Do you remember the contemporary art performance where Gilbert asks George for “fork ‘andles”? George was operating a small hardware shop and Gilbert was coming in to purchase some bits and bobs. Of course Gilbert, being from northern Italy, his mother tongue Ladin, was almost incomprehensible to George, and so when Gilbert asks for “fork ‘andles” George hears “four candles”. It was made all the better by their being dressed in such proper suits, not the kind of clothes you’d wear at a hardware shop. That was a funny performance.
Almost as funny as the time The Two Ronnies got smashed on Gordon’s Gin. In a bay window they’d set up a little table with a bottle and glasses, cigarettes, an ashtray and chairs. To Edvard Grieg’s ‘Morning’, from the Peer Gynt Suite No.1, they drank and drank and drank and said repeatedly “Gordon’s makes us very drunk”, for almost ten minutes. Now that was proper comedy, made funny by its excruciating repetitiveness, not like that art stuff. Hang on I’ve gone wrong somewhere, let me start over…
And now for something completely different
For the last fifty years two great British cultural forms have been in constant conflict, evolving as warring bedfellows. I like to imagine this co-dependence as the 1914 Race to the Sea, the occasion during which a Franco-British counter-offensive met repeatedly with German armies moving north from Reims towards the coast. In the ensuing succession of battles, each force attempted to out manoeuvre the other, desperately seeking an advantage. However, neither gained one and eventually both armies met the North Sea, resulting in the long term Western front stalemate.
By tracing a timeline of conceptual art and contemporary comedy we can see moments in an extended conflict, battles within a military campaign spreading across the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st. Little attention has been paid to this history. It is one of the great untold stories of our culture, ignored by historians dedicated to their specialisms.
In this article I will sketch out key events in this conflict, presenting a set of dependent forms constantly in motion, adapting their tactics and forcing the other to advance or be subsumed. In a series of subsequent case studies I will further flesh out this war, adding battles, skirmishes and ambushes. However, for now, we begin at the beginning.
The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting
The conflict began in 1965 when the BBC first screened Not Only… But Also[i] (1965-1970). The sketch show starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore ran for three series until the end of 1970. Commissioned in response to the pair’s successful touring stage show, Beyond the Fringe (1960-1964)[ii], it was one of the first comedies of its kind. Forgoing the rigid conventions of previous sketch shows it embraced irrelevant and surreal aspects and embodied British class values.
At the time neither avant-garde comedy nor conceptual art generated considerable audiences. Yet Not Only… But Also achieved this and quickly turned its success against the art world. In only the fourth episode a Dagenham Dialogues sketch[iii] saw Cook and Moore convene for sandwiches during a day at an art museum. During their exchanges the pair critique a range of renowned artists: Rubens, Botticelli, Cezanne and the entire Impressionist movement. Eventually the pair move onto lampooning Da Vinci’s worth as a cartoonist:
Moore: I bet, when that Da Vinci cartoon first came out, I bet people were killing themselves. I bet old Da Vinci had an accident when he drew it.
Cook: Well, it’s difficult to see the joke, just that lady sitting there with the children round her. It’s not much of a joke as far as I’m concerned, Dud.
Moore: Well apart from that Pete, it’s a different culture. It’s Italian you see.
Cook: It’s Italianate.
Moore: We don’t understand it. For instance The Mousetrap did terribly in Pakistan.[iv]
The sketch was particularly scathing towards the art world for three reasons. Firstly, Cook and Moore had insulted established figures and made fun of the social conventions implicit to the gallery. Secondly, they had ridiculed Da Vinci as perplexing to a contemporary audience; and thirdly, by extension, they had suggested the impenetrability of contemporary art.
