Full Exposure: Paul and Damon McCarthy's Pirate Party

Violence and the Viewer

Violence and the Viewer: Amputation and Artifice in Paul and Damon McCarthy’s Pirate Party

Nicole Y. Gaglia


Abstract: This essay examines a sequence of six photographs from Paul and Damon McCarthy’s performance Pirate Party in which Paul McCarthy, as the pirate captain, orchestrates the amputation of his own leg. McCarthy’s use of violence in the scene exposes the artifice of the romanticized pirate figure, peeling away the pirate’s façade to uncover his true nature and probes further to reveal the mechanism that fabricates the illusion. This violence activates viewers’ desire to stare, inciting them to acknowledge the entanglement of fantasy with reality, and challenging them to recognize their role in perpetuating cultural myth.

Violence permeates Paul McCarthy’s work, from his early body art to performance and his later installations.[1] Smashing, hacking, smearing, and ripping his way through contemporary culture, McCarthy’s acts of defilement are never gratuitous, but rather hyperbolic replications of violence in culture writ large. Together with his son Damon, McCarthy perpetuates his performative identity in Pirate Party.[2] The resulting portfolio of seventy-nine still photographs record how McCarthy, Damon, and the actors in the performance address the obscenity that is obscured behind the pirate fantasy in Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. Pirate Party blatantly confronts the presentation of the pirate as glamorous by bluntly depicting the inherent debauchery, brutality, carnage, and sadism of the pirate, and spurring viewers to do the same. This essay focuses on an amputation scene in Pirate Party in order to explore how McCarthy’s implementation of violence dismantles the artifice of the romanticized pirate figure.

Fig. 1 Photograph no. 18 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Fig. 1 Photograph no. 18 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

McCarthy uses violence dialectically throughout the work to address the pirate myth, the viewer, and himself. In their book On Violence, Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim write, “One must elect at the outset whether to view violence as product or to view it as process,” a statement that implies choice [italics in the original]. Violence can be conceived as a single discrete act, which suggests the action is temporally and spatially fixed. The act itself—stabbing, shooting, dropping a bomb—is the beginning and the end of violence.[3] However, Lawrence and Karim encourage the interpretation that violence does not stop when the act ends, but rather persists in the minds of sufferers and survivors until they are able to comprehend the event, and that the impact of the event lives on as a traumatic narrative. What they also make clear is that violence defies singular interpretation:

Precisely because one must recognize the porous boundaries of each violent act, whether individual or group-specific, whether erupting in the private or in the public domain, violence is always and everywhere process. As process, violence is cumulative and boundless. It always spills over. It creates and recreates new norms of collective self-understanding. Violence as process is often not recorded because it is internalized; it becomes part of the expectation of the living, whether framed as revenge or as fear, but, most important, its creation must remain transparent, its instrumentality evident beyond all attempt to reify or essentialize both its origin and its function.[4]

Thus it could be said that violence operates like a rhizome that grows beyond the target of the act and generates a shared community of victims: bystanders, friends, families, and spectators. The effects of violence are visualized in blood and scars, and sobs and howls, but these symptoms fade and the affect of violence sinks below the surface into trauma. In this way, violence challenges comprehension for the harmed individual and the witness, both of whom invent new narratives of the experience to understand and cope with the event. Traumatic violence must be understood as an agent with the power to wound. The lingering effects of the action, what that act represents, has the power to challenge collective knowledge and behavior. Violence is destructive, but also holds the potential for reflection and transformation, urging individuals to reevaluate their understanding of the world.

