Whose History of Art?

Set and props from Jayson Musson: His History of Art at the Fabric Museum and Workshop, Philadelphia, PA.
Photograph by Esther Welsh

Parody is a time honored artistic strategy that has potential to prompt critical thinking, stir emotions and even inspire cultural transformation. The main impetus behind satirizing something is to point out its absurdity and/or fallacy through exaggerating representations of reality. While using absurdity to highlight absurdity might sound like a contradiction, it has a logical rationale. The goal among satirists is to capture and hold their viewer’s attention spans. Parody combines creativity and humor to draw connections between discipline specific subject matter and the culture at large. This includes both current events and historical accounts, which are filtered in a manner that is accessible to a general audience. The artful process of re-presenting learned and experienced knowledge in an engaging and socially relevant manner is crucial to a satirical work’s success and proliferation.

Parody is expressed in many different art forms such as comic strips, standup and sketch comedy, memes and traditional paintings, drawings and sculpture. William Hogarth and Honoré-Victorin Daumier are well known examples of fine art’s embrace of satire. Each artist made paintings and drawings that were critical of social, political and economic issues during the era they worked in (the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively). The New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement in Weimar, Germany during the years between World War I and II is a modern example of art’s fusion of parody. In addition to making art that presented empirical representations of current events, the Neue Sachlichkeit artists (notably Otto Dix and George Grosz) reacted against the German art scene, which had embraced expressionism. New Objectivity eschewed the romanticism that expressionist artists portrayed. Instead of poetic or metaphorical renderings, Neue Sachlichkeit presented artistic narratives reflective of literal real-world events. Art historian David Crockett who wrote the book German Post-Expressionism: The Art of the Great Disorder 1918–1924, breaks the German word down by its structure, starting with the root, “Sache, meaning ‘thing, fact, subject or object.’ Sachlich could be best understood as ‘factual, matter-of-fact, impartial, practical or precise’; Sachlichkeit is the noun form of the adjective/adverb and usually implies ‘matter-of-factness'” (Crockett, 1999).

Of course any type of parody, satire and objectivity runs the risk of misinterpretation, or worse, misuse in the spread of misinformation. The pros and cons of parody are detailed in an essay/blog post by Peter Levine, who was the former director of CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), and evaluated the effectiveness of parody during the 2012 United States election cycle. Levine (2012) concludes that, “anyone working to educate the public about politics in a nonpartisan way faces a choice. Very straightforward messages may come across as boring or preachy and may not be viewed willingly, let alone shared. Funny messages spread further, but a significant proportion of the recipients miss the point–and they may be the very people who would most benefit from a deeper insight into politics and public affairs.”

Jayson Musson is a contemporary artist who wields parody as his paintbrush. In 2010, he created a persona named “Hennessy Youngman,” who hosted a YouTube series called Art Thoughtz. Youngman is a brash and boisterous artist who provides musings on the contemporary art scene, addressing topics such as art theory, the art market and the artistic process. Youngman manifested out of Musson’s experiences in art school. As a satirical figure, Youngman utilizes humor and candid monologues to lampoon the pretentious manner that contemporary art can be presented and discussed in academia and within museums and galleries. Ditching the “art speak,” Youngman talks like a layman as a way of synthesizing complex art concepts, often making references to popular culture to make tangible connections between stodgy theory and daily life. He is the arts educator that we need. As an educator, Youngman coaches those who are interested in learning more about the contemporary art scene, giving advice in a satirical yet rational manner about how those who may consider themselves to be “outsiders” can break through the cultural scene’s exclusivity. Episodes are sometimes formatted as a “how-to” video, such as: “How To Be A Black Artist,” which exposes racism and white male hegemony within the professional and academic arts community. In the instructional video, which is a follow-up to the similarly focused “How To Be A Successful Artists,” Youngman wryly explains how the fine arts field engages in the tokenization of non-white and women artists.

Left: Jayson Musson as “Jay” with “Ollie.” Jayson Musson, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, “His History of Art,” 2022. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.
Right: Joseph Beuys during his performance of How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, Schelma Gallery, Dusseldorf, 26 November 1965. Photo credit: Walter Vogel.

Musson’s subsequent video series and installation His History of Art satirizes how the canon of art history is both traditionally acknowledged and taught. Like he did in Art Thoughtz, Musson assumed an alias, a pontifical art collector named Jay. As a (self-proclaimed) member of the art elite, Jay has good intentions, but can be callous, aloof and degrading, especially towards his friend/roommate, a stoner hare named Ollie. Jay finds Ollie’s drug use and other cultural interests to be “lowbrow,” and seeks to “educate” his furry friend in art history and aesthetic theory. Each episode takes place in Jay and Ollie’s living room, which is an elaborate set not unlike Pee-wee Herman’s Playhouse. The set is replete with reproductions of ancient, modern and contemporary artworks including a Frank Stella-esque “Black Series” painting that also serves as a portal to art historical realms/experiential classrooms where Jay, Ollie and other special guests engage in conversations regarding the form, function and relevance of art. Curator Laurel V. McLaughlin’s description of His History of Art as “Mister Rogers-meets-Pee Wee Herman-and-Bob Ross sitcom” (McLaughlin, 2022) is spot-on. The relationship between Jay and Ollie also references artist and educator Joseph Bueys’ 1965 performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, which expressed the epitome of Beuys’ pedagogical philosophy (see: The Beuys and the Bees).

