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Culture & Religion

John Waters Explains Why Art Hates You

You may hate contemporary art, but it hates you even more, says filmmaker and provocateur John Waters. The point of art is to “wreck whatever came before it,” he believes. “That something is pretty and beautiful is probably the worst thing you could say today in contemporary art…unless it’s so pretty it’s nauseating.”

In his Big Think interview, the legendary cult icon explained his very unique aesthetic and his controversial views about art. His films are decidedly un-ironic, he says. “Even in my movies, in Baltimore and all that kind of thing, I’m looking up to those people. I’m asking you to come into their world and marvel. I’m never asking you like reality television to look down on them and make fun of them and feel superior.” His films are actually quite moral, he insists, with the overriding message being to “mind your own business.” He also tells us about a painting he had seen the night before by Karin Sanders. “She just took a blank canvas and left it outside until it got mold and everything, and it’s really ugly…But the problem with buying it is that the mold will spread in your house, and it’s toxic. So this to me is the best art piece I’ve seen all year. I’m still trying to figure out how I can own it without poisoning myself.”

Defending his early works, which are considered among the filthiest films ever made, Waters said that obscene films push the boundaries of free speech. We have to put up with the more unpalatable aspects of freedom—including Koran burning or yelling “fire” in a crowded theater—in order to guarantee our own rights, he said. People like Terry Jones, the would-be Koran burner, or Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church are just publicity hounds. “Just don’t pay them any attention,” he says. 

Waters also talked politics with us. An outspoken liberal, he told about how he used to commit election fraud, voting several times in the same election, especially for Shirley Chisholm in the 1970s. “Shirley Chisholm was a great black woman that wore crazy hats and I just loved her campaign. It was just her picture and it just said, ‘Outrageous.'” So Waters borrowed the IDs of friends who weren’t going to vote and exercised their right to vote. “I figure if you care that much, it makes up for the apathy of some of your neighbors,” he explained. 

Waters also lamented the fact that the internet has driven all the perverts into hiding: “I never go in a bathroom anywhere where I see perverts anymore…It’s online now, so I miss perverts in the real world.” But he loves the fact that we’ve seen so much of Levi Johnston in the past year—and hopes we’ll see much more of him sometime soon.


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