Shown as part of Beverly Hills John, his third show at the Marianne Boesky gallery, John Waters’s video Kiddie Flamingos made us chuckle, which is rare for a Chelsea gallery work. But then, his gallery art has always been funny. Despite his frequent appropriations of cultural traumas — the Twin Towers, the JFK assassination, Michael Jackson’s death, and beaten women — the camp effect prevails and there is never a particularly upsetting moment.
So when the original Flamingos, a film designed to upset hippy liberals, gets its gallery redo with several adorable kids playing his infamous characters in a family-friendly version of the script, you can bet that nobody was upset. The video (which was produced in an edition of five) was at times tedious, at times endearing, but never more than that. We hope for the spontaneous excess that Pink Flamingos originally provided, but that does not happen. Rather, the film remains on the level of a Buzzfeed article. It is never as arch or wicked as Richard Prince or as original as Andy Warhol or visually compelling as Mike Kelley — Waters’s trifecta of gallery influences.
The uninitiated have always held a special place in the audience for Waters’s films. After all, someone has to be shocked. But when hippie-yuppies can no longer be shocked, and they become your main audience, you have to rethink the ideal of virgin eyes. Waters is up to speed though. In the 1980s, Waters became fully Warholian and abandoned the idea that people would be innocent enough to really be shocked by his work: it’s more subversive to be part of the mainstream. However intellectually correct, that position discarded his aesthetic genius along with his political contrariness. Audiences were left with a mere wink, a gesture that titillates and amuses, but fails resurrect the tragic or mythic or Divine.
After the death of Divine in 1988, Waters began to say that being a one percenter was radical, for instance remarking that “My ultimate goal is to work my most pernicious ideas into the most mainstream product — I think that’s the ’80’s. Because to remain underground — I’ve done that; it’s like jerking off,” or more menacingly, “Like ecoterrorists, I always think they’re cute — but the problem is that they always have B.O. One of the deodorant companies should have come in as a corporate sponsor [for Occupy Wall Street]. They missed the mark”
Waters’s conceptual intelligence recognizes and appreciates the dark fact of aesthetic reification and the ugly truth of class distinctions, noting that it would be hypocritical for him to take part in Occupy, since he has three homes. This sort of acknowledgement (an avoidance of hypocrisy, at the risk of avoiding any politics whatsoever) puts him at odds with Kenneth Anger, George Kuchar, and other gay artists who have refused to cash in on underground culture.
But Waters’s head is in a very different game. The visionary aesthetic of the 1960s and early 1970s waned in the face of the cynicism that came to dominate downtown New York; queerness morphed into a loft land. Waters navigated this terrain as best he could. Perhaps he realized more money was to be found in art. And with good reason: after the collapse of New Line, his long-time distributer, he was no longer able to produce a mid-budget film, such as his planned children’s comedy Fruitcake. Refusing to make low-budget films, he had to resign himself to a “funny or die” rehashing of his own aesthetic and the cultivation of a repetitive and finely groomed dandy persona. The gallery works produced in this era are definitely entertaining, but hardly ingenious or mischievous.
When he finally returned to ‘cinema’ (for the first time since 2004) with Kiddie Flamingos, I expected nothing more than half-baked entertainment. But there is a small spark of sinister genius in the video, which underscores the benign and childish aspects of camp. Lunacy, of the kind he pioneered, can only sustain itself through children; the only untapped market for whom camp and zaniness still has meaning. Filth and its gestures are killed off as soon as they hit the screen, and so to renew such gestures he has to seek out children. This is dark in a very new way for Waters, though it bears resemblance to threads in his work and persona, such as when he painted a mustache just like his own on the upper lip of the then-teenager Justin Bieber on a British talk show a few years ago.
One could say that Waters sold out and is no longer interesting, because his work is no longer upsetting. But maybe camp was never meant to be upsetting. Maybe its destination was always to modestly ruffle the feathers of the allegedly conventional public (the proverbial straight man). Maybe camp, then, was only ever about the moment when Neil Patrick Harris first licked the glasses of the straight men in the audience of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. Or maybe … camp was once disturbing, and hermetic, and sacred, and is now dead.
The child — still discovering the gestures of everyday life, so still excited to see them subverted — is the perfect subject to hit the refresh button on camp. The child’s unique ability to be campier than camp is why Sia’s Chandelier music video, featuring a provocative and rigorous dance by preteen Maddie Ziegler is so powerful: it is a camp that is not learned or bitter. It showcases a fresh discovery of artificial gestures: still hermetic, private, and upsetting. But once Ziegler goes viral, her innocence is lost, and camp does its dirty trick. The camp meme cannot be undone by reforming camp, rather it must be acknowledged as a consequence of signification itself.
Seeing the real-time production of whimsy through the child renews and refreshes our delight in certain tenets of experimental art. Both Chandelier and Kiddie Flamingos feature a grim affect (11-year-old Ziegler in Chandelier mimes hanging herself on the curtain, soon after miming pregnancy; the kids in Flamingos attempt to ruin each other by way of being more infamous), which negates the valorization of the innocent child, but promises an alternative valor, that only the ironic, dirty, campy child can provide.
The need for ever-greater wickedness, and ever-younger audiences to witness one’s wickedness creates a farcically Sadean desperation in Waters, a desperation has been previously presented in his films as parody, with continually heightened feats and parabolas of sexual depravity to keep the audience titillated.
French theorist Pierre Klossowski writes that, in Sade, the “sign must be abolished; yet the need to preserve this creation must be affirmed, for it is what enables one to bring about its destruction.” In transgression there is always a gestural murder of everyday signs through refuting them, yet in doing so there is also a heightened need for the norm to exist. Thus, Babs (originally played by Divine) in Flamingos must continually posit new norms to rebel against, which is similar to the way a child delights in cursing when a strict father is imagined to be listening. For instance, in her final statement to the press, in the original version of Flamingos, Babs screams: “Kill everyone now! Condone first-degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!” Klossowski illuminates the pathetic futility of such childish cursing by noting that it “pleads in the language of the same norms” that are being rebelled against. It is the childishness of such transgressions that Waters highlights in Kiddie Flamingos.
Still, even the inventive concept of bringing literal children into Waters’s work doesn’t quite do much. The children seem bored at times by Waters’s script (Pink Flamingos was always a bit tedious) and this points to the high burnout rate of polymorphous perversity as an aesthetic, especially for ADD kids. A kind of tedium persists akin to the Sadean progression that requires ever-dirtier rituals, even as the idealized dream of life-as-art, and the destruction of the master signifier, never fully occurs.
The problem with Waters’s work after Divine is that the singularity of the performer, the one trace of feminine jouissance (and ex-stasis), in his work, is lost. In his later works, Waters’s standard refrain that commodification is inevitable becomes boring without the dynamic and traumatizing force of Divine, leaving us with a parodic ‘subversion’ of expectations that is always already expectable.
By casting Ziegler in her video Chandelier, Sia seems to understand what Waters misses—singularity is important even after the critique of singularity. The talent and genius of Ziegler rivals Divine’s, while nobody in Kiddie Flamingos is particularly enigmatic or even given the space to be (the video is shot entirely at a cramped table reading). Waters’s singularity seems to have dissolved into a reproducible trademark mustache, which has now traveled so far as to be stamped onto Justin Bieber’s squeaky-clean face. The message always reaches its destination — and alas, the straight man has been inaugurated into the pleasure dome. There is nothing left for camp to do now but bore.