COMIC OBJECTS A SHIFT IN EMPHASIS: PUTTING THE COMEDY FIRST… THE PRODUCTS OF A NARROWER INTENT… PROPLIKE… SET DESIGN… CONCRETE COMEDY… “DO YOU CONSIDER THIS A CAREER?” ASKED THE ART CURATOR.
“From the beginning my art consistently displayed a humorous dimension. It took time to understand and control this impulse. As my understanding of the art context developed, I perceived that it was a kind of theater. If there was a better place to transpose verbal humor into object- or gestural- humor, I wasn’t aware of it. I used to talk about wanting to hang Noel Coward on a wall! But by 1989 my interest in adding to and extending what we identify as comedy had supplanted my interest in the internals of art. The ratio of art to comedy shifted. Interest in visual and material inventiveness and refinement remained but now these were put in the service of comedy.
By shifting the weight of intent in this way, art objects now became ‘comic objects.’ These might be the byproduct of a comic action, or the object itself might be the comic action (‘it would be funny to make x’). Sometimes the comedy had social content, sometimes it addressed the comedian’s emotional, psychological or existential coordinates, and at other times, in pursuit of “pure comedy,” the comedy had no subject other than itself. I tried to investigate as many dimensions of comedy as I could identify. From whichever angle I approached it I tried to make the comedy as beautiful — both comedically and visually — as I was able.
After 1989, then, except for an occasional relapse into making art objects, whenever I made things I was thinking about and addressing comedy rather than art. The criterion for making a work was whether it introduced a good comedy into reality. If it did, I acted. I looked to stretch our idea of comedy.”
LA COMEDIE HUMAINE COMIC IDENTITY MAKING CONTACT WITH ITSELF AND THE WORLD… A COMIC BODY BUMPING INTO MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH… THE OBJECTS HERE ARE STILL PRIMARILY SELF-CONTAINED WORKS, RELIANT ON THE THEATER OF THE GALLERY CONTEXT… A COMIC FIGURE ON THE ART WORLD STAGE, USING THAT CONTEXT’S INTEGRITY TO FASHION A NON-FICTION COMIC LIFE…
SITUATION COMEDIES COMIC ACTIONS IMPLY A COMIC PERCEPTION OF SPACE AND TIME. HOW DOES A COMIC BODY, AND THE ACTIONS IT PURSUES, DIFFER FROM THE WAY THAT OTHER BODIES OCCUPY SPACE AND TIME? THE COMIC BODY ATTAINS A DECORATIVE FUNCTION, AKIN TO THE WAY A DANCER TREATS SPACE. HERE SITUATION COMEDY IS REDEFINED AS: COMIC IDENTITY X (SPACE + TIME)… THESE SELECTED OBJECTS AND PICTURES COMBINE ACTION AND REFLECTION…
CONSTRUCTING THE INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED COMEDIC BEHAVIOR A SITE IN THE MIND. THE QUESTION OF CONTEXT ALWAYS HOVERS AROUND OBJECTS THAT HAVE BEEN MADE WITH COMEDIC INTENT. PLACING THEM IN THE ART CONTEXT OBSCURES THEIR SPECIAL HUM, MISIDENTIFIES THEIR ASPIRATION, AND THUS MIS-VALUES THEM. AS YET NO INSTITUTION EXISTS, HOWEVER, TO RECOGNIZE THE “COMIC OBJECT” AS A DISTINCT CATEGORY OF IMAGINATIVE ENDEAVOR. THE WORKS IN THIS SECTION PERHAPS COMPRISE A GROUNDBREAKING.
FIVE INSTANCES OF CONCRETE COMEDY IN THE FORM OF SIGNS A WORK THAT HAD SEVERAL INCARNATIONS. THE INITIAL VERSION, EXHIBITED IN NEW YORK IN 1993, INCLUDED FULL-SCALE RE-MAKES OF ALL THE SIGNS PICTURED IN THESE PHOTOGRAPHS. SUBSEQUENTLY UNDERGOING PERIODIC REFINEMENT, IT ATTAINED FINAL FORM IN 2006. FIVE INSTANCES ACKNOWLEDGES THE LINEAGE OF WHICH IT IS PART WHILE ALSO PROJECTING THAT FORWARD. INTEGRATING A FACTUAL PAST AND WISHFUL FUTURE, THIS WORK ANTICIPATES CONCRETE COMEDY (2011).
