Who Doesn’t Like a Good Art Joke? The Artist as Comedian

Tony Clifton, Live from the Sunset Strip, 2010. COMIC RELIEF ARCHIVES

Tony Clifton, Live from the Sunset Strip, 2010.


Over the past few years there has been a minor humor renaissance within the art world. Artists from a variety of backgrounds have been incorporating strategies cribbed from stand-up, operating in a cultural grey area that merges traditions and often attempts to create new categories altogether.

Los Angeles artist Casey Jane Ellison considers comedy to be the basis of her practice, which also includes animation and video. Ellison is the host of an all-female panel TV series on Ovation called “Touching the Art,” where she explores a range of art-world topics with a deadpan demeanor that rests somewhere between disaffected ’90s MTV cartoon icon Daria and cantankerous PBS mainstay John McLaughlin. This was not an accident. “The Andy Warhol talk show was one of the images on our mood board, but personally I was more influenced by ‘The McLaughlin Group,’ ” said Ellison.

“Touching the Art” uses comedy as a tool to explore larger problems within the art world, and Ellison isn’t the only artist using the language of comedy to disrupt art-world conventions. Artist Sean Joseph Patrick Carney, who describes his approach as “site-specific comedy,” teaches a class at the artist-run Bruce High Quality Foundation University called “Humor and the Abject” that hosts “comic object critiques” and performance nights that he describes as “more Andy Kaufman than Jerry Seinfeld.”

With his ontological approach to stand-up, Kaufman is a natural touchstone for many artists exploring this theme, and in 2013, New York’s Maccarone gallery organized a Kaufman retrospective. (It was titled “On Creating Reality.”) The show included a performance by Kaufman’s alter ego, the humorless and offensive Tony Clifton, often played by Kaufman’s collaborator Bob Zmuda, whose prolific stand-up performances after Kaufman’s death from lung cancer at the age of 35 helped fuel rumors that his demise was just another joke. (When asked if Zmuda was available for comment, Maccarone said he would contact us “if he’s interested.” He wasn’t.)

For his apparently posthumous grandstanding, Kaufman may have been the performance artist to end all performance artists, but it’s important to remember that he operated within the world of entertainment, and not the visual arts. This is a crucial distinction. When asked about the difference between contemporary-art audiences and comedy audiences in a May 2014 interview with Frieze magazine, performance artist and comedian Michael Smith remarked, “Art audiences will watch paint dry.”

Ben O’Brien—part of Baltimore’s Wham City Comedy collective, who as a group come primarily from a fine-arts background—prefers not to delineate between the two worlds. He attends up to five open-mic nights a week, and believes that the rigor of this process has strengthened his practice as an artist.

Ellison, for her part, said she doesn’t really tailor her material to the rooms she is performing in. Why? “Comedy clubs can be very avant-garde,” she said.

A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 30 under the title “Who Doesn’t Like a Good Art Joke?”

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