PRINT September 1993

Paul McCarthy’s and Mike Kelley’s Heidi


Thank you for the videotape that Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Kelley have made of you and Grandpa and Peter. I was shocked to learn of your family problems—the violence, the incest, the obsessions with bodily functions—for from all outward appearances your life together in Nature had always seemed so idyllic! You say you’re confused—it’s OK to be confused. Who wouldn’t be? The degeneracy of your home environment is grossly incompatible with the storybook image of childhood innocence and purity you have embodied for over a hundred years.

Of course, just as you suspect, the harm you suffer in the clutches of your Grandpa, whose depravity knows no bounds, may well be irreparable. Defenseless children subjected to criminal abuse in time become corrupted and visit upon others the molestation they themselves have been forced to endure. I’m sorry to have to tell you you show signs of malicious degeneracy, growing like a cancer within: your glassy-eyed stare, your absorption with excrement, your way of fondling yourself, your harsh treatment of little Peter.

But never mind! The video seems to be a work of art. Perhaps, then, it offers less cause for alarm than you think.

Look at it this way: the old traditions of the Modernist religion have supposedly been put to rest. Yet there are those who lament the demise of the time-honored values, and who ache for “origins” in a world they perceive as intolerably corrupt and post-Modern. Though they are sensible enough to have renounced essentialism, they still believe art is sacred, and attempt to restore its “truth,” and to reinvent its sense of moral urgency. Presumably unintentionally, Heidi, in the arrested innocence of your century-long childhood you have parodied those who want their art to be morally exemplary. You have also brilliantly pointed up the resemblance of such a position to that of the earlier Modernist masters who defended art against the contaminations of kitsch and folkloric primitivism, which they saw as debased, and as little better than the kind of immorality and criminality from which, I see, the Alps are not immune.

As you know, Heidi, reductivist Modern styles no longer dominate. The high-Modernist catechism has been discredited, and these days the boundary between kitsch and art is constantly shifting. Yet Modernist conceits and divisions continue to inform our polemics on the relationship between art and life. This is perhaps because the Modernists did have a point, if for the wrong reasons: make no mistake, child—and this is particularly pertinent to your situation—art and life are indeed quite different matters.

Many viewers might relate to Mr. McCarthy’s and Mr. Kelley’s videotape (so heartbreaking from your point of view, so intriguing—forgive me, dear—from ours) in terms of real, lived experience. But Heidi—and I do hope this doesn’t come as news to you—you and Grandpa and Peter aren’t real. You are fictional personas constructed out of dummies, masks, and play-acting, partly to perform an internal critique of art, partly to destabilize the normative fields of reference within which art is elevated and assigned a higher purpose. This fictional realm, richly metaphoric though it may be, is your only reality.

Given the nature of the events in question, it may console you to know, as so many analysts have told so many young women in your position, that none of this actually happened. Should you desire, on the other hand, to insist on the reality of the illusion (an entirely understandable desire, Heidi, given that you’re fictional), I’m quite sure you’ll find viewers to support you. To enter the more fully into the videotape’s depiction of experiences they themselves have either endured or fantasized about, some will dismiss its jumbled, parodic play of archaic language and iconic images, and its illustration of “contamination” as a neutral mechanism working for the renewal of cultural forms. Others, clinging to a notion of art’s lofty mission, will applaud the tape as therapeutic, or else condemn it as immoral. As Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Kelley play it, your unfortunate saga satirizes not only Modernist ideology but the idea, common on both the right and the left, that art must be socially engaged. On both right and left, then, there will undoubtedly be viewers who won’t get it.

Their number will certainly include those crusaders who believe we are engulfed in an ever-deepening cultural crisis, in which ideals are sullied, sacred principles are in ruins, and we lack a unified purpose. When they look at art, these Jeremiahs complain that we no longer speak of quality and truth and beauty, but traffic in toxic and deceptive simulations of reality. They see proof of debasement in contemporary esthetic practices that seem to champion “sullied” esthetics and “degenerate” behavior.

It is with unmistakable irony, then, that Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Kelley supply voiceovers from Adolph Loos’ Ornament and Crime, 1908, in which decorative artifice, like tattooing and graffiti, is equated with the savage, the juvenile-delinquent, the criminal. I’m not saying you’re a j.d., Heidi, but that scene in which your bottom is ornamented with messy tattoos of a flower and a white cube (an in-joke for art-buffs, child) does violate the sacred temple of your body. Mr. Loos would roll over in his grave were he to witness the love of artifice to which you and legions of others have fallen prey, victims of an epidemic of misplaced values.

More serious, more insidious, are the videotape’s dummies and puppets, masks and mirrors—surrogate images that you and Grandpa and little Peter make of yourselves, confusing reality with representation to the detriment of your own well-being. In the world below the mountains, of course, there are many who fail to distinguish between artistic facsimile and reality. Should they realize that art contradicts some notion of social decorum or morality (as it often does), they condemn it. Art, they say, when it throws open the floodgates of contamination—when it flaunts “base” instincts, in effect legitimizing them—is robbed of its capacity to edify and becomes something to be feared. In relation to your own life, Heidi, the distinction is that between draping garlands of flowers around your shoulders, as I’m told all women do in the Tyrol, and tattooing a flower on your buttocks: the one is coded as real, natural, and true, the other as false, transgressive, and corrupt.

Should you want to return to a state of innocence and grace, dear, you might turn your back altogether on Culture and seek inspiration in the beauty of Nature. You might stop touching yourself in an unhealthy manner, and try to spend more time with the chaste young Klara. I wouldn’t advise it, though. I doubt that the path of growth you have embarked upon is reversible.

I will return the videotape as soon as I am done with it.

Yours always,

Jan Avgikos.