above ground - film and video in Baltimore

Humor as a Subversive Act

Notes Propagandizing Baltimore Art

by Peter Walsh

"Intellectual despair results in neither weakness nor dreams, but in violence. Thus abandoning certain investigations is out of the question. It is only a matter of knowing how to give vent to one's rage..."1

"As soon as the effort at rational comprehension ends in contradiction, the practice of intellectual scatology requires the excretion of unassimilatable elements, which is another way of stating vulgarly that a burst of laughter is the only imaginable and definitively terminal result-and not the means-ofphilosophical speculation."2

George Bataille

Visions of Excess

It's 1987 and I'm walking through a Fiber Arts show at a Baltimore gallery. I see a variety of work, mainly by women, including hand-made paper, installations, and wall sculptures. I come to a beautiful, doll-like sculpture, about 18 inches tall, inside a glass box. Quickly, I recognize it as being stylistically the work of Joyce Scott. Luxuriously crafted out of sewn black leather and beadwork, the doll is a black woman dressed like a servant, bandana about her hair, cradling an intricately fashioned blond and blue-eyed headed infant. It's a beautiful piece, and before I mone on I check to make sure it is Joyce Scott's (it is). I read the title--uncomfortable, embarrassed laughter washes over me--the kind of shocked, smiling laughter you might have if someone had suddenly slapped you in the face. The title--"Nanny Now, Nigger Later."

This is a manifesto of sorts--a critical take on Baltimore Art whose declarations are individual works of art. Most artists living in this city, including some of those referred to in this essay, would actively resist the assumptions and conclusions I make here. And without a doubt, this is a skewed survey of local work. Still, imposing a structure on a group of works can serve to illuminate, in context, the value of those works, which have otherwise been consistently ignored.

For artists, Baltimore is a city without a market. The reality infuses everything made here, everything thought here. In a consumerist economy, no market means being forever marginalized--making Art the way you really want to becomes the epitome of provincialism. In our glorious purity, Baltimore artists display a near complete ignorance of American culture3, and out of this puritanism comes an anger approaching the incandescent.

Anger is a self-indulgent emotion. After all, artists in Baltimore don't sell out--they succumb to bitterness. Humor is anger doubled back on itself--the subversiveness of "the joke" works to undermine not only the oppressiveness of contemporary society, but also the alienated seriousness that rationality has imposed on artists.

Artist tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE has a brain tattooed on his head, in offset red and green images, so that, if you happen to have a pair of 3-D glasses with you ti can be seen hovering above his head.

Working in an extreme avant-garde milieu tending towards oppositional and interventionist tactics, tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE, aka Michael Tolson, has consistently goaded audiences to reject his stances. As recently as the spring of 1988 he was screening his films "Subtitles" and "Pee on Bob's Head," two movies that can only be described as belligerent towards their audiences. "Subtitles," which is an excellently made, "typically" avant-garde film--image-heavy and repetitive-- is just long enough to make chair-bound viewers threaten revolt. "Pee on Bob's Head" is an excrutiatingly shocking and unfunny scatalogical film that features a woman urinating in "Bob"'s mouth--shown in close-up at least three times and then in negative--now that's funny. What is important here is the way in which excessive, pointless behavior rumbles off-kilter towards an edge, beyond which even the most offensive behavior becomes hilarious. Tolson, taking his cue from John Waters, grabs hold of the institutionalized structural violence that permeated our society and throws it back in our faces. Humor becomes the refusal to be a victim in a world that victimizes us.

A 1979 Sunpapers article concerning an action by a group of Baltimore artists at Three Mile Island contained this:

"Dressed in clear plastic shower cap, Spiderman gloves, an inflated water-wing around his mid-section, a plastic zip-up suit holder used by travellers with holes cut out for his arms, and blue dots that started at his left temple and worked their way down his chest, groin, and thighs, Mr. Tolson bluntly stated that everything he does should be taken as a joke.

'I deluded myself for about a year,' said Mr. Tolson, who changes his identity for each performance (he was known as MT at Three Mile Island and Tentatively a Convenience during TESTES-3).

'But I discovered there was nothing worthwhile in art so I made the transition to mad scientist.'"4

Other People's Comments on Humor

I would like to offer some statements made by a variety of writers concerning the nature of humor. Take what you like, leave what you don't want.

