John Waters is an American filmmaker, writer, and artist who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films, which have earned him the titles "pope of filth" and "prince of puke." Waters's 1970s and early '80s trash films feature his regular troupe of actors known as Dreamlanders, most famous among them being the drag queen Divine. In 1988, Waters had his biggest mainstream hit with "Hairspray," which was turned into Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 2003 and then remade as a movie musical in 2007. In 2010, Waters published the unorthodox memoir "Role Models," in which Waters interviews and writes about his influences as a means of telling his own life story.
Question: What makes art successful?
John Waters: Well in art certainly, contemporary art’s job is to wreck whatever came before it. And from the very beginning after the Old Masters, from then on, each generation wrecked that. That something that’s pretty and beautiful is probably the worst thing that you could say today in contemporary art about something, unless it’s so pretty it’s nauseating.
So, and people that... most people have great contempt about contemporary art and I find that hilarious because I did a piece, it said "contemporary art hates you." And it does hate them because you can’t see it. You don’t know the magic trick; you haven’t learned the vocabulary, you haven’t learned the special way of seeing something that changes it. And that is like joining a biker gang; that is. But you do have to be able to appreciate all kinds of taste. And the contemporary art that I like best is the kind that initially angers you. And say, “Oh now, this is..." but now that’s so great.
I saw a painting last night that was so... that I really want to buy, but it’s a dilemma. It’s by Karin Sander, an artist I like and collect, but this painting; she just took a blank canvas and left it outside until it got mold and everything, and it’s really ugly. But I thought she had struggled... she didn’t do one thing. But the problem with buying it is, is that the mold will spread in your house, and it’s toxic. So this to me is the best art piece I’ve seen all year. I’m still trying to figure out how I can own it without poisoning myself.
Question: Does your art seek to make people angry?
John Waters: I always wanted to make people angry and make them laugh though, to be surprised. I mean, my early movies were made for a hippie audience. That’s who went to midnight movies. But I was a.. look I guess like I had been... I had long hair. I thought the revolution was coming, but I was a Yippie you know, and so I made fun of Hippies by making violent movies, like “Multiple Maniacs” and “Pink Flamingos,” but the Hippies always liked it. The same way today.
In my book, "Role Models," I have chapters that are fairly rude about outsider pornographers and men that go down in outhouses and shit on them, but no one seems to object. It was on the Best Seller List in the Midwest, I think. Isn’t that amazing that’s in libraries... And I wrote a very impassioned piece about trying to free one of the Manson women, which not anybody got that controversial about that. The only thing I’ve said on the book tour that were the cause of people going crazy was, in San Francisco, I said I thought they had good public transportation. And then there were all these blogs that said, “Has John Waters lost his mind?” So I thought that was the only controversial thing I said. So things are... it’s odd, people I guess if they buy my book, they expect to be a little bit surprised. That’s what they’re paying the money for. They’d be disappointed if they weren’t.
Question: Is your work anti-ironic?
John Waters: I think there’s not an ironic sentence in "Role Models." I don’t write about anybody that’s so bad they’re good. And even in my movies, in Baltimore and all that kind of thing. I’m looking up to those people. I’m asking you to come into their world and marvel. I’m never asking you like reality television, to look down on them and make fun of them and feel superior. I think that’s a big, big difference. I don’t think, even my most extreme films were every mean spirited, really. I mean, in “Pink Flamingos,” Divine was minding her own business, writing her memoirs. In “The Woodsman” she was challenged by a jealous pervert. I think my movies are politically correct in a weird way and moral.
Question: How are your films moral?
John Waters: Well the morality of my movies is: "Mind your own business!" You don’t know what caused people to act the way they do and so until you know all that and you’ve heard all the evidence, it’s none of your business. I couldn’t believe that everybody went crazy about Tiger Woods. Well, he didn’t run for Pope. I don’t care who he slept with. He shouldn’t care who I sleep with. They all said he was great, too. That’s the thing, what’s he upset about. Every person said he was the best fuck ever.
Recorded September 10, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller