Art, Disjunction & 10 O’Clock Live

April 24, 2012

This is Jon Stewart:

He is a funny man. He is also an influential man; in 2010 he was ranked as the most influential man in America.

This is Jimmy Carr:

He is a less funny man. He also is much less influential; 10 O’Clock Live is intended as a British version of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, but the plummeting ratings the first series experienced indicates that the accolade of Britain’s most influential man remains well outside his grasp.

The reason behind 10 O’Clock Live’s relative lack of success has been discussed multiple times, and rightly so. If comedy can have political influence – and clearly it does across the pond – then anyone interested in politics has an interest in understanding how and why that influence comes about.

The answer lies in a picture of a stuffed dog holding a sign:

I'm Dead

This is part of David Shrigley’s Brain Activity exhibition at the Hayward, which I strongly recommend to anyone who enjoys darkly whimsical art. It also provides an interesting way of understanding how Jon Stewart’s brand of satire is judged to be more influential than that of Jimmy Carr’s.

To explain this, the above artwork is not a joke about dogs, dead or otherwise. The humour of the piece is given when one attempts to combine the concepts within; concepts which sit at odds with one another (a dog announcing its own state of deadness). The juxtaposition of these concepts causes the person attempting to organise them to be amused; humour is produced from engagement with the art, rather than something that is a feature of the piece in and of itself.

It may seem trivially obvious that something can only be funny if you engage with it on some level, but there is a subtle distinction to made: the humour of the above is wholly given within the confines of the art, and does not require the provision of a surprising additional concept from outwith it to make it humorous. The continuum between the artworld and comedy that Shrigley’s work represents allows us to consider how aesthetics can apply to humour. For example, consider Kant’s theory of aesthetics: that which is art is that which provides us with concepts with an impression of purposiveness when considered together, but does not contain purposiveness within itself. It is through our engagement and our organisation of those disjunctive concepts within our judgement – or our recognition of our inability to organise them – that we can derive pleasure from art.

Compare and contrast this with Jimmy Carr’s opening salvo in the video above:

“Andy Coulson resigned this work. Some people have questioned what qualified him to the chief Tory spindoctor in the first place. And the answer is B – he’s a sneaky little shit.”

And Jon Stewart’s response to a video of noted madman Glenn Beck:

“I’m not saying that believing that there should be a minimum standard for how much lead should be in our paint might lead to the Government having the right to sterilise and kill Jews, I’m not saying that might be the case. I’m saying that’s the case.”

In the first quote, Jimmy Carr provides us with a question which he resolves for us in an amusing fashion. In the second quote, Jon Stewart draws our attention to an absurdity and invites us to consider its our absurdity for ourselves. The second quote requires engagement on behalf of the audience, the first does not.

Jimmy Carr’s style is to provide us with his opinions in an amusing fashion on issues of the day. Jon Stewart’s style is to draw our attention to the absurdity of a given situation and allow us to derive our own opinion from it. The first meets the disjunctive criterion of humour and art on the basis of a described situation and a surprisingly presented opinion, the second meets the criterion based on a description of the situation itself.

It is not at all surprising that satire aimed at encouraging the audience to engage with a political situation on their own terms is more successful with liberals, in both the American and British senses of the word. Deriving one’s own opinion is a pleasure, if one values the process of questioning and deliberating in itself. If, on the other hand, one derives more value from having one’s opinion confirmed, then one will prefer a presentation of opinion that takes that opinion very seriously. The implication of this is that American television has succeeded in delivering political programming that appeals to both sides of the divide: opinion-affirmation on a plate for the conservatives, and pleasurable engagement with issues for the liberals. 10 O’Clock Live appears to be attempting to straddle this divide, which I can only conclude is unlikely to be a successful strategy.

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