PRINT January 1988



HA HA HA ha ha ha! Peals of laughter echo hauntingly, in countless ambivalent tones. Hundreds of clowns are parading through the halls of contemporary art, in work by Lee Gordon, Archie Rand, Tony Fitzpatrick, Judy Rilka, Randolfo Rocha, Jonathan Borofsky, Michael O'Brien, Donald Baechler, Bobby G., Mark McCloud, Rob Scholte, Daniel Tisdale, Ellen Phelan, John Baldessari, Katherine Sherwood, David Wojnarowicz, Robert Williams, Greg O'Halloran, Julian Schnabel, John Peters, Julie Wachtel, Federico Fellini, Ted Rosenthal, David Salle, Aurthur Sarnoff, David Graham, Robin Winters, the Alien Comic, Cindy Sherman, George Condo, Eric Bainbridge, Bruce Nauman, Thomas Schindler, Michael Smith, William Wegman, Celia Shapiro, Huck Snyder, Louise Lawler, Russel Floersch, Bill Irwin, Andy Soma, Nicholas Africano, Stanley Sobolewski, Tod Papageorge, David Manilow, Robert Longo, Hapi Phace, Miriam Schapiro, Irwin Corey, Richard Prince, Bread and Puppet Theater, and on. It's a circus. Oh, what to make of these artists' procession of buffoons? Why do we see this motley crew of baggy pants, painted smiles, light bulb noses, and slapstick antics more and more now? Why these times' clown comedians, shamans, and fools?

The parade of clowns may not have entered the frame of contemporary art center stage, but they are there, performing exuberantly in the shadows like a sideshow. Sentimental, laughable, pratfalling, pie-throwing caricatures in pantomime, they still amuse the kiddies at the three-ring circus, but they are also popping up in the arts, and with a peculiar frequency. What has led these waning figures of popular culture into the realm of esthetics? Their intrusion might not be so remarkable but for its ubiquity. Certainly contemporary art claims many gestures more glamorous than those of the innocuous clown. Few, however, can represent as many emotional and conceptual contradictions as even milk-toast clowning can. To begin to sort out the proliferation and the potency of clowns in the arts today, it is necessary to state the obvious: the clown is not a new phenomenon but an archetype, now even more marginalized than in the days of the traveling players.

The circus and vaudeville have declined dramatically in popularity over this century, as mass-reproducible media have usurped their spectacular role. In this context, one might assume that the clown is a relic as fusty as P. T. Barnum's mid-19th-century American Museum. The continuing appeal of clowns for young and old, however, and the sporadic flurries of interest they inspire in the creative and intellectual imaginations of different generations, show that they have in fact survived, despite the overwhelming technological and economic advantages of television, radio, and the movies, and they have survived without simply becoming the creatures of these electronic media. This is because they retain, even if only residually, traces of once-primary roles and rituals, for which they are surrogates, of a hybrid kind. Over the centuries, their orbits around the rings of entertainment have mapped and remapped the bright ideas and dumb mistakes of the human figure. Their political and psychological contouring around and around questions of inclusion and exclusion, their constant falling down on their faces, and their general appearance, behavior, and emotional make-up are the picturing of that figure's struggles, conflicts, and ambivalences. The clowns who dance before our eyes in art today, in a disharmonious chorus line, recklessly and hopelessly out of step, out of time, and out of patience with each other, are divergent offspring of the same embryo. They court the company of all the jokers who put themselves up as the embodiment of the farce of the human condition, from the fair to the carnival, from the court to the circus, from vaudeville and burlesque to those few outdated red noses on television, sticking out like bums in a supermarket.

The clown is the humanization of a warped character. He—one has the impression that until quite recently he was usually he—is also in essence a caricature of official values, a turning on them, in fact, through the vulgar picture of the human body as grotesque, fat, raucous, laughing, gluttonous, drunken, prone to all forbidden corporal excess. Though qualities such as these have surely been as widespread among people who can easily afford them as among the poor of pocket, those who see themselves as civilized have often been entertained by this obscene portrait, which they identify with those they see as not. It has been a point of fascination for them, and even of eroticism. Clowning, however, has another side, of equal tradition, in carnival, a sanctioned disruption of order, not so much a satire of the low for the high (and also a satire of the high, though in a form acceptable to them) as a mass celebration of the masses.