Another parallel between Beuys’ performance and Musson’s series is a critique on institutional art theory and education. Each can be interpreted as a parody of academic art, the myth of the genius (see: Parrinder, 2000) and the apotheosis of both an artist and their artwork. Beuys eschewed the overacademization of art education, noting that while discourse is integral to learning, “intellectualizing can be deadly to thought: one can talk one’s mind to death in politics or in academia” (quoted in Harlan, Rappmann, and Schata, 1984, 92).

Genius is a key recurring phrase in His History of Art. Jay uses it as a means of separating art and artists from non-artists and everyday experiences. In Jay’s mind, art signifies money, power, fame and glamor. He is critical of Ollie for being too simplistic and for living his life like a philistine rather than a sophisticated bohemian. Through his pedantic explanations of art history, which center around his own tastes, interests and ethics, Jay declines to consider Ollie’s own personal/cultural background and interests. Instead of seeking to make art more relevant to Ollie’s lived experience, Jay tries to mold Ollie into a version of himself. Ollie resists becoming a dutiful art protégé and in the end teaches Jay a lesson that while art might be a universal form of expression, it does not require a universal interpretation.

In conclusion, Jay acknowledges that His History of Art becomes “Our History of Art,” recognizing that the process of creating, viewing and discussing art can be best served as both a student-centered and collaborative learning experience. His History of Art alludes to a significant outcome from learning about art history, which is that it prompts individuals to identify with people, places and events throughout time and place. Elliot Eisner, a leading twentieth century advocate for art education asserted that a well rounded art education should be experiential in the Deweyian/constructivist sense (see: Clements, 2013 and Weaving Art with Life), and that the curriculum should encompass “productive aspects of art, the critical aspects and the historical aspects” (Eisner, 1965).

At large, His History of Art reinforces lessons that the arts can teach us (see: Educating Through Art). Embracing an artful mindset means opening ourselves up to flexible possibilities (more than one perspective and meaning can exist within a work of art); making connections between works of art and our prior knowledge and backgrounds; asking pointed questions about form, function, content and context; and being mindful of the cultural experiences and backgrounds of other people. Through satirizing both traditional forms of art education, Jay and Ollie take us on a unique survey of art history, and synthesize how imagery and historical interpretations impact our collective cultural consciousness. The messages within the series can be summed up as “sharing is caring” and “everyone can live artfully.” We each have our own distinct relationships with art, but its greatest value is being able to share and incorporate our artistic understandings within a larger context and within a larger community, including those outside of our social and cultural circles. Because the arts are both individual and collective expressions of culture and the human condition, studying art can lead to a comprehensive observation of our surroundings, as well as a greater empathetic understanding of one another.

Jayson Musson: His History of Art is on view at the Fabric Museum and Workshop in Philadelphia until December 31, 2022. Museum admission is free.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Clements, Alexis. “Reconsidering John Dewey’s Art as Experience,” Hyperallergic, 25 March 2013. https://hyperallergic.com/67081/reconsidering-john-deweys-art-as-experience/

Crockett, Dennis (1999). German Post-Expressionism: the Art of the Great Disorder 1918-1924. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Cryer, Logan. “Jayson Musson and playing with art history at the Fabric Workshop and Museum,” Artblog, 8 December 2022. https://www.theartblog.org/2022/12/jayson-musson-and-playing-with-art-history-at-the-fabric-workshop-and-museum/

Eisner, Elliot. “Curriculum Ideas in a Time of Crisis”. Art Education. vol.18, no. 7, 1965, pp. 7-12. doi:10.2307/3190712

Harlan, Volker, Rappmann, Rainer, and Schata, Peter. 1984. Soziale Plastik: Materialien zu Joseph Beuys. Krefeld: Achberger Verlag. p. 92. 

Levine, Peter. “Tell it straight? The advantages and dangers of parody,” peterlevine.com, 24 June, 2013. https://peterlevine.ws/?p=11881

McLaughlin, Laurel V. “Jayson Musson: His History of Art,” The Brooklyn Rail, September 2022. https://brooklynrail.org/2022/09/artseen/Jayson-Musson-His-History-of-Art

Parrinder, Monika. “The myth of genius,” Eye Magazine, Winter 2000. https://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/the-myth-of-genius

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