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Jayson Musson in his studio (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Jayson Musson is a very popular man in the art world. His YouTube account has over 900,000 views, and his fans are rabid. The funny thing is, though, most of his fans probably have no idea who he is. Here’s the answer: Jayson Musson is the artist behind Hennessy Youngman.

In a past life, Musson toured the world with a hip-hop group, and he was making art long before he created the character of Hennessy Youngman. But after two years of creating Art Thoughtz videos for YouTube, which star the hip-hop inspired Youngman character critiquing different aspects of the art world, Jayson Musson is still something of an emerging artist while his alter ego is a superstar.

Musson will be the first to admit that the attention he’s received as a result of Art Thoughtz has boosted his career, but he is steadfast on the fact that Hennessy Youngman is a self-contained character that does not dictate his overall practice. He treats Hennessy Youngman as a body of work that he can either show or put away as he chooses.

Musson’s studio, with his painting “The American” hanging in on the wall (click to enlarge)

Youngman tackles such topics as institutional art, race, art history and contemporary culture. He’s perhaps most successful in his fearless approach to questions of race and institutional art. Both topics have, of course, been explored at length in the art world and academia, but thanks to Musson’s razor-sharp wit, he is able to penetrate them in new ways, including with a particularly effective pair of videos titled “How To Be A Successful Artist” and “How to Be A Successful Black Artist.” By using satire, Musson subverts the taboos associated with these topics and reinvigorates a tired conversation within the art world.

Part of Musson’s success with Art Thoughtz has been the creation of an unlikely character that challenges the core of the intellectual orthodoxy of today’s art world. Hennessy Youngman introduces a comedic, urban perspective into a largely serious and boring Ivy League discourse (a slightly ironic gesture, since Musson has an MFA degree from UPenn). Through his videos, Musson has tried to initiate a loosening-up of the art world’s elitist establishment. His message seems to be, “Hey, take it easy, this stuff isn’t that serious.” I enthusiastically support this type of message, I just hope it isn’t lost in all the hype.

When I visited the opening for the Hennessy Youngman curated/uncurated open-call show Its a small, small world in April, at Family Business gallery, I was greeted by over three hundred doting fans. Many of the people I met that night didn’t have work in the show, nor did they know anyone in it (other than Hennessy Youngman). One could argue that it is easy to draw a big crowd in New York if you are offering a free exhibition opportunity, but as I wandered through the dense crowd of young and old art worlders, I began to sense that nobody had actually come for the show. Instead, everyone kept telling me the same thing: “I came here for Hennessy.”

Jayson Musson, “The American” (2010), tempera on paper, 30 x 40 inches

Although I’m a fan of Jayson Musson and Hennessy Youngman, I see a basic conflict of interest between Musson’s work and Youngman’s celebrity. The more attention Musson gets as a celebrity figure, the less attention he retains for his actual work and the less people take him seriously. The Art Thoughtz videos are strong, thoughtful critiques of the art world, its customs and practices. The videos are also hilarious, which makes them easy to watch and enjoy, and because they are internet-based, they’re free and easy to share. The combination of intellectual rigor, savvy humor and accessibility has created a new art star, but after meeting some fans, I began to question if they appreciated his thought-provoking insights or if they were only interested in his clever one-liners — or even just in meeting him. I can’t help but wonder if his celebrity has eclipsed his art.

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Don Edler

Don Edler is a artist and occasional writer who, when not searching the world for new art to look at, he is in his studio making sculptures or reading books. Don lives and works in New York City.

58 replies on “The Problem with Hennessy Youngman”

  1. But does it matter if others don’t get the same thing out of it as you or I do? How does one even know if every “fan” receives Hennessy Youngman in the same way? That is, “The more attention Musson gets as a celebrity figure, the less attention he retains for his actual work and the less people take him seriously.” This sounds like logical fallacy, and a little too presumptuous; perhaps the audience for each (Musson’s “actual” work, and Youngman/Art Thoughtz — though a binary that wrongly suggests that the latter has no serious grounding) are completely different to begin with, so there shouldn’t be worry of such a thing happening?

  2. You say at the beginning of the article that Musson considers Hennessey Youngman to be a self-contained project (He treats Hennessy Youngman as a body of work that he can either show or put away as he chooses.) but later conclude that it’s not part of his body of “actual” work. His videos and other performances are pretty amazing so I think it’s unfair to judge them by your perceived understanding of why other people like them so much.

