The Critic Smiles
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ssohail's picture


Jasper Johns made this creepy sculpture of human teeth mounted on a toothbrush in response to a couple of bad reviews about his work.

Critics, be warned: if you’re going to rip apart his work with your words, well then he’ll just extract your teeth and stick them on a toothbrush. Nothing psycho about that.

Well, one can be pretty sure that Johns didn’t actually pull out critics’ teeth as revenge for this particular piece. That is to say, no reports of critics with missing molars were made after this work was created. In any case, it is a salty comeback to what some commentators from the art world had to say about Johns’ work. They didn’t really look at his work with open minds, but rather viewed them through the lens of their prevailing opinions. The teeth have a savage kind of feel to them, like they should be on a tribal necklace, but instead they’re just nestled into a very mundane toothbrush. This careful pairing of the primitive body part and the household item suggest that the critic is like some kind of domesticated barbarian who rips apart the artwork with his clever words.

What I like about it most is the title though, which is etched into the block that holds this dysfunctional object. It actually beckons to that snarky smile of critics that some of us know so well. Johns himself said, “When the critic smiles, it’s a lopsided smile with hidden meanings. And of course, a smile involves baring the teeth.” In fact, the whole idea of rendering the overall object, i.e. the toothbrush, as entirely useless by replacing the bristles with teeth, is a very Surrealist move on Johns’ part (see Man Ray)…though he might’ve been trying to encapsulate his Dada hero, Duchamp. Either way, it’s impossible to label Johns the way his 60’s contemporaries were being categorized! This guy was not your regular Pop artist. He may have been working with a lot of banal items like Andy Warhol, but his stuff was just more ambiguous. One thing's for sure, you definitely wouldn’t have seen this toothbrush at a local Walgreen’s next to the Campbell’s soup cans or the Brillo boxes.