Waters on Embracing the Infuriating

john waters

Mr. Waters with, from top, “Silver Clock” (2012), by Doug Padgett; “Untitled (Hammer)” by Lee Lozano (1962); and “Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mother” by Vittorio La Verde. Credit Eric Chakeen for The New York Times.

John Waters answers an interviewer’s question about the art he collects.

“Besides liking the work, what guiding principles do you follow in collecting?”

It has to sometimes, at first, make me angry. It has to delight me and surprise me and kind of like, put me off a little bit at first, and then I embrace it. The kind of art I like is the one that makes people angry, that hate contemporary art — the ones that easily fall for the bait of it. I always go to that first… So to me, each one of these pieces relaxes me and makes me tense at the same time — which is what art should do. All art that works infuriates people at first.

(Melena Ryzik, “John Waters, the Man Who Brought Us Divine and Loves Brown Art,” NYTimes, 5-23-19)

Petulant style note: In reading the article’s title I had to pause for a moment to recall that “Divine” was an actor in Waters’s film “Pink Flamingos.” A set-off such as quote marks — “Divine” — or italics — Divine — would add clarity. Just saying, as they say.

(c) 2019 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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16 Responses to Waters on Embracing the Infuriating

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    “All art that works infuriates people at first.” Oddly, the same is true of all art that doesn’t work, and this slippery slope causes a lot of confusion.

    He also likes the food that makes him vomit at first, then surprises him, then which he greedily laps up in its liquid form.

    • JMN says:

      Waters does that? New knowledge. I saw my cat do the same shortly after I transitioned her from dry food to Fancy Feast. Her teeth aren’t what they used to be.

      • Eric Wayne says:

        It’s an analogy. He prefers that which he hates, rejects, than consumes.

      • JMN says:

        I suspected as much, but I was mischievous…. I wouldn’t put anything past Waters. I know him only a little by reputation, but it seems he’s made a career of being rebarbative. On another front, I read a review of Peter Schejeldahl’s new book — a collection of his essays, 100 of them I think. Are you going to read it? I’ve only read him from time to time in The New Yorker.

      • Eric Wayne says:

        I probably couldn’t get my hands on it. He’s already committed the sin of viciously condemning Francis Bacon, who is probably my favorite 20th century painter, so, I rather think he not only on the other side of the spectrum from me, but on a different rainbow. I’d read it anyway, but I wouldn’t pay for it.

        Waters’ movies are pretty much along the lines of what he says the best art is: something that will make people a bit angry or put off at first. Ever seen “Pink Flamingos”. I found the scenes of a grown woman in a crib waiting for the egg man to come pretty much unbearable. I suppose his movies, at their best, are so bad and offensive they are good, so, that’s his particular angle.

      • JMN says:

        I haven’t read extensively in art criticism. I may buy the book, not sure. Charles Finch, the reviewer, mentions Schjeldahl on Freud, but not Bacon: “A lot of people need Lucian Freud to be a great artist. How else to explain the furor for the pretty good English portrait and figure painter?” He calls it one of Schjeldahl’s “rare reprovals.” I’d like to know more about what his vicious beef with Bacon is. And I’m equally interested in your view of Bacon and his strengths. I ought to watch a Waters movie just out of curiosity.

      • Eric Wayne says:

        Yes, Schjeldahl’s criticism of Lucien Freud is a stunning self-indictment. Freud is NOT a “pretty good portrait painter,” he’s a marvelous one whose skills are very intimidating. For a critic to not be able to see that is stunning. I deal with a few critics attacks on Bacon, including Schjeldahl in my “In Defense of Francis Bacon”, which you can read here: https://artofericwayne.com/2014/08/31/in-defense-of-francis-bacon-2/

        I think “Hairspray” was Waters’ most popular movie. They are a kind of sick comedy. They are not to my tastes at all, but I generally accept that there’s something to them and his recognition is probably deserved, but I haven’t seen anything by him in at least 20 years, so have no fresh impressions.