  3. “Hey, take it easy, this stuff isn’t that serious.” I enthusiastically support this type of message, I just hope it isn’t lost in all the hype.”- looks like you took it too seriously, bro.

  4. This article is problematic as the comments reveal, but I’m glad you brought up the topic that some people feel art personality can overshadow meaning. Can I suggest some further questions that I’d like to hear about for the next Hennessy article? How will Hen transition to his next performance after such a popular piece? Will he be typecast? If so, how well will he overcome this? Did he go to the well too many times with this piece? Should he have quit sooner or now? When will the backlash begin? Some things I think about.

    1. I LOVE COMMENTS! I can answer your questions right now Nate, 1. How will Hen transition to his next performance after such a popular piece? There will be no next performance since I’m not a performance artist. 2. If so, how well will he overcome this? I put in work homie, which means that just because I’m not tweeting/sharing my way through a project doesn’t mean I’m not working on other things. 3. Will he be typecast? Whatchoo talking about Willis. 4 & 5. Should he have quit sooner or now? When will the backlash begin? HA! Quit? If I stop anything it’s because i get bored with it, never from fear of what others might grumble. Again, IDGAF. I work to please myself, if there’s an audience that’s an added plus, if not then that’s cool too. My work is entertaining but I don’t make it as entertainment. Meaning that despite it’s public component and life via mass media, there still has to be a great level of fulfillment in the process of creating the vids and this fulfillment is pretty far removed from audience, it’s a relationship that I believe all if not many artist have with their work before and despite of how it is consumed by a public. That’s about it from me. I’m going back being an art celebrity watching the Office on hulu. Got catch up on season 8!

      1. Sure, I get that we’d do what we do with or without an audience, and we need to sustain ourselves without an audience at times or we’re not really artists imo. But wouldn’t you prefer an audience? If not, then why are you even sharing?

        Follow ups:

        1. Why are you going out of the way to say you’re not a performance artist? Will your next piece look like performance art, but not be? (I’m not fucking with you, I’m seriously interested)
        2. How will you not be typecast? I feel this is a big challenge for you going forward. Others I’ve spoken to agree.
        3. Why disregard the public (“IDGAF”) who is responsible for your success? Haven’t you gained anything from attention and notoriety?

        Am I talking to Hen or Jayson by the way?

        1. Why not share? You don’t need to have an audience in mind all the time to just put something into the public realm. An audience could manifest, you just never know.

          And i don’t want to speak for him, but i can relate to the question #1 that you asked as an artist who does performance-based work & acting. It just doesn’t seem like he intended the series as a fine art piece. It is a kind of performance that isn’t necessarily “Art” with the capitol “A” so performance art isn’t really an applicable term in this case.

          He’ll probably deal with “typecasting” the same way that other comedians like Sacha Baron Cohen do- you switch characters when you’re finished with one.

          Concerns about appeasing one’s fans is more of an actor’s concern, or an entertainer’s. For fine artists, the audience is not regarded so much as a fanbase

          1. Wonder why he doesn’t respond for himself? You have interesting thoughts though. I find his case fascinating. You compare his challenges to a comedian. I put him in a performance art frame. So, what is he? What category does he belong in? I like that ambiguity.

            Can’t wait to see how this plays out and wish him the best.

          2. Jayson Musson is a painter who accidentally hit it big with a video side project. Now he continues to be Hennessy Youngman to stay in the spotlight in hopes that promoting his painting will one day pay off so that he can leave the Hennessy Youngman character behind to pursue his other dreams. Unfortunately the public wants him to be Hennessy Youngman forever or at the very least another persona just as funny.

            Jayson Musson is in a catch-22 situation where he either be Hennessy Youngman against his will and thus become a monkey or drop Hennessy Youngman altogether and risk losing his fame and as a result being an exhibited painter. He knows all this though which is why he adamantly denies that he does performance art thinking that the kudos he has received as Hennessy Youngman have bled into his painting career which obviously they haven’t. And it is this scenario which is at the crux of the matter that Hennessy Youngman has killed Jayson Musson.

          3. Jayson Musson is one of the most refreshing voices critiquing the art world today and it would be a damn shame to watch him turn into a monkey but only Jayson has ultimate control over that.

          4. Jayson Musson knows when he’s being a monkey and when he’s not being one.

            Plus get out of here with that racist crap–you sound corny and fake …

          5. Hmmm: interesting points here, Emily. Esp as regards his comments about performance art. It surprised me because I thought of him as a sort of Powhida, only funnier — less texty, and more comprehensive.

