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by Donald Kuspit
How long I’ve tried to clean away this folly!
But everything’s still dirty. It’s impossible!
-- The Proctophantasmist in Goethe’s Faust, Part I

He feels no disgust at his faeces, values them as a portion of his own body with which he will not readily part, and makes use of them as his first ‘gift,’ to distinguish people whom he values highly… he carries on his high valuation of faeces in his estimate of ‘gifts’ and ‘money.’. .  there are many people who retain a voluptuous feeling in defaecating all through their lives….From the very first, children are one in thinking that babies must be born through the bowel; they must make their appearance like lumps of faeces.

-- Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1)

…this indifferentiation is inherent to the sadistic-anal phase, where all objects, erotogenic zones, ideals, etc. are pulverized by the alimentary canal and homogenized into identical particles, the faeces.

-- Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion (2)

In the excited and confused state which results from the anal masturbation, a bimanual masturbation of genital (phallus or clitoris) and anus (confused with vagina) tends to ensue, producing a sado-masochistic perverse fantasy in which the internal parental couple do great harm to one another.

-- Donald Meltzer, "The Relation of Anal Masturbation to Projective Identification" (3)

untrousered eating his
french fries of turds

-- Pablo Picasso, untitled poem, 1937 (4)

Shit is the simplest of materials, but it has a complicated emotional meaning, as everything connected with the body does, and it is widely used in modern art, in the disguise of "rubbish," a convenient social substitute for this very personal bodily substance. Indeed, shit is a form of rubbish, a standard part of the social landscape just as shit is a standard part of the personal landscape -- everyday, redundant, valueless waste, which we regularly flush away or put in garbage dumps, so that it is kept safely out of sight. We’re in daily touch with our own shit and social rubbish, but we dispose of them as best we can, which is the civilized thing to do. Who wants to slip on dog shit in the street, or for that matter the banana peel that is its surrogate? Everything has its proper place, and the proper place of shit and rubbish is not in public.

Every effort was made to keep them out of public sight until modern art came along and "found" them, and re-cycled them as innovative art, so that they became a sight to behold, and as such no longer entirely ugly and disgusting. Given new value, they were given new meaning. They became triumphantly anti-esthetic and with that uncannily expressive, suggesting that they had a certain paradoxical beauty and appeal and thus an esthetics of their own. The use of shit and rubbish in art used to be subversive, transgressive, provocative, shocking, revolutionary -- all those insulting uncivil things that advanced art imagines it is, shit and rubbish being the epitomizing embodiment of the avant-garde "here’s mud in your eye" attitude -- but it no longer is, for the so-called avant-garde has long since been socially assimilated and become respectable, indicating that it is no longer the annoying gadfly it still likes to believe it is but just another bug in the social swamp.
Lately shitty rubbish has been rationalized as "institutional critique" and "cultural intervention," marks of theoretical distinction -- dare one say medals of intellectual honor? -- in acknowledgement of the avant-garde’s supposedly great social impact and ongoing influence. Seeing society from the revolutionary outsider perspective of the avant-garde underclass, which since Courbet has identified with the rebellious social underclass ("the people’s revolution"), one supposedly sees the "higher truth" about society: it’s a sham. Of course, today the avant-garde underclass has become part of the insider Capitalist upperclass, but still identifies with the underclass, as Pop Art, with its use of underclass imagery -- kitsch rubbish, the people’s art -- indicates. The underclass still has the ethical cachet associated with defiant rebelliousness, even though its Dream of Revolution has long since been replaced by the American Dream. These days Courbet’s country people have become the suburban masses. The Big Lie marches on, but it changes shape with chameleon-like cleverness.  

My point is that the theorizing of "advanced" art as "critical intervention" is an acknowledgement of its essential conformity to the conventions of "advanced" thought in "advanced" capitalism. They have become as much a part of its business as usual as the conventions of advanced art. The hypocrisy of advanced theory and the hypocrisy of advanced art correlate in the hypocrisy of advanced capitalism. Indeed, advanced art and advanced theory synchronize like shit and money -- traditionally called the devil’s shit -- in Freud’s equation. The advanced work of art has become a luxury item, the artist’s expensive gift to the advanced capitalist, the most esteemed person in our society, all the more so because making money has become an advanced art in the minds of many, suggesting that the wealthy businessman has a creative gift. Thus the divine rights of the rich. The rich capitalist is a god in all but name, and he must be worshipped and appeased with the fruits of art -- a form of tribute and homage -- who rewards the artist by making him a rich capitalist -- deifying him.

