The Problem with Hennessy Youngman

Jayson Musson
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
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"
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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