Contemporary Art Hates John Waters
John Waters has been shocking and offending filmgoers since the 1960s. From his gross-out camp manifesto, Pink Flamingos (1972)—starring his audacious muse, the late drag queen Divine—to cult blockbusters such as Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990), the irreverent, viciously clever Waters dives head first into the black heart of American culture. For his movies alone, he deserves a place in the pantheon. Then there’s his art.
Beginning in the 1990s with homemade film stills captured by photographing his television screen, Waters has been creating his own idiosyncratic batch of wry pop-to-the-nth-degree artwork, with plenty of sharp elbows, famous faces, and biting sarcasm. From his early photographic grids that showcase various cinematic obsessions (eight different shots of Lana Turner’s back, for example) to his 2014 baby stroller upholstered with a leather S&M harness, Waters sees the ironies in the world and takes full, creative advantage. This October, the 72-year-old Baltimore native is bringing his visual artistry back to his hometown for his first retrospective. John Waters: Indecent Exposure, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, will feature more than 160 works, including sculptures, photographs, and films exhibited in a peep-show format.
If anyone knows how to test the limits of propriety and humor in the art world, it’s Rob Pruitt. The two spoke this past summer, just after Waters returned from a trip across the country and was enjoying some downtime in sunny, gay Provincetown.
ROB PRUITT: I want to hear about your artwork on Justin Bieber [“Justin’s Had Work,” 2014].
JOHN WATERS: That was from my 2015 show at Marianne Boesky Gallery. It’s part of a larger series. There’s one of me with an extreme facelift, and another of Lassie with a facelift—
PRUITT: I love you with a facelift.
WATERS: That’s what I would look like if I lived in L.A. They probably would have also tried to give Lassie a facelift if she were working today. Who is the biggest animal star today?
PRUITT: The cats on YouTube.
WATERS: I mean animal movie stars! Facelifts for animals probably exist now. You can’t make jokes anymore because they come true before you get to tell them. But with Justin, I’m a huge fan. I even met him once and he drew on my mustache. I try to fool around with his image because I like him. I only make fun of things I really like.
PRUITT: You’re a Belieber.
WATERS: I am. I always vote for him for the Grammys and he never wins.
PRUITT: You get to vote for the Grammys?
WATERS: I do. I was a Grammy nominee for Best Spoken Word Album, and Joan Rivers beat me from beyond the grave. I vote in all the awards. I vote for the Oscars, the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Razzies.
PRUITT: You must get stacks and stacks of screeners in the mail.
WATERS: I have a piece in the show called “Destroy All Screeners” , which is myself dressed in black tie with a bonfire, burning all the screeners because they tell you that you have to destroy them, but they don’t tell you how. So I tried to make a ritual out of it.
PRUITT: The coolest people in the world to me are the people who get those screeners. I want to cross over and be one of those people one day.
WATERS: Well, the only person besides Harvey Weinstein who got thrown out of the Academy was someone who sold a screener at a flea market. You get the death penalty in the Academy for that because they have your name embedded in them.
PRUITT: How do you feel about being an American artist? Does that mean anything to you?
WATERS: I try to deal with the question, “Can art be funny?” Everybody knows it can be witty, but can it be funny? I think it can. It’s a thin line, though, because if it’s too funny, people don’t think it’s serious enough—that it’s not, to use the most overused word in art criticism, “rigorous” enough.
PRUITT: Or “tough” is a shorthand word for that.
WATERS: Well, I have some tough ones. I have one that’s just two film titles that were the names of the movies that were going to be screened on the 9/11 planes.
PRUITT: Oh my god, what were those movies?
WATERS: Dr. Dolittle 2 and A Knight’s Tale, the most banal movies that no one remembers. Luckily, they were never screened. The planes crashed first. It could have been worse.
PRUITT: What about being an American artist in this age?
WATERS: I don’t have any Trump in my art show. You know why? Because it dates it immediately. When I go around to galleries and see anything with Trump in it, I think, “You’re dating your work.” I have an old work that’s dated, too. It’s a picture of Bill Clinton looking very strange with his mother. His mother was a big political star in the press for a while, but everyone has forgotten her. Political humor dates so quickly—except for the Kennedy stuff, which I have a lot of in my work. I have the Kennedy assassination. I have John and Jackie getting off the plane with Ingmar Bergman’s Grim Reaper—
PRUITT: I love that.
WATERS: I have one called “Andy and Jackie,” with all the different actors and actresses who played Andy [Warhol] and Jackie. I have one that’s Jackie Kennedy dressed in Divine’s outfit from Pink Flamingos, and JFK dressed in Jackie’s outfit because I think he was secretly jealous of her fashion coverage.
PRUITT: Who wouldn’t have been? I love how she was a secret smoker.
WATERS: Pat Nixon was, too! Pat Nixon used to sit with her legs up on the toilet and smoke. That’s what gave me the idea of how you
have sex in a voting booth: Somebody stands with both of their legs in a paper bag so it looks like there is only one person in the booth. Today when I go into a video room in an art gallery, I wonder, “Are people having sex in here?” In the old days, they would have been.
PRUITT: I have a technical question. How did you make those big “Have Sex in a Voting Booth” buttons ?
WATERS: Do you think I’m sitting home like Demi Moore in front of a pottery wheel in Ghost?
“I love elitism. I think art for the people is a terrible idea.” —John Waters
PRUITT: I thought maybe you had a craft room.
WATERS: No! I work with a lot of people. It’s like making a movie. I think them up, but I myself am not sanding down that campaign button. For “Playdate” , which was my sculpture of two dolls of Michael Jackson and Charles Manson as babies, I worked with Tony Gardner, who made Chucky in the Child’s Play movies.
PRUITT: Oh my god, that piece is the weirdest eff’ing thing I’ve ever seen in my life. That is really one of my all-time favorite artworks, John. I have to tell you.
WATERS: Thank you.
PRUITT: Your retrospective is called Indecent Exposure. That’s going to look really good on one of those enormous banners outside of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
WATERS: I think it’s a great title. In the beginning of my career, the Baltimore Museum was the first place that ever showed my films with taxpayer money. This was before Hairspray, when I was not respectable in any way, and people went crazy about it. It was also the first place I ever saw contemporary art that pissed people off—and that stayed with me.
PRUITT: Would that have been in high school?
WATERS: No, it was earlier than that. I still have the [Joan] Miró print that I bought for a dollar and all the other kids went, “That’s ugly!” I thought, “No, this is great!”
PRUITT: You’re known for shocking people. How much is that a factor when you’re devising new work?
WATERS: I think I try to make people laugh. What they’re laughing at is their ability to be shocked. Basically, I’m trying to surprise you; I’m trying to take you in to explore a world that even I’m uncomfortable with. At heart, I’m a writer: Every single thing I do is about writing. Every single piece of work in this show is about editing. I take other people’s images and edit them into a new narrative. It’s all editing and writing. What I’m trying to do is investigate the undersides of both the art world and the movie business—both of which I love. I’ve always said I love the horrible stuff about the art world. I love elitism. I think art for the people is a terrible idea. Impenetrable art writing? I love it!
PRUITT: Getting back to smoking, you have that piece, “Children Who Smoke” .
WATERS: Well, the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America], who I’ve always fought with and who gives out the movie ratings, is trying to make it so you get an R rating if a film has a character smoking cigarettes. So now directors are going to make World War II movies with no cigarettes in them when every single person in that war smoked. Smoking is the new “split beaver shot” as far as Hollywood is concerned. You can show Deep Throat easier than a person smoking. I knew that a kid smoking would be the ultimate thing to make them crazy, so I had to find all the stills of Hollywood kids and Photoshop a cigarette in their mouths. Today it’s unheard of to see a child smoking. I always show the things you’re not supposed to show.
PRUITT: Did you smoke?
WATERS: I was a horrible smoker. I have not had a cigarette in—wait a minute, I can tell you the exact number of days because I write it down every day. You’ll be shocked. I have not had a cigarette in 5,457 days. The only thing I regret that I’ve ever done in life is smoking. But would I ever smoke again? You never know. I always joke that if I had one cigarette, I’d shove a carton of Kools up my ass.
PRUITT: When you just said “split beaver shot,” that reminds me of another term I first learned from you. I was at a party with you 15 years ago, and that’s where I first heard about “teabagging.”
WATERS: Yes, I put that in my movie Pecker. Do I have any sex acts in my retrospective? I have that piece “Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot”  that comes with a velvet curtain you can shut if your parents are coming over or if the IRS is in your house auditing.
PRUITT: A velvet curtain is the only kind of censorship I can get behind.
WATERS: It also refers to the fact that I was a puppeteer when I was young and my puppet show had curtains like that. They’re monogrammed, too. But it’s very hard to find an asshole in the frame of a film that has no hand, mouth, or dick approaching it. [Pruitt laughs] I was looking for the lone-asshole moment in the shot. And then the hardest to find is a dirty foot, because that can never be seen in porn. They have to wipe the feet clean, because the only time you see the bottom of a foot is when someone’s getting fucked. But I found a dirty foot!
PRUITT: I was laughing my head off when I was looking back at your “Brainiac” work , which was a joke cover of the National Enquirer, with Joan Didion weighing 250 pounds.
WATERS: Thank you. I don’t know if Joan Didion laughed, but I heard she thought it was funny. I’d love to be the editor of the “National Brainiac,” where you’d standoutside of intellectuals’ apartments to try to get pictures of them looking fat.
PRUITT: You’re famous for your quote about how, if you go home with someone and they don’t have any books, don’t sleep with them.
WATERS: Well, that’s an old one. I’ve changed it for today: If you go home with
someone and they have books in the bathroom, don’t fuck ’em either. That’s disgusting.
PRUITT: Why did you make “Kiddie Flam-
ingos”  a few years back, casting kids in the role of the original Pink Flamingos characters?
WATERS: Today, Hollywood makes hundred-million-dollar gross-out movies.
To me, gross-out movies are not new. So I took my most hideous movie, I rewrote it and took all the dirty stuff out, and had children read the whole thing. They never saw Pink Flamingos so they don’t know about it. The parents were probably thinking, “Oh my god, my child’s going to talk about fucking a chicken!” But kids are funny because it’s always a battle of gross-out, so they’re having fun and that really is the same spirit as Pink Flamingos—a battle of who was the most disgusting person alive. It was like chewing with your mouth open, doing things that kids do. It was really my only children’s movie but I think it plays nicely in an art context.
PRUITT: What are you going to work on after this show in Baltimore?
WATERS: I’ve been working on a book for two years called Mr. Know It All. It’s just my opinion on everything—on every possible choice in your life. And this weekend I’m hosting a big punk-rock festival I do every year in Oakland called Burger Boogaloo. The headliners are Devo and the Damned.
PRUITT: It’s like your very own Coachella.
WATERS: I call it “Chella Go to Hella.” I actually played my spoken-word show at Coachella. I played Bonnaroo, too.
PRUITT: You are so lazy, John.
WATERS: I wanted to be the oldest person there. I was so disappointed when I found out that Sly Stone had arrived.
Photos Courtesy of: The Artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery