What is art? That question has been dissected and examined from every perspective for millennia. When the concept of modern art is brought up, the immediate impression is a large canvas with solid-colored geometrical shapes that is supposed to have some deeper meaning about humanity. This perspective is obviously very limited. Those who have understanding of the reality of modern and contemporary art know that this is far from the truth. The contemporary art movement allows for the acceptance of all forms of art, from sculpture, to paintings, to digital art, to photography, and anything else that can be imagined. The contemporary artist works from the perspective of this cultural moment and in so doing leaves a permanent impression of that perspective. Two such artists are Paul McCarthy and Barbara Kruger. Thought both working from the current moment, the two artists have very different perspectives and the messages they wish to inform through their art have to be constructed in extremely opposing ways.
Paul McCarthy was born in 1945 in Salt Lake City, Utah. It seems incongruous that a city known for wide-spread Mormonism would produce an artist like McCarthy who specializes in taking seemingly innocent aspects of life and making them distasteful. The thesis of McCarthy's early performance art, he stated, was to continue with perverse acts until the audience could not stand it any longer. The result of these works, is the disgust not only at what it is McCarthy is doing but at the consumer culture which has become so harshly jaded that only such atrocities can shock them out of their normal mental space. It is because of the highly controversial nature of his work that McCarthy has been heavily marginalized and unrecognized in the media, except when one of his inflatable sculptures broke loose and broke a window in a children's home. His mentioning in the trade papers is almost always associated with an act of perversion or a misinterpretation. According to Carol Kino in The New York Times, "The lack of recognition also has to do with how much of his work has sex, scatology and abjection writ large -- sort of a slapstick take on the Viennese Actionists -- and with how hard a lot of it is to watch. He is often dismissed as either a troublemaking bad boy or a troubled individual" (1). While neither of these things is necessarily true or untrue, the message of the work is what must be considered, not the man.
Some of McCarthy's more controversial works have been done in the medium of giant inflatable statues. One, a red inflatable Santa Claus with a purported pink Christmas tree has been titled "Santa with a Butt Plug." (See figure 1). Even the most innocent children's images, that of Santa Claus, can be reconstructed to have sexual connotations given the right context. To those who wish to see the aforementioned plug as a tree can certainly still witness that, but the modern era adds a second connotation to everything whether or not it was originally intended, which is the point of the piece. The Santa Claus sculpture was designed for the city center of Rotterdam but was never placed there. The Rotterdam Municipal Council "deemed it unsuitable for installation in the public space" (Santa 1).
Perhaps even more controversial was McCarthy's inflatable statue entitled "Complex Shit" which was a series of brown inflatable pieces of feces installed in a field in Bern, Switzerland. (See Figure 2). Looking at the piece, one cannot help but feel nauseous. Commentators on the piece have made such pithy remarks as "There's another shitty piece of art." This is the point of the piece, that contemporary art is considered pompous and wasteful to the majority of the population. Consequently, any piece, no matter how brilliant will be derided. So, to combat the allusion to fecal matter, McCarthy takes a jab at the art world before his detractors have the chance to do so.
Barbara Kruger is also a controversial figure in contemporary art, but not for the same reasons as McCarthy. Although the two were both born in the same year, their perspectives on life, and the subsequent perspectives of…