Through February 5
By Daniel Gerwin
As I walked through the galleries on the second floor of the Furness-Hewitt Building at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), Jayson Musson aka Hennessy Youngman’s satirical cell phone audio-guide waxed comedic about selected paintings, mostly by dead white men. Musson is funny, and he made me laugh even when his jokes were predictable. He’s got great delivery and does a good job of letting the air out of pompous paintings by the likes of Benjamin West.
As in his best Art Thoughtz videos, Musson shows teeth when he slips painful realities into his banter. In the middle of his video, How To Be a Successful Black Artist, he gets you laughing and then flashes an open-casket photograph of Emmet Till’s ruined face. At PAFA, Musson follows this formula to a fault, mostly with references to slavery, but he nods toward other evils including sexism, anti-Semitism, and the American colonists’ genocide of the Native Americans. These are difficult topics, but Musson’s social criticism stays safely on the level of sucker punches thrown at easy targets. Yet Musson’s patter is so good that it’s entertaining anyway, and after all, he’s mostly interested in having some fun with PAFA’s collection.
During the hour-plus that I wandered through the show, groups of young children wearing yellow shirts and blue slacks followed docents from one painting to another. I stopped to listen as a genteel woman around seventy led her charges to Jacob Lawrence’s Dream Series #5 (1967), a small picture of a library filled with black patrons. Gesturing toward the painting, she said, “This is a very famous, very valuable painting showing the importance of learning to one person – don’t forget the name Jacob Lawrence, one of the most famous American…[pause]…African-American painters.”
Listening to the docent stammer over whether Lawrence is a famous American or African-American painter, not to mention her emphasis on celebrity and money, underscored the potential power of Musson’s audio-guide (his commentary on the Lawrence painting is particularly good), but while I was there I didn’t see a single visitor of any age holding cell phone to ear. As for the student tours, the docents did not acknowledge the existence of Musson’s work. I can’t help but wonder whether Musson ends up preaching to the choir because nobody else is listening to begin with. In all likelihood, most of the people dialing into the tour already know about Musson and share his views. This is only one of the problems with institutional critique as an artistic mode.
The practice of institutional critique generally seeks to challenge the assumption that artworks are autonomous objects, while debunking the neutral posture of the institution of art in its widest sense, including everything from artist studios, to galleries, to public spaces, to Art Thoughtz, to the online publication presenting these very words. Musson has used his online videos to create some wonderfully effective critiques, skewering art world pieties such as relational aesthetics. More combative examples from the past include Hans Haacke’s famous Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, in which Haacke documented the business affairs of Harry Shapolsky, a New York City slumlord. Haacke was scheduled for a solo show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in which he planned to expose the dealings of the museum’s trustees, and, lo and behold, the museum cancelled the show six weeks ahead of its opening and fired the curator. When critique is most aggressively effective, it is often intolerable to its targets (consider the Occupy movement).
The Grand Manner, by contrast, is supported and celebrated by the institution whose collection it purports to critique. Curator Julien Robeson and Jayson Musson have found a creative way to breath some life of contemporary discourse into PAFA’s historic permanent collection. This is an excellent achievement and it results from a full collaboration between artist and institution. The role of the stodgy academic must therefore be played by the Nathaniel Snerpus character (another Musson invention), a pasty white aesthete who is ostensibly a foil to Youngman. There is even a third character, an abstract expressionist painter named Jameson Ernst, but he and Snerpus remain sideshows of minimal interest; the main act is Youngman.
The precedent for Musson’s Hennessy Youngman is not Haacke, but rather Andrea Fraser, another seminal practitioner of institutional critique. In Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989), Fraser posed as a docent and led visitors on a tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that was both absurd and critical. In Recorded Tour: An Introduction to the 1993 Biennial Exhibition of the Whitney Museum of American Art (1993), Fraser created an audio-guide in which she interviewed the curators, highlighting their role in shaping the perceptions of exhibition viewers. More sensationally, Fraser had sex with a collector who paid about twenty thousand dollars for the privilege in Untitled (2003). Their collaboration was videotaped (somewhat tamely) and later shown in a gallery. Of course, this is hardly the first time an artist has slept with a collector, but such activities are usually documented through gossip rather than video.
Efforts such as Musson’s and Fraser’s suffer from a problem exemplified by Fraser fucking (and getting fucked by) a collector. To begin with, the very act of criticizing an institution reaffirms its power and centrality. But more to the point: art that assaults elites, conventional taste, or the art world as a whole is now embraced by patrons eager to demonstrate that although they’re wealthy and/or powerful, they’re not actually bourgeois. When an artist throws mud in our faces, we are apt to wear it around as a hipper-than-thou badge of honor.
As Fraser herself recognized in a 2005 essay in Artforum, institutional critique has been institutionalized: it is just another genre, vulnerable to kitschy stylization. Musson’s audio-guide postures as critique at various points but is ultimately decorative. Such mannered gestures are now widespread and conventional in art, and critic Roberta Smith noted their pointlessness in The New York Times (Dec. 16, 2011):
At this year’s Venice Biennale the oligarchic yachts moored outside the Giardini were answered from within by a huge upturned military tank. It was the most ostentatious element in the extremely expensive, and thus institutionally dependent, institutional critique offered by Allora & Calzadilla at the American pavilion.
Nobody is more concerned with institutional critique’s absorption into the market and resulting commodification than Fraser herself, and she grapples with the problem in her 2008 Artforum essay on the work of her colleague Michael Asher. She argues that Asher has escaped the “logic of commodity production” because his art is always made site-specifically and is destroyed at the end of each exhibit. In addition, she points out that the “only compensation for his projects has been in the form of fees.” This line of reasoning does not address a key development in the art market: through the increasing convergence of art, celebrity, spectacle, and fashion, artists themselves have become commodities. The artist’s commercialized position is, of course, fundamental to Fraser’s Untitled (2003), but its implications are farther-reaching than Fraser appears to admit. At the 2011 Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s $2.5 million fundraiser, the debacle of performance artist Marina Abramović and rock star Debbie Harry each cutting the heart out of a cake in their likeness was a dispiriting example of our capacity to neutralize and consume just about anything.
Don’t just take my word for it: the quintessential in-your-face-offensive painter Peter Saul remarked in an interview with The Brooklyn Rail (December 2010), “I thought the art career consisted solely of the paintings. I didn’t quite understand that the artist also, or even primarily, is what people are interested in.” Twelve years into the new millennium, celebrity is the bottom line. Musson must be well aware of this situation, as his viral videos have rocketed him into rarefied circles of the art world and a calendar full of engagements. He’s a good comedian, we’re all desperately in need of a laugh, and soon there will be no more bizarre Republican presidential hopefuls to amuse us. Still, I can’t help but wonder how Musson might use his considerable powers for a deeper purpose. When society needs surgery, humor is among the sharpest of knives. But at PAFA, Musson is content to juggle his blades and keep ‘em coming back for more.
Daniel Gerwin is a Philadelphia-based painter whose work is on view in the exhibit There’s A Place, curated by Sarah McEneaney, at Bucks County Community College from Jan 18 -March 10, 2012. His work can also be seen in the exhibit Introduction 2012 – an exhibition of work by new CFEVA Career Development Fellows, at Moore College of Art and Design, from Feb 1-Feb 25.