By Keegan Shiner
The following argument is a product of my experience becoming a conceptual refugee from the comedy scene. As I am writing this, I am graduating with a Masters of Fine Art in Studio Art, the artiest art degree an artist can have on their resume. I am soon to be a documented master of the practice of studio art, and thereby an official member of the "art scene." When I say art scene, I mean a community of artists, dealers, gallerists, curators and other art aficionados that continue conversations about the market, practice and history of contemporary art. A lot of people may find themselves suddenly a part of a scene as they focus on an interest and gain valuable skills and insights about their passions. And some people, like myself, may change scenes at some point in their lives, or decide "that's just not my scene" and move to Texas. But that's not me, I still value being a part of my original scene, which was comedy. After spending five years in Chicago learning and networking, producing, directing, music directing, sketch and improvisational comedy, I was part of the scene. Maybe on the fringes, and still relatively new to the scene, but still a part of something bigger than myself. As I worked on my own voice in comedy, it became apparent that my interests were not directly in line with what was popular to other people in the scene. I was drawn to the critical voices, the invasions of the audience's expectations, the performance of real life, pranks and my comedic shows and videos began to reflect that. I was experimenting with the improvisational forms and bringing them into the public realm. This was from a long tradition of comedians, I thought. Around that time I decided I needed a career change, from working in I.T. and marketing and decided to go back to school. When I showed my comedy videos to art school recruiters, they perked up. These were performance art, they said. So I began using that language as I entered the school and allowed myself to be cast away from the safety of the comedy scene. As far as I was aware, none of my friends had ever gone to a performance art show or been a part of the art scene. Many of them were shocked when I up and decided to move and get an MFA. I knew, though, that my interests in comedy were never going to line up with the comedy industrial complex that had taken over the once great avant-garde comedy scene in Chicago.
Here's the thing, Comedy is actually not Art. It doesn't win Oscars, it's not in museums. It's not to be taken seriously, especially not when it is known as the primary location to find a discussion about intestinal dispatches. These are known industry attitudes, most well-known from the Oscar song "A Comedian at the Oscars" featuring Jack Black, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. We also know many comedians that "go dramatic" to get Oscars, like Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. These same attitudes were what I encountered as I entered the art scene. Art is not comedy. Art is not entertaining and is never widely accessible to audiences. Art is serious and must be considered with a great deal of concentration and thought. Art is a location of conversation. Comedy is a location of chuckles and bachelorette parties. In fact, Webster's Dictionary defines comedy as "humorous entertainment." Just to break this down a little; clearly, if one is seeing a comedy it should be watchable and induce laughter. I would go further to argue that through this definition it would be good to assume that anything beyond entertainment and humor would not fit into this definition. Art is defined as the "conscious use of skill and creative imagination, especially in the production of aesthetic objects". By this vague definition, one must be skilled at something and use a creative imagination to produce it. This definition also allows for art to include objects. By the basic dictionary definitions, comedy and art are not the same.
Who wrote those definitions anyway, an artificial intelligence? They're broad and vague and have no relevance to the contemporary usage of the words art and comedy. Especially not when talking about the scenes. But we continue to use these definitions to label artists and comedians as separate but equal. The Market with a capital M deserves the right to determine which definition someone fits into. The ability to sell the work becomes the narrative that people adhere to and consciously or unconsciously consider as they relate to a work. This is part of the reason performance art has always been a differential from other practices. How can one purchase an experience? What is the value of inducing sites of knowledge through the body? These are large questions that are hard to answer but are being questioned as galleries and museums scramble to include more performance in their curriculums in recent years. This is partly due to the gradual prestige garnered by performance artists who started in the 1960s and are now reaching their retrospective years, and partly due to museums seeking ways to keep people engaged with their programs. As a side note, performance artists often bring to life the problems with displaying art in museums, in an article in the New York Times, Hilarie Sheets includes this headache including artists who cannot light their work, cannot include water, or having no place to do costume changes.