      • JMN says:

        I meant to add that what’s foreign to me about Waters’s attitude is the whole notion of passing through fury on the way to liking an art work. If a painting doesn’t grab me somehow I tend to simply turn a blind eye to it, which is more a question of indifference than being infuriated. I’m not proud of that. I pick up the passion and commitment from your stands. Maybe if I could more actively dislike work that leaves me cold it would be a sign of greater engagement with art on my part.

      • Eric Wayne says:

        Yes, and indifference is probably the more normal response. I think some people get angry because of a feast of art that doesn’t rise above eliciting indifference. It’s not that the art itself pisses people off, but rather that it’s put on a pedestal and they are expected to fawn over it.

        Martin Creed has a series of A4 sheets of paper crumpled into balls. You see one on a pedestal and it’s supposed to provoke you. Really, it’s just monumentally boring. But, the pisser is you paid to go to a museum and you see that bullshit on a platter, and it’s insulting. That’s what angers people more, these days, I think.

        So, Waters would like that sort of piece because he’d think it was funny that other people got annoyed by it. But if he buys it, he’s got a snake-oil collection, IMO. Since when did art become making crap to annoy people?

      • JMN says:

        What you say makes lots of sense to me. I’m aware now that I do feel a certain anger at seeing things such as the crumpled balls you mention displayed in galleries and seriously talked about. Or if not always anger, certainly the boredom. But I find it easy to walk away from that sort of thing with a shrug. I’m not sure it’s a fight I want to pick. Francis Bacon is a different matter. I’m intrigued by controversy surrounding a serious painter. I’d like to know more about that.

      • Eric Wayne says:

        Well, I agree with you about the boredom. I joke all the time about conceptual art being boring and didactic, but, that is often considered desirable. When you have whole shows titled “Banality” (that’s Jeff Koons), boredom is the topic. Were we ever supposed to find Warhol’s Brillo Boxes exciting? It’s all wry humor and dry comments on popular culture, or merely a mirror held up to the most trivial detritus emanating from pop culture. Nowadays much art is a combinations of visual aids to support political arguments or perspectives, all of the social justice / identity politics variety. This is not necessarily supposed to rise above boredom, either, except in functioning like click-bait articles to provoke controversy of a combative nature, which isn’t boring, but isn’t exactly being enthralled by the art either.

        I also think walking away with a shrug is the best response for most people. There’s plenty of appealing and interesting art out there in other mediums. I find the well of music to be infinitely deep. I’m always finding new things to listen to that I enjoy. Right now, TV series are making a big comeback, and are probably the most popular art form, and often for good reason. I watched all three seasons of Fargo, and it was excellent. Much better than Waters, for me, but because Waters is really annoying – or to use a contemporary word, “cringy” – he’s considered more of a fine artist.

        The reason I get angry is because I am in the art game, and when there’s a crumpled piece of paper on a pedestal, or a Koons “bunny” selling for more than $100,000,000 this represents a certain ideology, and ideological warfare, of the cultural warfare variety, in the department of art. Just consider I went to college to improve my painting skills, and I ended up not being allowed to paint. There has been a century long was on the visual imagination, and the toll have been heavy for visual artists.

        You may have seen me write this before, but, ever notice how there was no visual art corollary to the renaissance of music that happened in the late 60’s to early 70’s? When we look back now, or at least when I do, bands like the Beatles, who we’d generally look down upon from a fine art perspective, have only gotten better over time. Where were all the popular paintings from young people portraying their generation, struggles, psychedelic forays, infatuation with mysticism, and expressing the ethos of “The Summer of Love”? When the Beatles cut “Yellow Submarine”, the art world was making dry conceptual experiments and declaring painting wasn’t art because it didn’t question what art was.

        Entire generations of visual artists were sacrificed in the great maw of conceptual dogma. That can be a bit of a pisser. So, when I see Duchamp’s “Fountain” (urinal) I am bored to tears and nearly absolutely indifferent. But when it is championed as “checkmating all traditional ideas about art” and is held on par with da Vinci, THAT pisses me off. And when Jeff Koons compares himself to Michelangelo, or boldly declares that the paintings his assistants produced, replicating old master paintings, and with his trademark blue gazing ball affixed to them, are superior in this time to their paintings, I get pissed off.

