They are the sellers of the emperor’s clothes, and like curators, convincing patrons of the value and exclusivity of their artist brands is paramount. Somewhere along the recent timeline of art history, the hard work of an individual craftsman/artist became perceived as middle-class. The shakers of the high art world are almost exclusively heavily educated, wealthy and crave the power of influence. Rubbing elbows with the village maestro is less appealing than owning something coated in brilliant, theoretical honey and associated with the wealth it takes to employ a factory of workers to create.

      But genius is not synonymous with education or success. Most visual, less verbally disposed artists will avoid confrontation with those who could viciously stomp on their ideas or stunt their reputations. And too often the technically challenged, not so visual artist, leaning heavily on verbal concept, will have more time outside the studio to spend grant writing and is probably communicating better with the man. Harsh generalizations yes, but generally the case.

      Be brave

      This analysis is meant to convey an understanding; blame is not really where our action should be. The action comes from being brave enough to admit that we do not see the emperor’s new clothes. Artists and true art lovers must stand up to those obsessed with left-brain speculation by using their highly developed right brains. Don’t allow an argument filled with scientific sounding utterances and references to the abstruse back you into a corner. The emperor is naked, his balls are hanging in the wind and yet ‘they’ will go on describing his amazing robes with undeniable intellect. The right curve, the perfect shadow, a flawless seam, an inscrutable expression, will tell a thousands words for every word they can write about it.

      If we don’t speak up about what is happening today, we risk de-evolution into atrophy, of our ability and the memory (of what mastery is) needed to create assets like joy, inspiration, inexplicable bliss, psychological and spiritual fulfillment through visual means.

      Plagiarize, print, post, repost, send and spew. Be brave.

      September 2014

      1. Beauty is at least starting to make a comeback, no? Just for one instance, this year’s ArtPrize winner, Intersections by Anila Quayyum Agha, is simply gorgeous, and it’s very heartening that it won the jury prize as well as the audience prize.

        1. wow yes lovely piece and very brave of them to select it. absolutely, it is on the way back but as the essay states (did you read it all click see more) it takes a brave effort and people standing up. it helps to have support, as many are afraid of being called ignorant. a few critics and curators are willing to say what they really feel. we are just in a 21st century adolescent stage which began with the intro of so much new technology. but well grow up. its hard to go for long without beauty and harder to keep up an illusion of intellectual superiority when it pertains to intuitive visual aesthetics.

      2. This is a fourm for discussion and not the self-publication of essays. You are on notice. (rolls eyes)

      1. And in the same sentence: “fatuous cracks”. *snicker*

        Not to mention “the straight man approach” … *tee hee*

          1. The entire sentence was constructed as a challenge to the poker faces: I had added a “tell” in this form:
            (<–snicker) but my sober eds were protecting my good taste, and deleted it.
            😀

      2. Awww! ‘an editor of a “playful” blog with no sense of humor. Bless (let me guess) his pea-pickin’ little heart!

  1. Paul’s work may be funny, but his “project” is serious and aimed directly at the fools who are offended by it.

  2. My son has been in Paris and sent me a pic, great placement at Place Vendôme. Love this newsletter. Thank you!

  3. Why present a BUTT PLUG vinyl sculpture? THAT IS NOT A VERY SERIOUS ART MATERIAL. His Rotterdam Gnome in bronze is presented as a serious work of art.
    McCarty cheeped out by presenting a Balloon Sculpture for Gay Paris!
    Will he become a clown twisting balloon dogs next?

    1. It was actually just the — er— opening act for Chocolate Factory which will have 5 six-foot versions of the same tree in it.

    1. Ages 1-11: it’s a toy Christmas tree!
      Ages 11- 14: It’s a work of art that addresses cultural symbolism. Do you know what “symbolism” is?
      Ages 15 up: It’s a work of art that plays on an ambiguity of forms and the values we project onto them.

  4. Blah, blah, blah. Yes, I understand his right to create what he wants and Paris’ right to show it, but I do not have to like it and if that makes me uncool, so be it.

    1. the problem with contemporary art today is that it is about cool! and being able to take really dumb immature jokes and laugh under your breath cause you are cool enough to get that its a joke with some deep meaning (that meaning being that most people will be offended and that its “ignorant unartsy” folks are who we are really laughing at) thanks jessica for actually being cool and being one of the few who are not afraid to help grow up the future of art by pointing this out.

      1. No, what’s funny, really, is the straight-faced (and strait-laced*) copy put out by the institutions presenting and sponsoring art like Tree and Brancusi Tree and the Rotterdam Santa Claus trying to pretend that these sculptures look like anything other than what they so obviously look like – Cat Weaver’s “straight man approach”.