TARGETS “COMEDY HAS A SEPARATE AND UNIQUE RELATION TO THE IDEA OF SUCCESS. COMEDY IS TO A LARGE DEGREE BASED ON HUMAN FOLLY, GETTING THINGS WRONG, OR LEAST ‘NOT RIGHT,’ SO COMEDY IS VERY MUCH ABOUT INCORPORATING THE POSSIBILITY OF FAILURE INTO ONE’S PLANS AND ACTIONS. BUT IN COMEDY — AND ONLY IN COMEDY — FAILURE IS REWIRED AS A KIND OF SUCCESS. TAKE THE IDEA OF THE FOOL. THE FOOL IS SUPPOSED TO FAIL, THAT’S PART OF THE FOOL’S FUNCTION… AND BECAUSE IT IS HIS FUNCTION, THE FOOL IN FACT CANNOT FAIL. REAL, ACTUAL FAILURE BECOMES A MOOT POINT FOR THE FOOL. COMIC STRUCTURES ARE IN THIS WAY, IF YOU’LL EXCUSE A TWISTED PUN, FOOLPROOF. WHICH DOESN’T MEAN THAT ONE IS TRYING TO FAIL, RATHER THAT, FOR THE FOOL, FAILURE…ISN’T. UNIQUE WITHIN THE RANGE OF HUMAN ACTIVITIES, ONLY THE FOOL, BY THE VERY NATURE OF HIS ENDEAVOR, CAN REDEEM FAILURE.” EXCERPTED FROM ON CONCRETE COMEDY: DAVID ROBBINS INTERVIEWED BY HIS LANDLORD, DENNIS WILFORD 1991
FALSE ENDINGS THE DIRECTIVE IS CLEAR, THE RED OCTAGON AND THE WHITE TEXT FAMILIAR AND IMMEDIATE. WE COMPLY NOT ONLY BECAUSE FAILING TO DO SO RISKS INJURY TO OURSELVES AND OTHERS BUT BECAUSE A CONSENSUS HAS FORMED AROUND THE SOCIAL BENEFIT OF OBEYING. BACKING UP THAT SIMPLE DIRECTIVE TO STOP IS THE STERN VOICE OF LAW, SPEAKING IN HARMONY WITH THE MORE SERENE TONES OF CIVILIZATION. BUT HOW FRAGILE IT ALL IS, HOW EASILY UNDONE! ALTER THE SIGN’S MATERIAL GRAMMAR AND WHAT HAVE YOU? SUBURBAN ANARCHY? SOME COMMENTARY ON PAINTING? FAITH IN AN AFTERLIFE?
NOTES ON THE COMIC OBJECT
A sense of theater precedes all comedies: first comes the theater, then come the laughs. In the case of concrete comedy, the theater takes the form of an existential gesture that is enacted for real and for its own sake. Sometimes the theatricalizing gesture results in a physical object. This object — the comic object — stands as evidence of the theater which produced it.
The comic object has identifiable attributes.
The comic object communicates an ascendant emotional arc. Comedy’s basic position is that the experience which breathing in and out underwrites is, fundamentally and without ambivalence, positive, even joyous. (By way of focusing this distinction, we can say that art conveys a wider range of emotion; art may be dour, elegiac or a downer yet still be good art.) The comedian’s love for life may go unrequited — life may not love him — but he is not dissuaded. A decision has been taken, and tragedy has come in second.
The comic object is proplike. Were life theater, the comic object would be a prop. Since life is not theater (theater is correctly regarded as a subset of life, not the other way around), the comic object is not a prop but is instead proplike — a more complicated location.
The comic object is not a joke on art. (Nor, while we’re at it, are illustrations of art history jokes concrete comedy.)
Rather than absorb, compress, distill, and integrate in the manner of an art object, the comic object expresses a more belligerent relation to reality. Comedy makes fun of things as they are, therefore it follows that the comic object is more brick than sponge; a brick displaces volume of some sort, and a brick may be thrown. None of which is meant to suggest that the comic object can’t go about its business with subtlety and delicacy.
Theatrical, proplike, the comic object focuses our attention in a distinctive way. Rather than concentrate focus toward an iconic payoff as most art tries to do, the object in concrete comedy deflects focus onto the theater that produced it.(Perhaps this explains why the comic object cannot sustain too much aestheticization. Too much aesthetic inventiveness obscures the comic gesture, and the comedy disappears. When great technical effort or material invention is engaged to create a comic object, it is usually done in order to establish the finished product’s referent to its origin in the real. The real is a necessary presence in the comic object, as it is in all comedy. Take away reality, and comedy has nothing to make fun of.)
The comic object is not separable from the theatricalized moment which produced it, and which it necessarily reflects. In the sense that the comic object exists to designate the particular coordinates of the comedy, it is a kind of sign.
Excerpted from Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy 2011
FOR MORE ON THE COMIC OBJECT VISIT THE CONCRETE COMEDY PAGE.
TO SEE HOW THE COMEDY DEVELOPED VISIT THE COMEDIES PAGE.
Pictured at the top of this page: Situation Comedy #3 (detail) 1994