The medieval clown was the fool, a volatile social figure incarnated in a variety of ways. One of the more celebrated and widespread burlesque festivals in the Middle Ages, for example, was the Feast of Fools; usually falling between Christmas and New Year, this carnival featured a Lord of Misrule, appointed for the day to preside over general revelry. The ceremonies involved an elaborate parody of the Church. Another common burlesque was the Feast of the Ass, which absurdly celebrated the donkey on which Mary and the baby Jesus rode. These feasts, ritual inversions of religious and social caste, were mostly stamped out by the 15th century, but the more civilized court fool endured until the 1700s. Symbolically different from the ruler rather than truly wild, this fool was implicitly rather than explicitly a critic of European culture, jesting before its thrones. Like the fool of ancient Greece and Rome, and later of the Aztec court, he used cunning, trickery, and repartee to keep his job of amusing his powerful patrons. Such a two-faced, double-edged character subtly preserved a sense of his social difference while conforming to an idiot image that, like the image of dwarves, cripples, and freaks, served to comfort the middle-management level of the court: others were lower in the pecking order, and in the order of creation, than they.

In the shift of emphasis in popular entertainment from the feast and the carnival to the exhibition fair, a distinction arose within fun and games that tamed the carnival's uncontrolled choruses of self-purging laughter: the economically rewarding celebrations that promoted civilized behavior and commerce on the one hand, the disorderly, Dionysian, and sometimes dangerous festivities of pleasure on the other. By the beginning of the 19th century, the unruly carnival spirit was only vestigially alive. Its excesses were largely an ephemeral and distanced vision, and its view of the ribald body was sapped, distilled into dream. Perhaps the change was connected to Romanticism's shift of the arena of vitality from the public to the private and specifically the interior life. Working in the first half of the 18th century— he died in 1764 —William Hogarth could take as his subject matter a public life that was yet completely sensual, with its drinking and gambling and orgiastic dedication to pleasure. Though this kind of depiction did not die out in 19th-century art, Romanticism was deeply concerned with individual rather than communal experience. Caspar David Friedrich's and J. M. W. Turner's uninhabited land- and seascapes, correlatives of the inner life; Géricault's one-by-one portraits of the insane; the images by Goya that turn away from a public sphere he abhorred to its internal shadow in his own bad dreams—works such as these set the tone for the new age. It is only a matter of decades before the new bourgeois public life is made vivid in the Impressionist pictures of the urban spectacle.

Appearing right between Daumier's depictions of the social costs of the industrial revolution—his essentially political depictions of figures shown often starved and poor—and Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1886, was Barnum's famous circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which opened in Brooklyn, New York, in 1871. It was in this context of a changing public realm that the circus had established itself in Europe and America as popular entertainment. Barnum had already become famous in the 1840s for his extravagant exhibits of freaks. (General Tom Thumb is said to have been seen by over 20 million people.) Many factors, of course, share in the circus's rise and continued success from the early 19th century onward for a century or so: the growing urban populations in need of leisure entertainment; the increasing ease of transport, enabling the circus to travel more expeditiously in search of new audiences, and also making possible the import of exotic animals in increasing variety and number; the economic opportunity that the new mass audience offered, making possible a more elaborate production, which in turn attracted a greater audience; and so forth. All these factors contributed to the circus' energy. In terms of the older carnivals, however, that energy was dilute. The circus had to obscure its remnants of carnival wildness, to make them pass in a bourgeois, “family-oriented” entertainment. Public life had become something to be ordered. The sensual and the physical were private. The big top continued to bring the carnival into public life, but in a filtered form.

Deprived of the ritual of debasement, the public still wanted to see it. The greater the split between bourgeois morality and its carnal demons, the more magnetic these poles became. Barnum vitalized not only the circus but also its side attraction, the freak show. The carnival's ritual Dionysian plunge was replaced by the circus' opportunity to exhibit physical “mistakes” and phobias. To see the physical body diminutive or giant, tattooed or twinned, elongated or obese, was to become convinced of one's own normalcy and superiority. To watch acrobats flying through the air or dancing on elephants was to experience in sublimated form the sense of excitement and risk so remote from the new bourgeois life. The clown or fool became the star, the alter ego of those in the audience; entering and exiting, he paraded the only space left for mistakes, left for the misfit and for the lost figure. But ha ha ha to that, for soon he, and the rest of his troupe, was out of a job. Coney Island today is not very funny.

