Cutting the Edge with Matthew Barney: Arts, Fetish, Plato

Cutting The Edge

It’s almost impossible to define the real meaning of the word “arts”: what do we mean by “arts”? Is it Matthew Barney cutting the edge? Are arts the simple expression of everyone’s innermost feelings or do they exceed the visual plan? Do they embrace a subliminal level of communication, sneaking among our mind’s secret places?

Many artists take up the first thesis but there are several art vibes which accept the second one and embrace different cultures and moods. Definitely one of the most representative leading exponents of this sort of cutting-edge avant-garde culture is Matthew Barney.

Matthew Barney

Born March 25, 1967 in San Francisco, Matthew Barney is far more than a simple “artist.” His collection of works-of-art includes film, video, installations, sculpture, photography and drawing works as well as performance art.

Matthew Barney. Scene taken from Cremaster 3

The Creamaster Cycle

The film series “The Cremaster Cycle” is certainly Matthew Barney’s best-known work. It has been defined as a contemporary expression of surrealism but at the same time, “completely arcane, hermetic and solipsistic.”

The Creamaster Cycle is the perfect mixture of several elements such as visual arts, music, fetish as well as psychology and philosophy. His mythopoetic and dream work of art includes, in fact, a lot of elements from cutting-edge vibes, mainly fetish. I think it’ now necessary to say something about this (sadly) often misunderstood word.


What is a fetish? The word “fetish” comes from a Latin word, feticium, which means “idol.” But fetish isn’t just an extreme passion for something, nor is a fetish something (a material, a body part, a feeling) that turns you on.

Fetish is everything that can trigger strong emotions, it is everything that can shock you before turning you on. Nowadays it is easy to define fetish as a phony-baloney expression of an altered state of consciousness and to consider it as some sort of weird mind game. But not many people reckon it is a free expression of everyone’s individuality, which is made of certainties and contradictions, as well as strong and weak emotions.

Psychologists agree on saying that experiencing strong emotions is something that can help us win our “ontological” weakness by making us feel alive.

A fetish, according to Barney, is just a catalyst; it is something that can trigger these strong emotions and create a positively altered state of consciousness which elevates our feelings to a spiral of dazzling and shocking emotions, which can be related to happiness, sadness and, why not, sexual excitement.

Cremaster Analysis

Back to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster, in order to provide a proper analysis of his works, it is necessary to focus on his Cremaster 3. It is the second “episode” of his philosophically disturbing cycle.

The strongest and most accurate arrow for Cremaster 3’s bow is that everyone can receive it at different levels. It is possible to watch it simply as a movie. It is possible to sense it as a work of art, appreciate its visionary visual style and be caught by the flurry of surreal occurrences of the film. But it is also possible to try to catch every single reference to philosophy, religion, psychology or whatsoever else.

The first scene is stunning: a glittering-pink man wearing a pink kilt and a woolly periwig, with a blood-stained pink handkerchief stuck in his mouth suddenly appears in the Guggenheim Museum of New York and starts climbing the walls of the staircase, moving through the so-called “degrees,” which represent the different stages of a person’s psychological growth.


First of all, the weird pink-panther-ish man faces a group of lamb-coated women, dancing a few clicks of tap shoe before the parapet and kneels before them with a very submissive attitude. Then he moves to a suburban environment, in which two punk/rock bands play their aggressive tunes and trigger a hard fight between their own supporting factions.

The third level is represented by a legless woman, wearing crystal boots. As the man steps forward to the young woman she suddenly becomes a leopard-type figure and eventually scratches his back.

Then he keeps on climbing until he reaches the fourth “degree,” a strange sculpture which looks like a marble corpse of a weird and dreamlike animal, something between a lamb and a lion, with enormous mammoth tusks and four sockets on the abdomen, surrounded by hundreds of marble columns.

He looks for the ones that fit the sockets and then he gets back to the legless woman and finally manages to possess her, by grabbing her arms and standing still in front of her. And then he moves to the highest level of the museum, the fifth degree. A black-coated man wearing a gas mask who throws hot melted wax onto a small black box made of five wood planks.

At the end of the film, the man gets back to the legless woman and stands in front of her until the final picture appears on the screen: that woman sitting on a throne with her eyes covered by blood stained bandages holding four leashes with four lambs.


The Cremaster 3 is a research about the way men approach their sexual life: it is possible to draw a simple scheme:

    • 1st degree: Lamb-coated women – Submissive, worship women
    • 2nd degree: Punk groups; clash – Fights for women
    • 3rd degree: Legless woman – Finding love
    • 4th degree: Sculpture – Trying to conquer a woman
    • 5th degree: Wax on the box – Death, which is impossible to face without having experienced love

The Erotic Scale of Plato

There are many references to philosophers as well: first of all, it’s impossible not to think about the erotic scale of Plato, which is organized into 5 steps:

    • Love for the Body
    • Love for the Soul
    • Love for Human Laws
    • Love for Human Sciences
    • Love for the perfect idea of Being.

So, to sum up, it is possible to define Matthew Barney as one of the most innovative artists of all time. His purpose is not to produce works of art, but to build a new arts culture, by exploring and exceeding new boundaries and mixing arts with philosophy, psychology and fetish. The Cremaster is not a joke and although many people might find it childish or boring, it is definitely a new beginning for a new arts era.

Alessandro De Arcangelis
Alessandro De Arcangelis was born in Naples, Italy. He published two books, "Un'Elitaria Democrazia" and "Zampa di Gatto" and worked with several magazines and newspapers. His interests vary from humanities to music, from philology to IT. He attended the classical literature and philology university in Milan, Italy.