In 2012, I was walking my dog through San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and I came across an art and craft show in the sunken plaza between the Academy of Sciences and the new De Young Museum (which looks like a rusted aircraft carrier scuttled in the park).
As I wandered among the tables, looking at the wares, my dog blithely lifted his leg and peed on the one-millionth inept impressionistic rendering of the Golden Gate Bridge, which had been placed on the sidewalk, leaning against a table. I yanked him back, and, ascertaining that he had gone unnoticed, muttered “Everyone’s a critic” and swiftly exited the scene.
This callous tale is actually apropos of recent events. On Thursday, October 16th, the war on art joined the war on Christmas in Paris’ Place Vendôme when a 79-foot-tall inflatable sculpture called Tree was erected as part of the annual Fiac art fair.
In fact, Tree is just a giant butt plug. There is no room for interpretation here. American artist Paul McCarthy, who specializes in such tasteless displays, actually combined Santa and a butt plug in 2001 for the Rotterdam Symphony Hall. (It was banished to a park.)
Art critic Colin Liddell nailed McCarthy’s intention:
In its inception, it was supposed to be a subtle in-joke for the cognoscenti, those Bohemian and urban elites familiar with aberrant sexual practices, or at least those with a knowledge of such: a Xmas tree that was also a giant anal plug. LOL! What could be wittier than that?
I am sure that McCarthy and his enablers sniggered at the thought of innocent Parisian families posing for photographs with their children in front of a giant butt plug, thinking it just a wholesome Christmas tree.
The joke might have worked back in the 1980s or ’90s, when people were still naive enough not to know what a butt plug is. But in today’s atmosphere of peak decadence and social media, McCarthy’s intention was transparent, and outraged reactions were swift in coming.
At the erection of Tree, McCarthy was slapped in the face three times by one art critic, and over the weekend, some other art critics sabotaged the air pump and cut the cables holding the butt plug erect, causing it to slump flaccid to the pavement.
The chattering classes, of course, exploded with outrage at this act of “vandalism.” But this reaction exposes them as philistines. For if the concept of art can be loosened to encompass McCarthy’s 79-foot butt plug, then surely the concept of art criticism can be expanded as well.
If Chris Olifi can sell “art” encrusted with elephant dung, who’s to say that a bit of dog urine is not just as good as an essay by Clement Greenberg or Arthur Danto? If it is art for Chris Burden to be crucified on the roof of a Volkswagen, then why is it not art criticism to smack Paul McCarthy’s smug mug? If there is such thing as “auto-destructive art,” then why isn’t it just a particularly cutting review to literally deflate the pretensions of Tree? Let’s call it Performance Criticism. May it flourish.
This year’s war on Christmas has opened with an inspiring act of resistance. So kudos to the new Performance Critics. And up yours, to Paul McCarthy and his kind.