June 27, 2013

For Papa Smurf

This quotation is featured at the top of the Armory on Park's postcard emailer for Paul McCarthy's White Snow exhibition in the Upper East Side:

"My work seems to be about tearing down and opening up conventions. My responsibility is to the ideas - that's the difference between making art and making entertainment."
(Papa Smurf is a favorite appellation for McCarthy among my friends.)

A few thoughts follow...

(Paul McCarthy is one of the most influential artists for artists of our generation, a touchstone and a standard to measure ourselves by. Of course, I'm a recent transplant from Los Angeles to New York City and my views are heavily conditioned by the Southern California art scene. The thoughts I am about to convey might seem heretical to some, but I want to assure those who are broad minded and dedicated to independent thinking that it is because I hold his significance in high regard that he is worthy of analysis and I remain after all, a respectful admirer of McCarthy and his generation.)

The conditional "seems"leads the quotation. It implies misdirection. If the tearing down and opening up of conventions is only seemingly so, then what is actually so? Of course, this could be merely an artifact of speech, that "seems" is a way to soften the literalness of what follows. What is not conditioned is his pledge to be responsible to ideas, where he draws the line between serious art and frivolous entertainment.

Is the agency of ideas the prime definition of art?(*2) Is entertainment bereft of ideas? Aren't realms such as philosophy and news reportage for example also responsible to the traffic of ideas as well? All this and more flow to mind after reading this quotation, which is typical to the literature surrounding Paul McCarthy.

The ways an artist should relate to the public have been stamped on every generation since the 60's by Warhol: be a cypher, don't allow yourself to be circumscribed by logic of your interlocutor, remain aloof and disarmingly cryptic. Of course, I don't follow that program entirely. Personally, I think that there is enough lacuna (space, interval) within any train of thought and logic for the imagination to find an escape. And it is interesting and admirable to me that McCarthy unleashes plenty of rational reflection on his work, which I suppose is an influence from his role as a professor at UCLA since 1982.

The work of Chris Burden comes to mind. Both Burden and McCarthy came out of school at the same time, created performances at the same time, their work speaks for a generation. Personally, I've been able to make sense of Burden's oeuvre as an expression of power. Whether it was about putting himself in danger (laying under a tarp on a roadway, shooting planes, being shot, or crucifixion) or manifesting the US submarine fleet or the solar system or scaled up police uniforms, the theme was always power in several manifestations. Does this also shine a light on McCarthy's work as well? If so, McCarthy's thematic of power seems to be Oedipal patricidal about a critique of patriarchy that was the overlord of his generation. The Hauser & Wirth announcement quotes the NY Times: "...ribald, pop-culture obsessed provocateur...", and H&W underlines this, writing "Adding a touch of malice to subjects that have been traditionally revered for their innocence or purity...".

All this seems to seal the deal, McCarthy is out to kill the father, much as we have in several sectors of auto-critical pop culture, for example movies like American Beauty. We are all very familiar with this trope, it exists in a grand cycle that has turned for around fifty years or so. Now, isn't McCarthy himself quite a patriarch? As he emulates Walt Disney (who might be the source of McCarthy's echo about art-as-idea, if you watch the video to its conclusion), one can see that his acidic critique is integral with admiration. So a big part of the set of ideas in his art isn't solely about bringing down the man, patriarchal critique, it is also a tribute to an object of admiration. Indeed he is quite the family man, by cultivating a thriving and happy brood of children who are well seated to carry on his legacy, he is the very image of happy patriarch known throughout all history and all cultures. He's not only a good father but a good and caring mentor to his crew of artists in his studio (the echoes of Disney reverberate in the video above). What might be actually so in his traffic of ideas is a complicated entanglement of thoughts, and one can only appreciate the complex interweave in a comparison between what is said and what is lived in his life.

McCarthy has done in spades what must be done by all artists of all generations for all time (time, in terms of Western art history), he questioned the set of values that he inherited and redefined them for fitness to his generation. So here is the biggest question for the subsequent generation: how can we question him? How can we rebel against rebellion without becoming reactionary ourselves? Or have we come to the end of art as so many of the previous generation are fond of declaring? Are all we have left is footnotes and bibliography with no new chapters possible to be written?

Cue Jim Morrison, a key part of McCarthy's generation:
The killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and...then he
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he
He walked on down the hall, and
And he came to a door...and he looked inside
Father, yes son, I want to kill you
Mother...I want to...fuck you

*PS: As long as McCarthy is professing his emulation of Walt Disney, it would be good to look into the figure who inspired Disney himself, Fred Harvey:

Fred Harvey was Ray Kroc before McDonald's, J. W. Marriott before Marriott Hotels, Howard Johnson before Hojo's, Joe Horn and Frank Hardart before Horn & Hardart's, Howard Schultz before Starbucks. And from the moment in 1878 when he lured the top chef at Chicago's vaunted Palmer House to run his first high- end restaurant and hotel -- in a refurbished fleabag in Florence, Kansas, a town so small that the population often doubled when the Santa Fe train pulled into the station -- Fred Harvey's managers and chefs became some of the first hospitality heroes of America. When the son of Kaiser Wilhelm stayed at La Fonda, the legendary Fred Harvey hotel in Santa Fe, he was thrilled to discover in the kitchen Chef Konrad Allgaier, who had cooked for his family in Germany.

Fred Harvey was also Walt Disney before Disneyland. He and his partners at the Santa Fe played a huge role in the development of American tourism as we know it. Fred Harvey was largely responsible for the creation of the Grand Canyon as the country's premier natural tourist attraction, as well as the development of the mythic Southwest and what grew into the National Park System.

Emphasis mine, one can't emphasize it enough. It's worth a google search to see how much Disney patterned himself on Harvey.

*PS2: By the way, I think art is about the imagination.

Posted by Dennis at June 27, 2013 8:35 AM

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