I have a soft spot for art that, in terms of subject matter and material, is in bad taste. It’s art that pushes against psychological and social expectations, that tries to transform decay into something generative, that is replicative in a baroque way, that isn’t about progress, and wants to—as Walt Whitman put it— “contain multitudes.” I am not talking about messiness, schlock, theatricality, or ambition. I am thinking of Paul McCarthy’s excremental installations, Peter Saul’s twisted painted figures penetrating one another, Kara Walker’s race wars of sex and violence, and the Nazis in hell of Jake and Dinos Chapman, art that almost seems too much to take or even to look at, that resists aesthetic metabolism, that exudes a sort of poetics of apotheosis. It’s the way Andrea Fraser slept with a collector on camera, calling it art, and somehow the work escaped being silly academic nonsense or brainy porn. Many artists work with bad taste, but they do so in such conventional ways that their art ends up being predictable and gratuitous but little else. As for pornography, if it isn’t made in a particular way, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do; in this way porn is almost like Egyptian art, in that it hardly ever changes. What shocked the art world about Jeff Koons’s porn work was that he so fully and bizarrely crawled into its conventions that it seemed to sprout new conventions.
The name I came with for this stylistic tic came up in a conversation with two artists who sometimes fall into the category, Carroll Dunham and Carl D’Alvia. Talking about the rollicking mockumentary Tropic Thunder, we were stupefied by the observation Robert Downey Jr., performing in blackface—already off the charts in terms of bad taste, but somehow perfect—made to the Ben Stiller character. When acting, he said, “never go full retard.” He meant that an actor should never go too far when portraying anyone mentally disabled lest he lose any chance at claiming an Oscar, citing Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hanks for their holding back. In other words, Hollywood needs some sort of decorum, tradition, or halfway measures to hang on to. (The movie caught a lot of flack for that scene.) Thankfully, the art world isn’t much like Hollywood, because I like art that isn’t afraid to go full retard.