Comedy has an unusually high profile these days. Not only is it booming commercially, with new outlets, schools, and countless aspirants, it’s become part of a national discourse about truth, media, and the theater of government. At the same time its effectiveness as a subversive tool is in question. Artist and writer David Robbins, who has been working comedy angles on and in the art world for thirty years, helps us make sense of the situation with this clear-eyed take on the parameters of the comic imagination, and how today’s comedians have more options than most are inclined to use.
An excerpt from the essay:
Not long ago I participated in a symposium on the relationship between comedy and painting at the University of Chicago, after which a student approached expressing concern about agency, and comedy’s effectuality. His concern is valid. If you commit to comedy, what effect will the jester’s relation to power have on your sense of your ability to have an impact on your time? One doesn’t enter comedy in order to become powerful. At the close of his seventeen year gig behind the wheel of the most watched politically-engaged TV comedy show, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show said he didn’t think the show changed anything in the political landscape.
Although “powerful comedian” may be an oxymoron, if what you’re looking to do is throw a frame around questions of agency, the individual relation to power, the ability to impact environment and control experience, then comedy is a good way — maybe even the best way — to achieve that end. Comedy always has a relation to power. Where there’s a jester, somewhere in the background you’ll find a king. The relation to power may be explicit, as in The Daily Show’s nightly confrontations. It may be heavily disguised: the kvetching of stand-up comedians is both a complaint about the lack of power and a method of claiming some; holding a microphone and amplifying your voice is a modern means of acquiring power. So the spectrum is broad.
The dynamic between jester and king has never been a simple one. The reason is that the jester is positioned in unique relation to the king’s power. By taking on his role the jester is declaring that he has no interest in occupying the throne. He will not challenge the king for the throne. The jester is alone in so declaring. Perversely, the announcement endows the jester with a version of power, in the sense that it grants him special freedom to (artfully) speak truth to power without fear of losing his head.
Once upon a time actual, physical, crown-wearing kings wielded life-impacting power over their realm. Since those days the king has become much more abstract and decentralized and nameless. Instead of a corporeal sovereign we have abstract kings. Part of the modern fool’s job becomes, in fact, identifying these abstract kings. Some known kings: mass media, capitalism, patriarchy, narcissism and other assorted isms and orthodoxies — all the dominant, pervasive stuff we, as citizen-subjects, wrestle with. New kings are always being minted. There’s no end to them. The jester will never be out of work; the comedian’s instinct is to subvert anything that he perceives to have any kind of power over him or her.
One of the unanticipated upsides of the modern king’s dispersion across the landscape is that it decentralizes the jester too. An abstract king supports a multiplicity of jesters working from many locations. Back in the days of actual, sitting kings, a jester was appointed. In modern times the jester appoints himself. The jester volunteers. He puts himself forward. The act of volunteering brings with it certain rights, including, crucially, the right to choose your own materials. These materials may be verbal, narrative, and illusionistic. They may be concrete. They may be anything in between, in any combination or proportion. They may be of any nature the jester decides.
David Robbins has had forty solo exhibitions since 1985. His work Talent (1986) is widely recognized as announcing the era of the celebrity artist. He is the author of six books, including The Velvet Grind: Selected Essays, Interviews, Satires 1983-2005 and most recently Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy. He lives in a leafy suburb of a third-tier American city.
Ohio Edit publishes 99-cent downloadable essays by thought-provoking artists. Robbins’ essay is available for download here and will soon be available through iBooks. Look for more releases in the months ahead.