Trash

Digging Through The Trash Aesthetic

Advertisement for the city of Baltimore featuring Andrew Logan’s Divine sculpture

“We are surrounded by everything you ever want,” purrs artist Andrew Logan, inviting viewers of homotopia.tv into the Glasshouse, his studio in London.[i] The Glasshouse resembles a Technicolor tumble through the looking glass if Alice sniffed poppers. His Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-esque studio is filled with giant eggs, regal tributes to Pegasus, and sculptures dedicated to outrageous friends and colleagues like the eponymous drag queen and “Filthiest Person Alive” Divine. It’s not hard to agree with Logan: Who could wish for anything more?

Despite Logan’s invitation, art and other cultural objects that exude an aesthetic of trash are typically anything but desired. When searching for “trash” or “trashy” online, Merriam-Webster informs curious clickers that these two words are (respectively) in the bottom 50% and 30% of popular words.[ii] This shamefully debased position shouldn’t be a surprise. Failure is inexorably linked with trash whether literal garbage, cheaply made throwaway items, economic stagnation or ignorance of good taste.

But, trash’s bottom feeding is deceiving. Trash, as an aesthetic category, is a power bottom, an unlikely source of transgression, particularly of proper, upwardly mobile society and its dominant designations of taste. It upends long held standards of good taste, requiring a redefinition of the viewer’s own understanding and place within these cultural delineations.

By analyzing trash as an aesthetic category, I owe a debt to Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Like Ngai, I’ll acknowledge that delving headfirst into aesthetics risks sounding unserious. In contrast to the perhaps more accepted forms of historical examination of chronology, provenance or style, the analysis of aesthetic categories is, as Ngai writes, “more vulnerable to accusations of unscholarly impressionism.”[iii]

Is plumbing the depths of trash unscholarly? Possibly. But, in this era of rampant anti-intellectualism, why fight it? Grasping hold of an aesthetic category allows for not only a rejection of the elitist values of the art world, but also a widening of scope to include pop culture and society at large. And this is essential because trash is no longer relegated to big-eyed thrift store tchotchkes and paternity tests on daytime TV. Trash has become indivisible from Western culture–a populist uprising of bad taste.

Taking In The Trash

Defining trash aesthetics isn’t as easy as it sounds. While there’s certainly a glut of artwork culled from objects discovered in the bin, for our purposes here, trash is more of a sensibility, a style and a lifestyle choice. It’s not simply garbage-pickings placed in a white-walled institutional space, even though it may still be drawn from mass-produced throwaway culture.

While not the space for an entire trash history, trash hit the big time post-World War II. Simon Warner traces the development of the trash aesthetic to that era’s “rise of a transient and high impact culture…one constructed on the premise of mass production and mass consumption aided by the power of mass promotion.”[iv] Whether rockabilly tunes leering about “Beaver Patrol” or B-movies at the drive-in, this golden age of trash was “based on extravagant display and featured a strong note of the temporary.”[v]

Trash aesthetics are irrevocably tied to the term “white trash.” And certainly white trash culture features a heavy dose of trash aesthetics. In her history of the white lower class in the United States, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, historian Nancy Isenberg references Dolly Parton’s born-to-be-cheap fashion sense and Tammy Fae Bakker’s mascara-stained proselytizing as examples of this excessive style.[vi] Not to be restricted to women, perhaps the biggest model of the trash aesthetic is the King himself–Elvis Presley, whose rhinestone jumpsuits, pill-popping, bacon-eating, and sweaty gyrating ranks him at the top of the heap.

But, the trash aesthetic is certainly not limited to white trash. All races, ethnicities and cultures have their own form of trash, typically denoted by garishness, gaudiness and sometimes, vulgarity that directly counters taste as imposed by privileged white heteronormative society. Take, for example, Blaxploitation films like Blacula or artist Kalup Linzy’s video obsessions with soap opera divas. No matter its medium, form or format, the trash aesthetic is a headfirst dive into lurid low culture. Though related to class, it’s not solely defined by economic means–just because you have money, doesn’t mean you can’t be classless.

Raging Against The Tyranny Of Good Taste

Trash can arrive uninvited–a naïve, sincere vision of bad taste. For example, I once spotted a house in Indiana that had lined their front curtain rods with a plethora of multicolored Beanie Baby bears. Apart from being startling, this stunning image of trash certainly didn’t mean to transgress socially imposed forms of good taste, but it did so nonetheless.