Affronted by their remarks, and envious of their success on the BBC, the artist Keith Arnatt responded by broadcasting his work Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) (1969)[v] on German television. Arnatt had produced a sequence of nine photographs which, when read in filmic terms, showed him disappearing into a slowly expanding patch of turned soil. For Arnatt the conceptual period’s occupation with the “disappearance of the art object” suggested the “eventual disappearance of the artist himself”.[vi]
Unfortunately, the joke was on Arnatt. Failing to grasp how television operated, Arnatt had purchased nine two-second timeslots, once a day, at peak viewing time; one of Arnatt’s images would appear on German television, potentially interrupting whatever show was on at the time. Of course the vast majority of the German public failed to see the nine images in succession and therefore the joke was lost upon them. Furthermore, given recent world events of the time, the Germans who saw all nine images simply approved of seeing a British man disappear!
And thus a shot had been fired. Whilst conflict had not truly ignited, soon events would turn violent. In October 1969 a new comedy show aired on British television, one which borrowed heavily from avant-garde art movements such as the Dadaist and the Surrealists. To British contemporary art practitioners, the rise of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1973) would become unacceptable.
In their first episode the Pythons launched an all-out offensive on the art world. The sketch concerned a “momentous artistic event” in which Pablo Picasso attempts to produce an artwork on bicycle en-motion. At the Tolworth roundabout, John Cleese playing a reporter, briskly describes the scene, as a plethora of painters pass by on bike: Kandinsky, Braque, Mondrian, Chagall, Ernst, Miro, Dufy, Nicholson, Pollock, Buffet, Brancusi, Gericault, Leger, Delauney, De Kooning, Kokoschka, Klee and Schwitters. However, there’s no sign of Picasso. And, vitally there’s no sign of any of Britain’s conceptual art crowd; deliberately omitted.
If that was not enough, a second attack was hidden within the sketch further defaming the British contemporary art scene. As Michael Palin’s commentator character details Picasso’s route from Chichester to Battersea, he remarks that this is a “truly remarkable occasion as it is the first time that a modern artist of such stature has taken the A272”[vii]. Of course Richard Long had recently walked the A272, and the Pythons knew it.
Long responded the following year by creating a spiral motif out of seaweed on a Cornish beach in A Sculpture Left by the Tide (1970). Whilst art historians have claimed this work reflects upon the “eternal movement of the sea” embracing the cyclical patterns of nature[viii], it is in fact a finely veiled reference to the Pythons. The cyclic motif refers to the bicycle wheel and the ephemerality introduced by the tide coming in every six-hours, suggested that the Pythons would not last to a sixth series. As Long predicted, the Pythons only made it to series four[ix].
The following season Python criticised performance art in an all-out attack; legs raised, John Cleese presented The Ministry of Funny Walks (1970). What appeared to be a satirical take on government was actually an assault upon the increasing institutionalisation of contemporary art practices in British culture.[x]
Next it came to Glaswegian Bruce McLean to enter the fray with Pose Work for Plinth 3 (1971), through which he parodied Cleese, arranging himself in a series of humorous positions on a set of standard art plinths. The work was originally performed at the Situation Gallery and later photographed and arranged into a three by four combination. McLean’s action can be considered akin to the nuclear arms race, an attempt to improve upon the weaponry of war and maintain an advantage over the enemy[xi].
Further battles were fought through the remainder of the 1970s, skirmishes between two forms rapidly expanding their spheres of influence. However, in the 1980s a Cold War period was entered. Overlooking a few exceptions, the decade was defined by Neo-Expressionism and the sitcom, two genres intended to amuse the public through Thatcher’s reign.
Conceptual art and contemporary comedy took a back seat until 1988, when with the emergence of the YBA generation, the Cold War conflict thawed and new trenches were dug. The new era of conflict would quash traditional ideas of warfare, and for the first time women were permitted to join the ranks. Leading the charge were sisters-in-arms Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin. Bound by a mutual distaste for the comedic stylings of Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, aka Absolutely Fabulous (1992-1995), the comrades pioneered their own visually humorous interpretation of female identity.
