I once made out with someone at a Halloween party who was dressed as John Waters. I say this to acknowledge one of the problems implicit in actually meeting him: his very celebrity generates a thin film of pseudo-familiarity that has to be set aside. Director, author, raconteur, avuncular crackpot, and the most beloved citizen of Baltimore (with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe and Omar Little), the Pope of Trash has found an escape hatch from his own instantly recognizable cultural legibility in the hermetic domain of contemporary art.
Waters’s art career started with lo-fi works of re-mediation closely tethered to film. The early works, shown by Colin de Land and later collected in the 1997 monograph Director’s Cut, were DIY film stills created by pausing a movie at a revealing moment and photographing the television screen, caressing the image with a fetishist’s eye for detail. Pulling focus from Hollywood, the more recent work – for instance, Unwatchable (2006) – uses photography, sculpture and installation to stage a deadpan spoof of contemporary art world mores. It’s a milieu that Waters has long inhabited as a serious collector and, more recently, as a curator; in 2011, he organized ‘Absentee Landlord’ for the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, complete with audio-guides in Pig Latin and recordings of car accidents piped into the parking lot. In his Baltimore home, in which cornucopias of plastic food stare down Weegee photographs and drawings by George Grosz and Cy Twombly, we talked about art, sex, death and God. In person, he is exactly as charming, voluble and manic as you’d expect, but there’s also a sharply observant fastidiousness which you do not. We didn’t make out, but we got on.
DREW DANIEL I wanted to start with a question about your contribution to the group show ‘Notes on Notes on Camp’ at Invisible Exports, New York, last year: a sculpture of a gigantic bottle of Rush brand poppers. Are you a Rush man?
JOHN WATERS Yes! I’ve had other brands in my life, but after I did that sculpture, the man who owned that poppers company in the Midwest wrote me a letter and sent me a lifetime supply of Rush. I have it in my refrigerator. Later, he killed himself. I purposely didn’t find out details because I was so sad. He was so nice on the phone. But he did kill himself, and I guess there’s still Rush, so … who’s the Rush heir?
DD Your poppers sculpture seems to me to undercut Susan Sontag’s famous slogan in ‘Notes on Camp’  that camp is failed seriousness, a formula that now sounds rather dated and inert. If you’re not failing seriousness when you’re on poppers because you’re really on poppers, what about when you’re in the studio making your own art? Are you serious or not?
JW Well, first of all, I never call what I do art. I think that’s up for you to tell me. When people say to me, ‘I’m an artist,’ I think, ‘Yeah, I’ll be the judge of that. Let’s see your work.’ History will be the judge of it. However, I’m very serious about my career and everything I do, but I make fun. Hopefully in a joyous way. I love the seriousness and elitism of the art world. I think art for the people is a terrible idea. I did a piece that said ‘Contemporary Art Hates You’ [... And Your Family Too, 2009]. And it does. If you have ‘contempt before investigation’, which most people do, then it does hate you and you are stupid. I like that idea: you are stupid, because you won’t think to look in a different way. Seeing and looking are different. Real life is seeing and art is looking. If you’re successful, it’s a magic trick: you take one thing, and you put it in here, and it changes in one second, and then you can never look at that thing again the same way. That is what art is to me. If I go to galleries in New York, London or wherever, on the way home you can name an artist for every single thing you see, if you’re with somebody that knows art. If you don’t go to galleries as much, it’s not as easy, but art trains you to see. So, if you’re open for that, then art is the greatest magic trick of all. If not, you’re stupid.
DD But what about the capacity of your objects to have that magic effect on others? If you’re saying, ‘Well, this is my work, but I’m not calling it art,’ that seems rather coy to me.
JW I hope it’s art. But I just think art is a word that’s too loosely used. Art is a review, isn’t it? If you think something is art that means it’s good. You can say, ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’ – that’s ok. But art to me means good. So I don’t say that. I’ve always made fun of my career: I’ve called myself a ‘filth elder’; I say the movies are an exercise in poor taste. I was trying to be humble in a way, and humorous. Obviously, I’m commenting on the art world. I did a whole project called ‘Artistically Incorrect’ , which contained a piece that said: All Photographs Fade .