Warhol -- the archetypal business artist, as he called himself, and a very successful one at that -- and Michelangelo are equally "divine" in the eyes of capitalism, however nominally creative Warhol’s art is compared to Michelangelo’s. His full-bodied figures have a spiritual depth and expressive richness that Warhol’s shallow, superficially expressive figures lack. They’re all successful "marketing personalities," as Fromm called the new kind of personality produced by capitalism. Constantly selling themselves to the world, and as such more outwardly than inwardly oriented, their inner lives are unavoidably flat, stale, and unprofitable (like rubbish) compared to the intense inner lives of Michelangelo’s grand figures. Warhol’s insightful rendering even suggests that the marketing personality has no inner life -- just the semblance of one (thus, ironically, the marketing personality is problem-free) -- just as Warhol’s writings suggest that he turned outward to avoid facing his emotional problems. Pandering to the looks of the rich and famous, or the would-be rich and famous, Warhol became rich and famous, however much he trivialized wealth and fame. Fame lasts only fifteen minutes, and Kings and Queens eat hotdogs and drink Coca Cola -- everyman’s food -- but they’re both tasty. Warhol cheapened art as much as he cheapened life, but he had a marketing point, because cheapness sold. He used cheap, fast food -- the social rubbish of celebrity photographs, full of capitalist calories and few human nutrients, a sort of candified and dandified image of marketed personalities -- to make a sort of fast food art. In capitalist society the difference between inner and outer riches has collapsed, like the difference between art and rubbish. As Warhol said, "I always like to work with leftovers, doing the leftover things. Things that were discarded, that everybody knew were no good. I always thought it had the potential to be funny."(5) Warhol seemed to think that art was a game that used the leftovers of capitalism to have fun.
Thus van Gogh called "the place where the street-cleaners dump their rubbish. . . a real paradise." Even the Bauhaus had a fascination with shit in the substitute form of rubbish. Thus Johannes Itten, a Bauhaus instructor at one time its director, advised his students "to keep their eyes open, while out walking, for rubbish heaps, refuse dumps, garbage buckets, and scrap deposits as sources of material by which to make images (sculptures) which would bring out unequivocally the essential and the antagonistic properties of individual materials." Even Hans Albers, a purist if ever there was one, told his Bauhaus students to "put together real [artistic] marvels. . . out of everything and anything" they found in "scrap heaps" and "the city dump." Kurt Schwitters collected rubbish with fetishistic passion, "play[ing] off material against material" the way "word is played off against word in poetry."(6) The abundance of collages, assemblages, and installations -- "accumulation art" -- in modern and postmodern art testifies to the continued influence of these pioneers of rubbish.

Picasso also collected a great deal of rubbish of all kinds -- apparently he never threw out anything -- suggesting that he invented the collage to store and frame some of his rubbish. He seemed to have been superstitious about shit, and ate his own -- kept it for himself, as it were -- as the Picasso epigraph suggests. Indeed, "Picasso, according to Marie-Thérese Walter, enjoyed experimenting in all things sexual, including the coprophagous,"(7) suggesting that his collages were a way of experimenting with this own shit, in whatever substitute form -- a way of making the tasteless "tasteful." One wonders if he was emulating one of De Sade’s priests. But the priest got a girl to shit in his mouth, whereas Picasso shat in his own mouth, unless he got Marie-Therese to shit his mouth just for the experimental fun of it.

Duchamp was also taken with shit: Dali reports that "during the course of the Second World War" he developed "a new interest in the preparation of shit, of which the small excretions from the navel are the ‘de luxe’ editions."(8) Dali’s representation of shit in the substitute form of beans, well known for producing abundant shit, in Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936), is not as offensive as Duchamp’s perverse union of opposites, but it has its own offensive perversity. It is worth noting that Dali’s picture can be read as the beginning of the popularization of Surrealism -- Dali was already in Hollywood -- that can be said to climax in Mel Brooks’s film Blazing Saddles, in which the Surrealist fascination with shit becomes a joke. Brooks is a populist Surrealist, and Dali became a Surrealist populist, suggesting that scatology is always surrealist and popular. It is no longer the forbidden artistic luxury it was when in 1958 Dali enviously expressed his admiration of Piero Manzoni, "a well-known Pop artist of Verona who sells artist’s shit (in very sophisticated packaging) as a luxury item!"

