Desperate Living in mondo trasho

If modern art can be said to have been a persistent reflection on one single question “what is Art”, then John Waters can be seen as pursuing the answer of another less prominent yet no less visible quest, “what is Taste”.

Taste, although to large extent a capacity of sensibility, has been historically associated with social status and educational background. It is widely acknowledged that an individual’s taste can be traced back to his (her) rank in society and his (her) intelligence or possession of knowledge. As a consequence, various efforts have to be made in order to attain a higher ladder of respectability, not by actually acquiring social status (which is difficult) or knowledge (which is even more difficult), or even intelligence (definitely impossible), but by assimilating a taste. What John Waters propagates is quite an antidote of this ambition.

John Waters began making films in 1964. Quite coincidently, the same year saw the publication of Susan Sontag’s essay, Notes on Camp, which is perhaps still the best theoretical summarization of a deliberately trashy aesthetics up to date[1]. Sontag correctly pinpoints many aesthetic characteristics of this specific mode of visual artifice: the theatricality, the androgyny, the urban pastoral, the things-being-what-they-are-not, etc., but her perspective is certainly too conservative according to the taste of John Waters, who pushes the camp further into its extreme position, trashiness. Sontag asserts quite early in her essay that camp is apolitical since it is an attitude neutral to the content. But Waters successfully assimilates the content, the “feminist” “rebel” against a “fascist” regime, for example, into an aspect of the aesthetics. Of course, as Sontag points out, “camp sees everything in quotation marks.” Hence the epicene character of Mole is not a woman, but a “woman”; Queen Carlotta represents not a fascist regime, but a “fascist” regime.

In addition to artificiality, the world of John Water is packed with a plenitude of human waste: it is by this presence of corporeal excrement and garbage that it distinguish itself from a highbrow edifice like the Versailles. Crime, fashion, celebrity, gender and sexuality are infused with scatological humor since that is probably the only unpretentious way to talk about them. It is perceived that Waters shares the same collection of obsessions with his contemporary, Andy Warhol. They are both deeply into a corporeal existence—in Waters the excrement and in Warhol a bodily intimacy—which seeks to revise our society’s official definition of gender. With respect to celebrity, however, Waters seems to be equally merciless while Warhol chose to mystify. We can almost say that by this absolute resolution to trashiness Waters has achieved a rare height of cultural criticism—he does not have a real obsession.

Another issue worth pointing out is that the aesthetics of trashiness is not as simple as it seems. Waters possesses an admirable talent for trashy imagination that is not easily imitable. If what Sontag said is true, that “The experience of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste”, then what Waters possesses is certainly a good taste of bad taste. It is “a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment…it is a kind of love, love for human nature” (Sontag).

[1] As Waters himself uses the word “camp” in a 1997 episode of The Simpsons.


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