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Does He Whistle While He Works? A Horrified Peek at the Paul McCarthy Show

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Paul McCarthy's WS
Paul McCarthy, WS, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photographer: Joshua White

Which joke is at the heart of Paul McCarthy's art exhibit at the Park Avenue Armory in New York?

Q. Who's the fattest knight at King Arthur's round table? A. Sir Cumference.

Q. How can you find a vegan at a party? A. Don't worry, they'll tell you.

Q. How did Snow White get dirty? A. She rolled around in human waste while her dwarfs violated a roasted chicken and sodomized Walt Disney with a broomstick.

If you answered one of the first two, you might be surprised, and maybe scandalized, by the show, "WS," which includes looped video projections, a giant fecal forest and a replica of the house where McCarthy's debauched Snow White traded her blue and gold gown for a vat of frosting and some complicated body issues. If you said three, no need to go -- there's not much there beyond the punchline, unless you want to see a master monetizer lovingly plying his craft.

That McCarthy, 67, has attempted to dress up a giant shopping mall as daring social commentary should come as a surprise to no one. He's a commercial for the commercial -- and one of the most successful contemporary artists around. His "Tomato Head" sculpture sold for $4.6 million at Christie's in 2011. His photograph of Donald Duck (one of an edition of three) sold for $243,000 at Sotheby's in November. He is represented by Hauser & Wirth, arguably one of the top five galleries in the world.

McCarthy's art is grotesque, yet the exhibit's merchandise is more mundane than a Happy Meal toy. Look no further than the gift shop that accompanies the show. In a "performance" there, McCarthy signed all of the merchandise in the shop, for almost 48 hours straight. What the guy lacks in depth he more than makes up for in stamina.

And what merchandise it is. A set of signed Disney napkins sells for $20. Fabric Snow White dolls sell for $75 to $150, depending on their size. (By the VIP reception in mid-June, the McCarthy folks said, 15 had already been sold.) Ceramic Disney figurines sell for $5,000 to $10,000.

"The twisted underside to saccharine idols in popular culture"? Or overpriced junk? Depends on your sense of humor.

James Tarmy reports on arts and culture for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.

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