Clearly, when Duchamp called painting "olfactory masturbation," he meant that paint smelled like shit -- a point he made in the title of his last painting, Tu m’[erde] (1918). (One might note that the work reproduces shadows of his readymades, which were made of rubbish -- which is readymade.) He might have added that to paint was to masturbate one’s psychic anus with a phallic paintbrush -- thus the psychosomatic bimanuality of painting -- in order to provoke it into excreting the precious gift of the painter’s innermost self to the world. (Karl Abraham regarded faeces as the first internal object.) To paint is to stick the extra finger of the physical paintbrush up one’s psychic anus, forcing one’s body ego to excrete a painting. 

This brings me to the point I want to make: such contemporary "fart works" as Paul McCarthy’s installation Complex Shit and Andres Serrano’s photographs of Shit make it transparently clear that the avant-garde artist is an anal masturbator and that his works are shit in disguise. But he has now come out of the art closet: he no longer has to hide the fact that his art is substitute shit. Indeed, McCarthy and Serrano no longer use rubbish as a symbolic substitute for shit: they make and picture shit explicitly -- up close in Serrano’s case, dwelling on it with obsessive esthetic care.

Serrano had previously been absorbed in piss, as his infamous photograph of a kitsch sculpture of Christ immersed in it implies -- he has placed other objects in bottles of piss, instantly profaning them -- but liquid piss is harder to photograph than solid shit, however more colorful. Is he moving away from the "painterly" to the "sculptural" ("soft sculpture" of course), although his shit has a certain "painterly" look -- the look of turgid droppings, that is, thickened gestural drippings (like those in Oldenburg’s first quasi-expressionist Pop objects)? Serrano may think that shit is more personal and "deep" than piss (shit seems to come from deep inside one while piss is just a squirt away). Is it his own shit, and as such an invitation to intimacy, or is his new subject matter a fresh expression of his fascination with degraded substances (including degraded human beings, with whom he seems to identify) and of his wish to make a spectacle of himself, to be a "sensation" in a sort of neo-Dada way (the neo always being a decadent version of the new)? Both are narcissistically nihilistic.

The nihilistic Dadaists confronted us with the shitty nothingness of it all, especially of art. Serrano’s shit is pure nothingness; he confronts us with the essence of nothingness. Like the Dadaists, he seems to have realized that art is nothing at all -- that its existence is meaningless, and it has no use in life, which is also shitty -- also nothing. It has no other purpose than itself -- no larger purpose. But Serrano’s glamorization of shit -- his elevation of this most humble of the leftovers of life to the photogenic heights (a popular American way of apotheosizing shit [with no irony intended]) -- indicates he still believes in art. He has the old-fashioned belief that it has the power to create a eureka moment of consciousness -- the so-called shock of recognition, a sudden epiphany of insight -- by distilling life’s essence, which for him is shit, as it is for all cynical realists eager to give society an artistic enema to purge it of all its shit. And since there’s always shit, he keeps on enema-izing, or is it sermonizing? Like all the voyeuristically curious -- he seems to have carried voyeurism to a perverse new extreme -- he wants to save the object of his secret desire with his "insight." (Serrano’s kind of hardnosed realist savors the odor of shit -- the "ultimate" reality -- suggesting that unconsciously he believes in clean living. All artistic "revolutionaries" -- all makers of "revolting" art -- do however self-consciously they play with dirt like spoiled children.)

It’s the old alchemical idea of turning the shit of life into artistic gold. The idea was given modern form by Breton. Writing about Duchamp, he argued that when an artist confers the status of art on some found object -- why not shit? -- it acquires a certain dignity and purpose, and with that a deep meaning. For modern alchemist art dresses up the dregs of life so that they become theoretically classy: they’re no longer bare fact but existential truth. Serrano tells us that we never want to face the truth that existence is shitty, which is exactly why we defensively flush our shit away. But he boldly shows it, forcing us to reflect on it the way the saints reflected on the skull, another piece of rubbish that bespeaks death, and suggests that life is lived in vain, because it is Nothing compared to the all-mighty God who will save us from it, and ourselves. Both shit and skulls have an insistent presence, and imply the mortification of the flesh -- the worthlessness of the body. If a body produces valueless shit, it has no inner value. Thus Swift couldn’t reconcile the fact that his mistress defecated with the beauty of her body. The contradiction drove him mad. But for Serrano shit is beautiful: the memento mori is the everlasting truth, that is, God. Of course is shit is also a luxury item, as God is. Thus nihilism acquires narcissistic meaning.

