Paul McCarthy's White Snow


Last Wednesday I saw Paul McCarthy's show, White Snow, at Hauser & Wirth (until December 24, 2009). It's horrible. It's bad. No, it's worse than bad: This show is actively evil. Anyone involved with this show, any person who in some way profited from its mounting -- the gallery, art handlers, moving companies, caterers, press release writers, public relations firms, everyone -- is an accessory to an evil act.

McCarthy's show is evil because it is in every possible way a waste of resources. Each innocent molecule involved, each erg of energy, could have been better used in almost any way. It's a crime against humanity that Hauser & Wirth would expend any effort at all on such a show. So many better things could have been done with these resources; there are thousands upon thousands -- no, there are millions -- of artists -- of humans -- who could have done something more worthwhile. All the paper in the works on the walls, all the charcoal and oilstick, even the scraps of dirty old pornographic magazine are wasted. The diesel in the trucks in which the work was shipped was wasted. The electricity used to light the rooms in which the work is displayed is wasted. The poor pig, cow, or chicken, the grains of wheat or corn that died to power my body as I walked around the rooms of the show, all wasted.

A number of us walked through the rooms of Hauser & Wirth that morning. I looked at my fellow viewers and wondered that they weren't screaming, tearing out their hair, and fleeing. And then I realized that I wasn't screaming, tearing out my hair, and fleeing. It's just not something you do, even when it's the only appropriate reaction. And I realized that the artist and dealers rely on that to make what they do seem legitimate. By my very presence I was implicitly approving the show and the work in it. I suddenly no longer wished to be complicit in that approval, and I nearly ran from the building.

I'd been there ten minutes.

Paul McCarthy's work is not just an example of everything that's wrong with the art world, it's an example of everything that's wrong period. It's cancer and AIDS, it's Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, it's cholera and dysentery, it's earthquakes and floods, it's death and dying, it's shit, piss and corruption. No, not even: Shit, piss and corruption have their purposes. Not so Paul McCarthy. McCarthy is an argument for the repeal of the Bill of Rights; if this is what we're going to do with free speech, maybe we shouldn't be allowed to exercise it. McCarthy should be placed in permanent solitary confinement and given nothing with which he might make a mark on a surface; even his bodily waste should be quickly removed, just in case.

And whoever brought him to Hauser & Wirth should be housed in the cell next door. And then the building containing Hauser & Wirth should be demolished, the remains buried under Yucca Mountain, and the earth salted.

And even that's too good for them.

Here ends the review.

* * *

As I began this review I found myself in the midst of yet another dilemma. This seems to happen to me on this blog a lot lately. Note that I, unlike so many other writers, choose to work out this problem in public, in discussions with you, dear reader, instead of coming to my conclusions from the unassailable heights of my Olympian grandeur and then padding down in my grand robes to reveal them to you. No, I'm not like that: I'd rather show you my real self, conflicted, confused, ignorant, but at least and at last open and honest. It's who I am.

Once again I was invited to an exclusive, invitation-only preview of an upcoming art show. And once again I sort of skimmed the invite without really absorbing it; it didn't catch my eye. Then I received a personal invitation from the head of the public relations firm throwing the preview. She asked if I'd be attending. "The show is fantastic," she crooned, although she would say that, wouldn't she.

The personal invitation is what interested me. I prefer a personal invite to a mass mailing. Who doesn't? Andy Warhol, maybe. Anyway, the personal invite is what led me to throw the artist's name into Google and see what popped, to see if I wanted to go. Then I realized the work looked familiar, and further I'd already written a brief review of this artist's work, a short comment on someone else's blog.

What I'd written was this: "I do not think anyone should let this man near a video camera or other recording device ever again. In fact, I think he should be sentenced to house arrest for life and given no electronic objects at all. He should be allowed to read. He should be allowed to write on the walls with his own bodily fluids. And everything else should be forbidden to him, just in case."

Well, that pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? No way I was going to like this show. Not worth going to, obviously. But I was invited. As I saw it, I had three options:

  • Go and say what I think at the show itself.
  • Go and keep my mouth shut at the show and write a scathing review later.
  • Pass on the whole thing.

I was leaning towards the last option. Life's too short to punish oneself, isn't it? Unsure of what to do, I wrote to Stephanie about it, because she's one of the more level-headed people I know. She replied, "I think you should go, and honestly do your best to find something of interest. That way the scathing review will be well-informed and sincere."

I should at this point add that the invitation also mentioned light refreshments. At the very least, I thought, I could get free food. I like free food. It is, after all, free.

