Comedy as Unintentional Conceptual Art
Anyone who watches YouTube prank videos and is familiar with conceptual art and its pseudo-philosophical underpinnings should experience some cognitive dissonance when YouTube comedians do performance and installation art without giving it a second thought.
This short clip from the Impractical Jokers includes a viable contemporary art installation:
Everything in Joe Gatto’s house from floor to ceiling has been individually covered in wrapping paper, including each fruit in the fruit bowl, and every item in the cupboards. All his pictures, before being wrapped, have been replaced with unflattering photos of him.
When the picture above came on the screen I was instantly reminded of so many fine art installations.
Kinda’ reminds me of this room covered in flowers by contemporary conceptual art sensation, Yayoi Kusama:
Or a lot of the work of Sandy Skoglund, going back to the 80’s:
If you’re thinking, “Well, shit, comedy is just copying contemporary art” you MAY be right, but at very least so is conceptual art copying conceptual art ad nauseam. Yayoi Kusama’s flower room was created in 2017, but Sandy Skoglund was doing this sort of thing 37 years earlier, in 1980.
And who really could feel very clever covering anything in flowers after Jeff Koons’s Puppy, of 1992.
For the record, I think Sandy Skoglund is legit, and her photographs of indoor environments she creates are at very least aesthetically compelling. Koons is a fraud. Kusama is fashion masquerading as fine art.
Sure, the work of Kusama or other contemporary installation artists is more considered and better executed than the comparatively perfunctory prank by the Impractical Jokers. However, they could have used the same medium, added any social critique simply by changing what’s on the wrapping paper (provided it corresponded with a progressive agenda), crimped the edges of the packaging a little better, and voila: important and priceless contemporary art.
I’m not even sure that comedy follows artistic innovation, or if, in the case of conceptual art — which, if we are going to be honest, even at its best is sometimes very difficult to distinguish from parody — art follows comedy. The difference being that conceptual art takes itself deadly seriously. Consider that Candid Camera started in 1948, and performance art didn’t come around until at the earliest 1956, when Japanese artist Atsuko Tanaka designed and wore a kimono made of flashing bulbs:
And now look at this classic Candid Camera skit in which cars are split in two:
The halved cars alone would constitute contemporary art sculpture, let alone operating in a performance that contravenes expectation and elicits a reaction in public. I fear that if we were to compare the creative merit, and execution of projects from Candid Camera alone to the revolutionary works of conceptual artists of the same period, our radical artists might not only be a lot less entertaining (and a lot more cringe-worthy), but less innovative or interesting. That is partly due to the nature of comedy being to go against expectation.
For now, if you watch YouTube pranks and are familiar with conceptual art, just take note of how enormous the crossover is between techniques employed by the two, though for different reasons and different effect. What does it mean for conceptual art, theoretically, if comedians easily use its techniques without considering themselves artists or their creations contemporary art? Note here that all comic YouTube videos are “video”.
Is it odd that you can’t unintentionally make any other kind of art?
Inversely, some of the most seminal conceptual art pieces were either intentionally pranks, could pass for pranks, or are unintentional self parodies. I’ll need a thumbnail gallery for this one. Just off the top of my head:
Tell me why the following ridiculous prank is not performance art, er, if Ed Bassmaster decided to call it that (so you can’t just say because he didn’t call it performance):
As someone who has been the teaching assistance for at least two performance art classes in grad school, has done performance art, and am an “A” student of preeminent performance artist Paul McCarthy, I still can’t really distinguish between performance art and YouTube videos of people going out and doing pranks. Here’s another one:
I can tell you why it’s offensive and stupid (and hilarious), but not why it’s not performance art.
An unavoidable conclusion is surfacing. It’s not that the public can’t handle conceptual art, performance, and installation, as they’ve been assimilating its techniques for generations through comedy (and elsewhere). They just have trouble taking it seriously.
[I know, I know, I’m exaggerating, and of course there’s patently serious conceptual and installation art, such as by Christian Boltanski or Ai Weiwei. Oh, and yes, I do realize Warhol is a “Pop” artist, but some Pop art has a conceptual element, thanks. Point is we see the revolutionary techniques of radical conceptual art that challenge perceptions and start conversations — giving new meaning to a “conversation piece” — used extensively presently and historically in comedy, and without calling it art.]