"As a rule, laughing is a pleasant state; accordingly, the apprehension of the incongruity between what is conceived and what is perceived, i.e. reality, gives us pleasure, and we gladly give ourselves up to the spasmodic convulsion excited by this apprehension."5

Arthur Schoepenhauer

"On the Theory of the Ludicrous"

"Where a joke is not an aim in itself--that is, where it is not an innocent one--there are two purposes that it may serve, and these two can be subsumed under a single heading. It is either a hostile joke (serving the purpose of aggressiveness, satire, or defense) or an obscene joke (serving the purpose of exposure)."6

Sigmund Freud

"Drown the World, I am not content with despising it, but I would anger it if I could with safety."7

Jonathan Swift

November 26, 1725

"The effect of satire is ambivalent and ambiguous. It arouses conflicting emotions but does not quite satisfy them. It leaves the reader feeling simultaneously entertained and disturbed, pleased and annoyed. The resolution is not satisfying; no orderly pattern is offered; no harmonious unity imposed."8

Leonard Feinberg

"Hey doc, come outta dere. You can't do dat. Who's da comedian in dis picture anyway?"9

Bugs Bunny

Further Evidence

Like several other large-scale constructions that Tom Dixon has designed, "Public Genocide" is a straight-faced parody of "Public" sculpture. Here we find an aesthetically pleasing, unobtrusive "artwork," a ramp and hallway gaily painted in bright colors, that surely any grant commission would fund at the drop of a hat. After all, it's just another thing that you can set in a park and everyone wonders what the hell it is.

Unfortunately, for grant commissions, "Public Genocide" is outfitted inside with three live electrical cables and is intended as a self-service suicide electrocution booth. This is Richard Serra's passive/belligerent attack on an audience taken to its logical extreme.

Despondent city reisdents and artgoers walk up and peer out tiny windows to get one last tear-filled glimpse at their beloved planet. Grabbing onto an electrical cable at their leisure (the booth accomodates three at a time), artgoers are fried in a jiffy. Attendants quickly remove the bodies through the rear of the sculpture.

Unfortunately, like a lot of work in Baltimore, "Public Genocide" has not been funded and, consequently, has yet to be constructed. By the way, the sculpture was originally intended to be placed near the intersection of Broadway and Franklin in New York City, proving that Baltimore artists have always been glad to lend a helping hand to their big-city sisters and brothers.

Martha Gatewood manages to clearly and succintly articulate a whole series of different intellectual concepts in her beautifully "low-brow" painting/sculpture "The Robert Plant Memorial Beer Bottle Opener." After decades (generations?) of incredibly convoluted artworld theorizing about "high" art meeting "pop" art, about bringing audiences into an artwork (all those 60s performances and installations), about non-functionalness (i.e. crafts becoming art), Gatewood had made a deceptively simple work that says all that and makes you laugh and is easily accessible to persons without a Ph.D. in art lingo translation.

The deceased Led Zeppelin-era Robert Plant is exquisitely rendered in his album cover glory, his portrait moving from 70s airbrush kitsch to renaissance oil on panel in an effortless transition. Equally transparent is the easy explication of all those theories about function and art, caused by the bottle opener in the lower corner of the piece. Forget about being in a gallery, just grab onto the Art (with a capital "A") and make it work. The gap between viewer and art object, between creator and audience, between active and passive interaction, between form and function, is obliterated as simply as if it had never existed.

As with most of the best work done in Baltimore, "The Robert Plant Memorial Beer Bottle Opener" is not in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art or the Whitney or even in the Baltimore Museum of Art--it's still in the artist's possession, which in this case means in the kitchen, being what it is.

Ann Fessler's recent media work, "State Penitentiary Goes Condo," a newsprint page designed to look like a page of the Baltimore Sun, is an excellent example of the power of humor to undermine authority and reason. Skewering half a dozen media assumptions in a single sheet, Fessler relies on the veracity of photographs and the printed word--in this case the format of a newspaper--to provide the authority with which she feeds the viewer one ludicrous notion after another. In the process, she attacks gentrification, Reaganite entrepreneurism, prison overcrowding, yuppie value judgements, and reals estate marketing techniques, among others.

Of particular interest is the way in which the fake article manages to include significant amounts of bonafide information about prison overcrowding and the real-life absurdities of maintaining massive penal institutions in a contemporary society. Most unnerving of all however, is the way in which the article almost makes sense. We read about prisoners buying their own condos.

"'Those who choose to buy will build their own equity as well as learn a trade,' said Mr. Gentry. 'It's a total program of financial security and rehabilitation. Prisoners will get personal experience in investment management while incarcerated and will join the ranks of the nation's realtors and brokers when they leave prison,' he continued."

The ugly fact is that the ridiculousness of such a program pales next to the real-life absurdities of paying $15,000 a year to imprisoned criminals in a penitentiary whose primary activity seems to be insuring that our society has a large permanent under-class of career criminals. Fessler effectively reveals the ways in which satiric exaggeration and reality have become uncomfortably close.

