October 9, 2012
White people don’t want their nigga artists being just like them. —Hennessy Youngman
Despite his varied work with textiles and illustration, Jayson Musson is most known for his alter ego Hennessy Youngman, the host of Art Thoughtz, a YouTube series tallying more than a million views. Each episode covers a topic that is deftly and bluntly explained by Youngman—ranging from relational aesthetics to Louise Bourgeois to “Beuys-Z.”1 Race is a common and explicit theme in Art Thoughtz, but there is an often-overlooked element of the series’ racial implications.
The first Art Thoughtz episode, “How To Be A Successful Artist,” proposes a 98-percent effective formula for succeeding as an artist, including two key points: be white and be male. If a white male paints a flower, Youngman explains, it is simply a painting of a pretty flower. If a black artist paints a flower, it becomes a “slavery flower—flower de Amistad,” and if a woman paints the same flower it becomes “a metaphor for her vagina.” Citing the problems with this formula for non-white artists, a later episode offers tips for aspiring black artists. Consoling black artists, Youngman instructs them on how to “exploit the shit out of white people.” Musson’s explicit critiques of the art world are cogent but not unheard of. For decades, artists and critics have decried the racial, gendered, and classist hierarchy that is affectionately known as the art world. Musson adds to this body of work in a way that is infinitely more accessible and pleasurable than most obfuscated and arcane dissertations or politely pedantic exhibitions.
On the surface, however, Art Thoughtz doesn’t advance these ideas or critiques all that much. The content of the show is certainly humorous, such as Youngman’s claim that relational aesthetics exists solely as a means for poorly socialized MFAs to meet new people by “forcing them into odd activities at their own, poorly attended art openings.” The power of the act is the delivery, the character himself. If the comedian John Hodgeman, a stereotypically white, academic character, delivered these same lines, we would all laugh, but we would be laughing differently. When a viewer laughs at Hennessy Youngman, he or she is implicitly admitting or acknowledging that there is something amiss about a character more culturally fit for a rap video than discussing Nicolas Bourriaud, “Rococo trappings,” the economics of art, and the whole of graduate-school syllabi.
I laugh every time I hear Youngman stumbling over and failing to correctly pronounce Bourriaud’s name, but why? I certainly can’t correctly pronounce the names Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Rirkrit Tiravanija. But if I fail to pronounce any of these names, my infraction may be passed over, or I may receive slight rebuke for failing to live up to the cultural role of an educated, middle-class white man. I likely wouldn’t be laughed at. Donning an oversize Spiderman baseball cap and several gold chains, and referring to himself as “the Rowhome Raconteur,” Youngman is instead rendered silly—a mercurial jester.
Youngman’s knowledge of art history and theory is clearly deep, nuanced, and mature, but his character is not afforded the same weight and seriousness as other critics because of his race and assumed class. Musson himself holds an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania, and there’s no reason to doubt that Youngman does as well. In out-of-character interviews, Musson is well spoken and articulate—shorthand for meaning that he mirrors or approaches acceptable white and middle-class speech patterns. Recall when then-Senator Joe Biden called then-Senator Obama “the first mainstream African-American [to run for President] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” and when Senator Harry Reid said more directly that President Obama possessed “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Ivy League JDs and prestigious faculty positions don’t mean anything if one doesn’t talk the part. And Youngman doesn’t. The New York Observer recently reviewed an exhibition of Musson’s work, titling the piece “Henny From the Block: Jayson Musson Is Not an Idiot, He Just Plays One on YouTube,” contrary to any evidence that Youngman is anything but intelligent—he’s just doesn’t speak art-world-white. Art in America has called Youngman “Ali G with an MFA,” despite the fact that Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G character is generally ignorant of the subjects he speaks on. These articles position a working-class black man as an idiot because he encourages his speech to show his race and class.
In fact, Youngman is the embodiment of the satirical advice he gives in “How To Be A Successful Black Artist.” In this episode, Youngman puts forth what he calls the jazz principle: “White people, they wanna consume the exotic other... They don’t really want to understand you, because if they understood you, you’d be just like them.” Youngman also explains the role black artists play in entertaining white people and keeping them guessing: “[White people] love seeing the ‘other’ doing shit like they would do but still kind of detached and different. So you could hip-hop that shit out”—like Hennessy Youngman himself. The character is an exoticized graduate student. Youngman discusses the same subjects and uses the same buzzwords as the cultural elite, but his racialized persona renders him laughable, a mimicking philistine.
The takeaway of Art Thoughtz shouldn’t be that if one laughs at it, he or she is racist; that has all the sophistication of a political rally. Rather, finding the character Hennessy Youngman funny should accompany one’s acceptance that, no matter how many diversity scholarships or classes on social activism augment it, the academic and commercial art world is still deeply racist and classist. Participants in the art industry need not conform to the Youngman archetype, but until that archetype is no longer funny, we must address the prejudices and expectations that keep such a hierarchy alive, even (and especially) if we benefit from it.