Lucas embodied an androgynous femininity and often placed herself centre stage. Between 1990 and 1998 she produced a group of photographic self-portraits, propaganda pieces of 90s womanhood, including Fighting Fire with Fire (1996) and Human Toilet Two (1996). The iconic Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996) typified Lucas’s sculptural, tough, and tongue-in-cheek use of the camera, issuing a vision of women as defiant and confrontational, the cracked eggs, a deliberate reference of Birds of a Feather (1989-1998), suggesting it’d be better to kill the birds before they were born.
Emin’s practice relied heavily upon autobiographical expositions of desire, trauma and experience, exposing an under-explored female character type. Pieces such as Tracey Emin C.V. (1995) recounted significant events, from education to sexual experience, in order to question notions of the creative genius, typically recognisable by erratic and unusual behaviour. Simultaneously, Emin was also attacking main stream stand-up comedy, observational humorists who thought their having been alive warranted our attention and praise.
Recognising that they were woefully behind the times a division of female comedians set out to regain territory. In 1999 band-of-sisters Fiona Allen, Doom Mackichan and Sally Phillips (with rear guard Sarah Alexander) launched a counter attack called Smack the Pony (1999-2003). Running till 2003, the sketch show featured an armament of recurring skits that, like Lucas and Emin, celebrated a range of unsung female characters.
Most famous of these features were the Dating Agency Videos in which the comedians monologued a series of characters introducing themselves and explaining what they sought in a potential partner. Borrowing from Lucas and Emin’s honest and often brutal self-representations, these sketches exposed flawed female figures, countering the image of the ideal-women as seen in advertising and art. Over three series, Smack the Pony proved that female comedians could be as radical as their artistic counter-parts, and even made reference to their competitive relationship with Lucas and Emin in their Competitive Rivals sketches.
With the 2000s looming Britain looked to its creative practitioners to critically re-evaluate the state of the nation. Both art and comedy responded with projects of social categorisation, 21st century British equivalents of August Sander’s Face of our Time (1929). The responses began when the Brit Pop-modelled Jeremy Deller, along with collaborative partner Alan Kane, embarked on a six year grand tour of the isles[xii] entitled Folk Archive (1999-2005). Comprising photographic documentation and “work from prisoners and community groups, gurning and barrel rolling participants, Notting Hill Carnival troupes, protesters, pop fans, bored teenagers, villagers and the homeless”[xiii] the archive is a cross section of British culture outside the usual definitions of ‘cultured’.
Across no-man’s-land, another duo had begun writing their own observations on Britain’s diverse ecology. Originating on BBC Radio 4 (2000-2002), and then as TV on BBC Three (2003-2004) and BBC One (2005-2007), Little Britain saw comedians David Walliams and Matt Lucas take on the guise of a plethora of British character types. In sketch show format, recognisable figures such as: the village’s sole homosexual, the council flat teenage chain-smoking mother and the disabled-not-disabled guy were lambasted in good humour…
Both the Folk Archive and Little Britain deliberately appealed to our self-deprecating sense of humour. For his efforts, Deller has been rewarded as one of our best known contemporary artists, recognised in his 2013 Venice Biennale Pavillion English Magic (2013). However, it is Walliams who won the battle, succeeding in film, writing children’s books, judging Britain’s Got Talent (2007-present), and for a time, being married to Dutch model Lara Stone.
The difference: whilst Deller wanted to celebrate Britain’s weirdness, Walliams sought to viciously stereotype along the lines of negative class assumptions, and if there’s one thing the British love, it’s classism. New millennium or not, we’re all about classist remarks.
Since the ‘Battle of Little Britain’ the war has seen a period of cooling off. Both art and comedy have further entrenched themselves into the British cultural scene: galleries have become a pastime for people both inside and outside of London and comedians are playing at the O2 Arena. With increasing economic fortunes neither side has been willing to start another all on assault.
