Comedy IS art... but keep the Arts Council out of it

Andrew Watts on the 'Stockhausen Syndrome'

If you're on Facebook, you've probably received an invitation to join the group Comedy IS Art. It may not have occurred to you that it wasn't; it hadn't to me. Nevertheless, I rejected the invitation. This is why.

The group was founded, according to its blurb, by Lisa Keddie, who was offended by someone at the Arts Council telling her that comedy was outside its remit, because it wasn't ‘art’. She thinks it is, and wants the Arts Council to agree. Now, if that was as far as the group's aims went, one could sympathise: sure, it could be dismissed as intellectual insecurity - a need for validation from an ‘official’ source - but, as is pointed out on the group's discussion page, who said that comics were emotionally secure people?

But despite my own deep insecurities, I can't say I care how the Arts Council defines comedy any more than I care how Camden Council defines comedy, or the Council of Elders of the Kingdom of Tuvalu... I do, oddly enough, care how my mother defines comedy, but only because my self-esteem is under constant threat from her belief that doing stand-up is one step above stripping in pubs.

But the facebook group goes further than that. Its aim is to get funding for comedy as an art; and that is the part I take issue with. To put it at its simplest, my objection is that of the poet Roy Fuller, who resigned from the Arts Council in 1977 because, as he wrote, ‘The bestowal of money for the arts inevitably attracts the idle, the dotty, the minimally talented, the self-promoters’.

Why should it be inevitable?

It shouldn't need to be worth saying, but it probably is, that comedy is about pleasing an audience. ‘Pleasing’ can take a multitude of forms - it can include challenging, or holding a mirror up to, or forcing to think, or any of the other strategies that comics employ - and audiences are, as any comic knows, varied and manifold. What subsidising comedy will do is break that ‘essential nexus’ between comic and audience.

That phrase, ‘essential nexus’, is stolen from an essay by Philip Larkin, in which he argued that poetry too depended on pleasing on audience. He notes the three stages to the writing of a poem are: the emotional concept; the verbal construct reproducing this emotional concept; and the successful reading of the verbal construct. ‘And,’ he adds, ‘if there is no third stage, no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.’ And how much truer this is of comedy - someone writing a poem no one will hear could conceivably be called a poet; but someone making a joke to himself is not in any sense a comedian.

His perception was that this ‘essential nexus’ between writer and audience had broken down. This was in the first place due to a growth in the influence of criticism, the fact that there were now ‘experts’ who mediated between the artist and the consumer of art and told him or her what to think about it. Poetry was no longer inextricably bound up with giving pleasure directly - and once this nexus has been broken, as Larkin points out, poetry ‘will no longer be born of the tension between what [a poet] non-verbally feels and what can be got over in common word usage. Once the other end of the rope is dropped what results will not be so much obscure or piffling (though it may be both) as an unrealised, “undramatised” slackness, because he will have lost the habit of testing what he writes by this particular standard. Hence, no pleasure. Hence, no poetry.’ Again, this is even truer of comedy.

The Arts Council, in his view, exacerbated the breakdown of this nexus. The ‘experts’ were institutionalised - their power was now not just critical, but economic. Previously the writer made a choice about whether he was pleasing the public or producing something that would get a good write-up - now, by subsidising the poet, pleasing the public became irrelevant. The gap between high art and popular art became wider and more firmly entrenched: the less a subsidised poet needed to rely on pleasing an audience, the less popular he became, and so more reliant on subsidy, and so on, in a self-perpetuating spiral.

In all arts over which the Arts Council spreads its malign influence you will find this bifurcation of the highbrow and the lowbrow, encouraged and exacerbated by the subsidy system: the most successful modern painters are Damian Hirst and Jack Vettriano; Classical music is either Radio 3 (far too much Stockhausen) or Classic FM (‘You might remember this from the adverts’); there are no well-made plays any more, the West End being wall-to-wall musicals and the subsidised theatre terribly worthy plays...

And the danger is that, if the Facebook group achieves in its aims, this is what will happen to comedy. Indeed, comedy is already heading along that path; but at the moment, the two extremes are just that, extremes. Yes, there is (at the time of writing) Jongleurs on one extreme; and Daniel Kitson and Stewart Lee on the other; but most of us are in the middle. As are most comics, most clubs, and, most importantly, most audiences.

There might be a tendency among critics to favour the one extreme - but, luckily, critics are of limited importance in comedy. (One might, after enough intellectual effort, convince oneself that one likes Stockhausen's work; but laughter is a much more immediate reaction, and it's very difficult to force oneself to feel that something is funny. For a similar reason, there are very few serious reviewers of pornography.) Most comics feel the temptation to ‘play to the back of the room’ at some point, to make jokes for other comics and critics, but for most of us, this is held in check by the fact that it is the audience who hold the purse-strings.

