Fred Armisen (photo by Kent Derek, courtesy of webvisionsevent/Flickr)

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.

Vincent Van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters” (1885). Armisen said the Dutch artist’s parents painted the famous work at his request (and vehemently maintained that the Van Gogh’s publicist is the one who spread those nasty rumors that the artist died pennilessly.) (via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

9 replies on “Fred Armisen’s Comedic Jab at the Elitist Jargon of the Art World”

  1. If I may be serious for a moment, capitalism turns everything it can into a commodity to be bought and sold in order to maximize the profit from it. In the “high culture art world,” art commodities, meaning any work of art, can become enormously valuable with no relationship to merit. This is done through a network of a very limited number of selected artists whose work is made increasingly valuable by particular galleries, critics, museums, auction houses, and patrons who ensure the work is as “extraordinary and rare” as possible for investment purposes or charitable gifts which can dramatically reduce the taxes of the wealthy. Needless to say, while there are truly extraordinary works of art, far too many in a capitalist art market are obviously nothing but a “concept” this network decides to make a valuable commodity with no relationship to artistic merit.

    1. I talk about art on my web site too, I do not show my own on it. I think using the phrase Capitalist dialogue” fixes art into a discourse, it has been a trade once we began trading and trade is not all bad. I do know what you mean though it is way worse in my nation where price fixing and extraordinarily corrupt practices in prizes made me stop entering. It is Far Right Wing here though artists may profess otherwise, I am from Australia. Your market place is at least lively, the corruption here has become insidious and is ruining all possibility of anything much of worth reaching broader art markets. It goes up and down historically, there are times when the taste makers are clueless and other artists know it. It is entirely depressing in my nation, as a way through I am considering a Doctorate though avoiding art speak or looking at residencies USA I am totally desperate. The mainstream here are largely Anglo/Irish Catholic and if you do not see like them you have little hope and sadly I find it extremely hard to see like them even if partly Anglo I cannot it is simply not my way of looking so it is very depressing I am beside myself as my galleries for artisan wares have now closed, pity they are stuck on the mainstream market aboriginal people here are one group who escaped that discourse.

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