DD It’s not quite institutional critique, as you’ve said that you have no problem with the elitism of the art world, and yet you’re constantly calling attention to this frame, openly flagging the context of who can afford it, and under what conditions
JW ‘See you in Basel, bitch.’ Art is like joining a biker gang; you have to wear a certain outfit and learn a certain lingo. It’s a special club.
DD So, what’s the relationship between art works and jokes?
JW Is my work funny? I don’t know. I hope it’s witty. That’s different to funny.
DD That’s the trouble with the temporality of humour: once the joke has exploded, once you know the punchline, what’s left over? There’s always the Richard Prince solution, to divide between the content and the object by saying: ‘The jokes are funny but the paintings are not.’
JW Well, one of my pieces is just the title screens of two movies, Dr. Dolittle 2 and A Knight’s Tale [both 2001], which were the movies being shown on the planes on 9/11. So, that’s not funny, but once you know it …
DD … Are you sure it’s not funny?
JW Well, it can be funny only when I say: ‘At least they didn’t get to put the movies in, because if they had been watching those movies when they crashed it would have been worse.’ So it is, in a way, an optimistic piece. It could have been worse. You could’ve died watching A Knight’s Tale.
DD In your essay ‘Room Mates’  you write very movingly about living with art works, and you describe with particular fondness your domestic intimacy with Mike Kelley’s art. Has dwelling with Kelley’s work changed in the wake of his death? Are you able to separate who he was from his final decision?
JW I think they’re completely different. For some reason, I was the only speaker at the wake they had in la for him, and I thought: ‘Again?’ I was happy to do it, though. Basically, I just said: Maybe he didn’t feel like feeling better. Don’t feel bad, it was his choice. He made sure it happened. It wasn’t a cry for help. He made a decision. And, maybe he just didn’t feel like taking medication. A lot of people don’t.
Can you be that kind of artist if you feel ‘even’ all the time? ‘Even’ is a terrible feeling for someone who creates anything, really. I like his work very much. I don’t think it’s changed one bit. I don’t look at it now in a sad way. I look at it for what he always was: ballsy, kickass, funny and incredibly opinionated. Mike did not suffer fools. I thought he was a great artist. He really made the pitiful aesthetic famous in the best way.
DD It seems important to have a certain fidelity to the spirit of the work, to prevent the tractor beam of suicidal meaning from pulling everything down to that fact.
JW I don’t think that I have to look at the personal life. I never have to meet artists if I know their work. I don’t need to. I like to sometimes. But it’s not important to me, what they’re like.
DD The split between knowing and seeing is where the art happens. In your work 21 Pasolini Pimples , the title acts as a can-opener for the image, a punchline. Have you ever been tempted when you’re making your own work to keep something an in-joke? What if you presented the pimples as pure abstraction?
JW In many galleries they don’t have the titles on the wall, just on the checklist, so most people assume it’s nipples. That’s what they think immediately when they see it. But Pasolini was attracted to pimples; all his boyfriends had them. He was the pimple queen, so I know more than I’m saying; I know that Pasolini was attracted to men with pimples. I’m concentrating on a tiny, obscure little fact that even I might be wrong about. It’s my theory about someone.
DD You’re curating the access to information. Art as editing.
JW The whole thing is about editing. That’s what I do. It’s not about photography, it’s about editing. It’s about putting pictures with other pictures, or isolating them, or ruining them. But it’s never really about photographs. That’s not the point.
DD So how do you draw the line between something that you know and love and something that needs to be made into an art work?
JW In the beginning, I just celebrated little moments of movies that I loved. That’s how it started. But I barely do that anymore, because I did that. They’re conceptual. I think of them all before I do them. I have a list for this new show that I’m doing now. I have 60 ideas; we’ll see which ones come out. And I do a lot of them, and then it turns into something else, or it doesn’t work, and I use that photograph five years later in another thing. ‘Oh, that’ll work here.’ So I think them up first as little stories.
