The line-up for the Jayson Musson talk at the Drake Hotel was possibly the longest I’ve ever seen for any artist talk in Toronto. It began inside the hotel, a crush of bodies snaking up the lobby stairwell, and continued outside, where, at about three people abreast, it stretched down Queen Street West for a city block. But of course that immense throng wasn’t there to see Jayson Musson (one wonders if, prior to that evening, any of them knew who Musson actually is). The over-capacity crowd was there to see Hennessy Youngman, Musson’s alter-ego and an internet sensation. For the attendees, he was some kind of rock star; I’m fairly sure that this was the first time a guest lecturer at a C Magazine event has ever been greeted by rollicking whoops.
For those not yet in the know, Hennessy Youngman (as Musson explained, a whisky-fied tribute to Henny Youngman) is the host of “Art Thoughtz,” a series of videos on YouTube and Vimeo in which (to quote the man himself) “ya boy Hennessy Youngman, a.k.a. Hen-Rock Obama, aka the Pharaoh Hennessy” holds forth on various art-related topics: post-structuralism, curators, relational aesthetics, Bruce Nauman, Damien Hirst, and so on and so forth. The character is a b-boy, accessorized with a hanging menagerie of bling and carefully matched baseball caps (apparently Hennessy is a tone-on-tone bro). He lounges in his desk chair, greets us with a sleepily drawled “what up Internet,” and proceeds to unpack his art-topic du jour.
Musson, by contrast, is tall and lumbering, self-possessed, quick-witted and well-spoken, radiating affable charm. As he took the stage to rapturous hooting, he announced the evening’s itinerary: a best-of Art Thoughtz programme, including a brand-new one; but first, a brief tour of his work, from university to present.
The tour was extensive and wide-ranging, dipping in and out of drawing, painting, photography and photocollage, posters, t-shirts, zines, and a brief career as a rapper. This shouldn’t come as any great surprise; scratch at the surface of any overnight success story, and you’ll find years of toil and strain. The crowd was deflated and confused by this initial digression (though nevertheless polite and attentive). They wanted Hennesy, after all. But Musson was palpably determined to make the point of how long this road has been for him, that he did not spring fully formed from the internet’s forehead.
Musson stressed throughout his talk what he is and isn’t: he’s a writer, he’s comedian; he’s not a performance artist, or a video artist. And therein lies precisely Musson’s trouble, and Hennessy Youngman’s great dilemma.
Let’s be real, here: Art Thoughtz isn’t art, it’s comedy. Granted, it’s an exclusive kind of comedy, in that it can only really appeal to anyone who has any traffic with the art world, or art theory. It’s not a clever explication of any of these concepts, nor is it at all an astute debunking. Which doesn’t prevent it from being funny — when Art Thoughtz works, it’s because it rides a tight comedic riff: it doesn’t meander, it doesn’t get too broad, it just holds onto the reins of its subject and digs in. Hennessy is at his best when he’s specific: the Bruce Nauman and Damien Hirst episodes are snappy and quick, the humour an ideal conduit for perfectly pitched criticism, a pinprick in the balloon of art-world egomania and the cult of personality. The relational aesthetics episode won’t help you understand the concept any better, but is a masterful rant on self-delusion and hypocrisy.
When Art Thoughtz fails, however, it’s like watching a television show in which the set has just fallen over. There’s a kind of shocking nudity to Hennessy’s misfires, which call into question the integrity of the whole project. The worst of them is not on YouTube (due to graphic nudity) but on Vimeo. His subject is the Female Gaze, and he has a guest co-host, an “Expert Woman/Woman Expert.” A standard discourse on feminist analysis goes south very quickly as the Woman Expert finds herself totally derailed, experiencing fits of size-queen frenzy while being shown a procession of mammoth penises. The video is a shot of puerile misogyny, and the blast threatens to bring the walls down on this fiction: all of a sudden, the cardboard front of Hennessy Youngman collapses, revealing a troubling image of Musson the writer.
The newest video, as yet unposted to YouTube, is likewise a failure, but of a different, and to my mind, more alarming sort. It’s an adaptation of an entry from this past year’s Performa festival: Hennessy Youngman on performance art. The video is overlong, a clumsy, meandering 10 or so minutes, and the writing lacks clarity and focus, indulging the worst tendencies of the Art Thoughtz videos: it congratulates people’s exasperation with difficult or abstruse concepts, implying that performance art is the abode of talentless, annoying hacks.
To paraphrase the man himself: it’s just satire, internet. Like I said, it’s not art, it’s comedy. But here’s the $64,000 problem and the crux of the dilemma: Performa commissioned that piece. The art world wants in on the joke. They have discovered Hennessy more than they have Musson, and they are in the process of absorbing him. In the past two years, he has begun exhibiting internationally, and has been invited to give talks and performances at the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth and at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s prestigious Dialogues lecture series.
Hennessy Youngman only really works as an outsider. The idea of an ostensibly clueless homeboy talking wise about wooing curators and institutional critique becomes a lot less funny once his targets embrace him. The most astute question at the talk came as Musson announced an upcoming show, and someone asked whether the work would be credited to him or to Hennessy. Musson hemmed and hawed around the question, but its implications are of dire importance. Hennessy Youngman is beginning to attract all this attention, and Musson is in the unenviable position of deciding whether or not to give him to them. If this character becomes his brand, he will be forced to trade on this essentialized caricature of the urban black naÃ¯f, a prospect which becomes vaguely nauseating given the wider context of both the cynical knowingness of the art world and its monochromatic demographics (and it only gets whiter at the top). Put simply, he is in very real danger of being turned into the art world’s “pickaninny fool,” playing the stereotypical black dullard for the elitest of elites. Musson himself hinted at his distaste for that world, calling it “a small island with high fences.” The door to that fence is being opened; it’s up to him whether or not the phrase “what up Art Basel Miami Beach partygoers” sounds like a good opener.
Sholem Krishtalka is the Toronto Standard’s art critic.