Jean Clair, director of the Musée Picasso in Paris and widely respected both as scholar and art critic, has for some years been out of sympathy with contemporary art. When he and I shared a platform in the Netherlands a year ago, he spoke of a new aesthetic marked, in his view, by repulsion, abjection, horror and disgust. I have been brooding on this ever since, and particularly on disgust as an aesthetic category. For disgust, in Jean Clair’s view, is a common trait, a family resemblance of the art produced today not only in America and Western Europe but even in the countries of Central Europe recently thrown open to Western modernity. We do not have in English the convenient antonymy between goût (taste) and dégoût (disgust) that licenses his neat aphoristic representation of what has happened in art over the past some decades: From taste…we have passed on to disgust. But inasmuch as taste was the pivotal concept when aesthetics was first systematized in the eighteenth century, it would be a conceptual revolution if it had been replaced by disgust. I have never, I think, heard “disgusting!” used as an idiom of aesthetic approbation, but it would perhaps be enough if art were in general admired when commonly acknowledged to be disgusting. It is certainly the case that beauty has become a ground for critical suspicion, when its production was widely regarded as the point and purpose of art until well into the twentieth century.

Though “disgusting” has a fairly broad use as an all-around pejorative, it also refers to a specific feeling, noticed by Darwin in his masterpiece, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, as excited by anything unusual in the appearance, odor or nature of our food. It has little to do with literal taste. Most of us find the idea of eating cockroaches disgusting, but for just that reason few really know how cockroaches taste. The yogurt that sports a mantle of green fuzz–to cite an example recently mentioned in a New Yorker story–may be delicious and even salubrious if eaten, but it elicits shrieks of disgust when seen. A smear of soup in a man’s beard looks disgusting, though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself, to use one of Darwin’s examples. There is nothing disgusting in the sight of a baby with food all over its face, though, depending on circumstances, we may find it disgusting that a grown man’s face should be smeared with marinara sauce.

Like beauty, disgust is in the mind of the beholder, but it is one of the mechanisms of acculturation, and there is remarkably little variation in our schedules of what disgusts. So disgust is an objective component in the forms of life that people actually live. The baby is very quickly taught to wipe its face lest others find it disgusting, and we hardly can forbear reaching across the table to remove a spot of chocolate from someone’s face–not for their sake but for our own. What he speaks of as “core disgust” has become a field of investigation for Jon Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. He and his associates set out to determine the kinds or domains of experience in which Americans experience disgust. Foods, body products and sex, not unexpectedly, got high scores when people were queried on their most disgusting experiences. Subjects also registered disgust in situations in which the normal exterior envelope of the body is breached or altered. I was philosophically illuminated to learn that of fifty authenticated feral children, none evinced disgust at all. But I am also instructed by the fact that my cultural counterparts are disgusted by what disgusts me, more or less.

This overall consensus encourages me to speculate that most of us would unhesitatingly find the characteristic work of the artist Paul McCarthy, largely live and video performance, disgusting. There may be–there doubtless is–more to McCarthy’s art than this, but whatever further it is or does depends, it seems to me, on the fact that it elicits disgust. It may, for example, debunk a false idealism McCarthy regards as rampant in Hollywood films, advertising and folklore, as one commentator writes. But it achieves this just so far as it is disgusting. It may relentlessly and rigorously probe the airbrushed innocence of family entertainment to reveal its seamy psychic underpinnings, to cite another critic. So it may show what really underlies it all, the way the worm-riddled backside of certain Gothic sculptures whose front sides were of attractive men and women were intended to underscore our common mortality. But that does not erase the fact that maggots count as disgusting. So possibly McCarthy is a kind of moralist, and his works are meant to awaken us to awful truths and their disgustingness as a means to edificatory ends. That still leaves intact the revulsion their contemplation evokes. Disgust is not something that can easily be disguised. Beautiful art, Kant wrote, can represent as “beautiful things which may be in nature ugly or displeasing.” But the disgusting is the only “kind of ugliness which cannot be represented in accordance with its nature without destroying all aesthetic satisfaction.”