Bright and early on Wednesday morning I went to the show. You've now read what I thought about it. It was so bad I actually couldn't eat or drink the promised light refreshments.

Which brought me to my dilemma. Do I write about the show? It is so truly horrible, so utterly without merit, so completely abominable, part of me would rather ignore it. Would rather pretend it never even happened. Because to give the show the benefit of a review is to pretend the show is worthy of being reviewed, and that's far more than it or its creator deserves. You know how they say any publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell your name right? I don't want to be any part of that. Even to shred the artwork on display is to give it too much credit.

And let's be honest with each other here: My review, no matter how negative, won't change anything. The dealer won't read my review and say, "I should reconsider my support of this artist in light of this penetrating essay." The artist won't read what I have to say and weep, and maybe quit art and give himself over to digging wells in African villages or something, devote his life to performing some small penance for his sins. No collector will see my thoughts and think, "I'll allocate my limited funds differently now that I've read that!"

Not at all. If anything, my review will be a badge of honor for those people. Proof that they're avant garde, that they're at the bleeding edge of contemporary art, that they've got the mojo, the magic, the breeding, the eye, above all the power, while envious little crawling maggots like me can do nothing but worm through their excremental scraps looking up and dreaming of their dizzying awesomeness.

On the other hand, someone should speak up. Evil prevails when good men do nothing. Or, to accurately quote Edmund Burke, "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." We good must indeed associate, and how better to affirm that association than by sharing the tales of the combines of bad men, so we might shun them?

As for contemptible, Hauser & Wirth are certainly that, as is anyone who took money from them in the mounting of this show. They can say they're just professionals doing a job, that H&W's money is as good as anyone's, but that's an excuse: When something like this show comes along, it's a moral requirement for any thinking human to turn the money down, to say, simply, I'm sorry, there are some acts that shouldn't be performed regardless of the pay scale. Better to be an auditor for the IRS or the public relations firm for a dogfighting ring.

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote, 1955, ink wash

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote, 1955, ink wash

So, yes, even though it's tilting at windmills, even though it's giving the execrable McCarthy free publicity, even though ultimately it'll have no effect at all, I decided to write the review.


I love how crap blogs think they are giving people free pr. I hate to point out the obvious,
but I'd much rather have a one of Paul's pieces then anything I have found on this site: . I've got a serious question for you: For someone with such a sharp critical mind, how can produce such crap? I'm sure you'll argue that it's not crap that you spew out and call art or art writer, but really we both know the truth.

You spend a lot of words telling us how awful the show is, but no words about the actual work. A bit pointless.

There's an old story about a tenor who gave a performance in a provincial Italian theater known for having a tough local audience. The day after, when he was about to leave the town by train, the porter at the station refused to carry his luggage. When asked the reason, the porter replied it was because of artistic differences. You, Chris, in a sense, opted to carry McCarthy's luggage. I dare say you shouldn't have.

In other news, one wonders about the curious phenomenon of people who bother with blogs they profess to disdain. This would seem to make no sense, or to indicate an unusually high amount of free time, certainly higher than that available to me. There are definitely art blogs I disdain, but I would never waste my time, or theirs, telling them so. Of course, I'm funny that way, as in most others.

As an artist who needs to feel a sense of excitement and love for what I'm doing, I'm curious as to what drives an artist to produce work that may demonstrate, say, good drawing skills, but whose subject matter and message is repulsive. I can't think of a less palatable combination of ideas. Why get up in the morning? I may be looking at this simplistically, but I believe so strongly in process over product (and especially over the need to be provocative just to sell art -- or get it shown/seen) that I'm having real trouble wrapping my head around the artist's motivation.

The point is not that McCarthy's work is repulsive or otherwise objectionable. The point is that it's what he does, or what he's come up with, and it's gotten him serious attention, fame and money. In other words, the shit works, or has worked rather well so far, and these days that's plenty good enough, regardless of any purely artistic considerations. It's all largely a game, both the making and the selling, and the game is not about Art--except technically, and of course for purposes of promotion and image.

im not sure how funny paul mccarthy actually is. He may be the Gallager (watermelons!) of the art world. On the other hand, maybe his work fills a void in the art world, namely the one left by the Vienesse Actionists after they were removed like the guts of a cow. I wonder, though, at an art world that needs PR in order to drum up business. Shouldn't PR be an organic, natural buzz grown in the depths of some Peruvian cave, crossing the border in swarms and amassing at the gallery like a unified mind? In that sense, maybe Paul McCarthy is more of a museum piece, a cadaver that requires an army of magots to animate it for a semblance of life.

