John Waters: A national treasure

Image above: John Waters. Portrait by Greg Gorman.


ANDREA BLANCH: Why did you think your work needed a facelift?

JOHN WATERS: You always have to reinvent yourself. I have been doing this for fifty years. My God, you can never stay the same. You always have to change. You have to think up many new ways to tell stories and that is the challenge after you have been doing this for so long, especially in our world when everything has already been told. So in a way I try to satirize behind the scenes of the art world and the movie business because really my work is about editing.

AB: Do you think you achieved the look you wanted with this show? JW: I hope so, but that is up to others. If they like it or get something new out of it or look at things in a different way, then it worked. It worked for me but it has to work for others.

AB: You also said, something which I found interesting, that celebrity is the only obscenity left in the art world. Where does this idea come from?

JW: It comes from a lot of things, and I am not going to name names, but that’s why I have kept my so-called art career separate from my film career. Many of my film fans don’t even know I have been doing this since the early ‘90s. It’s because celebrity is incredibly suspicious, as I understand it should be in the art world. When I for many years was showing with Colin de Land of American Fine Arts, he neutralized that for me because everybody knew Colin was anything but a groupie or impressed by celebrity. He was almost not impressed with it in any way. I made fun of it. I did a show in which I did one piece called ‘Over Exposed’ that had all my headshots stamped all over it, and I am overexposed, but I have made fun of that always. So I understand why it is the only obscenity left. Certainly sex is not, violence is not, but celebrity is, and I understand it.

john 1©John Waters, (top) Library Science (Bottom) Dog Catcher.


AB: Now that your work has achieved a level of mainstream acceptance from the art world, do you feel that you need to reassess or re-imagine your work because of this mainstream attention? Has it changed your approach to your work?

JW: I think that isn’t the problem I have had in the art world. I think the problem is that I have had success in other fields, and that sometimes complicates it. I am not complaining, though. I am making fun of the issue by bringing it up and using the issue and talking about the issue.

AB: And you do that very well.

JW: Thank you.

AB: Would you say that your latest show ‘Beverly Hills John’ can be seen as a self-portrait, so to speak?

JW: I think everything I do, no matter if I write a book or make a movie or do an art show, is always a self-portrait. It’s about your taste, and it’s about what you are really interested in at the time and what you see as funny, and how you never really take yourself seriously. I am completely serious about all my careers, but at the same time, I don’t take them seriously in a way that I think turns off other people. I am the butt of my own jokes first, and I always make fun of the things I love. I think that is why people have been laughing with me for fifty years. But I marvel at taste, and I marvel at my own taste. Certainly I don’t think other people are always going to like what I like, my God.

AB: How did you develop your taste?

JW: My parents, certainly. I was raised with a tyranny of good taste, and I could have never done any of it if my mother hadn’t told me the rules of good taste. Thank God she did, because you can’t break the rules if you don’t know them.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 9.49.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 9.51.48 PMImages above: ©John Waters, (top) John Waters. Lovesick; (bottom) Idol. 


AB: What was your thought when you did Kiddie Flamingos? Was it that you wanted to highlight some of the differences between a child’s and an adult’s perception of art?

JW: When Pink Flamingos came out the reviews called it “beyond pornography” and said “you couldn’t go further.” And I thought, “Well, how can I go further?” Further is to completely turn it the other way around: become your worst enemy, become your censor. Rewrite it totally as a G- rated movie and have innocent children read it. Many members of the audience had seen Pink Flamingos. Some of them even know the dialogue and everything and can picture the scenes. But the children are innocent. They’ve never seen the movie. The audience then becomes doubly perverse because they are watching thinking of the hideous Pink Flamingos scene projected onto the innocence of these great, wonderful kids who were just having a nice afternoon. That is the only thing left to do. I never tried to top Pink Flamingos. I never tried to make a filthier movie or anything. That is why I am still working. Kiddie Flamingos to me was perfect, but I don’t think of it as my next film. It was a video art piece, and I think it works as that. I think you can watch ten minutes of it and understand it, or you can go in, as some people do, and watch the whole seventy-four minutes.

AB: Let’s take ‘Library Science.’ The series ‘Library Science’ juxtaposes literary covers with their pornographic parodies.

JW: I think if you really are a novelist you should be flattered if someone does a porn parody of you because that proves you’re literature; you are no longer just a novel. I am disappointed that no one has done the pornographic version of Hairspray. It should be called Hair Pie.

AB: Do you think it is a comment on the double standard of art created within the mainstream and that which is created within the concept of pornography?

JW: Separately they are neither but together they become art. They become a double feature from two different worlds that would never ever meet unless I put them there. Nobody who is an editor at Penguin Books is going to send an elderly novelist a porn parody of him. They are not going to do it. But I try to hook up different worlds always. That’s what all my work is about. I am editing here. I am bringing together two completely different things that in a way they might get along.

AB: To me, ‘Library Science’ comments on the relativity of obscenity.

JW: To me, it doesn’t. To me, it comments on the comedy and wit of the business of selling sex.

AB: You don’t think that it makes the observation that things could be considered obscene in one context and normal in another?

JW: Well, I don’t think that ‘Clitty Clitty Bang Bang’ is ever normal in any context. Even in a porno shop you would laugh when you saw that title.

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Images above: ©John Waters, Brainiac. 

AB: You’re right. Thinking about your piece ‘Brainiac,’ do you think that it is context which makes an act obscene, or are there other things?

JW: I think it’s funny without my context, but I think the context that I put it in, a double feature that shows the source material along with the original, explains it and makes you think more about the publishing business and about how things are sold. I get The Globe, I get The Inquirer, and I get The Star. But at the same time I get in the same mailbox the New York Review of Books or Artforum. That’s what gave me the idea. When I saw them in the same mailbox where they have been mingling and having to give each other dirty looks, I imagined, “What if those two magazines had sex? What would happen?” We would have National Braniac, and I would like to be the editor of that.

AB: So this piece highlights the different degrees of celebrity in that there are some celebrities who are fair game to the paparazzi and others, like intellectuals, who are more respected.

JW: I am not saying that. I never understand why people who go into a field where you can become famous complain about being famous. I thought that’s what they went into it for. They all say it’s all about the craft, a word I hate, or it’s all about the journey, but it’s not. When you are somewhere and you have to do selfies all night with people it’s not that bad. They bought me my apartment! Of course I am going to take selfies with them. If you don’t like it, don’t live in LA and have lunch at the Ivy and expect people not to take your picture.

AB: Do you think of vanity as a vice or a virtue?

JW: It depends how extreme you are in it. I think everybody should have a little vanity. Everybody should want to look good, but if that’s all you care about it gets tiresome quickly to be around people like that. I certainly like people that look good and spend time looking good. I am for fashion and all that.

AB: Would you say that ‘Beverly Hills John’ is a personal reevaluation of your place in the art world?

JW: I haven’t had a show in six years, so I guess that sounds a little too forced and intellectual to me. But, yes, I think it’s a comment that I am always having to reinvent myself, and everybody does, no matter what field you are in. I love people that can do that. So I am proud of the fact that I have been able to do that. This is about writing, too. I write my movies, I write my books, I write my standup shows, and this is writing, too. This is conceptual art. I think it up before I do it, then I’ve gotta go and find the images to make it work. But then it becomes about editing.

AB: What direction do you feel art needs to move in to reestablish its relevance?

JW: I think art is always relevant. I don’t think it has to reestablish anything. I love the elitism of it. I love the lunacy of it.

Check some more images here:

Libby Rowe at United Photo Industries

Richard Avedon: Family Affairs at The National Museum of American Jewish History