DD What you just described about your working process seems straight out of Sol LeWitt’s 1967 ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’: ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.’
JW It starts as the thought, but then you have to prove it.
DD Does that mean that you’re really a writer?
JW Yeah, that’s what I always start with, in everything I do. In my films, it’s the script that I care about. About the movie, about the art, it’s the idea. Every single thing I do is about writing.
DD So if the culture of the fine arts is still implicitly staked on the visual, do you see yourself as sneaking up on that culture through language?
JW Yes. I’m writing with visual thoughts, the same way I would when I write a movie script.
DD There’s a moment in your book Role Models , in your interview with outsider porn auteur Bobby Garcia, that really shocked me: when this creator of low-budget amateur porn, who now lives in a shack crawling with rats and pigs, said that his favourite film was The Hours . Were you surprised?
JW I couldn’t wait to tell [the writer] Michael Cunningham, who is a friend of mine. Yes, I was surprised, but delighted, because I always knew that Bobby was an artist. It wasn’t shocking to me. I just thought: ‘Isn’t that sweet that Bobby loves Michael Cunningham.’ It’s so amazing.
DD It feeds into this question of the validity of ‘high brow’, ‘middle brow’ and ‘low brow’ as cultural terms, and whether those have any meaning anymore, or whether the whole paradigm has been flattened.
JW I wrote about Bobby as if he was a high-brow artist, which he certainly does not think about. He knows nothing about the art world. He’s not interested in being that. He’s not even flattered. I’ve always treated what some people think of as ‘low brow’ as if it were high brow. Always. All the characters in my movies, I look up to them. I don’t think about them the way people think about reality TV – that we are better and you should laugh at them. Because, really, if you’re watching, then you’re the dumb one, you’re the one wasting time. They’re getting paid. I don’t think in Role Models there was any irony. Because it was about people I really like. When I buy art, some of it … I’ll show you a couple of pieces that I think are smart and funny in the way they use irony about this very question: ‘What is art?’ That’s the oldest question in the world. Anything can be art. Duh. Art is what you can get away with.
DD Let’s talk about someone who didn’t get away with it: Charles Manson, the co-star of your sculpture Playdate , whom you
pair with Michael Jackson.
JW Well, I did a whole other series with Manson, beginning with Manson Copies Divine’s Hairdo . I had Manson Copies Brad Pitt , Manson Copies Richard Gere , and what I had to do was find a shot of Manson at his few parole hearings where he looked like a movie star from another era and put them together. And my best one was Manson Copies Dorothy Malone’s Collar . That was really a hard one, and so obscure. I believe Manson does think that he got away with it. He always said he wanted to be in jail for the rest of his life. He’s a Halloween costume now. But when I made Playdate, Jackson was alive. The two of them together embodied the fears of so many people. A creepy little meeting, especially when they’re both the size of infants.
DD In your early essay ‘Going to Jail’ , you speculated that ‘even Charles Manson had other goals as a toddler’, and years later the idea behind this phrase became a sculpture – but these toddlers have uncannily adult heads.
JW It’s the two of them as babies, and so you try to remember – not that I’m saying this means that – but was their childhood responsible for what they became?
DD Are you saying that you believe in innocence?
JW Yes. I believe in the opposite of original sin. I believe every baby is born innocent, and something fucks it up. But every once in a while, there are people ... When I taught in prison, there was one especially; he was the smartest one in class. I didn’t help him but he got out, he killed more people; he was in Serial Mom . To this day, I’m shocked by it. But I don’t think he was intrinsically evil; I think something made him that way. But he’s a psycho. I believe that people who kill children are going to do it again. But were they born that way? I don’t think so. But I do think you’re born straight or gay, because of the one thing I have proven studying Alzheimer’s. I know one woman whose mother had it for 20 years and although she visited her, her mother didn’t know who she was; she didn’t know anything. And I said to her: ‘Ask the care workers whether Alzheimer’s sufferers ever forget if they’re gay or straight?’ And they said: ‘No. They don’t know who their children are; they don’t know who their husbands are; they don’t know what an apple is, but they know if they’re gay or straight.’