McCarthy’s work demonstrates the efficacy of violence as an aesthetic process utilized in art. Pirate Party weaves violence into the framework of the performance to confront the imaginary pirate. Sadomasochistic acts throughout the photographic portfolio bind sexuality to violence. The characters smash hot dog penises, defile bodies, muzzle women, and sell sex. This erotic and unrestrained violence is amplified in three scenes that focus on the depiction of a leg amputation. The first scene represents the pirate captain, or first mate, played by McCarthy, who directs the amputation of his own leg.[5] The second scene shows McCarthy crouching on a table next to the splayed body of a crewmember, tool in hand and knife at the ready. He hacks off the crewman’s leg, which is already missing the foot, at the knee. The third amputation appears in a series of five photographs. A resident of the port town is captured, bound, and maimed. The act results in an orgasmic reaction to the pain, expressed on the victim’s face as a collaborator yanks his head by the hair and McCarthy looms behind with a long knife. The scene culminates in two images of the amputee appearing to penetrate a woman on the makeshift operating table in an act of blood-soaked fornication. In the second and third scenes McCarthy, as first mate, directly executes the amputation, while in the first scene he enlists a pirate and a woman to sever his leg. The six photographs of the first scene may shock viewers with a threatening violence unlike the comedic foolery that precedes it.

Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

Fig. 2 Photograph no. 19 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

The first scene begins with McCarthy sitting on top of a table smeared with chocolate syrup that simulates excrement (Fig. 1). It is unclear if this mess is the remains of a past action or McCarthy’s own symbolic defecation. His figure is swollen; a bulbous nose protrudes from the unkempt mop of long hair that covers his face and his gut bulges from a brocade 18th century gentleman’s coat that is stained with blood. From this mass of corporality and stains, his two legs jut out across the tabletop. A hammer rests by his side. He leans over his large belly and draws on his left leg with a marker labeled “marks on most surfaces.” In the next image two characters flank him (Fig. 2). The actor on the left is wearing an oversized full head mask, creating a caricature of the pirate. On the right a blonde woman wearing a yellow cardigan leans into the frame to help McCarthy hold down his leg. The marks on his leg guide the incision. The pirate steadies the leg with one hand and cuts through it with the other, his fierce sawing captured in the photograph through the blurred motion of his arm. Blood oozing from the wound pools on the table, mixing with the foul sludge. The blond bombshell of a woman grits her teeth and grips an axe ready to strike. The hand of a shadowy arm behind her gingerly touches the hammer on the table, unsure if there is space to join the operation. The section of the leg below the knee is gone in the following photograph, which displays the remainder of McCarthy’s leg in a close-up (Fig. 3). The woman’s body curves around the top and right of the frame, showing the rest of her figure scantily clad in a black string bikini and blood-splattered waist apron that matches her cardigan. She has traded the axe for a long, thin knife that she uses to slice laterally through the tissue. More blood drains from the arteries and runs over the edge of the table. The operation is controlled and delicate, the motion of her hand less frenzied than the pirate and his saw. Both the wound and her body are on display, eroticizing the violence with bare skin and bodily fluids.

Fig. 3 Photograph no. 20 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Fig. 3 Photograph no. 20 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

The gory act presented in these three photographs recasts the pirate as a brutal libertine content to unleash debauchery and destruction on all bodies, including his own. The amputation severs the fantasy of a Disney pirate like Johnny Depp—masculine, swarthy, passionate—from its unreality, as fake pirate McCarthy drips with blood and is covered in shit. McCarthy gives up a leg to complete the transformation from mythic pirate to its brutal true form. His ragtag crew hyperbolizes the conversion. The masked pirate, himself a parody, is enlisted to detach the leg while the hyper-sexualized woman delivers more damage to the stump. The illusion is broken, but more layers can be cut away.

McCarthy’s choice to perform an amputation, beyond the association with the equally mythic image of the peg-legged pirate, identifies the specific type of medical violence that McCarthy explored in such works as My Doctor (1978) and Baby Boy (1982).[6] But in Pirate Party the McCarthys build a type of anatomical theater for the examination of cultural deception. Theaters of anatomy were sites of investigation and spectacle, built for medical students and the general onlooker to consume scientific barbarism in the forms of public surgery and dissection.[7] Socially sanctioned anatomical examination of human corpses has been practiced in Italy since the fourteenth century.[8] Dissection sites moved from private displays to large public performances and were ultimately confined to the medical school and its students.[9]

Fig. 4 Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Fig. 4 Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Thomas Eakins depicts a nineteenth century American anatomic theater in Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) (Fig. 4). The oil painting displays Dr. Gross leading a surgical demonstration for the students of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, advocating a new procedure to treat bone infections.[10] The freshly oxidized blood of the patient represented by the controlled swaths of red paint disrupts the dreary palette that colors the amphitheater as the surgeons operate on his leg. The doctors and students penetrate the patient’s body with their scalpels and impassive stares. The body is not a person, but a fleshy site of knowledge to be explored. The woman seated next to the operation table displays an emotional response to the procedure, by shielding her eyes with her arm and stiffening her hands. The patient remains human only to her. Although Dr. Gross presents an alternative to the amputation and the patient’s leg remains connected to his body, the body is on display for public consumption.

Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace characterize the theater as “a site for performative acts of bodily disclosure.”[11] But this practice served more than to satiate anatomical curiosity. On dissection during the Enlightenment, Barbara Maria Stafford writes,

Analogies of dissection, specifically, functioned on two interrelated levels. The literal, corporeal sense derived from the tactile cuts inflicted by actual instruments. Digging knives, invading scissors, sharp scalpels mercilessly probed to pry apart and distinguish muscle from bone. The figurative sense played upon the allusion to violent and adversarial jabbing. Such excavation stood for an investigative intellectual method that uncovered the duplicity of the world…Both meanings shared the connotation of a searching operation performed on a recalcitrant substance. One involved manual probing, the other cerebral grasping. Each suggested the stripping away of excess by decomposition and fragmentation for the purpose of control…The immobilized specimen under scrutiny could neither hide nor escape.[12]

Dissection, or in the case of Pirate Party amputation, uses bodily violence not to harm, but to peel away the skin to view what is hidden. The surgeon slices through layers of the visible until he is able to access the invisible truth. The subject of dissection is never willing, but is unable to resist. The audience, too, is rapt by the process. Amputation was and continues to be used to preserve lives rather than end them.[13] By excising the diseased or damaged part of a limb the rest of the body can be saved.

In the case of Pirate Party, the pirate’s true character is revealed when the contaminant is cut away. Rather than a clean cut, McCarthy’s amputation mirrors the excess of the fantastic construction. The procedure is brutal and the result grotesque, ultimately disabling the romantic eroticization of the pirate. The captain, visible in the first two images, is reduced to a chunk of flesh in the third photograph. This close up of the leg disassociates the captain as subject from his body, the pirate from his myth. But it is not enough. The woman carves into the stump to expel more blood from the leg. Life and death spread across the table’s surface, indicating that the dissection is not complete. The scene continues.

Fig. 5 Photograph no. 21 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Fig. 5 Photograph no. 21 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

The gruesome violence used in the first three images of the scene is deconstructed in the last three photos. The third photograph insinuates further mutilation to the stump in the following image. But the camera frame widens in the fourth photo to reveal the entire performance space (Fig. 5). The captain pirate (McCarthy) and the blond woman are positioned in the center of the photo inside a shoddy interior set constructed from unfinished lumber and plywood. The pirate’s head is comically disproportional to his body, which is now fully visible. McCarthy remains seated on the table with a canvas tool roll on his lap while the bombshell attends to his wound. Below the tabletop a third leg can be seen: McCarthy’s real leg, standing in a pool of fake blood. The amputated leg is prosthetic. The violent act is not real. Outside an irregularly shaped window the word “ANGLE” can be seen emblazoned on a metal beam. The text reinforces the camera’s capability to conceal and reveal. The viewers visual and mental viewpoint is destabilized with the shot. This second unveiling dismantles the institutions that create and perpetuate fantasy. Paul and his son Damon appropriate the techniques of Disney to create their pirate fantasy with actors, sets, props, and camera techniques, all of which reveal Disneyland’s artifice. This reversal renders absurd the action of the woman, who is carefully wrapping the end of the prosthetic leg with gauze, and mocks the charade of phantasm in which people believe.

Fig. 6 Photograph no. 22 from Pirate Party Portfolio.