In art too, over the course of this century, the clown has often disappeared, banished like an outlaw in the serious goal-oriented halls of Modernism. Once in a while, however, the longing crowds have caught sight of their favorite dolled-up mischief-maker. They've clapped and clapped and clapped at beloved masterpieces from Picasso's harlequins and acrobats to Harpo Marx's pantomimes to Alexander Calder's circus, not giving a cigar that highbrows thought these lowbrow. Today, the widespread appearance and erratic behavior of clowns in art can touch on any number of models of transgression and catharsis. The clumsiness and stupidity they feign make them scapegoats, modern fools, and their whiteface is a screen on which much can be projected in the way of derogatory racial, ethnic, and other stereotypes. The laughter they may provoke may have a hysterical edge, but it remains purgative, and thus recalls not only the carnival but the ritualistic communication channel of the shaman. Clowns are masters of the base insult to official as well as to refined taste. They are travesty in multiple, mocking their culture and all its social conventions, and also themselves.

Today as before, the clown's slapstick satire is a prank device for the figure who “laughs on the outside, cries on the inside.” This is because, for all their comedic gusto and all their nostalgic reference, these clowns are not a blast from the past but figures of the present. Perhaps they are the conscience of the '80s. The odd duality in their character between comedy and tragedy has a long history—one thinks of Shakespeare's many fools, particularly in King Lear. If they make us laugh, well, that's part of the point. The ironic death of Chuckles the Clown on a 1975 episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show embodies it: the jokes that ensue when Chuckles is crushed by his elephant, Peanuts, shock Mary, but the black humor of the situation eventually gets to her, at a mortifyingly inopportune time, when she begins to laugh uncontrollably at his funeral. The minister interrupts her laughing fit to say that it's OK to laugh, Chuckles would have liked it that way—and then Mary begins to cry at the pathos. The melancholia of the clown cannot get the upper hand over the comedy, however. In Heinrich Böll's novel Ansichten eines Clowns (published in English as The Clown, 1963), Hans Schnier, a disenfranchised, desperately down-on-his-luck clown, reflects upon the hypocrisy of Nazi and postwar West Germany, only for his agent to tell him, “There is nothing more depressing for people than a clown they feel sorry for. It's like a waiter coming up in a wheelchair to bring you your beer.”

In America, the clown joke has always been linked to a certain unrootedness. The demand for the joke exceeded the supply during the Depression, and thus it was clowning that carried so many immigrant Jews from the ghetto into Borscht Belt comedy, a hybrid of vaudeville and Yiddish theater that indelibly shaped the “golden age of television” in the '50s. It was in film, however, most obviously with Charlie Chaplin, that we began to explore the clown's tragic soul in its specifically modern manifestation. In The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952, Jimmy Stewart plays a man who has become a clown in a spiritually redeeming but purgatorial fall from grace. And in The Clown, 1953, Red Skelton as a clown fights a losing battle to keep his family together. This leads us back to real life and John Wayne Gacy, a much-beloved performer at Chicago children's parties a few years ago who became known as the Killer Clown when proof was uncovered of at least 33 sexual murders that he had committed. With Gacy, we are brought face to face with the seriousness of the schizophrenia in our society: if we exclude the lowdown wild from some highup notion of what's cultured, it may come back to us in some terrifying and distorted form. Perhaps today's clowns in art are walking that tightrope between high and low, trying to season culture with a taste, an acceptable dose, of what it fears.

In Federico Fellini's The Clowns, 1970, these figures even walk the line between life and what comes after, clapping a bucket over the director's head after he has pronounced them dead. Just years ago painting was pronounced dead too. Next was sculpture, and the pattern goes on. But wait—these days the clowns appearing in all of these media at once are throwing a bucket on all those who don't know that the fantastic can happen, even in this three-ring circus, or that the palaces of high culture are still brimming over with fools.

Carlo McCormick lives in New York and writes frequently for Artforum. He is a contributing editor of The Paper and High Times.