        The art bores me, but haring it crammed down my throat as the best our species has ever produced is infuriating. And THAT is what Waters calls art. Art is the snubbed nose at real culture, shrugging off Shakespeare in favor of a crude remark scrawled in a public toilet. Art is a urinal.

      • JMN says:

        Funny you should mention “Fargo” the series. I just watched the Coen brothers’ movie “Fargo” for the nth time and I just keep enjoying it even more. Your comment is wide-ranging. I pick up a great deal of bitterness. What leaps out to me is “I went to college to improve my painting skills, and I ended up not being allowed to paint.” That’s more interesting to me than Koons and Duchamp. What happened?

      • Eric Wayne says:

        Check out the Fargo series. It’s 3 seasons, and you’re going to really enjoy it.

        Lots of artists have had the experience that you aren’t allowed to paint in college. I wouldn’t be allowed to do any of the work I do, incidentally.

        The reason is the underlying belief that conceptual superseded painting and visual art, and thus if you are going to be a real artists, painting is hopelessly washed up and you are a reactionary fool who can’t handle reality.

        That was the dominant belief when I was in college, and I rather think it’s still powerful today, or even has gained momentum.

        In my case, I made other kinds of art which were considered legit, including doing performance art, conceptual art, and installations. In fact I got a fellowship in my serious year as an undergrad for 10k, which was only awarded to one student, and based on a juried exhibition. So, it wasn’t that I couldn’t play their game by their rules. I could, and accepted that there was value in it. Only much later did I realize the bullshit really was bullshit.

        Worse, in grad school, well, I could no longer play their rules, because I was automatically disqualified because of my biology at birth. I could only make conceptual political work deconstructing my own white, male, privilege. This had gone beyond bullshit into something much worse, and darker.

        Now, I went to particularly “advanced” colleges, and people who went to small colleges in the Midwest didn’t have that sort of experience. I went to cutting edge schools.

        At the time internet was new and I didn’t have it. There was nobody I could talk to, and nothing I could look up to help me see through the problematic bullshit. I had to do it all on my own in order to survive philosophically. And I did. I found holes in the logic, hypocrisy, and observed first hand a lot of mean and laughable behavior coming from the radical left art faction.

        I’ve had a quarter century to ponder these things, including while living in China as a rare minority in small cities where most the people had never seen a foreigner in the flesh before. Identity politics doesn’t apply when you are reading it in China.

        I wouldn’t attach the word “bitter” to me because it doesn’t suit me. The people shutting down painting and openly discriminating against white artists with smug impunity are the bitter ones. I’m just shooting potholes in the egregious bullshit that is used to squelch visual artists and the visual imagination.

        There’s a bit of a war going on between conceptual art and visual art, and this takes place in “visual art”. My tactic these days is to give conceptual art its credit, but to defend the tradition of painting, and of the visual imagination.

        I’m not the bitter, resentful, loser. I’m just a real artist.

      • JMN says:

        Forget “bitter.” Wrong word. “Real artist” works better. I admire you. I had no idea art school was like that. I think of myself as kind of cerebral, but I just can’t relate to “conceptual” art. I think we’re in the same ballpark of sensibility respecting the tradition of painting and visual imagination. I would certainly support its defenders.

      • Eric Wayne says:

        I just wrote an article about “the personal in art”, and how that was also seen as not up-to-date in art school, and a woman artist who I’ve written about responded that she wasn’t able to make personal, let alone representational painting, and had to content herself with biomorphic abstraction.

        It rather killed art for her, and it took her 15 years to get back into it, and do what she really wanted.

        My school wouldn’t even let you do isomorphic abstraction. It had to be conceptual and political, and the politics had to be on the radical left.

        I’m sure other schools are less nutty or radicalized. When I went to UCLA it was pretty good, because they have the variety of extremes. But my grad school was really tailored for highly political art only.

        But, what’s interesting here, is how many artists were thwarted because of radical political ideology and postmodern, conceptual ideology.

        Oh well, I make art now, and so does she, so that’s a very good thing. There are probably a lot more artists in their 50s who are coming back to art after being ostracized in art school.

      • JMN says:

        So the schools were that prescriptive and intolerant? And students had to make political art, and the politics had to be radical leftist as opposed to… reactionary rightest? I want to read your article.

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