            Gawd how I hate all the SBC commentary though. I think what HY does is soooooooo different. I don’t even GET the comparisons. At. All.

            Maybe talking at a camera about art in an irreverent and straight-forward honest way that slips at times into satire … maybe one can compare that to flat out farce if one thinks that funny is funny is funny. But I’d rather pay more attention.

            One more thought: maybe HY isn’t performance art: maybe it’s art criticsm.

    1. wow that is pretty harsh and pretty lame. There is a lot of intelligence in what he says. Have you watched his videos all the way through?

      1. Jayson Musson is a very intelligent artist but I don’t like seeing him parody all the ignorant aspects of hip hop culture just to ingratiate himself to what he believes to be his mostly white audience although I do find interviews with him not as Hennessy Youngman but as himself fun to watch.

        1. I don’t think its fair to assume he did that in order to please his mostly white audience . I also don’t really think you can surely say he is always parodying a lot of his work champions straight talk. ahhh too much theoretical discussion over a guy who challenges the over classifying and over thinking of art. What I want to say is give the guy a break and don’t assume the worst.

          1. One of these days Jayson Musson will have to stop being Hennessy Youngman because the act will get old. But if no one criticizes his work now then he will end up just like the emperor with no clothes except that his fans would have turned on him long before he ever realized that “acting a fool” is what they wanted of him all along.

  5. Let’s hear it for such a dope artist! While I’m happy to see something about the actor-critic Mr. Musson, your misreading is simplistic — are you really afraid that his success is getting in the way of his success? Here’s hoping “Henny” takes a cue from great comedians like Sasha Baron Cohen and Robin Williams and finds fresh, new identities to inhabit. Yes, I admit. I wanna see him in drag! Do I hear a master class with Professor Doubtfire? Some like it art! Nannoo nannoo.

  6. Oh, I thought the main problem with Hennessy Youngman was the fact that he’s saying YO, THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES! and everyone else is surrounding him nodding maniacally even though they are also not wearing any clothes.
    Like all institutional critique, once it gets pulled into the artworld sanctioned circuit, it loses its teeth.
    What is anyone trying to DO about the hypocrisies and foolishness he’s satirizing? Nothing. They’re just laughing and then crying as they write their 7,000th check to the student loan corporation for that useful MFA.

    1. The very problem with Jayson Musson’s institutional critique is that he expresses it through the Hennessy Youngman character. Making people laugh is one thing but effecting real political change in the art world is a serious endeavor that requires exemplary talent, chutzpah, and stamina to weather the long haul. Musson needs to stop the antics if he ever wants to be more than just another disposable William Powhida-like truant.

      1. Agreed. Although, I do support satire and humor as effective political tools. I think that, as an artist, H.Y. should do what he does well. It’s up to us as the audience to also act. Lord knows we have enough uber-serious “political” artists who circulate from biennial to biennial to Documenta without ever addressing anyone but the well-heeled choir they preach to.

        1. Humor and satire can address problems but rarely do they fix them. Hennessy Youngman and William Powhida represent our need for good institutional critique but since both approach it as comedians they pose no real threat to the status quo and therefore art institutions uphold them. Essentially they are just effigies …

          1. ARt doesnt’ fix problems; sometimes (rarely) it can SHOW them. That s what Musson’s work does.

          2. Hennessy Youngman simply parrots the sentiment of every cowardly artist or writer who is unwilling to shoulder the great responsibility of addressing head-on the politics of oppression which is at the very core of art criticism and institutional critique.

          3. If Hennessy Youngman is at all political it’s as a nascent puppet and sideshow for an ever-increasingly sinister and manipulative art world. Who benefits more from Jayson Musson’s hackneyed clown routine: him or the posh galleries and institutions that use him to capitalize on his so-called mass appeal?

  7. It’s tiresome to keep reading that Musson’s art is compromised by Hennessy’s success: it’s not. Peering through a crowd of hipsters doesn’t provide insight into a career like Musson’s. He’s got several projects going on and no one of them precludes the other. And we like Hennessy. We love Hennessy. I’m sure Musson doesn’t mind if Hennessy is more popular than Super Obama. It’s all in a days work!

    1. I think the issue is partly the definitions of success and the art world’s finicky sensibility around that. I’ve seen artists become media sensations and that didn’t help sell their work (or get them shows) and probably did the opposite. It’s more about the art world’s desire to not be mass while appealing to a broad audience. It’s one of many issues that make the art world unique, irritating and fascinating — and it’s one of it contradictions IMHO.

