November 15, 2007

Beware the Supplement

Administrator's note: Due to pressing matters requiring urgent attention I am republishing this post from November 2006.

Much of contemporary art needs the supplement of theory to be approached, yet often a particular critical reading of an artist is rendered inaccurate by its theoretical position. Singaporean essayist Lee Weng Choy questions the privileging of “only one reading” of an artist’s work and suggests that it is the contradictions in artwork that “make it possible to speak to the work critically in the first place.”(1) I propose that even contradictions within a misguided critique of an artist can open the possibility of a different reading under close scrutiny. If we are to expand the discourse on contemporary art theory, we must question previously held yet problematic beliefs, always at the ready to re-write art history with supplemental critiques based on more stringent or diverse critical perspectives, especially points of view that counteract accepted and published critical positions.

For instance, one accepted critical perception on the performance art of Paul McCarthy has to do with the desublimation of masculinity and this will serve to demonstrate the inherent weakness within theoretical supplements that function as a validated art historic assessment but may possess misrepresentations that have not been fully explored.

According to this exemplary theory, McCarthy’s effort “to expose that which patriarchal culture represses in order to reverse the sublimatory effects of civilization” has resulted in performances of orgiastic frenzy with the artist simulating castration, sexual abuse, menstruation and childbirth.(2) Using Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, including castration anxiety, this position maintains that McCarthy “desublimates masculinity” by “reversing the processes of sublimation and repression.”(3)

While this critical position certainly exhibits scholarly research, there is the simple contradiction of McCarthy’s performances, which manifest an insistent and embodied phallocracy. In actuality, McCarthy’s work does not “reverse” sublimation as much as reinforce the patriarchal hierarchy, investing his stereotypically abject actions with an aggressive sexuality that supports male dominance over women. One might find it additionally disturbing and contradictory that McCarthy’s putative desublimation of masculinity has been couched within feminist frameworks, i.e., masculinity as “fundamentally dependent on that which it must exclude.”(4)

Judith Butler has argued that “gender is a cultural meaning that is ascribed to human bodies” and “does not derive naturally from the biological sex of the individual.”(5) However, McCarthy’s performances are wholly dependent upon the biological sex of his body (male) and the workable frisson his transgender “play” provokes. In Sailor’s Meat (1975), McCarthy wears a wig (female) while engaging in intercourse with a pile of meat; in Bossy Burger (1991), he plays chef (woman’s work?) while fornicating with various holes and doors in the set; in Heidi (1992), McCarthy plays Grandfather and penetrates a knothole while voyeuristically spying on Heidi (incest?). All of these acts are staged within the parameters of masculine biological function, based on gender identification defined by genitalia. McCarthy does not desublimate the “prohibitory apparatus of culture”(6); he denies it as a workable definition of gender, preferring instead to rely on the semiotics of essentialist difference. This kind of contradiction in a critique of an artist absolutely requires our attentiveness to the nuances within the supplemental discourse.

McCarthy’s work obviously begs for a thorough reading, possibly based on the “frustration experienced under the phallocentric order,”(7) yet it is not only male artists who have been misrepresented in the theoretical supplements. The paintings of Marilyn Minter have been viewed for some time as recalling “Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, in which our identities are built around the desire to attain the whole and unified body we saw in the mirror as infants.”(8) True, Minter’s paintings do typically depict fragmented feminine form as body parts (feet in high-heels, toothy-mouths biting pearl necklaces) but this would seem to recast the erotic object of film theory as a static and fragmented fetish, rather than propose a longing for a unified perfection of form. Any functional display of women in a fragmented, objectified image can also be interpreted as the furtherance of the phallocentric “symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies[sp] and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”(9)


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1. Lee Weng Choy, Authenticity, Reflexivity, and Spectacle in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Z. Kocur and S. Leung, (eds.), Oxford, 2005, 251.

2. Amelia Jones, "Paul McCarthy’s Inside Out Body and the Desublimation of Masculinity" in Paul McCarthy [exhibition catalog of Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art], New York, 2000, 126.

3. Ibid., 127-128.

4. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, New York, 1993, 51-52.

5. David Macey, Dictionary of Critical Theory, London, 2000, 52.

6. Jones: 128.

7. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", originally published in Screen 16:3, Autumn 1975, 7.

8. Joshua Shirkey, New Work: Marilyn Minter [exhibition brochure of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art], 2005.

9. Mulvey: 7.

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