American artist Paul McCarthy exposed one of his latest works on the Place Vendôme in Paris last week, a piece called “Tree” that resembles a minimalistic Christmas tree, but immediately appeared to anyone familiar with McCarthy’s work as an obvious “butt plug.”
This term has never appeared more frequently in the mainstream media before this week, after McCarthy’s 79-foot inflatable “Tree” was taken down by vandals who cut its air supply and the cables supporting it.
It did not take long before the real controversial nature of the art piece was revealed to the public and raised uproar, especially among the French Catholic and traditionalist activists who have recently been very vocal on the topic of same-sex marriage.
McCarthy, the 69 year-old artist from Los Angeles, has made a career out of the violations of taboo, using subversive and unsettling symbols of human wastes and sexuality, often in great size, as material to raise strong reactions and gross out the public.
This time, McCarthy managed to associate an image of the most disgraceful part of the human body with a representation of “our most sentimentalized, commercialized and even politicized holiday,” as worded in Time magazine, which called this the “latest great art scandal.”
McCarthy made the decision not to raise back his controversial piece after it already cost him physical harassment while setting it up by a stranger who slapped him in the face and ran away. Comments from opposers on social media included “Place Vendôme disfigured!” or “Paris humiliated!”
It was not the first time Paris’ Place Vendôme, which today hosts places such as a luxurious Ritz hotel, the Ministry of Justice or the prestigious Charvet, saw an art piece being taken down for what it represented. In 1871, when Paris was ruled by the socialist revolutionary group known as the Paris Commune, the “communards” took down the Vendôme column, topped with a statue of Napoléon and destined to celebrate the victory of Austerlitz.
French painter and leader of the realist movement Gustave Courbet, at the time president of the Federation of Artists and elected member of the Commune, called the column “a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment.”
Although one could argue the Vendôme column has some obvious phallic characteristics, it was not those that perpetuated its downfall. However, the statue was re- “erected” after the Commune was suppressed.
McCarthy’s work did not get such redemption, but it did attract the sympathy of officials such as the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. “Art has its place in our streets,” Hidalgo said, “and nobody will be able to chase it away.”
Even French President François Hollande spoke out in favor of the artist, claiming that France will always be on the side of artists, the way he picks McCarthy’s side, whom he claims has been wronged regardless of the approach taken in regards of the art piece.