in Opinion | 01 OCT 07
Featured in
Issue 110

The Joke's on You

Art and the importance of the slapstick method

in Opinion | 01 OCT 07

‘We really don’t have much to say, do we?’ says Andy Kaufman’s dad, dragged, together with his entire family, in front of a paying live audience by the late comedian in November 1979. Andy’s brother Michael, asked to enact his annual Thanksgiving party trick, breaks into a rendition of the song ‘La Bamba’ with no backing track, out of tune and remembering little more of the lyrics than, well, ‘La Bamba’. Grandma Lillie tells a long-winded rabbi joke. Eventually the family quits the stage, leaving Andy alone in front of the audience, asking his fans whether they liked the thing with his family (a few ‘whoo!’s) or not (many ‘whoo!’s). ‘Ladies and Gentleman, I’d like to say that I’m very insulted. I’m trying my best up here, to give you a variety show, I never claimed to be a comedian.’ He seems to be on the verge of tears, and the audience falls dead silent, the last yells dying away. ‘If you want to heckle me, you win, because I don’t have any comebacks.’ His voice cracks, and suddenly it’s as though he has turned the tables and transformed his audience into part of the family reunion, embarrassed by one of its members suddenly disclosing a dark secret and suffering a nervous breakdown. There are a few audience howls as Kaufman rushes off-stage – only to come back immediately, like an injured lover who threatens to leave but is actually desperate for consolation, stammering, ‘Thank you for showing me where I’m at …’, ‘I’m so tired …’, each sentence ending on a double sob that sounds a bit like ‘hee hee’. As though by chance a pair of congas are standing there right next to him, and he starts to hit them frantically to the increasingly steady beat of his ‘hee hee’. Now everyone laughs again – it was all a send-up (wasn’t it?). But the audience didn’t get it until, after agonizing minutes, Kaufman – in a small but effective act of physical comedy – slapped the drumheads and turned his whining into absurd music.

At the risk of ruining the joke by analysing it, I can’t but read this moment, chanced across on YouTube, as a brilliant allegory on the relationship between artist and audience, duration and embarrassment, narrative identification and its non-narrative rupture. There are obvious parallels in Kaufman’s act to the work of artists as different as Martin Kippenberger and Andrea Fraser. Moreover, having heard the fatigued chorus of sighs after this summer’s caravan of art extravaganzas, I also can’t help but read it, on a more general level, as a lesson in how frustrated expectations can, by sleight of hand, be transformed into comic relief – without that relief necessarily having to be reassuring. With the rise of art to mega-stardom as an item of luxury, speculation and gossip, it was foreseeable that bets were going to be placed – as they are with many mega-stars – on when it will have to go to rehab or be sentenced to community service. Confronted with a mixture of applause and hooting disdain, artists (and those who follow their work closely) may soemtimes feel close to Kaufmanesque tears when thinking of how art – their beloved everyday practice – is occasionally talked about as though it was a mere novelty that could just as well be replaced by another one. One reaction is to decry the desecration of cultural values. Another is to grab the bull by its horns: causing a scene à la Kaufman may not be a bad idea in terms of exposing the ‘truth’ of the artist–audience relationship. It’s a strategy that might best be termed ‘slapstick’.

I’m not, however, referring to slapstick as the entertaining little sidekick of Beauty and the Sublime, nor something that needs to be laugh-out-loud funny and involve pushing one’s family (or any other bits of biography) onto the stage, but as a crucial artistic method that concerns the way authority – whether embodied in auratic objects or charismatic gestures – gets erected and deflated in one go. Of course, the origins of this method are not recent, simply because it’s not the first time that experimental art practice is caught in the spotlight of wide pubic interest. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), when displayed at New York’s Armory Show in 1913, was famously singled out as prime example of what cartoonists ridiculed and critics condemned in Cubism. That same year, Duchamp himself, still in Paris, mounted a bicycle wheel onto a kitchen stool. Bicycle Wheel would have been the perfect prop for Charlie Chaplin, who signed his contract with Keystone Studio around the same time. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat was first published in a daily newspaper that year too, its idea of montage resonating with Duchamp’s (mouse’s brick meets cat’s head; wheel meets stool). And 1913 also saw the cartoon odd couple Mutt and Jeff hit American cinema screens; remember the ‘R. Mutt’ signature on Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917, and how lanky, discreet Duchamp and his chubby, busy partner-in-crime Francis Picabia must have looked together. Slapstick, in Duchamp’s enigmatic distillation, was not a desperate attempt to entertain but a means of opting out of the tired stand-off between the bigoted criticism, made in the name of common sense, of modern art movements and the almost equally bigoted attempts to defend them by declaring their distinctive qualities a dogma. I can’t help but think that this is an option that, like Kaufman’s stunt, still feels current.