‘I’m Not Trying to Satisfy an Audience’: Watch Paul McCarthy Transform Historical Depictions of Purity Into Objects of Revulsion

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" season five episode, "Transformation," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

For the first time, the American artist Paul McCarthy is having a survey dedicated entirely to his drawings and works on paper, opening this February at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

A provocateur who is best known for his performance and video art, McCarthy’s work is often grotesque and sarcastic, deriding American icons by transforming them into objects of revulsion. The drawings reveal a more process-based practice than many of his sculptures or videos, though they still have a certain unfinished, craggy quality to them. 

In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” series, McCarthy explains his fascination with Hummels, the German porcelain figurines of cherubic young boys and girls which have served as inspiration for many of his works.

“The nature of the [Hummel] sculpture itself, which is this idea of purity and cleanliness,” he says of his interpretation of the figurines, “I kind of believe that hygiene is the religion of fascism.” In fact, McCarthy’s sculptures of the same name are vastly different—instead of glossy pastoral innocence, his work is rough, asymmetrical, and creepy. 

“I’m not trying to satisfy an audience,” he says in the video, filmed in 2009. He makes a distinction between art and entertainment, and while the latter is predicated on generating a positive response, he has no such hangups as an artist, saying “my responsibility is to the ideas.” 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “Paul McCarthy: Head Space, Drawings 1963–2019” is on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from February 2–May 10, 2020. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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