Paul McCarthy - A&E Sessions, Drawing and Painting - Hauser & Wirth - February 23 - April 10, 2021
Hauser & Wirth
Paul McCarthy and the Negative Sublime
In Sade mon prochian Pierre Klossowski tentatively posits Sade as a theist in spite of himself, someone so driven towards the repudiation of God's existence that he becomes the ultimate believer, the surest proof of God by his inability to drive God away. Like the physical prisons he spent most of his life in, no matter how he shakes his fist and rattles the bars, his rage against God can never liberate him. His scatologies and transgressions are made in opposition to God and are thereby given meaning by the existence of God. He pulls on an unbreakable finger trap that tightens infinitely against the absurd intensity of his struggling. But the Marquis lived in an age where a conception of atheism literally did not exist, which is also what made his hatred so singular. In our time, for better or for worse, God has been long dead so we have no such compunctions.
Paul McCarthy doesn't care about God. Or maybe he does, I don't know. What's sure is he isn't tortured by the idea. I don't even think he's tortured in general. Painter, to my mind the greatest single artwork of the 1990s, is a visceral document of the sheer horror of the artist's internal struggle, a strikingly true portrait of the artistic process that is simultaneously completely ironic and likely the funniest piece of art ever made. According to the parlance of middlebrow institutions, the piece "seeks to undermine the idea of 'the myth of artistic greatness' and attacks the perception of the heroic male artist,"  which is sort of true in the sense that he's absolutely taking the piss, but as an explanation it's woefully reductive and, worse, unsatisfying. Mocking the normative models of artistic greatness is one thing, positing them as wrong is another entirely. Making (good) art is always a struggle fraught with anxieties of influence and the looming fear of failure, navigating the narrow avenue between the continuity of artistic identity and repetitive self-parody, general malaise and existential dread, etc. McCarthy's exacting parody of this process does not suggest that the struggle is mistaken; on the contrary, its brilliance lies precisely in the objective reality of what's being dragged through the mud. People seem to be sick of irony (again) these days but in his work we see the highest possibility of the ironic: not a condescending dismissal but the sublimation of the deathly serious into pure, liberated humor.
This distantiating irony is the negative sublime, though such a thing is not necessarily humorous. Kafka, Béla Tarr, and Kentaro Miura come to mind as purveyors of this phenomenon, none of whom are renowned for their wit. What each of these artists, including McCarthy, does is portray a bleak, brutal, entirely unsentimental reality, not to bemoan it but to affirm and thereby overcome it, a rather explicit staging of Nietzsche's eternal return. This irony differs categorically from that of a more common art figure, the edgelord shock jock whose work centers on the snickering of the bad boy getting a rise out of his audience. The edgelord's mistake lies in their implied sense of moral superiority, the condescending sneer at the art world (which, to be clear, deserves to be sneered at) that never goes beyond its own condescension. Their denigration is a half-measure applied to the arts without sullying the artist's own morality by self-defining as a non-complicit outsider, which is nonsense. If you're an artist showing at a gallery you're complicit with the art world, and to deny that is a delusion that negates the possibility of substantive critique. A real critique and a real passage into artistic freedom consists in diving head-first into one's real context, embracing with open arms the depravity of the world one is a part of. Paradoxically, this embrace of the real is what liberates the artist from the burden of the real. It's a cliché that art is expiatory, that artists make their work out of an inner need that is satisfied by the process of making, but like most clichés this is more or less true. An artwork affiliates the artist's persona with the work, but that which is put into the work is taken out of the artist and abstracted from them so that they too stand apart from it, hence the sublimating power of art. Most people recoil from the abjection of McCarthy, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, etc. as "too negative" or cynical, but what is truly cynical is the vapid pleasantry of most saleable art easily found in the rest of Chelsea. Like liberalism, an illusory optimism that reassures one that everything is fine serves not to usher in actual positivity but only to hamstring progress by sweeping under the rug the real severity of our condition. The possibility for social change only lies in seeing clearly by forsaking all of our sentimental illusions of society as something that is not profoundly sick and cruel. Moreover, that act of giving up of sentimentality is also the key to giving up despair, discarding an attachment to (false) life and acceptance of death.
To incorporate Thanatos with the same zeal that one incorporates Eros is to conquer death and likewise conquer life. In his work McCarthy becomes Death (he's read his Deleuze) and with relish tramples the exigencies of life. His characters liberate him from the confines of humanity and place him in the space of pure performance, an ecstasy of unconstrained id, orgies of scat and food, instinctual dry-humping, the obscene sexualizing of every hole as an orifice and every protuberance as a phallus, a trance of absolute psychosis. But in his interviews McCarthy seems rather pleasant and soft-spoken, certainly not a simple Sadean pervert exhibiting his fantasies. The work carries out its own internal logic, following the current of libidinal depravity that's been set up and devastating everything in its wake. But this devastation is subtle, a destruction that happens without anger and disassociates into an overwhelming humor. Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a comedian of this class, staging cruel parodies of his friends playing themselves (and himself) that are nevertheless suffused with compassion for their suffering and without a trace of the judgmental disdain of other directors of his generation such as Werner Herzog. It's difficult to precisely address the nature of this humor, but much of it has already been outlined implicitly. True disillusionment is a liberation from the niceties of self-preservation and is in fact profoundly life-affirming. The laughter of Painter is a loving mockery of the self-seriousness of a subject that is actually serious, which makes it an affirmation of the creative process while stripping it of its preciousness and anxieties. Grasping the humor of this mock horror is to make a friend of horror, like Col. Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and in doing so to look into the infinite blackness of the void. Once this is done, personal problems become like petty impediments because living itself is little more than a petty impediment. This is the sleight of hand of self-overcoming, freedom not from the facts of life but from the concern for those facts, so much the better to address those facts with clarity and courage. This clarity is always radical, not because it necessarily makes for scatological subjects, but because with it comes the untainted strength of moral rectitude, a subversion of complicity that will always make the normative masses wince. Implicit in the pleasure of seeing McCarthy's incredible new show at Hauser & Wirth is the awe one feels at the fact that the works are at Hauser & Wirth, lying in wait to displease the average Chelsea gallery-goer trying to have a nice Saturday. I certainly seemed to be the only person in the building who was enjoying himself while I was there.