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Bring on the Clowns

Paul McCarthy, Wallace Shawn and a Mountain I Know –

There are beefy guard rails now on the road up Mount Lemmon, outside Tucson. When I was a boy the drive was more of an adventure, the steep canyons littered with the skeletal remains of cars that had lost control on the tight curves. Often my grandfather would have been at the wheel, bent hands steering the pickup or, at other times, the big Cadillac he’d earned with hard labor and quick wits. I’d watch as the topography outside the windows shifted from saguaro and mesquite to pine forest, and the big rock formations came and went, spinning majestically as the road took us around and upwards toward Summer Haven near the summit. Today my father’s wife Elena is driving and my father, nearing ninety now himself, sits in back telling familiar stories about the mountain, tales of heartbreak and family conflict – an American saga rich in betrayals, regrets and petty intrigue. And the mountain itself has changed, the tall forests reduced to ash and bare rock by the fire that raged here six years back, its fury stoked by global warming and the lowering of the water table. I’ve only been here a few times since the 1970s, and the country itself has changed along with the topography.

The covert victories of art are everywhere. Near Bern, Switzerland in the summer of 2008, a gust of wind swept down from the North across the grounds at the Paul Klee Center and lifted the massive inflatable dog turd into the air. As big as a house, the turd, entitled Complex Shit by its creator, the international art star Paul McCarthy, eventually came to rest, in a shower of sparks, on nearby power lines. At RedCat some months back McCarthy’s work was celebrated by Wunderbaum, a young Dutch theater company, in a piece called Looking for Paul. I didn’t see the production, but people were laughing as they told me about it. From what I gather, Looking for Paul begins as a tirade against the misanthropic obscenity of a McCarthy sculpture called Santa Claus in Rotterdam, a thirty foot high bronze replica of a kitchy Santa figurine holding, in one hand, a Christmas bell and, in the other, an immense butt plug. The Wonderbaum piece then turns 180 degrees and becomes a raunchy bacchanal, a homage to McCarthy involving lots of ketchup, fake feces and simulated copulation. Wonderbaum, in other words, devotes an evening to a collective exploration of the mysteries of McCarthy’s appeal – how an artist so obviously venal and obscene, so flagrantly corrupt in his intentions, has come to seem also so vital and essential, restorative even.

The history of art is full of surprises, but so, of course, is everything else. The meaning of what we experience is never fixed in the way we expect it to be. Our ability to arrive at a clear and definite interpretation of what happened yesterday is forever compromised by what happens today, and also by what will happen tomorrow and all the days after. This is true on a personal level and it’s also true on a historical scale, and we tend to shrink from this alarming tsunami of “groundlessness,” and to cling to ways of seeing the world even when they no longer serve us. As we wind our way up the mountain, Elena, a working psychologist, is telling me about recent insights into the nature of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that suggest a neurological basis for this “stuckness.” The issue is the frontal lobe, our big cortexes packed with banks of neurons that hold the imprint of traumas long after other mammals would have shivered vigorously and gotten back to the demands of the moment. Tattooed on our gray matter, the tigers that leap at us continue to do so long after we have escaped immediate danger. Listening to Elena talk, I ponder how the curves of the road she navigates were set long ago by my grandfather and his compadres as they pursued their very American dreams. The particular vistas reeling past the car windows, I realize, were also set by these asphalt encodings, vistas that now provide a backdrop for the impressions of tourists and, occasionally, for the memories of traumatized grandchildren like myself.

We fool ourselves into thinking that the settling of the wild West really settled anything. The “nature” our forefathers were intent on taming has simply receded into a new kind of wilderness that rises up within us and in our collective future. Paul McCarthy leads us to the edge of that dark and so does the playwright Wallace Shawn, another transgressive shaman-clown energizing the cultural scene. Both McCarthy and Shawn plunder the rich vault of fairy tales, combining that plangent, Disneyfied imagery with dank and lurid sexuality. A gnomic figure, Shawn’s aesthetic MO is to locate darker threads in the zeitgeist and dramatize them in such a way that they can no longer be ignored. Shawn’s recent play Grasses of a Thousand Colors is a violent and erotic dream along the lines of Bataille’s infamous Story of the Eye. Basing his text on a 17th century French fairy tale, Shawn concocts an apocalyptic saga of a scientist who has altered the food chain in vague and destabilizing ways that allow for cannibalism on a mass scale. The sexual escapades of this chatty sociopath are perverse and alarming, but no more so than the cocktail of lies served up 24-7 by Rupert Murdoch’s minions. Compared to Fox News, the violent and raucous obscenity of McCarthy and Shawn is refreshing in its candor, and often deeply restorative, offering engagement with our shadow material. And the timeless historicity these artists lift so shamelessly from the fairy tales our children read implicitly raises the question of how exactly we got here.

