Fred Armisen, the multi-talented actor, comedian, writer, and musician behind projects like Portlandia and Documentary Now, makes occasional comic appearances on NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, where he also serves as the show’s bandleader. In a recent series of segments titled “Fred Armisen Art Aficionado,” the comedian presents himself as an art connoisseur who possesses an “art historian’s knowledge about every painting that has ever been painted.” These segments are not only hilarious, but also hold a critical and educational value beyond mere late-night entertainment.
In typical deadpan fashion, Armisen presents alternative art historical narratives to the making of masterpieces like Vincent van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” (1885), Auguste Renoir’s “Girls at the Piano” (1892), and famous post-war paintings like Jackson Pollock’s “One: Number 31” (1950), Mark Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” (1961), and others.
For instance, Armisen claims that Pollock’s famous drip painting “One: Number 31” went missing in the early 1970s but resurfaced in a yard sale the next day. It was then repeatedly sold and re-acquired in Sotheby’s sales by the same hesitant buyer, who inadvertently made the painting’s value skyrocket to millions of dollars. That’s a far-fetched scenario, but it comments on the often inexplicable inflation of prices in the art market.
Why are these nonsensical skits worth attention? To start with, they expose late-night TV viewers who seek mindless entertainment to works of art they may not be familiar with, and could potentially encourage them to study the real stories behind these paintings.
Beyond that, these acts are smart jabs at the sometimes elitist and needlessly over-intellectualized discourse of the art world. They are light-hearted satire directed at any self-important curators, programmers, and critics who forget that art answers a basic human need, rather than just serve as a status symbol for the upper classes. Armisen’s jokes also carry a message to the over-professionalized young artists who’ve been trained in MFA programs to package and market their work in nebulous, impenetrable academic formulations. In many cases, the “language for the project” comes before the work itself.
“Art is the lie that reveals the truth,” Pablo Picasso famously said. Armisen’s faux analysis is the lie that reveals the truth about the tyranny of jargon and self-absorbed, fake expertise in the art world. Art is what you make it, and it should be accessible to all.