      1. And then there’s Cindy Sherman. And Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and Tracy Emmin and … sometimes success is just success. I suspect folks are on about Hennessy because they see him as an overnight sensation but I’ll bet he doesn’t see it that way. He worked. ANd he came up with Hennessy and he worked on that too. ANd Hennessy is great. And that’s just dandy.

        The art world is hypocritical when it comes to what it pretends it likes and what it BUYS, and/or BUYS INTO; but some artists, like Shakespeare, manage to have mass appeal AND be smart. I think Mr. Musson is one of them.

        1. When people finally get bored with ART THOUGHTZ who out of all of Hennessy Youngman’s supposedly loyal fans will be there to support Jayson Musson and his artwork then?

          1. Pithy, but Plenty of people love artists their whole lives, throughout an entire career. Of course there are loyal fans. Maybe you’ve just never been one.

    2. Jayson Musson needs to be careful to ensure that the Hennessy Youngman mania doesn’t get out of hand thus obliterating any chance of him having an art career post him doing the Hennessy Youngman bit. Already he has been pigeonholed as a performance artist. Worst case scenario is that he chooses to do the Hennessy Youngman shtick just to remain in the spotlight which will of course sap its juice causing the art world to turn on him, defame him, and eventually drop him altogether.

      1. Isn’t it possible that he just makes these videos – which are light, sharply insightful and also (as a bonus) at times hysterical – as a way to get his thoughts out and have a little fun? What a breath of fresh fucking air. It was a while after I first saw a Hennessy video that I found out he was a painter… And I just didn’t care. If he was an art handler, or writer, or a real estate agent from Minnesota interested in art, and he made these videos for fun, would he suddenly be considered a performance artist? I can only hope he just keeps on doin’ his thing and doesn’t get caught up in the debate.

        1. It isn’t constructive for Jayson Musson to believe that he is impervious to criticism just because he does slapstick. As an artist he needs to realize that his work is under close scrutiny not only by journalists like me but by his many fans who are anticipating what he will do next. Better that he choose to be an inspiration by quickening his craft than become pathetically delusional through his own ignorance of feedback.

        2. Total agreement. He’s just doing some really artful art criticism. ANd we’re just not used to that.

    3. yeah in the end of the day some works and artist does resonate more than others. That’s just the way it goes. How much an artist responds to that is entirely up to her/him. I like Hennessy more than the other stuff Musson does but that doesn’t mean one or the other should or will be more important to him.

  8. HY is great. don’t change a thing. HY fame will leak over into JM and open doors. in the art world, fame is such a trump card.

    1. I think you may be right, Terry: HY is Jayson Musson’s work, it’s one of many projects. It’s nun-like to go on about how bad it is if one of an artist’s many projects does better than his others. So frigging what?

  9. So, basically you are faulting him for doing exactly what Koons, Hirst, Schnabel, and legions of other (white) artists have done for decades in part because his audience isn’t made up of rich collectors.

    1. Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) is currently selling Hennessy Youngman’s YouTube vids in Digital Beta PAL format for a ludicrous $1,600 a pop. Furthermore if Jayson Musson is hobnobbing with the likes of Maurizio Cattelan and Massimiliano Gioni who in their right mind would believe that rich collectors don’t have him in their view? He is being primped to be the next art superstar though the establishment is still waiting to determine how good of a cash cow he is which all depends on how institutions will be able to hawk his work in the future. For now everyone is keeping him in the dark until he has proven himself docile enough to be regularly exploited in public.

  10. ~The HY versus JM problem doesn’t exist unless anybody wants to believe there is a problem (and if it’s a problem, hope all the world problems would be like this one).

  11. What I see here looks like Fun-o-phobia.

    Is there some kind of puritanical bent that makes people hate on success? Or hate on humor? Or on fun?

    Do we really prefer boring boring boring PC text art, lecture art, finger-wagging noodge art? Murals and slogans?

    I know I don’t.

    1. Art journalists are supposed to protect and reinforce certain standards of quality in the art world and if they fail to do so it is either because they are unskilled or don’t care. Hennessy Youngman is entertaining but his act isn’t solid by far partially because hip hop is dead as everyone knows and in other part because it’s dubious as to whether or not he still enjoys doing it. If an art star seems to be led on by fame then the press needs to warn that person to reflect on their career before they make a complete jackass out of themselves and go down in history as a stooge.

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