On the other hand, do we need yet another auteur to remind us that there is a dark side to all the revelry, - revile the reveille! Or do we take our medicine, as surely this must be seen. Is art cod liver oil?

Artists in this time must provide succor, not hairshirted bromides! Enough of the self flaggelations!

David Lynch is trotted out, in, an elephant, to be electrocuted in front of it's progeny...

Hauser and Wirth, Godzilla and Bambi, Jack and Coke.

Let the best PR firm win!

Chris, the guy has hit upon a very well paying gig. He's not the real problem; it's the people doing the paying. I have considerably less respect for his enablers, especially given their pretensions and/or delusions, than for him. Same goes for every BS artist making out like a bandit. Follow the money.

Chris, McCarthy and every comparable purveyor out there is entirely dependent on being enabled by the art establishment. We're not even talking about a purely or primarily popular success like Thomas Kincade. McCarthy is a creature of the system, period. There will always be people perfectly willing to do what he does, and worse, certainly if there's enough gain to be had from it. There's no way to prevent their existence, and there's little or no point complaining that they exist. What can be done is to reject or refuse them, and that is the real failure here, the failure to treat BS as such instead of glorifying it and promoting it. I don't really blame McCarthy, or rather, I blame him FAR less than those who put him where he is.

If McCarthy had, in fact, been ignored or rejected by the establishment, we wouldn't be having this discussion. He wouldn't be an issue. That's my point.

I regret to inform you that McCarthy is no stranger to big-time fairs like Art Basel, the art mags, or "major" collectors (at least those in my area, who are exceedingly unlikely to collect anything different from what's collected by "major" collectors everywhere). The guy is in, as they say.

But let's say, for argument's sake, that he sincerely believes in what he does, or that it's the only thing that occurs to him, or that it's the only sort of work that's "in him." He's got as much right as any other artist, real or imagined, to put his stuff out there. Fine. So who's really supposed to be "in the know" artwise? McCarthy or the art establishment, the ostensible experts, the supposedly enlightened ones who presumably live for the greater glory of art? Who's really responsible for separating the wheat from the far more abundant chaff? Who makes a McCarthy a star, a success, a celebrity, and keeps him that way? Who's in control of the game, Chris? Who and what runs it? Again, follow the money and the official recognition.

you need to talk to primary sources to find out why they like the work you find so unappealing. It may be that McCarthy's wealthy collectors are simply tired of their money, but can't bring themselves to just burn it.

I think this kind of work has much more power on the street as performance art - like chris burden before he lost the fire and certainty of youth and replaced it with John Galt's play room. If you arent angry why make the work?

If McCarthy was truly angry he might be entertaining, even good. Funny thing about money, it does make you feel better. Let the sincerity drip from my words, as if dipped in flaming napalm.

I agree with you about the evil of the establishment's complicity in this, Chris, but this is where I'm still stumped: if my motivation to get up in the morning and face my easel was to provoke outrage with my mocking tone, ridicule pop culture, Disney, the cult of the serious artist, etc., then I may just have to suffocate myself with my own pillow first. The sole prospect of attention and/or rspect and/or notoriety could never sustain me hour after hour, day after day, as I sweat blood over my Life's Work (or at least this year's). I agree with Zipthwung -- if there was at least some real anger behind it there may be something there, but I can only see a sort of self-superior detachment, and how sustaining can that possibly be?

Chris, it's not that complicated. I expect he does it, or keeps doing it, because it works (or certainly has so far) for him career-wise. He's definitely been encouraged by the powers that be. It's hardly a surprising or unusual scenario.

It's appropriate that when I opened my email this morning after being away for the weekend, I had this review and a link to a Cary Tennis column from my sister, from which I quote:

Complicating all this is the Twinkies-Auschwitz continuum, in which gravely murderous multiples of Jerk-Weasel matter become indistinguishable from trivial and ridiculous particles of short-lived "Twinkie Matter," and the two live in symbiosis, feeding off each other. This is a dangerous combination, as people who encounter it in the dark don't know whether to laugh or draw knives.

And I'm with Andrea on this. I cannot conceive of being so personally detached from all that is worthy or meaningful that I would get up every morning and produce this sort of dreck, no matter how many perks I was getting from The Establishment for doing so.

Admit it Chris. You would love to watch hours of footage of McCarthy splattered with ketchup and humping a hole in the wall with a big dildo.

