THEMATIC: Taboos and Conventions

"Bossy Burger," 1991. BBQ turkey leg, television, stage set, bowls, cooking utensils, chair, counter, milk, flour, ketchup, mayonnaise, dolls, chef costume, rubber Alfred E. Neuman mask, and video, dimensions variable. Performance, video, and installation at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles. © Paul McCarthy. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Zürich London.

Through their work, artists often question the customs or expectations of a society. Paul McCarthy's art investigates taboo subjects and social conventions. In his Art21 segment, McCarthy says that his work "seems to be about tearing down and opening up conventions." Watch the artist's segment, and discuss the concept of taboos and how McCarthy's work confronts and defies social convention.

Compare the way McCarthy questions social conventions to the approaches of other artists, including: Mike Kelley, Pepón Osorio, Michael Ray Charles, and Eleanor Antin.

SEGMENT: Paul McCarthy in "Transformation"

Before Viewing
What subjects, ideas, or imagery are considered taboo in contemporary society, or in particular cultures? Why do you think these taboos exist? How are social mores and conventions of social behavior established, and how are they enforced?

While Viewing
Make a list of your reactions as you look at McCarthy's work in this segment. What provokes the strongest reactions? Discuss which works provoke laughter, discomfort, curiosity, or other feelings, and why they do.

After Viewing
McCarthy says that his responsibility is to the ideas in his work and not to the audience. Describe one of the works in this segment in which McCarthy pursues an idea without considering the audience. How would you describe the idea? How has he chosen to convey it?

"Pig Island," detail, 2006-. Mixed media, work in progress. Photo by Ann-Marie Rounkle. © Paul McCarthy. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Zürich London.

Distort or destroy a work of art you created, in order to make something new that conveys a different or opposing message.