Other forms of trash are more purposeful–a, as director and Pope of Trash John Waters describes, “terrorist act against the tyranny of good taste.”[viii] This form of trash is a considered reveling in trash’s sordid bottom. Whether notoriously capturing Divine eating a dog turd in Pink Flamingos or pronouncing that “crime is beauty” in Female Trouble, Waters is the preeminent filth elder of this type of trash. Turning trash into an all out assault, Waters’s films prove, he writes in Shock Value, “…bad taste is what entertainment is all about.”[ix]

Waters’s cinematic exercises in shock are not the only artistic objects deliberately peddling in trash. In fact, there’s a direct link between Waters’s perverse filmmaking and Andrew Logan’s oeuvre–Divine. Divine growled in Female Trouble, “I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself.”[x] And in Logan’s hands, she becomes just that. Divine reappears throughout Logan’s work both in and out of drag, whether in elaborate mosaic busts or dolled-up in a glamorous muumuu and abstract makeup framed by an ad hoc rainbow.

Unlike Waters, Logan’s use of trash is much less aggressive. His shattered glass sculptures convey an infectious joy in exaggeration, artifice and excess. Not everyone shares in this levity, however. The catalogue for his 1991 retrospective Andrew Logan: An Artistic Adventure includes a quip from a New York dealer who explained to Logan, “Laughing is out this year.”[xi]

Andrew Logan, Molly Parkin, 1988 (Courtesy the artist)

Rather than conforming to grim gallerists, Logan’s work shines and shimmers. Like a drag version of a magpie, he utilizes anything and everything with a bit of sheen. He transforms these discarded materials into wild odes to his fellow creatives such as actress Fenella Fielding, whose bust sits on a decadent mirrorball, and painter and writer Molly Parkin, who sports a bizarre, asymmetrical chapeau.

It seems fitting, given his drag-like aesthetic, that Logan is perhaps best known for his Alternative Miss World competitions, which began in his studio in 1972 and ballooned in subsequent incarnations with attendees like Leigh Bowery and Derek Jarman. Playing a dual gender Master/Mistress of Ceremonies, Logan reigns supreme over the transformative evening, which takes inspiration from campy dog shows rather than vanilla beauty competitions. At Alternative Miss World, “Good and bad taste, like other burdensome criteria, were rendered irrelevant.”[xii]

Logan’s extravagant, oversized art, as well as his jewelry designs, also redefine good and bad taste. Even Vogue recognizes the whiff of trash in Logan’s jewelry, describing it as “invariably walking the line between beauty and trash, with occasional stumbles to one side or the other.”[xiii]

This taint of trash is what makes Logan’s work so transgressive–it’s popular with a non-art crowd. As he raises his friends and other cult figures to the level of gods and goddesses, Logan’s art transcends normative hierarchies of taste, threatening elitism. “Art can be discovered anywhere,” he frequently says–a sweet sentiment, but when read in conjunction with his widening of art’s audience, it becomes subversively anti-institutional.[xiv]

Going Beyond All Limits Of Taste

“We propose to go beyond all limits set or prescribed by taste, morality or any other traditional value system shackling the minds of men,” spews the “Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” written by auteur Nick Zedd under the pseudonym Orion Jeriko.[xv] With underground magnum opuses like the sci-fi send-up Geek Maggot Bingo and the punk nuclear meltdown They Eat Scum, Zedd is no stranger to trash or transgression.

Still from Nick Zedd’s Geek Maggot Bingo

In “A Preface To Transgression,” Michel Foucault describes transgression as “a flash of lightning in the night.”[xvi] For Foucault, transgression, like lightning, may not be permanent, but it illuminates the typically obscured systemic construction of whatever limits are being transgressed. As Stephanie Watson declares in her essay “The Transgressive Aesthetic” in Deathtripping, Jack Sargent’s study of the Cinema of Transgression, transgression “neither fully breaks or returns the limits that we perceive, instead it continually works to define those limits, a process which allows us to see how our present limits (which are never totally static), are constructed.”[xvii]

By throwing the boundaries of good and bad taste into question, trash-oriented transgression reveals the disguised social constructs that dictate taste. And these are often based on hierarchical systems. In his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu recognizes the ability of “taste to function as markers of ‘class’.”[xviii]

Not only does taste demarcate class, but it also reinforces these divisions. “The denial of lower, course, vulgar, venal, servile–in a word, natural–enjoyment,” observes Bourdieu, “which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane.”[xix]

And what better way to bring down those boundaries of taste than to reject them entirely. But, trash leaves a stain on its viewers. While other aesthetic categories like kitsch probe the boundaries of good taste, trash swings wildly over the line and in its extremity, marks any viewer who dares admit adoration. Bourdieu confirms, “Taste classifies and it classifies the classifier.”[xx] If you like trash, you, inadvertently, ARE trash.