        It’s not that folks like Jessica Hagen and Steve Brudniak are uncool; it’s that the likes of Flash Art and FIAC are so deliberately obtuse.

        1. * pedantry alert: Note the spelling of “strait-laced”, people.

          It’s strait as in narrow and tight, not straight as in without corners or curves (which isn’t true of laces, at least when they’re being used).

        2. Yes my friend, and that of course is just another wheel within a wheel of insider tee hee heeing. Public art (and so much cont art) is a mere joke on the poor public anyway. The REAL funny part (heh) is that the public, for the most part, goes home and forgets about it and goes back to work and taking care of the kids.

          1. The public going back to their lives? That’s not the funny part, it’s the sensible part.

            The joke isn’t on the public (the sensible ones who go on about their lives); it’s on (in this case) Flash Art and FIAC, as they go through their verbal contortions and denial, trying to convince us that they’re presenting a thoughtful and provocative piece of art instead of a giant butt plug – and the local government, which fell for it.

            The tee-heeing isn’t coming from insiders – I’m certainly no insider – it’s coming from the peanut gallery. If Cat’s article isn’t a giant raspberry from the art-world equivalent of La Scala’s loggionisti (who are, remember, the guys in the cheap seats), I don’t know what is.

            I understand your scorn, Steve, but I think it’s better directed at FIAC than at Paul McCarthy – unless you think he’s taking unfair advantage of these poor innocent unsuspecting art institutions.

          2. To clarify; the joke is on Flash, FIAC institutions and Paul M. The public yes, is being sensible. Funny part is: They don’t give a rats ass for more than a second about this “public art” (which is for them, hah) in the end. Paul, FIAC, Flash and half the contemporary curatorial and critical entities in the art biz are lost in incestuous tee hee. F and F are just going a level deeper. I have no beef with Cat btw. tee hee. Thanks Cat

          3. Here’s where we differ: I don’t think that FIAC and Flash Art are necessarily tee-hee-ing. They often appear to take this kind of thing seriously. That is why we in the peanut gallery are laughing.

          4. Fair enough MW. We are both working the same side of the fence though. I may be wrong but I think your strait folks are laughing. But I also think 911 was an inside job, (Think, Dick Cheney). Thanks for the lovely discussion in any case! : ) I have over stayed my turn here! xo

  5. Really what is funny to me is that anyone still thinks this is risky or unusual! or really all that funny still. Im not laughing at a butt plug. I have made and heard enough jokes about stuff like that to make a junior high school kid blush. and mostly in jr high, oh, and in art circles FOR THE LAST 30 YEARS! LOL. Hey, how bout some irony in contemporary art! Now theres an idea. Wow wouldn’t that be novel? The poor turn of the century… how silly and snarkey we will look in a hundred years! Its just sad. Will someone please make the last ironic hilarious piece of art please? Im going to suggest a huge, of course chrome plated, tongue poking into a giant cheek. Thanks!!

    1. As I mentioned just above, we’re not laughing at the butt plug. We’re laughing at the pretense that it’s anything other than a butt plug, and that anyone could put it out on the Place Vendôme and pretend it’s anything else.

  6. Maybe I shouldn’t confess this, but …

    I honestly don’t think I’d have recognized Paul McCarthy’s Tree as a butt plug if it it hadn’t been for all the press making fun of it. (For one thing, it’s not tapered enough.) It looked to me more like a chess piece.

    But then, it wasn’t until this article that I had put together how much of Brancusi’s work looks like plugs or dildos. Duh.

    Is this why I’ve ended up as yet another old maid with too many cats?

  7. Artists produce art as though it were another bodily function. Do they need to be stopped with a really big plug? Maybe.

  8. Hello or hallo Mr. Paul McCarthy
    I’m your fun so you are the best artist in the world and same people I think so don’t understand about do you wont communication, like Marcel Duchamp whit urinal this is the scandalous work was a porcelain urinal which was signed “R.Mutt” and titled Fountain. Submitted for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, Fountain was rejected by the committee, even though the rules stated that all works would be accepted from artists who paid the fee or the best Italian artist
    Piero Manzoni the skit of artist so the work consists of 90 tin cans, filled with faeces, each 30 grams and
    measuring 4.8×6.5 cm, with a label in Italian, English, French, and
    German.
    all people look this is only the green tree is big and excellent masterpiece.
    Critical contest by writing best professor Mr. Roberto Scala

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