Diplomatic exchanges have transpired. The comedy conceptual artist David Shirley has been granted a show at the Hayward and comedian Martin Creed has been taking the piss out of contemporary art undisturbed for decades. However, those who celebrate these successes as being a step towards a final peace, are misled.
The exchange of ‘cultural ambassadors’ and increased financial worth of each power does not ensure security. Indeed, it does the opposite. One false move from either side could see us enter a new stage of conflict unbeknownst to previous generations: a stage of conflict funded by stadium tours and million dollar sales; a stage technologically equipped with lighting rigs, smoke machines, 3D mapping software and virtual reality software. In 2016 we are in the eye of the storm. All looks calm for the moment.
I’m tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine.
Unlike conventional wars the conflict between art and comedy has waged for fifty years without casualty. No shells have torn craters in the earth, no planes crash landed in wheat-fields, no fires forced civilians from their homes and no bullets have cost the lives of young men. It has been a covert war, hidden behind the mechanisms of each media. Lines of comedy have smuggled barbed attacks, artistic arrangements have intellectually let loose anger and resentment. However, to the British public the war was not been evident. It is therefore, a history unwritten.
Over the coming months I will continue this endeavour, further fleshing out the incidents of conflict my research uncovers. The coming collection of case studies will delve deeper into the military manoeuvres taken by either side, explaining the lay-of-the-land, the size of the forces amassed and the decisions made behind the scenes. Each case study will focus on one particular battle, some expanding upon incidents outlined above, others looking to lesser known conflicts.
In closing however, I must ask that you, dear reader, lend a hand if possible. A great history such as this is no easy undertaking, impossible for one man alone. So please, if you know of a battle here, or a sabotage there, write in the comments section below. Together we can shed light on one of the most intense cultural conflicts to have ever lit up the world.
Elliott Burns is a curator, writer, occasional teacher and sporadic-artist. He recently graduated from Central Saint Martins MA: Culture, Criticism & Curation and is currently employed by UAL organising an exhibition of enquiry based teaching methods. He writes on an eclectic range of subjects. http://elliottburns.com
[i] I know technically the pilot was screened in 1964, but for the sake of the article.
[ii] Also featuring Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.
[iii] A series of 12 largely improvised sketches during with Cook and Moore displayed their idiot’s wisdom on a range of subjects.
[iv] Cook, P. and Moore, D. (1965) ‘At the Art Gallery’ in ‘Show 4’ Not Only … But Also, Series 1, Episode 4, BBC Television, 20 February.
[v] Typically conceptual art requires vast amounts of thinking before action (see Tom Friedman’s 1000 Hours of Staring), hence the gap between assault and counter offensive.
[vi] Arnatt, K. (1984) 1965-1972 – when attitudes became form, exhibition catalogue. Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge, p. 29.
[vii] Chapman, G., Cleese, C., Gilliam, T., Idle, E., Jones, T. and Palin, M. (1969) ‘Picasso/Cycling Race’ in ‘Whither Canada?’ Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Series 1, Episode 1, BBC Television, 5 October.
[viii] R.H. Fuchs (1986) Richard Long, exhibition catalogue. Guggenheim Museum, New York, p.133.
[ix] And four movies, live tours and extremely profitable careers afterwards.
[x] Chapman, G., Cleese, C., Gilliam, T., Idle, E., Jones, T. and Palin, M. (1970) ‘The Ministry of Silly Walks’ in ‘Face the Press (or: Dinsdale)’ Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Series 1, Episode 2, BBC Television, 15 September.
[xi] Python merchandise has often in turn parodied McLean’s Pose Work for Plinth 3 by arranging Cleese’s bureaucrat in a three by four combination on posters and t-shirts, a continuation of this ‘legs race’.
[xii] Times were tough, long gone were the days when a ‘Grand Tour’ entailed a voyage around the Mediterranean.
[xiii] Deller, J. (2016) Folk Archive, 2005 (with Alan Kane). Available at: http://www.jeremydeller.org/FolkArchive/FolkArchive.php. [Accessed 4 July 2016].