– 2 –

I consider myself one of the lucky white Americans in that my ancestry does not include slave holders or Indian killers, at least so far as I know. But I’ve read my grandfather’s memoirs, his accounts of a boyhood spent on a sequence of farms in Kansas at the beginning of the century, and violence lights up the edges of the story. His father, August, worked his sons hard. The continual, incessant physical labor – scything, threshing, baling, plowing, planting, herding and tending and canning and all the rest – came with physical abuse as well, discipline enforced with the aid of a bullwhip. In their teens, my grandfather and a few of his brothers confronted the old man about this violence in a primal scene worthy of Sigmund Freud. Striking back, August sold the farm out from under them and rode off with the furniture for Mexico, where he bought a ranch and prospered for a time. When the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920, August relocated to Northern California and died at the age of 105 after slipping on a cow pat in his barn and breaking his pelvis, a death sentence back in those days. My father met him there as a boy. A family trip North, a brief sojourn from his own boyhood of continual labor, soft only in comparison to what had been the norm in the preceding generation. Thrift and hard labor, a focused assault on the future in order to heal the wounds of the past – isn’t this what fuels the American engine of continual growth that is blighting the planet?

Complex Shit

In the carnival freak show of contemporary American life, I believe our shamen take the form of clown-artists like McCarthy and Shawn. Theirs is an art of violent juxtapositions and discordances, one that threatens to spill over into our “normal” lives and destabilize our false sense of solidity. I think of the painters Phillip Guston and Francis Bacon here. I think of R Crumb and William Burroughs. Donald Barthelme certainly also. I think of the playwright Irene Fornes and of the novelist Jane Bowles too. I think of Franz Kafka most of all – his gift for creating living dreams that only accrue relevance with the passing decades. These are artists of the “middle way,” artists who keep one foot firmly planted in the wretchedness of knowing we are completely in thrall to the worst things that happen to us, the childhood traumas stored in our cortexes; the other in the joy of being radically free in the embodied present, in touch with a limitless grace. How is it possible we could embody so completely both of these contradictory qualities at once? Such mysteries are made to be addressed by shamen or clowns…or a hybrid of both.

Driving through Summer Haven at the summit of Mt. Lemmon is painful. For me, these scenic vistas are littered with Proustian triggers that explode in great arcs of emotional energy above the darkened landscapes of my own shadow land. Here’s the rock formation called “Punch and Judy” where the tourists stop to snap photos, the scene for me of an old humiliation. Here’s Inspiration Rock, where I fled once in the grip of despair. Here’s the site of my grandfather’s old sawmill where I was almost bitten by a Black Mountain rattlesnake hiding beside the sawdust dump. It’s a helicopter pad now, maintained by the ever-vigilant fire department. The sense of being shackled to the past, the mechanistic cause and effect of emotional neglect leading to dysfunction, makes me long for the openness of dreams and art. I am drawn to work that reconnects us to thelimitless freedom that is also our birthright whether we use it or not. The hillsides are blackened now, denuded by that catastrophic blaze, but lit up already with the green shoots of new growth emerging through the ash.

As I say, the world has changed along with the mountain. I have, in fact, spent my adult life witnessing a long crime. In thrall to the delusions of Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss and to the blind imperatives of the Capital markets, the right wing stooges in the Supreme Court and Congress are working overtime to reduce the American middle class to the penury of those in India and China. And yet, capital, always fluid, has fewer new frontiers today and there are signs that labor is beginning – despite everything – to recognize itself on a transnational scale. Something is shifting, perhaps, in the root paradigms of modernity, even as we collide now with very unforgiving limits in terms of basic resources. And while I agree with those who believe that a tipping point is being reached, I don’t think we can assume the familiar model of revolutions since the 18th century will still hold. Our time perhaps resembles the 17th century in that regard, and it might be good time to re-imagine our sense of our possible futures, and to break the hold of the “dictatorship of no alternatives” that shackles us internally. We turn to transgressive artists like Shawn and McCarthy for an honest mirror in which to track the pornography that is taking place around us. Clowns are uninhibited in dangerous ways, and they pull off in art a trick we are all called upon to perform in life – the violence inflicted on others long ago must be confronted before we are released into our freedom. Then, perhaps, all becomes possible once more.


  1. Great piece, Guy.

    I think erstwhile Mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus, could be added to the Shaman/Clown crew for the inspired and zany ways he dealt with social issues in a city ravaged by past corruption and violence. His work is a great example of the transformative power of art and humor.

    Thanks for this.

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