John Waters loves the art world. His delinquent, satirical vision has inspired generations of artists and outsiders. Next month, the New Museum of Contemporary Art presents "John Waters: Change of Life," Feb. 7-April. 15, 2004, an exhibition of 80 photographs and other works. The museum is also screening three early films: Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), Roman Candles (1966) and Eat Your Make-Up (1967), unseen since their original Baltimore debuts. Fittingly, the exhibition opens on "John Waters' Day," which Baltimore named after its golden son, often known as the "Pope of Trash," almost 20 years ago.
Waters re-photographs, off his television set, images from forgotten Hollywood films and from his own iconoclastic oeuvre. His rough-looking prints distill the movie's impact or appeal into a single frame or short series of shots, which he extracts from the plot, remaking them into icons of dystopia. He collages different stills together and organizes them into categories -- shooting junk, puking, sitting on the toilet, giving birth. By tinkering with the juxtapositions, Waters highlights the images' inherent inconsistencies or hidden meanings. Thus, in his "Farrah" series, Farrah Fawcett's 1970s angel flip hairstyle hovers like the mother-ghost of all fetishized movie stars over the heads of other actors, including a befuddled-looking Dean Martin.
Waters began directing his cult classic films in the late 1960s. Filled with filth and pathos, his early films offered a simultaneously tender and repulsive vision of the seediest subcultures from America's seediest city, Baltimore. Even in his comparatively mainstream Hollywood films, Hairspray (1987) and Serial Mom (1994), Waters injected pus and politics into smart, subversive satires.
Ana Finel Honigman: Do people harbor false assumptions about you from your films? Do you get references to scatology as a pick-up line?
John Waters: In the old days, people would just pick me up with drugs. I would lecture at college campuses and some kids would ask, "Hey, do you want to take LSD?" And I would cry, "No!" And then there were people who would actually approach me to confide that they ate shit, too. And, I'd be like, "Well, I don't! I certainly don't!" After all, it was just a movie. But mostly people are really lovely to me. People stop and thank me on the street. I feel like Oprah.
AFH: Do you find being a celebrity invasive?
JW: I really have no complaints. As a joke, I always say that the one problem with being a celebrity is that you can't have bad sex anymore.
AFH: You mean that people can't have bad sex with you because even if you're bad, you're still famous?
JW: No, I mean that I can't go into a fuck bar anymore. Those days are long gone anyway because of AIDS but even if I did, guys would just say, "Oh, I love Desperate Living!" That puts a real damper on the whole thing. Though Fassbinder used to go to the Mineshaft and I think I saw Angela Lansbury at Hellfire. Jerzy Kosinski was certainly at Hellfire, all the damn time. But now it is mostly swingers from New Jersey. They don't even serve liquor anymore.
AFH: I went there once, for the historical value, and it was just paunchy old men walking and wanking and wearing nothing but Tevas with socks.
JW: Was it that much fun? Did you use the restrooms?
AFH: No! Do you think Angela Lansbury used the restrooms?
JW: Well, if she had, she would have options, because in the old days there were two restrooms; there was one where you pissed in the toilet and one where you pissed on people. I am amazed Hellfire is still open because it is such choice Chelsea real estate. Any day now and it will be a Prada. Those shoppers wouldn't even know the ghosts in that old place.
AFH: Ghosts walking and wanking between the sales racks -- not even in Mui Mui sandals but in Tevas, with socks.
JW: My problem is I can't see why they don't serve booze anymore. Who wants to go to a sex club where you can't get a drink?
AFH: I guess cranberry juice just isn't the same, though it does clean the bladder if you're going to go around pissing on people.
JW: The best version of that was when Yves Klein gave everyone a blue drink at his opening so that the next morning, everyone pissed his signature color blue. It a great idea, it was such art showmanship.
AFH: It is certainly an interesting way to carry the work outside the confines of the gallery space. How do you feel about academic attempts to apply theory to your films or gallery work?
JW: Applying theory is delightful. My favorite reviews are always the ones with serious art talk, dealing with big intellectual themes. I find it so witty that someone would tackle my work using lofty art wording and I love art writing because it offends regular people and keeps them away.
AFH: What was the first set of theory-based themes critics started reading into your work?
JW: My first art-speak review was for Pink Flamingos. I still cherish it. It was an incredibly well-written essay for the Museum of Modern Art, which described how one set of characters in the film symbolized Communism and the other set symbolized Capitalism. That was complete news to me.
AFH: News or rubbish?
JW: No, not rubbish. I am certainly not saying it was wrong. That essay made a lot of sense. I'm not against theory just because I might not have known about it when making the work. Of course, I have my own theories but, while I always fear pretension in my work, I love it in the art world.
AFH: Do you think theory is mispackaged? It is portrayed as the act of translating art from the visual to verbal, but isn't it really closer to creative writing?