Venomous bile marks the beginning of John Waters' early movie "Multiple Maniacs," with David Lochary spewing a hilarious rant inviting curious suburbanites inside his freak show tent for "Lady Divine's Cavalcade of Perversion." Filled with campy self-destructive anger, Waters gives us mock indignation and outrage as his obviously freakish cast of Baltimore hipsters impersonate upstanding citizens watching drug and sex-crazed hippies act out side show acts. As usual, the no-budget look and feel of the sets, lighting, and acting makes this movie seem like some kind of perverse documentary--like there are hundreds of such freak shows touring the nation to set up their tents in suburban back yards. Isn't it odd how the distance of time makes these movies seem "historic" and the much hated John Waters becomes a celebrated phenomena?

tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE successfully subverts his dada pretensions in his recent videotape "Tentsmuir," taped on a beach in Scotland, while continuing to give us an insightful counter vision of contemporary society. Masquerading as a scientist studying seals, he speaks in pseudo-foreign gibberish with English subtitles, explaining to us that he is going to pose as another aquatic life form in order to commune with the seals. As he romps on the beach, naked except for a giant Donald Duck head on his shoulders, the seals indeed swim up to greet him. "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" was never like this.

As with Ann Fessler's "State Penitentiary Goes Condo," tENTATIVELY takes the opportunity to slip us real facts mixed with the absurd. In this case, the seals' very lives are threatened by both a natural virus and ignorant and careless human development practices. This is obviously not a new or shocking idea. However, "Tentsmuir" is remarkably successful in conveying old information in a new way.

Animal rights groups as a whole have a self-righteous ultra-serious attitude that undermines their otherwise logical opinions. Recent animal rights posters in Baltimore have shown "horrifying" photos of animal abuse that are so violent they appear slapstick. I remember one photo of giant hunter boots standing on a helpless animal that looked so staged that it could have been an Elmer Fudd/Bigs Bunny cartoon--the fact that it wasn't staged and is truly horrifying didn't alter its black humor. Don't these people realize how photographs work?

In contrast, "Tentsmuir"'s self-demeaning humor provides an effective method of conveying the same message. It is ironic, however, how tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE, after years of brutal attacks on notions of bourgeois humanism, has used humor not just to subvert society at large, but also the very avant-garde structures that he has also religiously followed. You might almost think that he has recognized that avant-garde revolution and rebellion is a joke.

Subversion and Radical Change

I've done my best to avoid this next section, postponing it as long as possible. What has to be dealt with is this: Does radical art, in any form or from any place, change the world? When individuals choose to create something, they are challenging the world, as they see it, as being inferior. There is an inherent radicalness in making the decision that the world, if only in the altering of a single object, needs to change.

But where is the change? Dada had no visible political effect--in hindsight, it appears more as a symptom than as a catalyst. Duchamp changed the nature of what we put in a gallery, but left galleries, the context in which we see art, alone. John Waters has steadfastly denied any political content in his movies, and all of the other Baltimore artists in this essay are, at least on a mass culture level, unknown. Even Jonathan Swift, immediately following the publication of Gulliver's Travels, wrote his publisher expressing mock outrage that massive reforms had not begun in the months after its publication, thus firmly satirizing and subverting the notion of satire as a catalyst for social change.10 At its worst, satire acts as a safety valve to vent society's excess pressure, and thus serves to reinforce the status quo, not challenge it.

Where is the power in art that is subversive by reason of humor? Satire doesn't offer solutions, but that's obviously not the point. By stripping down the reason and ideology without regard to politics or morality, this art is truly "subversive," as in to overturn, and truly "radical," as in returning to the root. The only real positive statement of satiric and humorous art is iconoclasm, and proceeding from there, the passionate belief in the ability of dissonance, disorder, and chaos to shake the very foundation of a culture and a society. That is the gut-level feeling that continues to make art, in the face of reason, seem vital and valuable.


1 George Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, trans. Allan Stockl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1985), "The Lugubrious Game," p. 24.

2 Ibid., "The Use Value of D.A.F. De Sade," p. 24.

3 See Carter Ratcliffe's "The Marriage of Art and Money" in the July 1988 issue of Art in America for further commentary on the effects of marketplace economics on Art.

4 Baltimore Sun article "Baltimore Oblivion Marching Band, Three Mile Island and other disasters" by Rafael Alvarez as appears in tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE's book How to Write a Resume, Volume II: Making a Good First Impression (Baltimore: Apathy Press, 1989).

5 Arthur Schoepenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (New York: Dover Publications, 1958), Chapter VII "On the Theory of the Ludicrous," p. 98.

6 Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, (New York: W.W.Norton and Company, 1960), pp. 96-97. See "Humor, Hierarchy, and the Changing Status of Women" by Mary Jo Neitz in Psychiatry, Vol. 43, August 1980, pp. 211-223, for a feminist perspective on Freud's ideas about humor. Neitz objects to Freud's exclusion of women from his theory of humor but goes on to embrace the mechanisms of humor that he describes.

7 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (New York-London: W.W.Nolan and Company, 1970), Correspondence "Swift to Alexander Pope, November 26, 1725," pp. 265-266.

8 Leonard Feinberg, Introduction to Satire (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University, 1968), p. 272.

9 Bugs Bunny to Elmer Fudd in Warner Brothers' "The Hare-Brained Hypnotist."

10 Swift, Gulliver's Travels, "A Letter from Capt. Gulliver to his Cousin Sympson, April 12, 1727," P.iv-vii.


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