Fig. 6 Photograph no. 22 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

The next photograph closes in on McCarthy again, his body splattered with blood and eyes vacant (Fig. 6). In early medical photographs the patients’ eyes would often be blocked out. “This technique provided far more protection for the viewer of the photograph than the subject,” Ann Millett-Gallant argues, “for this blocking of the eyes, meant to maintain the patients’ dignity, functioned rather to impose shame and impeded a returned gaze, preventing the patients’ agency as individuals to transcend the medical frame.”[14] McCarthy’s eyes are not here, nor never in his work, blocked out. McCarthy clearly witnesses his own presentation of his subjectivity to the viewer in a subject to subject exchange that is foundational to the truth of body and performance art. The moment of confrontation between two subjects is augmented in the photographic framing of the scene, which crops the performance to draw the viewer into McCarthy/as captain’s interior moment. McCarthy does not exchange glances with the viewer, but instead directs an empty gaze at his leg. The blood staining his hand and sleeve refers to the grisly fact, which is, of course, an act. The violence of the amputation continues to gestate as he reconciles with his dissected body, an action that mirrors viewers’ mental processes in coming to terms with such cultural artifice and redefining their relationship to it as art. The strong lighting that burns half of the captain’s body in light and half in shadow resembles stage lighting, again signaling that the fabrication of the performance. Needles and thread stuck into the tool roll’s fabric are visible. Once artifice is cut away, reality must be sutured.

A low angle shot completes the scene (Fig. 7). The tabletop bisects the photograph to create separate spaces in the composition. Above, McCarthy, the pirate, and the woman are visible, still bloody from the amputation. McCarthy’s intact leg and his stump can just be seen over the edge of the table. The fictional violence perpetrated by McCarthy, along with his prosthetic leg, is relegated to this space. Below, McCarthy’s real leg stands in the chocolate and fake blood that glistens under the table. The real leg is surprisingly clean except for a small amount of fluid trickling down. Crew members are visible behind the table, crouching as if to remain out of the upper region of the photograph. Reality exists under the surface of make-believe. The low angle of the shot positions viewers within this authenticity, and allows them a peek into the structure of its illusion and artifice. Yet the separation of the two worlds is broken by the gaze of the pirate who stares directly into the camera, challenging viewers to perceive the entanglement of the false and the real and to recognize their positions within it. And so the scene comes to an end.

Fig. 7 Photograph no. 23 from Pirate Party Portfolio

Fig. 7 Photograph no. 23 from Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio

McCarthy structures this scene for a double-deconstruction of artifice and for maximum affect for viewers. The first half of the scene peels away the romanticized façade of the pirate to uncover his true nature: erotic, destructive, and uncontrollable. The second half takes the critique further to expose the mechanism that fabricates the illusion. The industry of illusion needs first to be visible for the public to resist it, and McCarthy’s narrative guides viewers through the experience of its undoing. Emotions cycle from trepidation, unsure what McCarthy is doing in the first image, to shock as he allows his leg to be severed. The horror alleviates momentarily when the fourth photo reveals his leg intact. But the absurdity of that image is tempered with the next, which captures McCarthy looking down vacantly and seeing nothing. His thoughts turn inwards and are inaccessible. Finally, the discomfort of the final photograph with the pirate reciprocating the viewer’s stare prompts him to reevaluate his relationship to the work and his role in the perpetuation of fantasy narratives.

The viewer’s experience of Pirate Party echoes the construction of artifice through layers of brute actuality. Displayed in a gallery, the photographs of the work separate viewers from the performance temporally, spatially, and materially. The McCarthys and their cast of actors performed the work once in McCarthy’s studio over the course of a month. Video and photographs document the event.[15] From this, McCarthy selected and arranged a sequence for the images that compose the photograph portfolio, constructing the narrative through his control of the documents. Viewers can only access what McCarthy wants them to see. Further, the photographic medium conceals the duration and transiency of the performance. The viewer experiences the performance as an exhibited work hanging in a specific order on the walls of a gallery. McCarthy declares his cultural artifice visually and materially, inviting conversation by offering viewers the power to challenge.

