John Waters on Bad Taste and the Ideal Death

© Greg Gorman

To mark the paperback publication of Role Models, John Waters answered a few questions about taste, the art world, and death. The interview was conducted over the phone just before Waters’s trips to the Walker Art Center in Minnesota and the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee.

-Ryan Chapman

Chapman: What is taste, and what do people mean when they say something is in bad taste?

John Waters: Taste is style, and to know bad taste of course you have to have been taught the rules of the tyranny of good taste so you can yearn to break them. I thank my mother every day for teaching me proper table manners—which fork to use, all that stuff—even though it lead to a career that humiliated and embarrassed her. But she’s grown quite used to it and proud over the years.

You have to have some taste. I think Diana Vreeland said bad taste is better than no taste. Taste is how you describe yourself. It’s how you present yourself to the world. It’s about humor . . . Everyone is a curator of their own life: what they have around them, what they read, what they watch. So everybody, no matter what—even the most deranged homeless person—has taste. They know which bottle they want to collect more, which shopping cart they want to fill. Everyone has taste and it’s how you define yourself against the world.

Chapman: Can you tell us a little about your recent trip to Venice to serve on the Biennale jury?

Waters: The jury was great, I got along with them great. It was incredibly exhausting, though. Somebody ought to do a Venice Biennale diet book: We saw eighty-seven or ninety-seven pavilions, and they’re scattered everywhere, and more than two hundred other artists in the big ILLUMInations show. So it was amazing, and God knows everything looked like art, and it still does. We gave this one award to Klara Lidén. She did all garbage cans, and interviewed them, and presented them as art. We gave her a special mention. They were displayed in the show where the actual garbage cans would be. I thought it was great. And I went to the beach the other day, and I saw garbage cans exactly like the exhibit! It just goes to show the power of art, once you see something original and smart, it infects (in a good way) your everyday life. Everything you look at you can think of an artist and say, “That looks like this piece” or “That looks like this.” But you have to keep going to see art, because that fades.

Chapman: I was in Minneapolis recently and saw the ads for your upcoming show with the Walker Art Center.

Waters: Yeah, I’m going there tomorrow. It’s called Absentee Landlord, and I curated the whole show with I’d say three-quarters of work that they own—they have an amazing collection—and one-quarter of work that I’ve brought in. I can’t wait to see it. We built a model, we’ve been working on it for about a year.

Chapman: Are there any other upcoming projects?

Waters: I have a lot of projects in development, but I never talk about things when I’m doing them. I have to talk about them so long after they’re done, so I’ll leave it at that.

I’m working on a new art show, I’m going to eventually work on a new book, I have a TV show . . . but all these things are projects in development. I always think it’s bad luck to talk about something before it actually happens.

Chapman: You said in Role Models your preferred method to die would be spontaneous combustion, ideally in an airport.

Waters: Well I live in airports. In the next four days I’m going to four cities, so yes, it would be a flashy way to go, and I wouldn’t know, and it would cause trouble, and it would inconvenience people. [Laughs] But it would be splashy! Unfortunately the only thing you can’t control is how you’re going to die.

I think some days, I’m so excited and so happy, and it’s such a driven, ludicrous life that maybe it will happen: I’ll just burst into flames. And I always have good shoes on, so it’ll be okay.

Chapman: Just a pile of ashes and a pair of shoes.

Waters: Exactly.

See Also:

John Waters on “Real Time with Bill Maher”

In Conversation with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”