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John Waters Talks ArtPrize


Recently, John Waters decided to hitchhike from his hometown of Baltimore to San Francisco. He plans to chronicle his experience in an upcoming book entitled Carsick. While standing on the side of the road in a hat that read "Scum of the Earth," sporting his iconic pencil mustache, he found hospitality in a young Republican councilman and a touring indie rock band (Here We Go Magic), among others. He muses, "I believe in the goodness of people, and I'm interested in human behavior, and I like to be surprised. I like to go on adventures. I don't have a fear of flying; I have fear of not flying. I think the most dangerous thing you can do is just stay home."

Waters is leaving is home soon and coming to Grand Rapids on September 25. The legendary filmmaker, writer, activist, actor, visual artist and art collector's sold-out engagement at the Civic Theatre will be the first event in the ArtPrize 2012 Speaker Series. He will present his 70-minute one-man show, "This Filthy World." He says he'll broach the topics of "art, movies, fashion, crime -- how to be a happy neurotic."

He hopes to use humor to guide the audience into a world in which they perhaps might not otherwise be comfortable. "I'm never mean-spirited," he promises. 

Waters as an ArtPrize guest may seem odd if you only know him from his often poignant, sometimes controversial, frequently taboo films (Hairspray, Pecker, Pink Flamingos, A Dirty Shame -- to name a few). But Waters is also a voracious art collector. When talking about his recent purchases, he cites a Tony Matelli work meant to look like a dirty mirror and a Karin Sander piece that began as a canvas left outdoors that is now a potentially dangerous artwork made of mold. Art is a magic trick, he says, that takes you into a different world. "Art's what you can get away with." 

And this sets the pace, perhaps, for our conversation about ArtPrize. In its fourth year, this international arts competition where the public decides which piece will take home the big reward has made a fine choice in selecting Waters as its first guest. While some have criticized ArtPrize for drawing a number of "bad" works (enough to inspire a now-defunct tumblr called ArtPrize Worst), Waters loves art that "causes trouble."

"All art that starts a movement or lasts in art history has caused some kind of trouble," he says. "And it infuriates people that hate contemporary art before they even begin to give it a chance. I hope [ArtPrize] does a lot to end that, because when people go to look at art, it doesn't mean it should be a pretty picture. For some people, if it isn't a pretty picture, they don't believe it's art. And it's almost impossible to be real art if it is a pretty picture, if you ask me."

In fact, Waters says he thinks there should be a "worst prize," which might be the best. "I would be proud to win that, because in my career, in the very beginning, nobody gave me a good review -- in the first 10 years, almost."

I suggest that Waters himself choose the worst prize, but he says the worst could actually be his favorite, while his personal worst would be one towards which he felt ambivalence. 

"The worst, to me, would be the one that I didn't even notice," he says. "That wouldn't be so much fun. It would be the one that I felt nothing about. I didn't love it or hate it. It just left me cold... Art can be cold, but it shouldn't leave you cold."

In the absence of a worst prize, there are two distinct prizes this year. The public vote, which earns the winner $200,000, and the Juried Prize, which scores $100,000. Waters asks me who the judges are for the professional awards, and I flip hurriedly through the press kit. Jerry Saltz from New York Magazine ("I have a subscription to that," Waters interjects), Tom Eccles, director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, Theaster Gates, an artist from Chicago. Gates and Saltz are also a part of the ArtPrize Speaker Series, Sept. 27 and Oct. 1, respectively. 

"A national jury," Waters concludes. "That's good, because often people that are art insiders and the public are on completely different ends of what they like. It's always curious to see how daring the public can be in their choices, or if they are just going to make easy choices. I would hope that people pick art that challenges them, that makes them think, that might make them nervous and uptight, and make them think that what they thought was art before is no longer correct."

I ask Waters if he can relate to the often truncated quote from ArtPrize founder Rick DeVos where he says he just wants to see "crazy crap all over Grand Rapids." Which happens, of course. In the weeks leading up to ArtPrize, a number of sculptures and murals creep slowly over the city.

"Well, I think that's fine," Waters says. "It's like having a film festival or a rock festival. This is an arts festival and it's not just in one place. It's art taking over your city, sometimes being in the most unsuspecting places that you'd ever see art. I'm all for that, and I think it's a very good idea. It's about architecture. It's about the installation of art. It's about 'what is art?' It can be about found objects. Because real art makes you notice everything around you and makes you think back to the original art that you saw that made an impression."

Waters says sometimes the art he likes best, he hates first. Then he thinks about it, decide he loves it, and buys it. With all the talk of art that is trouble, art that can kill you, and art that makes you feel something -- love, or hate -- I am wondering how Waters might advise someone whose never spent much time with art. After all, ArtPrize organizers have said time and time again that they want the annual event to inspire dialogue, to make people start to think and talk about art. Waters has one thing he says the ArtPrize attendee should never say.

"Don't say the most unsophisticated thing," he warns, "which is, 'my kid could do this.' Guess what? They didn't. That's the dumbest possible thing you could say. Because the answer is, the painting you're saying that about just sold for $11 million. So, who's the dumb one? I mean, you have to not have contempt before investigation, which is a term they use in [Alcoholics Anonymous]. I'm not in AA, but I'm telling you, you cannot have contempt before investigation. If you do, you might as well stay home, because you're going to just be stupid and you're never going to give it a chance, so why waste your time and say dumb things that other people might hear you saying?"

And, as we know, the most dangerous thing you can do is stay home. 

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media. 


Photo by Al from Edinburgh, Scotland ([1]) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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