McCarthy uses violence to pull viewers into the scene, to shock them into seeing, not just looking, and to entice them to hold their gaze. He activates a primal desire to see and to know, to stare at the body in various states of deformation. Rosemarie Garland-Thomas theorizes that the stare is a type of looking, which is distinct from the gaze, and that provides an “encounter”

fraught with contradiction and anxiety, embarrassment and pleasure. Staring is curiosity when we laud it and voyeurism when we condemn it. Staring is profligate interest. It is stunned wonder leaning perilously toward obsession. Such intense looking is—like sex and eating—a highly regulated social ritual.[16]

McCarthy’s construction of the photographic portfolio as the work of art to be seen in a gallery or museum is not accidental, and neither is its allure. Graphic amputation breaks from everyday experience and entraps the viewer. Violence in this scene, combined with the aberrant sex and use of foodstuffs throughout the performance, creates a tension in the viewer’s perception of representation. “Staring witnesses an interruption of our comforting narratives—variously called truth, knowledge, certainty, or meaning,” Garland-Thomas notes, continuing: “What embodies the contingent, the unpredictable, the strange, the disordered prompts our stares as we seek to find order in apparent disarray. We may gaze at what we desire, but we stare at what astonishes us.”[17] McCarthy’s amputation scene creates a state in which the viewer’s reality must be questioned to process the visual information in the photographs. McCarthy does not tolerate a passive gaze, but requires viewers’ immersion in his art.

Eventually viewers continue past the amputation scene, through the rest of the portfolio on display, and exit the gallery. In the first amputation scene, and in Pirate Party as a whole, McCarthy challenges viewers to consider, question, and recognize their entanglement in popular cultural fantasies, and encourages the affect of violence to linger. For the trick of severing the leg, once revealed, does little to alleviate its effect on the viewer. It is in this persistence that I return to violence as process. McCarthy’s fabricated violence, directed at his own body, compels viewers to grapple with the subject and to come to terms with what they have seen once they depart. Rather than proselytizing, Pirate Party is a discussion with viewers actively engaged in the social and cultural import of the morbidity of a bacchanalian destruction. The McCarthys leave viewers to perform their own dissections and stitch themselves back together with the reality they uncover.


All Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio images: Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy, Pirate Party Photograph Portfolio, 2005. One of 79 color photographs, edition 5/10, 20 x 13 1/4 inches (50.8 x 33.7 cm) each. Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Promised gift of Blake Byrne, T’57. Images courtesy of the artists and Hauser & Wirth, New York, New York. © Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy.

[1] Examples include the event score “Pound a line of holes in the wall with a solid steel rod. Fall, 1970”, Whipping a Wall with Paint (1974), Painter (1995), and Piccadilly Circus (2003).

[2] Throughout the essay I refer to Paul McCarthy as “McCarthy” and Damon McCarthy as “Damon.”

[3] Aisha Karim and Bruce B. Lawrence, “General Introduction: Theorizing Violence in the Twenty-First Century,” in On Violence: A Reader, ed. Aisha Karim and Bruce B. Lawrence (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 11.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Stephanie Rosenthal, “LaLa Land Parody Paradise,” in LaLa Land Parody Paradise, ed. Stephanie Rosenthal (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2005), 132.

[6] In My Doctor, McCarthy slices the scalp of his facial mask to discharge a doll and ketchup blood. In Baby Boy he wears a bloodied helmet and hospital gown and simulates giving birth with a toy baby doll.

[7] Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now (London: Hayward Gallery; University of California Press, 2000), 23.

[8] Christine Quigley, Dissection on Display: Cadavers, Anatomists and Public Spectacle (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), 13.

[9] Ibid., 31–32.

[10] “Philadelphia Museum of Art – Collections Object: Portrait of Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic),” http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/299524.html?mulR=399906588|3.

[11] Kemp and Wallace, Spectacular Bodies, 19.

[12] Barbara Maria Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 47–48.

[13] John Kirkup, A History of Limb Amputation (London: Springer, 2007).

[14] Ann Millett-Gallant, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art, 1st ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 92.

[15] Rosenthal, “LaLa Land Parody Paradise,” 132.

[16] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Ways of Staring,” Journal of Visual Culture 5, no. 2 (August 2006): 174, doi:10.1177/1470412906066907.

[17] Ibid.