“Nothing is so much set against the beautiful as disgust,” Kant wrote in an earlier essay. So it is all the more striking that McCarthy’s commentators attempt to find his work beautiful after all. I wanted to think about the question of beauty in your work, an interviewer murmured, to move from the manifest to the latent. The New York Times speaks of the “unlikely beauty of the work,” adding that it is “not standard beauty, obviously, but a beauty of commitment and absorption.” I have to believe that McCarthy’s perceptions can be very little different from the rest of ours. He has, indeed, almost perfect pitch for disgust elicitors, and accordingly making the art he does must be something of an ordeal. That may have the moral beauty that undergoing ordeals possesses, especially when undertaken for the larger welfare. But if it is that sort of ordeal, then it has by default to be disgusting. As the Gothic statuary demonstrates–or for that matter, the history of showing the fleshly sufferings of Christ and the martyrs–artists down the ages have had recourse to some pretty disgusting images for the ultimate benefit of their viewers. (Taking on the iconography of Disneyland, as he does, is hardly commensurate with overcoming Satan’s power, but I’ll give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt.)

Something over three decades of McCarthy’s work is on view through May 13 at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo, and since he is widely admired by the art establishment, here and abroad, there are prima facie reasons for those interested in contemporary art to experience it. The disgusting works have mainly to do with food, but–citing Haidt–disgust is, at its core, an oral defense. There is no actual gore, though McCarthy uses food to evoke the images of gore. Similarly, there are no actual envelope violations; no one is actually cut open. But again, various accessories, like dolls and sacks, are enlisted to convey the idea that the exterior envelope of the body is breached or violated. McCarthy makes liberal use of ketchup in his performances, and in interviews speaks of the disagreeable smell of ketchup in large quantities. That is part of what I have in mind in speaking of his art-making in terms of ordeal. There may or may not be actual shit, but chocolate is what one might call the moral equivalent of feces, as you can verify through watching a few minutes of his Santa Chocolate Shop. Karen Finley used only chocolate to cover her body in the performance that landed her in hot water with the National Endowment for the Arts a few years ago–but everyone knew what she was getting at.

The use of foodstuffs distinguishes McCarthy’s art from that of the so-called Vienna Actionists of the 1960s–Hermann Nitsch and Otto Mühl are perhaps the best known, though the actor Rudolf Schwarzkogler attained a happily unmerited notoriety through the rumor that he cut bits of his penis off in successive performances of Penis Action. The Actionists made use of real blood and excrement, and excited at least the illusion of humiliation through such happenings as that in which a broken egg was dripped into Mühl’s mouth from the vagina of a menstruating woman. They were heavily into desecration. McCarthy is pretty cheery alongside these predecessors. His work refers to nursery rhymes and children’s stories, and he makes use of stuffed animals and dolls, often secondhand, and costumes as well as rubber masks from the joke shop. Some writers have described McCarthy as a shaman, but he rightly sees that as something of a stretch: “My work is more about being a clown than a shaman,” he has said. As a clown, he fits into the soiled toy lands of his mise en scènes, which kick squalor up a couple of notches, as Emeril Lagasse likes to say when he gives the pepper mill a few extra turns.

The clown persona is central to what within the constraints of McCarthy’s corpus might be regarded as his chef-d’oeuvre, Bossy Burger (1991). But he worked his way up to the creation of this role through a sequence of performances. In these, he stuffed food in his pants, covered his head with ketchup, mimicked childbirth using ketchup-covered dolls as props. In one, or so I have read, he placed his penis inside a mustard-covered hot dog bun and then proceeded to fill his mouth to the point of gagging with ketchup-slathered franks. Throughout, food was placed in proximity to parts of the body with which food has no customary contact. But many human beings are reluctant to touch food that has merely been left untouched on the plates of strangers. Disgust is a defensive reflex, connected with fear, even if we know the food that evokes it is perfectly safe and edible. That is why there is so strong a contrast between beauty and disgust: Beauty attracts.

McCarthy got the idea of using food as the medium of his performances in the course of searching for a very basic kind of activity. Inevitably, he had to deal with disgust, which is inseparable from eating as symbolically charged conduct. It is understandable that he would stop performing for live audiences (as he did in 1983) and begin to devise a form of theater to put a distance between himself and his viewers. I would not care to perform Bossy Burger a second time, even if I had the stomach to perform it once. It is perhaps part of the magic of theater that disgust survives as an affect, even through the video screen. It doesn’t help to know it is only ketchup.

The action of Bossy Burger transpires in what in fact was a studio set for a children’s television program, and the set–a hamburger stand–is exhibited as an installation. It shows the damage inflicted on it by the performance, and looking in through the open wall–or the windows–we see an utterly nauseating interior, with dried splotches and piles of food pretty much everywhere. It has the look of California Grunge, as we encountered it in the work of Ed Kienholz. A double monitor outside the set shows, over and over, McCarthy’s character, togged out in chef’s uniform and toque–and wearing the Alfred E. Neuman mask that connotes imbecility–grinning his way through fifty-nine minutes of clownishly inept food preparation. Thus he pours far more ketchup into a sort of tortilla than it can possibly hold, folds it over with the ketchup squishing out and moves on to the next demonstrations. These involve milk and some pretty ripe turkey parts. The character is undaunted as his face, garments and hands quickly get covered with what we know is ketchup but looks like blood, so he quickly takes on the lookof a mad butcher. He piles the seat of a chair with food. He makes cheerful noises as he bumbles about the kitchen or moves to other parts of the set, singing, “I love my work, I love my work.” Everything bears the mark of his cheerful ineptitude. At one point he uses the swinging door to spank himself, but it is difficult to believe this constitutes self-administered punishment. He looks through an opening at the world outside. McCarthy says he envisioned this chef as a trapped person, but whether that is an external judgment or actually felt by the character is impossible to decide from the work itself. Viewers may find themselves wanting to laugh, but a certain kind of compassion takes over. Perhaps it is a test for tenderness. Whatever the case, even writing about Bossy Burger makes me feel queasy.

You won’t get much relief by looking at Family Tyranny, in which the character uses mayonnaise and sings, “Daddy came home from work” as he prepares to do unspeakable things to his children. “They’re only dolls” helps about as much as “It’s only art” does, which underscores Kant’s point about disgust. Painter mercifully turns to other substances in its slapstick comedy about the art world. McCarthy plays the role of art star, wearing a sort of hospital gown, a blond wig and huge rubber hands, and he has a kind of balloon by way of a nose. Everyone else in the action–his dealer and his collectors–wears the same kind of nose, which perhaps caricatures the hypertrophied sensitivity that exposure to art might be thought to bring. At one point, the Painter climbs onto a sort of pedestal as an art-lover kneels to smell his ass. In another action, he chops away at one of his fingers with a cleaver, and crows OK! when it comes off. This belongs to the iconography of self-mutilation that has, since van Gogh–and perhaps Schwarzkogler–become an ingredient in our myth of the true artist. The Painter’s studio is filled with huge tubes of paint (one of them labeled shit), and he parodies the Abstract Expressionist address to painting by slapping pigment wildly here and there, rolling it onto a table and then pressing his canvas down onto the paint while pushing it back and forth, all the while singing some version of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Paint, food and blood serve throughout McCarthy’s work as symbolic equivalents. I could not suppress the thought that Painter is a kind of self-portrait–there are photographs elsewhere in the show of an early performance in which McCarthy frantically whipped a paint-laden blanket against a wall and window until they were covered with pigment.

It will be apparent that I am a squeamish person, an occupational impediment for an art critic if Jean Clair is right about the new aesthetic (for my response to that contention, see www.toutfait.com/issues/ issue_3/News/Danto/danto.html). I am not, however, disposed to prudery, though I have a strong memory of a certain visceral discomfort when I was first writing on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. McCarthy’s Spaghetti Man I thought was pretty funny. It is a sculpture, 100 inches tall, of a kind of bunny, wearing a plastic grin of self-approval. It could easily be on sale at F.A.O. Schwarz were it not that the bunny has a fifty-foot penis, which coils like a plastic hose on the floor beneath him. It is a kind of comment, but from an unusual direction, on Dr. Ruth’s reassuring mantra for insecure males that Size Doesn’t Matter. It really does matter from the perspective of masculine vanity, even if Spaghetti Man’s organ would put too great a distance between himself and a partner for any show of tenderness during coitus. So its message may well be that we should be grateful for what we’ve got.

I don’t have anything very good to say about The Garden, an installation of McCarthy’s on view at Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster Street. The garden consists of fake trees and plants–it was a movie set–in which one sees–Eek!–two animatronic male figures, one doing the old in-and-out with a knothole in one of the trees, the other with a hole in the ground. Some ill-advised writers have compared the work to Duchamp’s strangely magical last work, Étant Donnés, where one sees a pink female nude, legs spread, sharing a landscape with a waterfall and a gas lamp. The masturbations in The Garden are too robotic for mystery, and the meaning of all that effort too jejune to justify the artistic effort. Cultural Gothic, a pendant to The Garden, is in the main body of the show at the New Museum. It is a life-size sculpture of a neatly dressed father and son engaged in a rite de passage in which the son is enjoying sex with a compliant goat. Whether the motor was in its dormant phase or the electricity not working–or the museum inhibited by some failure of nerve–there was no motion when I saw it. I thought that an improvement, but purists might think otherwise.