What makes a good piece of art? Debatably it is its subversive nature that intrigues and appals in equal measures. The most famous pieces of art in our time are provocative, such as the mesmeric Mona Lisa and her seductive smile or The Girl with a Pearl Earring, laden with its erotic imagery. Sculptures such as Michelangelo’s David need no explanation as to their appeal. So if good art is subversive, and that’s why we like it, why has Paul McCarthy’s Tree sculpture, or, as it has been dubbed ‘The Butt Plug’, received such an adverse reaction? The general public and critics denouncing art as shocking and perverse seems antiquated, yet McCarthy’s sculpture was met with utter horror. The Parisians were shocked at such a salacious object, which, as we must remind ourselves, can also resemble merely a green Christmas tree. Upon the sculptures unveiling in the Place Vendome, McCarthy was promptly slapped three times in the face by a passer-by.
Not for a long time has a piece of modern art garnered so many column inches in the popular press. Do we really just love to hate it, are we suckers for a bit of vulgarity? Is its popularity with the media purely a kind of childish desire to use the word ‘Butt Plug’ in a pseudo-intellectual conversation? Are the Parisians secretly proud to be in the centre of controversy, their capital reliving its grand epoch of being the centre of the art world and a place of excitement? The controversy continued when on October 17, the sculpture was vandalised and deflated by right-wing protesters. Has France really been offended by an ambiguous looking Christmas tree, or is it simply a hyperbolic scandal du jour to give the press something to write about? After all, McCarthy’s artwork has generated scandal, violence, protest and a public confrontation.
McCarthy, a keen courter of controversy, is no stranger to subversion. His previous works include the defamation of Disney, putting Snow White in erotic situations and emphasising the phallic in Pinocchio. He often forays into the political parody; one of his works depicts a compromised George Bush with farm animals. However, even McCarthy must have been shocked by the reaction as the artist has, since the work’s deflation, decided not to reinstate the sculpture. However McCarthy is set to continue with his Parisian flavoured perversion of Christmas; he plans to create thousands of chocolate Santas holding butt plugs in an exhibition in the Paris Mint. McCarthy, while clearly a lover of the controversial, has shied away from reinstating the sculpture and instead has opted for an artistic response. This suggests that the protesters have intimidated him, as he is taking his response behind security. This is a sad moment for the art world, yet it is still gratifying that the subversive Santas will be placed in the oldest French institution of power and sobriety. McCarthy, refusing to indulge the vandals, has opted for a further statement of his liberal Christmas vision, this time in a place not so easily vandalised.
However, with right-wing politics gaining popularity in France with Le Pen’s Front National winning France’s European Parliament elections this year, maybe France’s outrage at a sculpture with liberal connotations is more of a serious political issue. President Hollande has publicly supported the sculpture, shaming the negativity surrounding it; he stated last week, “France is not herself when she is curled up, plagued by ignorance and intolerance.” The very fact that Hollande is suggesting that currently France is not acting like herself is very telling of the political situation, where has the liberté, egalité, fraternité gone when the seemingly progressive Parisians vandalise modern art? We can, as the McCarthy ‘Butt Plug’ story unfolds, begin to see parallels between France’s move towards right wing politics and its move towards right wing attitudes when it comes to art. McCarthy’s sculpture quickly transcended into a political issue, which is unusual. Maybe the media fascination with McCarthy’s ‘Christmas tree’ is not purely salacious, it suggest that the world is closely watching France’s reaction, and viewing it as a microcosm for the country’s current political leanings.
Undoubtedly, there is something positive to be gleaned from the incident – McCarthy’s sculpture has given exposure to the world of modern art. The sculpture has got people who were previously not interested in modern art talking about the subject, even if it’s only because it’s controversial and in a public sphere. Then again, isn’t all great art perverse and provocative? The episode has also served as a potent tool to expose the current situation in French politics, with Hollande denouncing the current state of liberty in France. The world’s press are waiting with bated breath to see Paris’ reaction to McCarthy’s response, and so too are politicians in parliament.