PRINT November 2003


David Rimanelli on John Waters and Bruce Hainley

Richard Hawkins, November 1996, collage, 11 x 15". From Art—A Sex Book.

CERTAIN PEOPLE ARE SQUEAMISH about the topic of sex even if they are actually having gross Sadean heaps of it; certain others are unabashed, brazen potty mouths and porn junkies even if their personal lives run more to Cistercian monasticism than to Xaviera Hollander’s Puerto Rican vacation. Certain people are ravenous for any scraps of tittle-tattle they can unearth about the sex lives of their friends and neighbors, Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walther, Tom Cruise and Penélope Cruz; certain others remain tranquilly or passionately uninterested in the sex lives of anybody ever, always and forever. John Ruskin reacted with horror on his wedding night when he discovered that his wife’s pubis did not remotely resemble that of the Venus de Medici; Clement Greenberg was a lecher. Such antipodes of experience offer a heuristic matrix through which one can read John Waters and Bruce Hainley’s admirable, if problematic, Art—A Sex Book. Sex is necessary; art isn’t. But there are also obvious congruities, e.g., both sexual and art experiences tend to be described—critiqued?—as either good or bad. Regardless of the politics of liberation—from prudery, from “modernism”—questions of judgment and aesthetics loom large. Didn’t Lacan provocatively title one of his seminars “Kant avec Sade”?

Art—A Sex Book is organized as a series of “rooms,” which include both (Platonic?) dialogues between the authors and sections for the copious, often brilliant illustrations. Rooms rather than chapters imply curation—various galleries within the overall theme exhibition—but no less pointedly allude to the architecture of peep shows and sex clubs, with their warrens of cubicles for private/public erotic gratification and frustration, furtive gestures and exhibitionistic display. This very language—show, exhibition(ism), display—conflates the venues designed for sex purposes and those catering to art aficionados: “I’ll show you my pussy if you show me your Richter.” Initially, aestheticism seems like the text’s overriding concern, whether it be of the “He’s superhot” variety or of the blue-chip ilk (slutty Robert Ryman, porn pal Jasper Johns). But the first dialogue between Waters and Hainley, titled “Confidence Is Sexy,” explicitly engages institutional questions from the outset, as Waters remarks, “Contemporary art is sex. The artists, the cute kids working in the galleries, the paperwork from the galleries, the crating and shipping, all the young ‘hangers-on’ crashing the openings—it’s all about sex.” He then adds, “Of course, everything we’ve picked for the book is as much about ideas as it’s about sex. . . . If you bought it as a jerk-off book, you might be confused.” So forget about the Taschen Five-Thousand-Titties-I-Have-Known model. The authors eschew art-critical and theoretical language and references—an exception: Hainley uses the word “scoporheic”—but the sneaking suspicion persists that Bataille underwrites Paul McCarthy (or Richard Kern or Keith Boadwee or whomever) and Baudrillard’s Ecstasy of Communication lubriciously commingles with Richard Prince (or Larry Johnson or Gary Lee Boas or whomever). Theory, as anyone who’s dabbled in it knows, is itself promiscuous, double-dealing, sexaholic, and a chronic masturbator. Sex toys are Organs without Bodies. A page layout from “Room One” juxtaposes Monica Majoli’s painting of a lady gorging herself on dildos (one of them of the two-headed species) with Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin’s photograph Me Kissing Vinoodh (Passionately), 1999, where Matadin has been digitally excised from the face-sucking image. Presence/absence perchance? 1-900-DERRIDA.

The sensibility of Waters and Hainley’s book is implicitly homoerotic, even if many of the artists are apparently of the men-seeking-women variety or vice versa. This homo register perfumes the language, as the authors speak of cruising, glory holes, hustler bars, the Old Reliable catalogue . . . and Matt Dillon, Keanu Reeves, the usual suspects. Waters suggests that Printed Matter should have a back room. Hainley praises Richard Hawkins’s “unique books”—“pasting cutouts of David Bowie . . . into a Cy Twombly catalogue or depositing buff Marky Mark among a catalogue of Francis Bacon paintings.” Nothing wrong with this, of course, except perhaps that it encourages the common (meaning frequent and vulgar) paranoid delusion that the art world is a homosexual cabal, a velveteen mafia; it isn’t.

Art—A Sex Book persists in the belief that both art and sex can still be strange in a good way: something as yet unseen and beyond ordinary experience—something transcendental even, filthy linens aside. There’s an idealism of sorts present, doing the good work of being bad. And being bad, or at least being really obnoxious and hostile to—what?—petit bourgeois thinking, was a great motivator in Waters’s classic of corruption, Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. First published in 1986, Crackpot inspired hordes of malcontents and wannabe poètes maudits with belletristic jewels such as “Whatever Happened to Showmanship?” (on Waters’s idol William Castle), “Going to Jail” (Waters teaches a film class to serial murderers and child molesters), and “Guilty Pleasures” (the auteur behind The Diane Linkletter Story confesses that he secretly loves art movies, especially those of Marguerite Duras). The 2003 edition includes nine more recent essays plus an introduction, which is the best of the new material, where Waters candidly faces his own mainstreaming: “It’s been over fifteen years since Crackpot was first published, and I’m proud to say it’s never gone out of print. But . . . I realize a lot has changed since I first wrote it. . . . I hadn’t made Hairspray . . . yet, so it wasn’t safe to like me. Even the thought of Hairspray, the hit Broadway musical, would have been heresy.” Waters has quit smoking, too, and so should you: He provides seventy reasons to quit, e.g., number 26, “boring others by talking about quitting,” or better yet, number 52, “you’re not a fucking jazz musician, for Christ’s sake.”

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.


John Waters and Bruce Hainley, Art—A Sex Book. New York: Thames & Hudson. 208 pages; John Waters, Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. New York: Scribner. 204 pages.