seeing out loud

John Waters Is a National Treasure

Huty1638255 Photo: Donald Maclellan/2008 Getty Images

I don’t remember where or when, but I once read that the great artist, filmmaker, and true national treasure John Waters said of the late, equally great gallerist Colin de Land of American Fine Arts, “Colin broke the curse of fame for me.”

I think that what Waters was referring to is that whenever anyone as famous as he is enters the art world as an artist, be it James Franco, Jay Z, or Tilda Swinton, the art world usually recoils, blasting their efforts, deeming their mere presence dirty and crass. Waters is right: Once upon a time, when he showed his work at that storied gallery, he and his work were spared this trial by fire. That is because it turns out that not only is Waters one of America’s best moviemakers, he’s also an outstandingly original artist. By now he’s had more than 50 solo shows around the world, making ganglike groupings of grainy pictures shot from his TV screen, featuring nicely sleazy, funny, punny pictures, with Waters’s obsessions of porn, poop, lowlife, stars, and marginalia ever-present. (A new show of his work, “Beverly Hills John,” opens at Marianne Boesky on January 9).

No one gets the cross-section of showbiz and fandom like him. In giving us these extraordinarily particular individuals and distinct visages — both psychological and visual — Waters gets you to know in your bones that the more we are part of a vast crowd of people who idolize someone or something, the more alone and special we feel in our idolization. These are the tribal roots of his art — maybe of all art: the mad adoration and the giving-up of self in order to become more of one’s self. In the same way that Hamlet is so deep that each of us has our own understanding of Hamlet, Pink Flamingos is so specific, if demented, that each of us who reveled in it has our own version of Pink Flamingos. Waters also makes great, telling text-pieces, little index cards with “to-do lists” made up of scores of items, all written in and then crossed out in teeny writing in an orderly fashion. This is one busy, smart, anal-retentive, driven, deeply squirrelly artist.

Ditto filmmaker. Film critic David Thomson described Waters as “the classic modern homosexual movie director with wit, courage, and mischief.” That is a compliment, though no one would ever call Steven Spielberg, say, the “classic American heterosexual movie director.” No matter, Waters says: “I used to run to see the films that they told us in Catholic school we’d go to hell if we saw.” As Thomson put it, Waters is “dangerous, dirty, naughty, and middle-aged.” Regardless, Waters is a special New York case. (Don’t get upset, Baltimore.)

Waters, whose filmography includes classics like Pink Flamingos, Mondo Trasho, and Female Trouble, as well as Hairspray, Polyester, and Pecker, started making films at 17, when his grandmother gave him an 8mm Brownie camera for his birthday. A turning point for him and America came in 1963 when he met drag queen Glenn Milstead*, whom he gave the name “Divine” and cast in a series of films. The rest is infamous history and pure art.

Shooting films in gutters, alleys, and laundromats (for the neon lighting), Waters built an audience on the midnight-movie circuit in Baltimore, Provincetown, San Francisco, L.A., and then New York. As for how his films were received, he said, “Nobody was saying they were good, and they never played in real movie theaters, but the audience was rabid. Every person was on drugs in the audience, every person was on drugs in the movies themselves, and I was on drugs when I thought them up. And the exhibitors would put down sawdust on the floor because of all the puking.” Rabidness is something artists understand and relate to. And everyone seeing the film also being in it gets back to the uncanny tribalism of his art.

All that is the groundwork of an extraordinary life lived in art. Waters has had cameos in The Simpsons, My Name Is Earl, Hairspray, Seed of Chucky, and Homicide: Life on the Street. His annual top-ten film lists for ArtForum are fantastic. His books kill as well. Maybe a modern American Mona Lisa is the photograph of Waters hitchhiking while holding a destination sign that reads, “The Frick.” My heart, and those of all art lovers, melted. With all this, he works a strict schedule: five days a week from 8 a.m. sharp until 5 p.m. I could go on about how he’s drawn his mustache on with a Maybelline eyebrow pencil every day since age 19, has taught film and writing classes to prison inmates, is obsessed with culture and the news, and reads five newspapers daily and gets 100-plus magazines a month. And he loves Justin Bieber.

I love that Waters identifies as a dual citizen of Gotham and his home Baltimore. He has said, “I’ll ask myself, ‘What do I feel like doing this weekend? Do I feel like going to a redneck biker bar in Baltimore that I love, that totally accepts me, and where anyone else who went there would get beat up? Or do I want to go to an art opening in New York?’ I love doing that, too … I never go in the middle. That’s my success, because I never have to be in the middle. I never have to be around assholes.” (I’ve always been too frightened to introduce myself to Waters, as I often fear I’m something of an asshole.) I love that Waters is one of us, one of those celebrities you see walking around town and feel secretly pleased with yourself for living in such a cool city. Spotting his visage, those alert, beady eyes, and that gentleman-dandy decadent-lecher thrills me with the presence of a true Bohemian prince of the city.

* An earlier version of this article described Divine as a transvestite, rather than a drag queen.

John Waters Is a National Treasure