DD I was curious about sexuality and eroticism in your work, because your visual art is remarkably restrained in certain ways; it never turns into what we could call ‘cute boy art’: for instance, Ryan McGinley, Paul Mpagi Sepuya …
JW No, no, no. I did do Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot .
DD To me, Twelve Assholes … is not that different from your piece Lana Backwards ; both works are about how the turning away of the face gives you a certain kind of permission to linger.
JW You’re looking and not seeing. But, do I make cute boy art? No. It’s a whole different thing.
DD Why don’t you participate in that?
JW Well, the boys I do think are cute don’t look like that. They look like Baltimore boys.
DD Speaking of Baltimore boys, I’d like to know what you thought of Matthew Porterfield’s film Putty Hill  – it brings us back to the looking versus seeing ‘magic trick’ you were discussing: Porterfield’s camera takes everyday life in Baltimore, leaves it more or less as it is, but somehow makes it art. How different is it from the way that Baltimore has been represented in your work?
JW I think it’s another incredibly true picture of Baltimore. I think Matt’s a great, great filmmaker. He’s minimalist and all that, but it’s still specifically about Baltimore. It’s the same thing that Barry Levinson did, and that I did. We’re all completely different, but we cover the same subject. The eccentricity of Baltimore, blue collar, class difference, race, everything. I think he covers it in his own very original way, but I don’t think it’s so different from the movies that I made or Barry Levinson made. Matt and I go bar hopping, we want to go to the same places, weird blue collar bars. He likes the same kind of bars I do in real life.
DD Tell me about Praying Is Begging .
JW Well, you know I wrote about Madalyn Murray in Role Models [in the chapter ‘Cult Leader’, Waters describes this misanthropic, controversial atheist activist]. When I went to high school they told us to break her windows. They said, ‘We wouldn’t mind.’ They didn’t say, ‘Do it.’ But they let you know you could. And she took prayer out of public school. [The work] was just going to be saints in movies and religious stuff, and I did it, but it didn’t work, it wasn’t enough. I always knew that Praying Is Begging was a bumper sticker she made to enrage people. So I had my assistant spray paint it onto the edition to make it look like someone had attacked the piece, like Murray’s people attacked it. That was sort of the narrative. I had to do the piece, and then I had to wreck it – and it made each one of the editions unique.
DD This ambivalence reminds me of the way that God appears in your paired essays ‘Hatchet Piece (101 Things I Hate)’ and ‘Puff Piece (101 Things I Love)’ .
JW Well, religion has always been – to me – funny. All religions seem the same. It doesn’t seem any more insane when people flip out about Scientology or Catholicism, they both sound nuts. I’m happy, whatever you want to believe. I don’t think people shouldn’t believe, I just personally don’t believe in any of them myself. But maybe there is something I’ve never heard of yet. I doubt it, but I’m open.
DD But from the bid for the sacred implicit in the name of [the actor] Divine to the elderly ventriloquist whose Mary relic says ‘full of grace, full of grace’ in your film Pecker , there’s something about the emotional investment of belief that is not different from the kinds of relationships of fidelity or passion that you display for the things that you love. Are you a religious artist?
JW Well, I wouldn’t say that, but if someone said that about me I wouldn’t say they were wrong. I was in Houston last week, and I went to the Cy Twombly Gallery at The Menil Collection, and it felt like I was in church. For me, it was church.
Watch an edited version of the interview, a film specially commissioned by frieze, here
John Waters is a film director, author, actor and photographer who resides in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
is one half of the electronic group Matmos, and is the author of 20 Jazz Funk Greats (2008). He teaches Renaissance literature in the English Department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
First published in Issue 148