Paul McCarthy’s “WS” is BS

Paul McCarthy's "WS (Photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)

Paul McCarthy’s “WS” (Photo: Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)

I’m trying to remember the last time that satirizing Walt Disney and suburbia was transgressive. Wait a minute….wait a minute…. it’s coming to me … oh that’s right … never. Or maybe 1984 at the latest, when Michael Eisner took over at Disney and gave a public face to the evil side of The House The Mouse Built.

But 1984 was, like, 30 years ago and while my high school self in suburban Baltimore might have found Paul McCarthy’s “WS” (currently on display at the Park Avenue Armory) salacious and edgy, my grown-up self in NYC in 2013 finds it toothless, puerile, obvious and dated. The fact that people are lining up to praise this demonstrates little more than the absolutely willful obliviousness of the entire art world enterprise to the reality of life in America today.

I want to start with this picture of Paul McCarthy:

Paul McCarthy (Photo: Chad Batka for The New York Times)

Paul McCarthy (Photo: Chad Batka for The New York Times)

He’s an old white guy who first got noticed as an artist in the 80’s. Not a bad thing necessarily, unless you’re still trotting out the same tired old bad boy cliches from 30 years ago while not acknowledging your own regressive politics, the way the world has changed around you or the essential vacuousness of your fantastically simplistic cultural critique. I saw a McCarthy installation in 2001, I guess, at The New Museum when it was in SoHo. There was a video installation of work by David Wojnarowicz in another room in the back and you had to walk through McCarthy’s installation to get there. Maybe that exhibition design was telling. Better a live, straight white male making obvious, ham-handed critique then a dead queer telling the truth from beyond the grave.

And here are Alex Poots, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Tom Eccles:

Alex Poots, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Tom Eccles

Alex Poots, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Tom Eccles

Notice anything? They’re all rich, white, middle aged men. Oh, and none of them are American. Which isn’t a diss, it is just to note that none of them actually grew up in the world that McCarthy means to satirize and so must interpret it largely through the lens of their own significant cultural biases and, I’m going to assume, considerable privilege.

Here’s another neat picture:

Holland Cotter

Holland Cotter

This is Holland Cotter, an even OLDER rich white guy who  bravely begins paragraph twenty (or so) of his lengthy NY Times review of the show, “What all this means, I don’t exactly know …” and then capitulates, as one does, in the company of one’s peers:

“What I suspect is that in Mr. McCarthy we have a Swift for our time, or maybe a Hieronymus Bosch, and in “WS” — organized by the Armory’s artistic director, Alex Poots, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, in association with Tom Eccles — a scabrous American  “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

So he doesn’t exactly know what it means, so what the heck, let’s just call it a masterpiece!? Because who wants to say publicly that this work of art is, in an of itself, symptomatic of the very culture it aims to satirize? That it is a monument to conspicuous consumption and frivolous excess? That the vast sums of money, time and effort spent to bring this work into the public arena and attempt to occupy mindshare –  supposedly to critique consumer culture – could have been better spent elsewhere? This is the art world on steroids.

This beautifully realized installation must have cost a small fortune to create. I actually can’t even estimate it, but the costs of the carpentry required to build the sets alone must have been astronomical. I suppose the Armory could call themselves job creators because of the dozen or twenty gallery attendants – I will assume making in the neighborhood of $10/hour – who spend all day making sure you don’t touch or take pictures of the art.

Look, I’m not against spending an assload of money on art, I’m against spending an assload of money on art that pretends to satirize a suburban culture of conspicuous consumption – one that is, frankly, long gone and in this day and age maybe just a lingering fantasy of fantastically wealthy people. You want to see a filthy suburban house that looks neglected and destroyed? You don’t have to build one in the Park Avenue Armory, you can go tour the vast swaths of America littered with foreclosed houses and the detritus of the American Dream betrayed.

The body of Snow White in a deli display case is tepid critique of contemporary womanhood and is completely undermined by McCarthy’s gratuitous video of Snow White being gang-raped (Snow White played by real porn actresses! oooh!). The Dwarves are ass-fucked with broom handles, whatevs. This isn’t shocking, it is tired, sad and obvious. In fact, most people in the suburban univerise that this is supposed to somehow satirize regularly see more transgressive work on basic cable (Orange Is The New Black, anybody?) and watch edgier porn on the Internet.

What’s embarrassing and infuriating about the cultural forces that reinforce McCarthy’s regressive sexism is that woman critics fall into line as well. In her review, the Washington Post’s Sarah Kaufman says:

But as with every element of this engrossing installation, the effect is to make you feel, physically, something of the absurdity, inanity and horrors of American life upon which McCarthy seeks to intervene.

Bitch, are you trippin’? What are you talking about? Engrossing? I was bored within minutes. And what horrors of American life? You mean the forces of rapacious corporate capitalism as embodied by Disney and the reactionary, divisive right wing politics of corporate America that trick working people into voting against their own economic interests? Or do you mean an art world that celebrates conspicuous consumption and unbridled excess in the creation of an work that pretends to satirize that same culture? Is it Disney McCarthy’s satirizing or is it just another of the endless simplistic attacks by self-styled cultural transgressors against people who buy Disney products? This isn’t the 60’s or even the 80’s, douchebag. There’s no such thing as an outsider, rebel critiquing the bourgeois. There isn’t a bourgeois class anymore, there’s just rich people and everyone else. And you, McCarthy, are their bitch, and I will infer that the statue of the naked guy bent over with a broom up his ass is meant to be a critical self-portrait where the broom symbolizes the the art world?

The only people that will actually find this work even remotely transgressive are either people who will never see it – the flyover states – or people who are so insulated from reality that they never come into contact with the general public except as administrative staff and in service contexts. They are the ones who might find it edgy – in a totally shallow, entrepreneur-mentality way – that McCarthy has made a gift shop where he bought bulk quantities of Disney knock-off merchandise, signed it, and sells it for up to, like, 1500% mark-up.

Signed Knock-Off Snow White Dolls for $75

Signed Knock-Off Snow White Dolls for $75

Don’t even get me started on the exploitative labor practices in Asia that allow this merchandise to be manufactured and distributed so cheaply so that a white American artist from California can buy it, mark it up and sell it at significant profit as art.

I was curious about how this work would be collected – buying videos, objects related to the show, etc. – and asked the on site curatorial assistant what the future plans were for this work and he said that there were no plans at the moment. They’re going to take the whole thing down and ship it to California where McCarthy will store it while he figures out what is next. So basically this is a hugely expensive, self-indulgent work-in-progress showing. Nice.

The show’s handbill features a bad poem by McCarthy that serves as a sort of artist’s statement or program note. The last word is “masturbation”, which seems apt and more insightful than the entire rest of this cacophonous, self-indulgent sprawl.

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