McCarthy and Serrano are not as polymorphously perverse, overtly masturbatory, and nihilistically narcissistic as Carolee Schneemann was in 1972 when she described Genital Play Erotica Meat Room -- "a large, curving space filled entirely with wonderfully fashioned, over life-size pricks, balls, nipples, clitorises, labia majoria, labia minoria, cunts and assholes"(9) -- but their focus on shit is more fundamentally perverse, for shit embodies the basic meaning of perversion, as Chasseguet-Smirgel argues: the reduction of the lifeworld to indifferentiation -- the nihilistic blurring of differences and values, a regression to the chaos of what she felicitously called "the anal universe."

But shit had already come out of the art closet in London in the early ’90s, as George Frankl’s description of "exhibitions. . . of ’dirty knickers,’ underpants with faeces, piles of excrement on the floor made to look very life-like" makes clear.(10) The pioneers of avant-garde rubbish are clearly responsible for the "wasteland" modern art had become. The wasteland of the scrapyard and of modern art were seamlessly integrated in the exhibition of "a ’sculpture’ of a vast pile of old motor car tyres in a prominent position on London’s South Bank." It lived up to its avant-garde reputation by "causing affront to inhabitants and visitors to that area."

Rachel Whiteread’s abandoned London (row) House (1993), cast as a "sculpture" before it was torn down in 1994 --Whiteread’s work was touted as a major criticism of a neighborhood disaster, even though the neighborhood wanted it, and the adjacent houses, torn down to make space for a badly needed park -- was another piece of rubbish presented as art (with minimal transformation that could be called imaginative). Debris -- in effect social shit -- was immortalized as art, if only because it proudly stood out like a monumental punctuation mark in an urban desert, even though the only immortality of Whiteread’s work is in photographs, where it doesn’t look as dramatic as it did when I saw it up close on a very rainy night. It looked vapid when I went back to see it again the next morning, when it was no longer raining. But I guess it was supposed to be a ghost -- a rather material one: every memento mori is a materialization of death, and death is the virtu of Whiteread’s work.

Clearly rubbish remains the preferred medium of so-called conceptual art, for it’s often the only "concept" that’s not trivial in the work. Does that mean that Robert Morris’s 1960s installation of a pile of dirt -- implicitly shit -- in a room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (clearly another Dadaistic gesture, however belated its épater le bourgeois nihilism) -- is important because of its dirt not its "conceptual" placement? Can the same be said of Smithson’s ’70s installation of the Spiral Jetty on the edge of the Great Salt Lake? Stripped of the meanings that honor the universal spiral -- its geometry appears in the microcosm of the inner ear and the macrocosm of the spiral galaxy -- isn’t the Spiral Jetty just another piece of rubbish punctuating an environment, this time a real desert not an urban desert, but also dressed up in an Emperor’s Fancy New Conceptual Clothing? Natural or social dirt has a way of being memorable, for it stirs our anal impulses and intellectual defenses.

What do McCarthy and Serrano add to the discourse of shit in modern art? If to confuse rubbish with paradise shows just how sick van Gogh was, then to present shit in the form of art, as McCarthy and Serrano do, is to show just how sick art has become. It also makes it clear than avant-garde transgression is regression to anal sadism. At least the early modernists socialized their shit as rubbish -- Itten, Albers, Schwitters were clearly inspired by the Dadaist use of rubbish, and struggled to put it to better, meaning esthetic, use -- and thus underplayed their unconscious nihilism by calling it "revolutionary." Socially as well as artistically revolutionary, as Arman’s Small Bourgeois Trash (n.d.) suggests. But the new shit artists make no pretense of being revolutionary, however confrontational they may be -- however much the placement of McCarthy’s Complex Shit (it’s only theory that makes it seem complex) in the airspace above a Swiss museum can be read as a criticism of the ultra-clean Swiss by reason of the fact that it’s a piece of dirt, however specious, that is, "artistic." But then McCarthy’s floating shit is safely out of the way above the museum, where it seems like a carnival balloon rather than an affront. It also partakes of Swiss affluence, suggesting that it symbolizes the dominance of art by capitalism, which encompasses the bit of social space it occupies. Would McCarthy be true to his proletariat credentials if he exhibited his Complex Shit in a parking lot? Or perhaps in a city dump, which would give it ecological credentials.