What subsidising comedy will do is remove these checks and balances - the ‘back of the room’ being now the source of financial rewards, as well as credibility and kudos and Chortle reviews - and diminish the role of the audience. And while this is bad for any art, it is particularly so in the case of comedy, where the audience is as much an integral part of the artefact as the artist.

To that extent, it doesn't really matter who is at ‘the back of the room’ - if their requirements from comedy diverge from the audience (which they must, for subsidy to be necessary) they will necessarily provide disincentives to pleasing the audience.

The gap between the Jongleurs circuit and the ‘art’ circuit will grow wider and wider - there will be less cross-fertilisation; comedy clubs will have to decide which circuit they are on; populist clubs will become more populist, because they know that anyone who wants ‘art’ comedy will go to that other club which, because it's subsidised, can undercut it; and the art club will become more arty because it's now reliant on subsidy to survive; and, the more arty it becomes, the less popular it will be, thus forcing it to rely still further on subsidy...

And this is assuming that the ‘art’ circuit is of intrinsically greater worth: while that would be corrosive enough, the difficulty of providing robust criteria for judging comedy would mean that the Arts Council would favour comedy that ticks the appropriate boxes - is it relevant? Is it new? Is it inclusive? Nothing wrong with relevance, or newness or inclusiveness, of course; but judging comedy by any other criterion than by whether it's funny - that is, whether it pleases an audience - cannot do anything but diminish comedy as an art form.

You might reasonably object that funding libraries and museums and so on does not have this effect; and you'd be right. The difference is that, here it is the consumer who is being subsidised rather than the artist. No one gets rich on Public Lending Right payments.

There is a pre-existing artefact which, under market conditions, would be out-of-reach of anyone except the wealthy, and state-funding can bridge that gap; and there is an argument for saying that the potential consumer of comedy could be subsidised in the same way. Thus, for example, you could argue that, given the reluctance of London-based comics to play the John O'Groats Comedy Shack for the same money as their local Jongleurs, this pay differential should, in the interests of the punters in John O' Groats, be filled somehow... but that's not the argument the Facebook group makes. Rather it concentrates on the needs of the artist - and assumes that Arts Council funding will be poured into producing artistic comedy, whatever that may be.

And that is far from being self-evident. In a coherent defence of comedy litism in Chortle's correspondents section, Tom Rosenthal argues that you can tell what good comedy is because it's that which good critics like; and you can distinguish good critics because they're the ones who know what good comedy is.

But I'm not sure it's that simple: critics are not necessarily the best judges of comedy by virtue of the fact that they spend a larger proportion of their time in comedy clubs than most audiences. Indeed, the reverse is equally arguable: their palates may be dulled so they crave the new and exciting. The comic and promoter Anthony Dewson wittily dubs this ‘Stockhausen Syndrome’, by analogy with the tendency of serious music types to disdain a tune you can hum in favour of avant-garde atonal experimental stuff.

I prefer the analogy with restaurant reviewers - you won't get a nice review for a decent steak-and-kidney pie, any more than you would for a McDonalds Happy Meal; but if you're a restaurateur and you've got bacon-flavoured ice-cream on the menu, you're laughing... To some extent this is the result of dulled palates, but it is also a function of the mere act of writing a criticism.

It's a whole bunch easier to get 200 words out of Heston Blumenthal than it is out of the finest steak-and-kidney pie known to man. Take Chortle's review of Milton Jones - it is quite clear that after Steve Bennett has said, ‘the show's very funny’, he's at a bit of a loss, because there is absolutely nothing else to say about him. Conversely, there is an awful lot to say about ‘intelligent comedy’; although it is a brave reviewer who points out when it is neither intelligent nor comedy.

Fortunately, Steve has the self-awareness to realise this, and merely records that he put his notebook away, sat back and enjoyed the show. A lot of reviewers don't have that intellectual self-confidence. A number of reviews of my Edinburgh show concentrated on praising a section which, sandwiched between funny bits, was massively, and deliberately, self-indulgent. (Hey! It was Edinburgh...)

The reviews were wrong to praise it. It was not a routine I would ever do in a club, and, to be candid, I included it for reasons other than the purely artistic; it was, so to speak, ‘intelligent comedy’ - not nearly as clever as the reviewers thought, being based on some pretty rudimentary, if not trite, epistemology - but it felt as if I was being judged by criteria that had nothing to do with comedy. It was almost as if one could only be praised for the bits where one stopped trying to be funny; when one tried to be serious for a moment, in a ‘Jerry’s-final-thought’ sort of way; as if those were the only bits that could be artistic. Which is simply not the case.

Now, a criticism like that is annoying; but that's all it is. At the moment. On the other hand, if those critics are in charge of dishing out money...

Published: 4 Dec 2009

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