But didn't somebody else already do that, more or less? Or was it McCarthy? Not that it matters especially. Maybe I'm thinking of Bourgeois and Benglis with their dildos. Again, it's a moot point. It's got far less to do with art (if anything) than with getting a certain kind of attention from a certain audience.

Well, Chris, it's more or less like the bank robber who, when asked at the trial why he'd robbed a bank, replied "Because that's where the money is." If McCarthy's schtick had gotten him nowhere, I seriously doubt he would have stuck with it, and if the system were not well known to welcome and reward such excesses, or excrescences, he may never have gone that route in the first place.

Chris, surely you're not as naive as you sound. Or do you actually think all people who present themselves as artists are really in it for the greater glory of art and the benefit of mankind? You don't actually believe somebody like Damien Hirst (for instance) has any shame, do you? Face it, some people, make that lots of people, are only interested in what they can get out of whatever they do to get it. It doesn't matter what it takes; it's about getting what they want. Being an artist guarantees nothing and does not confer any magical powers or special qualities. You can say that it should, but that's just wishful thinking.

Even if someone initially goes into art for reasonably respectable motives, it's always possible to be corrupted by the chance to make a killing, hit it big, be a star, whatever you want to call it. It happens. You can rattle off examples of it as well as I can. Anything, or almost anything, can be rationalized into submission. If shit pays or pays off, you'd better believe it will be made and promoted and sold. Shit is all over the damn place, and that won't change as long as it sells well enough and/or is accepted well enough.

Because it's SO hard to make it big as an artist, because the odds are so poor, even if the artist has talent, it's no surprise that when there's a chance to score by making crap, somebody will always take it.

Chris, Its probably too late to avoid the Times today. If you see the piece on McCarthy your head will explode.

i immediately hightailed it here after reading the article (hagiography to be sure!). You also know about the "new old masters" that Donald Kuspit posits in his book "the end of art" undoubtedly there is a fascination with an age when technical mastery and a liscence to paint a certain genre granted on a lifelong income and social status.

DK: Art doesn’t save souls, but the best of it does have a cathartic effect, as Aristotle said, that is, makes us conscious of unconscious fantasy by way of a complex process of symbolization and identification. Van Gogh, among others, believed in the religion of art, which, whatever else it involved, made it clear that art is more than the sum of its material characteristics and not simply a reflection of everyday life.

I'm not sure I buy that art is the only realm that we can access the unconscious or whatever, but there is something to be said for smearing Ketchup around over watching Grey's Anatomy or Lost or whatever. I think.

You read a bit like that Matthew Collings who recently upbraided some artists and Oxford kids playing at critical discourse (though less pretentious). Indeed, Susan Boyle is the blue haired end of art - like the American Music Awards, celebrating parrots (are you a dancer-singer? Strut your stuff!)- like Las Vegas is a museum embalming pop cultural moments in shoddy plaster and lathe stage sets - hyperrealism (I thought I'd invoke baudrillard) is a gloss on reality, and also a reality - but we needn't wallow in it. The Gulf War did happen - and you can look at the current war on (I spent 20 minutes watching soldiers feed mortar rounds into a tube, very engaging, go troops!). So as art continues its horizontal slide towards continued irrelevance, model railroading for the overeducated, let us look instead to the ashtray worlds we ourselves make, and like little buddhas, or eichmans, or idiots, fill them self reflexively, with full awareness, until death do us part. Or get a divorce. What the fuck am I going to do?

I meant you are less pretentious - no doubt because you are not as indoctrinated into the cult of art - thus being a philistine, prone to philistineism. What is art?

It struck me that Mark Leckey was doing a bit of theater (performing) and that Collings was doing his theater, which both of whom may or may not see as theater, or only allow certain people to participate as if it was theater (collaborate) and that in fact this could serve as an invitation, though it seems more likely that it is ego, wrapped up in hubris, and deep fried in the fat of privileged entitlement.

Theater being a demonstration of - so that the article itself could be an illustration of the problems with such debates - namely what you point out, a lack of concrete evidence or arguments. Subjectivity personified.

The more I know about art the less I am prone to such displays of chest pounding - but it still can be daunting when a critic holds forth with the whole weight of their presumed authority and consensus worn like a powdered wig (you know, the people who give him his authority and his rhetorical skills, which depend on the very thing he accuses his opponents of: innocence, and without which he is naked.)


I smell weakness, and I am hungry for flesh. FOrtunately McDonalds has a 2 for 3 dollar double cheeseburger deal.

Did he point a gun at you and make you go? You don't like his work. Others do. Quit whining.

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