JW: Sure. It is creative art writing. It is a secret art language, just like the way that black queens have their own language and rappers have theirs, I love that art critics have their own secret tongue. I read art writing. I love it. I love how obsessional it is. I am always telling Christopher Wool that my favorite phrase uttered about his work, was "the nullification of decoration." Wouldn't that be great name for a design catalogue?
AFH: Sure it is lyrical but does it have any constructive relationship to art?
JW: The worst word in the art world is "rigorous." It means "I am smarter than you are and because I am an art writer I understand that you won't like this, because you are stupid."
AFH: I thought you liked elitism.
JW: I do. I am not for "art for the people." It's a terrible idea.
AFH: Do you find the high-art community secretly conservative?
JW: No. I think you can get away with more in art than in any other medium. Sure, there are fashions and there is a stigma attached to being out of fashion, but no one is saying, "You can't do that." And I always look at art with my sense of humor.
AFH: Humor is good. Bringing Down the House with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah was smarter about race and racial stereotypes than most of the didactic art designed to address these issues.
JW: If you want to change anyone's mind about anything, make them laugh. If you laugh at yourself, people will listen to anything you say.
AFH: Are you referring to telling jokes with a punch line or satire?
JW: I am not against punch lines. Some of my work definitely has punch lines. Though wit is different. Wit is defiant. Funny is smart. Like, Charlie Finch is great. I wouldn't want him mad at me but he is great. Art can't be drearily political because then it does nothing and changes nothing. Scary is good too. I miss the Yippies. I miss Abbie Hoffman. Where is that kind of thing today? Where is the public embarrassing of officials? Go to their homes and make them look silly.
AFH: PETA does that. Do you like PETA?
JW: Their methods are good and their theatrics are very strong, but I always say, "If 12,000 Easter bunnies have to die for me to keep my moustache on straight or if one monkey has to die to cure cancer -- then so be it." I am not against animals. I have animals and they are all stuffed. But, really, Iraq is more important to me than veal.
AFH: Why haven't you made a horror movie?
JW: My mother thinks all my movies are horror movies and I think horror satire has been done to death. Divine eating dogshit was horror, but now Jackass has taken that mantle from me. I have horror at the New Museum, like this one series called Birth Control that has 20 clichd scenes of movie stars giving birth and at the end -- a mutant baby.
AFH: Why are your stills mostly extracted from movies considered "failures?"
JW: In my own movies I try to avoid a thud or a dud, but I love rescuing those terrible moments from other people's films. I remember the stills. Taken out of the movie theater and put in a completely different context, years, even generations later, these moments can have a new life. They are reborn. There is no such thing as a bad movie. In any movie there might be one frame that redeems the whole thing. It is very liberating to know that even in a bad movie, there might be one delightful moment. You just need to look at the details and imagine something different than what the director wants you to see.
AFH: And, of course, taste changes.
JW: What was thought of as beautiful in the past is very different from what is considered beautiful now. In Julia, part of the stills series, I juxtaposed Julia Roberts' face with a dead mask because Julia would not have been considered beautiful in the 1950s or '60s. Kids don't get Greta Garbo these days. I guess people still jerk off to Marilyn Monroe. It's pretty good if from beyond the grave, you can inspire people to jerk off.
AFH: I love that you have a series of cut-away shots, where due to the Production Code instated in the 1930s, sex was represented through metaphor. Yours are from the great B-shocker, Peyton Place, right?
JW: Right. Peyton Place was so scandalous then. By taking a still from something else and putting it in a new narrative it changes its meaning as an image. Who wants to screw a cherry tree, but in It, the tree becomes so dirty.
AFH: Like the Sarah Lucas photograph of a tree with branches that resembles two spread legs.
JW: That photograph inspired a scene in my new movie of someone screwing a tree. I have a lot of plant sex in my new movie. I thank Sarah Lucas for that. Now that she pointed it out to me, whenever I look around, every tree is really pornographic.
AFH: That must be what inspired the Hamadryads and Dryads of Greek Mythology. What do you think about current depictions of gay culture?
JW: I am not gayly correct. I have trouble with a culture only based on one thing. Gay is a good start but it is not enough. Everyone has to start admitting that there are bad gay movies. I love the gay kids who are embarrassed by Judy Garland-lovin' Marys. There is a lot to parody in gay culture and I am completely in favor of that impulse. There are gay jokes in my show. Trust me, there won't be a rainbow flag hanging out front.
AFH: Do you feel contemporary gay culture is becoming too domesticated?
JW: I love whoever said, "Gay people used to be outlaws and now they want inlaws."
AFH: Is repression ever sexy or inspirational? Can too much open discourse spoil sex?
JW: When I see young people today I think they are having just as much fun as I had. I look to the future more than I try to remember the past. I think it is so terrible when people my age stop going out and stop listening to new music or stop learning about the new things. You need new imagery. There are so many different kinds of music. How do you know about it? You need spies to debrief you. You need young people to go out at 4 am and come to tell you about it. You have to have them. I don't trust people who don't have their spies. I love debunking what came before.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.