As I began to realize that the definitions dividing comedy and art were commercially generated, I rejected the separation and began considering artists that were making comedy and passing in the art scene. The trick seemed to be that they never mentioned that they were funny. Any reference to the "bits" or "jokes" in their work would be received as having not been considered seriously or with a critical eye. There are many artists who are not comedians. Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons made monuments of mundane objects. Warhol's Brillo boxes and exploration of the idea of art imitating life. Jeff Koons makes large balloon dogs with much of the same point. Koons even made miniatures that were awkwardly balanced to invite the audience to consider the presciousness of these fine artworks of mundane objects. When one of them broke in Miami and made the news, the work became a performance. But in comedy, these are just examples of exaggeration. In this case, the exaggeration of contemporary art's obsession with objects, preciousness and celebrity. Many comedians use exaggeration to attack problematic beliefs and ideas. What makes aesthetic objects and installations by Koons and Warhol art and comedic exaggeration non-art?
Another artist who is not a comedian is Andrea Fraser. Through video work and performance, Andrea Fraser criticizes the institution of art. She questions the architecture of museums and their functionality in providing spaces for art. She questions the market value of performance and the idea of "selling out" in her piece "Untitled," where she took a video of herself having sex with an art collector who purchased the performance. But in comedy, these are examples of political satire. Politics is not central to governmental policy. Many social satires attack similar institutions. What makes the criticism of the institution of art institutions "art" and other satire non-art?
Banksy is another artist that is not a comedian. Despite the use of visual juxtaposition and wordplay, Banksy is considered surrealist pop-art. This has kept his market value up in the art scene. As his success rose, his work gets more and more institutional, culminating in theme-park installation called Dismaland. Here, the rides and theme park attractions found at Disney Land are converted into reflections of the pollution and post-capitalist corruption of the real world. The suspension of disbelief created by Disney is shattered by Banksy. But in comedy, these puns, and juxtapositions are also considered satire and "bits." What makes the laughter caused by Banksy's whimsical realistic nihilism art and puns and satire non-art?
The Yes Men are a performance art group that creates interventionist corporate critiques. They're not comedians, but they create fake corporate websites that exaggerate the ideals of corporate America and then go and give lectures at conferences where they can present exaggerated versions of colonialist and ethnocentric ideologies. Their more recent work includes creating a fake NRA website to donate guns to impoverished Americans. They also hosted an event as the NRA to generate interest. Pretending to be someone you're not or representing a company to fool their supporters is called a prank in comedy. What makes interventionist corporate critique art and pranks non-art?
Ayana Evans is not a comedian, but wears a t-shirt that reads "I just came here to find a husband." In another piece she asks her audience to participate in a bachelorette party. She utilizes the abstraction of ideas and her body to express her experience as a black feminist woman. Comedy would call these bits and sketches about the life of a black feminist woman. Especially in Ayana Evans' case, the comedy axiom "Truth in Comedy" coined by Del Close (godfather of improvisation) is especially true. What makes Ayana Evans' use of truth and abstraction art and bits and sketches non-art?
Jillian Mayer is not a comedian, but she creates videos that question the way that technology and design impact our real lives. She also questions the way in our habits of using technology could be combined with real world problems like flooding. She creates abstract sculptures that support the use of a cell phone for their participants, but also can be used as floatation devices in a hurricane. Comedy would call these bits and sketches about technology.
Keren Cytter is not a comedian, but she makes drawings and videos that embody the post-modern self-awareness of the characters in her films. She uses non-actors to act out the movies she makes. She also uses surreal environments and choreography. Comedy would call these meta or dark absurdist comedies.
Though none of these artists are comedians, it becomes more and more clear that they could be considered comedians. In a presentation at Tufts University, I watched Jillian Mayer apologize for the comedy elements in her video. "Don't worry," she said, "my intentions in this video are sincere." The video in question involved her giving her granddaughter a message in the future, involving all of the aspects of her current life that she struggles with. This might as well have been made for a sketch show like SNL.
There are comedians who are not artists as well. The Upright Citizens Brigade, before they started the theater in New York, were an improv and sketch group in Chicago. They would do sketches that involved the audience. They would do bits where they led the audience on fake tours, that led to Horatio Sanz actually getting arrested by the police when he did not drop his character. They went to the post office and mailed a letter dressed as the Unabomber. Matt Besser even organized a suicide party, where he invited a lot of people to watch him jump off a building and everyone showed up. (He ended up throwing a dummy off the building) Art would define this as interventionist performance art that explores how people deal with complacency.
