Charles Platiau/Reuters

Artist Paul McCarthy stretches the boundaries of art and political commentary in the public square.

Christmas is coming to Paris early this year!

Tree, a sculpture by the American artist Paul McCarthy, went up today in Place Vendôme. The sculpture is the centerpiece of the International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC), which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Tree also coincides with the opening of "Chocolate Factory," the artist's first solo survey in France, which in turn coincides with the grand reopening of the Monnaie de Paris.

The organizing theme for this special celebration of contemporary art in Paris appears to be what the French call le plug: Not only does Tree bear an uncanny resemblance to the flanged sex toy, "Chocolate Factory" will see workers produce thousands of chocolate figurines of Santa Claus holding this "emblem."

Chiara Parisi, head of cultural programs for Monnaie de Paris, calls the piece un grand fantasme. It's easy to laugh at the sentiment; after all, we are talking about butt plugs.

Paul McCarthy, Tree (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Yet McCarthy's piece, and McCarthy's work writ large, should remind viewers of what we can and cannot say and do in the public sphere. Tree would be unthinkable in any square in any city in the U.S.—period.

Just this week, Politico Magazine observed that on Oct. 6, Republicans effectively surrendered the "culture war … for the soul of America" that Pat Buchanan originally declared back in 1992 (thanks to the Supreme Court's refusal to hear same-sex marriage rulings made by lower courts). That's progress. But sexual and reproductive health and rights is still a fraught topic in the U.S.—and no longer a winning campaign issue for liberals.

Maybe Tree serves better as a lens through which to view French politico-culture. Official liberal intolerance of Muslim culture in France may be partly responsible for the high number of ISIS recruits among women there. The headscarf ban is a real thing, responsible for real shifts in French society. Yet no one has cried sacrebleu! over a monumental sex toy.

Then again: Can't a butt-plug sculpture just be a butt-plug sculpture? To be sure, McCarthy appears to delight in casting aspersions on the institutional art world. For an inflatable-sculpture festival in 2013 (the year the world witnessed peak inflatable sculpture), McCarthy gave Hong Kong a massive turd. I suspect he would share my dim view of Rubber Duck artist Florentijn Hofman.

Paul McCarthy, Complex Pile, shown in Hong Kong in April 2013. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

It doesn't much matter whether you read McCarthy's Tree as a scathing indictment of (il)liberalism, a dismissive gesture about art-world complacency, or just a big-ol' anal treat. Think of it another way: Christians in many parts of the world take it for granted that a Christmas tree goes up when December rolls around. In other parts of the world, religious liberties—and many other civil liberties even here—are harder to come by. Testing our aversion to perversion is one way to judge our dedication to freedom.

What Tree shows is the value of the public square in sharing and debating concepts, through visual art (or performance, or debate, or protest). That's true of McCarthy's work and for previous festival pieces for Place Vendôme, including recent entries by Li Chen and Jaume Plensa.

Indeed, where societies don't have public squares—from Ferguson to Hong Kong—they find ways to create them.

Li Chen, Floating Heavenly Palace, shown in Sept. 2013 (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
Jaume Plensa, Irma's White Head, shown in Oct. 2012 (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)

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