No, McCarthy and Serrano are not revolutionary -- the avant-garde became reactionary the moment it was completely swallowed up by capitalism -- they’re just shamelessly perverse, like the sex-scandal and corrupt politicians and violent and sex-mad movies that American society seems to mass produce. And also, like them, tragicomic: their shit symbolizes the comic tragedy that art has become and the tragic comedy that America has become. To hide behind a symbol is a form of shame, and shame is socializing, but McCarthy and Serrano aren’t using symbols to hide their perversity, suggesting they’re stylishly anti-social. For anti-social perversity has become standard avant-garde operating procedure -- it’s even better than irony, which in the end is self-defeating, a Pyrrhic victory over its target, and which has lost its novelty -- and the works of McCarthy and Serrano are the dregs of avant-garde art. The avant-garde is defunct and obsolete, and its stick-it-up-your-ass attitude -- perfectly exemplified by Mapplethorpe’s photograph of himself with the handle of a whip stuck in his asshole (thus anality is "in," although Mapplethorpe turns his head to see the viewer’s presumably shocked face, suggesting that Mapplethorpe also has the earlier avant-garde in-your-face attitude) -- has become a cultural cliché. That is, so-called radical chic: off-the-fashionable-avant-garde-rack rather than the sign of an unexpected original creation.

McCarthy’s shit is "an inflatable dog turd the size of a house," and "came loose from its moorings. . . and knocked down a power line" -- which is the most original thing about it -- suggesting that "it might be properly renamed Shit Happens,"(11) implying that it is a "happening." But it is hardly as new-sworthy as the original Happenings, which themselves weren’t original or new, for they were heavily indebted to Dada happenings, which were more impromptu vaudeville than programmed theater.

McCarthy and Serrano are avant-garde hacks, more particularly, all-American avant-garde hacks. Their shit looms with a delusional bigness emblematic of America’s delusion of grandeur and physical bigness. They are the artist-version of what Graham Green called "the ugly American," and they have writ America’s emotional ugliness large in the form of shit. Perhaps they mean to suggest that America has become somewhat shitty under Bush II, which may be the one social truth their works metaphorically convey. Green thought Americans were emotionally immature, and always intruding in other people’s affairs without fully understanding them, and McCarthy and Serrano are emotionally immature -- not to say infantile -- and intruding on art without fully understanding it. In the Renaissance the artist was thought to be a kind of god, and art was thought to spring from his reflective brow the way Athena sprang from Zeus’, suggesting that art was imbued with "ancient wisdom" and a "sacred trust," but they show that the artist has become an unreflective asshole, and art has been dumbed down (already in Pop Art) to mindless shit, that most leveling and un-ideal of all substances.

McCarthy and Serrano are endgame avant-gardists, and the endgame can never be played with the same conviction with which it was played when the game was being invented. Avant-garde art is no longer an impromptu game with unusual rules invented as it was spontaneously played, but a familiar, institutionally controlled con game with predictable rules of confrontation and insult. They no longer have any effect, except on those who don’t understand the game, and almost everybody does, since it has become popularized and thus socially tolerable. Thus the shit of McCarthy and Serrano is the dead-end product of the avant-garde line. Hanna Segal writes that in "a narcissistic position. . . the artistic product is put forward as self-created faeces, with a constant terror that one’s product will be revealed as shit."(12) But McCarthy and Serrano are comfortable with their narcissism -- they have nothing else going for them -- which is why they are comfortable with their fashionable shit. They’re not in terror of it, nor is the viewer, for everyone knows it’s just avant-garde show business as usual. Everyone knows that show business is unadulterated narcissism, and with that emotionally regressive, not to say a sign of arrested development -- artistic as well as personal development, and of course of the society that produces it.

(1) Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis [1917] (New York and London: Norton, 1977 [Standard Edition translation]), 315-16, 319
(2) Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion (London: Free Association Books, 1985), 141
(3) Donald Meltzer, "The Relation of Anal Masturbation to Projective Identification," International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 47 (1966):336
(4) Quoted in Mary Ann Caws, Picasso’s Weeping Woman: The Life and Art of Dora Maar (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000), 144
(5) Quoted in Umberto Eco, ed., On Ugliness (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), 388
(6) All the quotations in this paragraph are from John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985), 152, 262, 262, 42
(7) Caws, 133
(8) Quoted in Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Viking, 1971), 13-14
(9) Quoted in Peter Webb, The Erotic Arts (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975), 314
(10) George Frankl, Civilisation, Utopia and Tragedy (London: Open Gate Press, 1992), 169
(11) "Bad Week for Modern Art," The Week, August 22-20, 2008, 6
(12) Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), 95

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.