Another comedian that is not an artist is Nathaniel For You who makes pranks like "Dumb Starbucks." Dumb Starbucks was a pop-up Starbucks store located in a seedy strip mall in Los Angeles. Everything that a Starbucks would have was included in the store, but all the labels on the food said "Dumb Starbucks" and all the prices and obvious locations that the food and drinks came from were left in place. Art would call this performance art or popup galleries that mimic life and a post-capitalist critique.
The non-artists of Jackass are well known comedians who use gross-out gags and bits to shock their audiences. Art would call this masochistic performance art and the exploration of the male ego and body.
The list goes on and on for comedians who are not artists, even though much of what they do is not even considered comedy. I can imagine a patron of "Dumb Starbucks" entering and ordered a coffee without even laughing. But if all of these separate performances are simply labeled one way or the other, then perhaps the point could still be made that art and comedy are separate. But what about people who are not really accepted by the scene that they cling to?
Andy Kaufman and Tehching Hsieh are at the top of the pile. Both men allow their life to become their comedy/art. Both of them carry on their performance for longer than their audience can watch, finds reasonable, or is entertained. Kaufman started wrestling women, as a "gag" he claimed to make him the villain in a real-life wrestling program. He would always beat and pin down the women. At the end of this period, he was beat up by Jerry Lawler, a real life wrestler. It was later revealed that their fight was also pre-planned. Many people did not find Kaufman's life-as-comedy performance entertaining. This removes it from the definition of comedy. Yet he is considered one of the best comedians of all time. In a similar way, Tehching Hsieh is a Chinese artist that lives in New York. He has been credited as the modern inventor of performance art by Marina Abromovic. He does yearlong performances, including staying outdoors for an entire year, punching a time card every hour for a year and tying himself to a woman around the waist for a whole year. The endurance of his performances and the length of his performances almost shatter the observability of his work by audiences. His art-is-life performances are can be considered torture or that of a mentally ill person. While both Kaufman and Hsieh are accepted by comedy and art, they are not accepted by art and comedy. Kaufman's performance as life and multiple interventions into corporate and celebrity life should lift him up to the pinnacle of performance art. Hsieh's yearlong commitments to exaggerated actions are hysterical and his struggle with them is comedy gold, yet he has never been mentioned in comedy.
Another blur of an example is Jason Musson, who hosts a vlog called Art Thoughtz. Jason's character Hennesy Youngman is clearly meant to invite laughter. In fact, should he call himself a comedian, he would be welcomed with open arms. But he is widely distributed as a reference in art schools and not in comedy training institutions.
An easier pop-culture example of this are Aaron Sorkin and Amy Sherman Palladino. Both writers are known as dramatic television writers. But both of them hire and cast comedians on their shows and feature the comedic timing of a sketch show. The dips into sensitive and truthful emotional moments eliminate their shows (West Wing, Gilmore Girls) from being considered comedies. Yet most people watch these shows for their humor, not for the dramatic action.
In theater, Second City's revues have always included sketches that hold emotional resonance and timing. A good director of a comedy revue knows that a range of feeling is more effective to controlling the pace and energy of a given show. However, should a show end up being too emotional, even by a few minutes, a scathing review will end up in the newspaper, including this quote from the Chicago Tribune: "Progressive aims, it must be intuited here, are best served by the promotion of complexity and empathy for one's fellow human, which does not have to mean acquiescence. And, this very talented cast needs reminding, hearts must be moved for minds to be won. May happier moments be ahead on Wells Street and may God bless us, everyone."
It should be clear now that while there is a divide between comedy and art, there also are many ways that these two scenes crossover and should not be divided. Mentioning comedy to an artist will always yield the standard response of "oh you do stand-up." Even for other artists, the understanding of what a comedian does is immediately boiled down to the Webster's definition. Telling a comedian you're a fine artist yields the same basic definition-level understanding. There are people in both scenes that would benefit from learning from each other. In my own work, as I have embraced my comedic side and incorporated more comedy into my artwork, I have found more success. This could be due to my foundation of sincerity within my own community, or it could be that my work is more interesting when it is more comedic. Whatever the case, laughter should not be an indictment for a work to be considered art. The old definitions of comedy and art need to be thrown out. But until the time, please hold your laughter when I perform.Page Break
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