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.

Radioactive Cats, Cibachrome print by Sandy Skoglund, 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.]

~ Ends



2 replies on “Comedy as Unintentional Conceptual art

  1. Since you bring up Yayoi Kusama, I was at an exhibition of hers in Oslo a couple if years ago. I quite liked it, if I recall correctly there were some neat porous sculptures, and a room displaying some early paintings that were very good, IMO. And of course a whole bunch of dots: looking around inside one of her polkadot rooms was actually rather intense, emotionally – is there a difference between a purely aesthetic experience and an emotional experience brought about by visual stimuli? Because her huge rectangle paintings of polkadots (that I remember as being there, but only vaguely) didn’t really move me at all…
    Now, I can understand viewing her as a fashion icon rather than traditional artist (“advanced” interior design would be closer to fashion than painting, I gather). She certainly adopts the eccentric-hip public image typical of fashion designers… (I write this in genuine respect for the fashion world.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and giving feedback. I read your comment while taking the first sips of my morning coffee, so my response is a bit long.

      You have a huge advantage over me in assessing Yayoi Kusama, since you’ve see a good amount of her work in person. My calling her “fashion” was snarky, but yes, addresses her public image and her aesthetic, which to me seems like not much more than a visual gimmick she’s unofficially patented for herself. What about dots? Fashion has that sort of fresh, but ultimately meaningless aesthetic. Here I don’t mean fashion necessarily as a career or phenomenon, but an association with what is considered fashionable at a givn time. If there’s a new stylistic trend, some clothes that all the cool kids are wearing, some fresh new look, one doesn’t generally anticipate is going to be either richly complex visually, or a profound meditation of the human condition. Fashion is to art what desert is to a real meal. Now, that is a bit of a dick thing to say, and Andrew Warhola made a whole career out of moving fashion and drab commercial illustration and processes into the fine art sphere, but, if I were to be honest I don’t really consider applied art as the equal to real art. Kusama’s art strikes me as applied art without the thing applied to. It’s window display without a sale. Wallpaper with a wall. Packaging without a package. You get the idea. It looks nice, and hip, bit if there’s any substance there, I don’t know what it is. That may simply because I only see her work through reproduction online. I can be a bit dismissive of her art knowing it’s not going to do her any harm.

      Last night I started watching an old Japanese movie called, “Woman of the Dunes”. It’s f_cking amazing, so far. The visuals are stunning. The use of sand alone is impressive. After a half hour or so I was pretty sure this movie deserves to be a classic. I can’t really compare something like this to a pumpkin with a snazzy conglomeration of dots on it. This may just be my preferences. I prefer art that addresses the human condition, that is richly complex and beautiful.

      You said that one of Kusama’s installations was intense. I’m glad to hear it. I’m probably wrong about her, and underestimating her career. However, I can say that when I was a teen and went on the roller coaster, “Space Mountain”, at Magic Mountain, it was really intense. Do we consider roller coasters, and let’s say immersive ones in particular, art? How about a fun house?

      In the contemporary art world we are more concerned with what something is than what it actually communicates. A roller coaster ride, were it contextualized as art, would wipe the floor with almost all installation art. Compare Sea World to Damien Hirst’s shark tank. What makes most contemporary art significant, right out of the starting gate, is quite simply that it isn’t visual art, but is nevertheless contextualized as visual art. There is the perpetual awe at how anything that is not painting can do something painting can’t, and uses skills that painting doesn’t We don’t do the simple turn-around and notice if the art in question does none of the things visual art does. This mental trick only goes one way.

      I wanted to look up Kusama’s dot paintings you mentioned, and I discovered a lot of her work I wasn’t familiar with. The environments really do look fun. I might want to reconsider her, for my own good, but, then when I see her paintings, which I rather like for what they are, they strike me as “design”. And then the installations strike me as design writ large. If the paintings don’t work as well for you, my guess is because they are flat and would make lovely wrapping paper. In other words, giant installations make up for what is clearly lacking in what she can express intelligently with visual language. A simple sphere, which doesn’t say anything, will suddenly become impressive if it’s made of chrome and is 20 stories high. If your poem can’t really communicate anything, spell it out in enormous letters arranged in a landscape. Now we understand your poetry to be superior to all others. The poetry, however, is in the words and meaning. The same goes for visual art proper. If the visual language can’t carry the meaning, no amount of super-sizing it adds anything without it becoming something else. So, while an installation by Kusama may be impressive, if isn’t visual art. There’s nothing wrong with that, because music isn’t visual art either, and it’s at least tied as my favorite medium. The difference is that music is not presumed to replace visual art, nor does it have to compete with installations.

      You asked, “is there a difference between a purely aesthetic experience and an emotional experience brought about by visual stimuli?”

      Ouch! Not lobbing softballs there. First I have to interpret your meaning. Which is Kusama’s work? On one hand it’s a “purely aesthetic experience” because there’s not much else going on that I can see beyond a pleasurable reaction to good design. One could also have a subjective emotional experience in response to it. Are you implying that an aesthetic experience is in relation to traditional visual art, and the emotional experience is cause by any other visual stimuli, or is visual stimuli the terrain of visual art?

      Either way, I’d say that because we can have any subjective response to anything – where I live people fear and dislike geckos, whereas I really like them – we’ve got to go back to what the source is independent of reaction. This is an unfashionable notion in contemporary art and philosophy (which means it is highly fashionable at some other time). The trick of contemporary art going back to Duchamp is to privilege the subjective and arbitrary, ostensible reaction above the actual creation, to value the reader as an authority over the author (Roland Barthes). That is ass-backwards bullshit, that is perhaps a few percentages true. It’s that thing I mentioned before where if the logical idea that is accepted as common sense is not 100% foolproof, we are to accept the complete opposite claim as 100% accurate. The merit of “Woman of the Dunes” is entirely in the film, irrespective of how this or that audience reacts to it.

      Then the question becomes, is there a difference between a painting and a roller coaster. Yes, there is, in the same way there’s a difference between having lunch and going swimming.

      Liked by 1 person

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