Ali G With an MFA: Q+A With Hennessy Youngman
The latest phenomenon to sweep the Internet is the "Art Thoughtz" videos of a young Philadelphia man who goes by the name Hennessy Youngman. His moniker combines references to Henny Youngman, "the king of the one-liners" (originator of "take my wife—please!") and to Hennessy cognac, a status drink among hip-hoppers. The creator of "Art Thoughtz," who is black, styles himself in one of his videos as "the pimp of the one-liners." His sign-off at a brief stand-up performance viewable on YouTube: "Take my bitch—please."
Youngman (played by artist Jayson Musson) offers screamingly funny and sometimes sharply critical observations on the art world in the form of instructional videos. Topics range from the perils of copying Bruce Nauman ("You into torture? Shit, I'm into torture. Shit, you know what? Too bad. Bruce Nauman, he owns torture!"), to understanding relational esthetics, to how to be a successful artist. Over the last year, 10 videos have been posted, all in the same genre, some purportedly responding to requests and comments from viewers.
The edgiest video is "How To Be a Successful Black Artist." Youngman's first suggestion: be angry. To get angry, he says, you might view Internet videos of pit bulls fighting, or of the Rodney King beating, or photos of Emmett Till in his coffin. Each example is illustrated; the Till photograph is not for the faint of heart. Trying to define the trendy concept "post-black," even the "row-house raconteur" is at a loss. "Did someone from the future come back with that term, and niggas is, like, pink in the future?" As a coup de grâce, this last question is illustrated with David Hammons's 1998 How Ya Like Me Now?, a painting of a white Jesse Jackson.
The works recall Alex Bag's 1995 video Fall 95, in which an art student gradually grows up over the course of her eight semesters at the School of Visual Arts, but Youngman assumes the voice of a supposed outsider to the art world. This aspect of the work recalls the 2009 art-world spoof (Untitled), whose protagonist, an avant-garde composer, finds his way into a wacky contemporary art scene populated by YBA knockoffs and a cynical, sexually voracious dealer. Musson's blackness allows for added polemics.
In a recent e-mail conversation, Youngman offered AiA some information about his background, sympathized with arts writers, and confirmed that artists are not real people.
BRIAN BOUCHER: What's your background? Did you go to art school? How did that work out?
HENNESSEY YOUNGMAN: You mean like, what I did in the past that gave me the experiences that would be considered relevant to my videos? I don't really know, I've been a limo driver, I've cleaned houses, I've been a guard at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, oof . . . Let me tell you, there is nothing more painful than slowly passing your day away by watching packs of tourists coming into to contact with the monolithic spire that is art history. Rapunzel, chilling at the top of it not even wanting to come down, but she's got the audacity to ask people at the bottom to throw food up for her to eat.
In the end, I guess I'm just a nigga that loves rap, and digs fine art. But did I go to art school? That's a silly question. Why would I do that when everything anybody could ever want to find out about any type of art is on the Internet? I'd rather pay Comcast $60/month than some school 20k–30k a year. I will admit though that I got a few friends that have gone to art school, and from time to time I "borrow" some of their theory readings and they never seem to notice that they're missing. I guess those readings don't have much bearing at their restaurant jobs.
BOUCHER: Good point. So do you think of this as an art project? Or as art criticism? Or both? Or neither?
YOUNGMAN: If one believes that dialogue can be art then in a sense "ART THOUGHTZ" is my art. It's also criticism, but not a direct criticism of specifics works of art. It's more like when you're a kid and your parents are arguing with each other at the top of their lungs, then all of a sudden your aunt gets involved with the fight and she starts yelling too; there you are, just some kid surrounded by a bunch of yelling adults and you just want everyone to shut the fuck up, and you just can't take it anymore so you burst out in tears and suddenly all the adults stop yelling at each other and feel ashamed at what their behavior's done to a child. That's "ART THOUGHTZ," the tears of a child in room full of screaming adults.
BOUCHER: I see. In your video "How to be a Successful Black Artist," you counsel aspiring black artists to "be angry." How angry are you, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 equals slightly miffed at the ongoing disparities in income, life expectancy, incarceration rates and other vital statistics as a legacy of Jim Crow and slavery, and 10 equals, in your words, ready to "punch crackers in the face"?
YOUNGMAN: I'm not sure. Some days I'm at a solid 8, then some days when I see a fine-ass white woman I'm at a 1. I would never be at 10, would never assault random white people on the street because I got previous warrants and can't risk getting arrested again. In general though I'm normally pretty angry and feel overwhelmed by my disenfranchisement from the vast amount of capital that flows through the art market. And since I'm on the critical end of things in the art world I'll never have any chance of seeing that money. Like you as an arts writer, you gotta feel the same way, dedicating yourself to elevating the critical understanding of art, but getting paid crap and busting ass to make ends meet. Meanwhile Rachel Harrison can fart in a jar and make Scrooge McDuck scrilla. (That means money.) Do you have Arts Writer Rage?
BOUCHER: Not rage, though I do have a fair amount of envy.
In your "Post-structuralism" video, you mention that this is not a concept you'll hear "real people" use in conversation, though you might hear some artists use it. Interestingly, artist Tania Bruguera and critic/curator Lucy Lippard expressly maintain that artists are not real people. When it rains, do they not get wet? If you prick them, do they not bleed? Care to comment?
YOUNGMAN: I like Lucy Lippard. Her name always makes me think of Lucy Lawless, which makes me think of Battlestar Galactica and that I'd probably have sex with a robot if it had real enough skin. But this has nothing to do with your question. Artists are not real people. There's this Jerry Saltz lecture somewhere online where he's talking about the sublime and during the lecture he makes an analogy about how non-artists are like dogs in that they deal directly with the world: you ask a dog to come to you and it will. Whereas artists are like cats, y'know, you call for a cat and that cat is not fucking coming to you; they'll take a stroll around the fucking room, rub up on a bunch of shit, then rub your tiny ankle and be off. And the Saltzer, he said artists are like that in that they have an indirect way of dealing with the real world, through the making of art, artists create this system of occupying the world in this indirect, yet very distinct way.
BOUCHER: You've commented in your videos on many art world phenomena but we haven't yet heard Hennessy Youngman's observations on one serious thread, which is feminist art. Is there a video on feminist art in the works, or would you be willing to share some thoughts on that?
YOUNGMAN: Art is the terrain of heroic God-Men who struggle against the accepted values of their time in order to deliver their society unto the thresholds of a new world. Wielding brush, chisel, and Adobe Creative Suite, these God-Men do the work of shaping our society in order to relieve the rest of us from this arduous task, allowing us the free time to enjoy the vision created by their respective hours spent in their respective studios. This process is very daunting, something akin to what Mickey Mouse went through in Fantasia, but instead of magic brooms, these heroic God-Men must rely on imbecilic assistants who always manage to use the incorrect pigments or improper drill-bit size to aid them in their Yahweh-ian quest. This is all very hard so I have no idea why women would want to partake of this task. Do they not trust these God-Men? Pesky women! He clearly said, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" yet they keep trying to pull the fucking thing back! Don't touch that button! Leave that lever alone! What is this . . . this Riot Girl music you have put on!"
I haven't really planned on making a video about Feminist Art but I might consider it.
ABOVE-LEFT: YOUNGMAN, AT LEAST PARTIALLY OUT OF COSTUME.