Trash of the Union

While I’ve mostly been associating trash with cultural objects, trash, lately, has washed over Western culture. Everett Lewis observes in “John Waters: An Appreciation,” “…we have become Mr. Waters’ world (or his has become ours).”[xxi] He later cites “Reality TV, all those Housewives, it’s like a John Waters movie, only not as good” as examples of trash’s influence.[xxii]

Trash aesthetics

In the past few years, trash has expanded beyond the television. It’s in our political systems, from Trump’s America to Brexit’s United Kingdom, in the form of a populist revolt disgusted with the politics of respectability, political correctness and globalization. While xenophobia played the largest role, I’d argue that trash aesthetics can and have been harnessed for nefarious political goals, namely by a reality show president with a preference for gilt excessiveness, early morning Twitter rages and notorious tackiness.

Yes, President Donald Trump is trash–a boorish outer borough grifter who rose through the ranks of Manhattan society to the White House. And he did it through his own trademarked bad taste. From his palatial penthouse in Trump Tower to First Lady Melania Trump’s pin-up photo shoots to the hillbilly chic of the “Make America Great Again” cap, Trump and his campaign’s trashiness and its transgression of class and prescribed social mores was part of the reason he appealed to America’s underclass.

So where does trash go from here–a time when the redneck trifecta–Sarah Palin, Kid Rock and Ted Nugent–visit Donald Trump in the Oval Office? Is this the end of the line for trash? Or can good trash battle bad trash? That remains to be seen. At least Logan’s communal Alternative Miss World can balance out Trump leering at Miss Universe. Whatever the eventual outcome of this trajectory, trash, despite Merriam-Webster’s assertion, is no longer at the bottom, it reached one of the highest, most powerful offices in the world.

[i] “Andrew Logan–Welcome To My World,” YouTube video, 6:04, posted by “homotopiafestival,” September 26, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b08uGXIQpJY.
[ii] Merriam-Webster, “trash” and “trashy,” accessed May 8, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trash and https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trashy.
[iii] Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 17.
[iv] Simon Warner, “The Banality of Degradation : Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and the trash aesthetic,” Volume ! [Online], 9 : 1 | 2012, Online since 01 September 2016, http://volume.revues.org/3508
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York: Viking, 2016), 288.
[vii] While not frequently used in British English, janky refers to something that is poorly made or constructed.
[viii] Donald Liebenson, “45 Years After Pink Flamingos, John Waters Says the Midnight Movie Is ‘Dead’,” Vanity Fair, March 17, 2017, http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/03/john-waters-pink-flamingos-anniversary-midnight-movies.
[ix] John Waters, Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1981), 2.
[x] John Waters, Female Trouble (Los Angeles: New Line Cinema, 1974) DVD.
[xi] Andrew Logan: An Artistic Adventure (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1991), unpaginated.
[xii] Jasia Reichardt, “Andrew Logan’s Total Art,” Andrew Logan: An Artistic Adventure (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1991), unpaginated.
[xiii] Mark Holgate, “Why Andrew Logan’s Big, Bold Jewelry is Still Brilliant After All These Years,” Vogue, June 26, 2009, http://www.vogue.com/article/vd-why-andrew-logans-big-bold-jewelry-is-still-brilliant-after-all-these-years.
[xiv] David Elliot, “Aesthetics For All,” Andrew Logan: An Artistic Adventure (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1991), unpaginated.
[xv] Orion Jeriko, “The Cinema Of Transgression Manifesto,” republished on Dissident Reality, September 9, 2016, http://dissidentreality.com/articles/cinema-transgression-manifesto/.
[xvi] Michel Foucault, “A Preface To Transgression,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited and translated by Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), 35.
[xvii] Stephanie Watson, “The Transgressive Aesthetic,” in Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression, edited by Jack Sargent (London: Creation Books, 1995), 36.
[xviii] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, translated by Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 1.
[xix] Ibid., 7.
[xx] Ibid., 5.
[xxi] Everett Lewis, “John Waters: An Appreciation,” in John Waters: Interviews, edited by James Egan (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2011), 228.
[xxii] Ibid., 229.

2 thoughts on “Digging Through The Trash Aesthetic

  1. I’d like to think of the trash aesthetic of John Waters or the COT as biodegradable, recyclable “transformative” trash—that which our predominate culture dismissed broken down and turned into something artistic, nourishing, and beautiful for outsiders. But the trash like Trump in office…someone who always represented the values in power from the jump–that’s trash like toxic waste or those styrofoam peanuts that let off poison gases into the air if they catch fire.

    • Describing Trump and his cronies to styrofoam peanuts is so spot-on! If you get a package with them, they get everywhere, ruin everything and take a hell of a long time to clean up.

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