Crushes on Art

Third visit to Paul McCarthy’s WS, and everything about it: the cotton candy colored stained glass lighting; the fake noses (Gogol), her’s like a fawn’s and pig’s and upturned cartoon’s; the liquid surfaces—how crystalline it all is regardless of the mess. So upsetting, but every time I love it more. Still trying to figure it out, in spite of all the things I “shouldn’t like.”

Page from Jarrett Earnest’s WS notebook, 2013.

Despite the fact that artworks become meaningful in many ways, our art experiences are generally ranked according to seriousness with no room left for the silly. For instance, I’ve never heard anyone talk about the “crush” as a form of art criticism. Self-proclaimed “serious” art people are not supposed to admit that their engagement with a work of art could be as inexplicable, or as potentially fickle, as a “crush.” A rude yet glamorous guest, riddled with unconscious attractions, the crush arrives uninvited and unannounced. The object may “make sense” according to your social milieu, but usually it doesn’t. Instead it appears in a sudden outpouring of affection out-maneuvering your “taste,” exposing and complicating the very criteria by which we “approve” or even love.

A crush is not a life-long love affair, which is one reason it is dismissed as trivial. But the experience of it, the generosity it opens up while it is unexpectedly taking hold, creates connections and residual pathways of affection. It puts you in a particularly vulnerable position: at the level of your own experience, and in the social articulation of it.

I am not saying that the crush is the model of our experience with art, but that it is one potential starting place for art to begin to do its work, which is to become meaningful in our lives. The difference between a crush and a passionate love affair depends on what happens, but the very beginnings are often indistinguishable. Every aspect is unreasonable, and thus embarrassing, which is exactly what makes it a force for good—destabilizing your working assumptions about yourself and others in the world. Crushes are a complicated knot of fantasy that unravels onto a new reality: reconciling you to things you either thought you didn’t like or never paid much attention to. With people, this happens when a certain tattoo or gesture inexplicably switches from “turn-off” to “turn-on.” The same mechanism can translate more or less directly onto our experiences with different artist’s aesthetics. For example, I realize now I was having a crush on Paul McCarthy’s WS when I spent months talking about it incessantly to everyone I met, thinking non-stop of its various images, filling notebooks with writing and drawing. And despite the fact that I can list reasons, conceptually and formally, “why I like it,” or, if you rather, “why I think it is significant,” there remains a large something I don’t know about why I feel as intensely as I do. That remaining mystery is one kind of magic, it seems to me, of both the work of art and the crush. And never underestimate the importance of these processes of liking, because, as poet and dance critic Edwin Denby said, “you cannot understand without liking.”

Contributor

Jarrett Earnest

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