Andy Kaufman performing his classic Mighty Mouse sketch on SNL. Photo courtesy of NBC
Performance, Art, and Popular Culture
By Philip Auslander
The questions I wish to raise here have to do with cultural distinctions, particularly that between fine art and popular culture, and boundaries of inquiry. Why are particular performances and other art works discussed in some contexts and relationships but not in others. I begin these musings with one my favorite performances, Andy Kaufman’s famous “Mighty Mouse” routine, a staple of his club act presented on television as part of the very first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975. The rest of the discussion will spin off in various directions from this nucleus.
Mighty Mouse - Andy Kaufman
This performance raises a host of questions concerning performance and identity. What exactly are we seeing? Is it Andy Kaufman simply being (or presenting) himself executing an action? Or is he portraying a character of some kind who is executing the action? To whom does the figure’s performance anxiety, his palpable nervousness and fear of failure belong--to Kaufman or to the ostensible character? Is it in any way significant that Kaufman is lip-synching to a song from his childhood—is there an autobiographical element at work here? Is the somewhat over-eager demeanor of the figure meant to convey a regressive or child-like condition? It is difficult to locate the “real” Kaufman in this performance—or to determine if he’s even there--as would be the case with almost everything he did.
It has occurred to me to wonder why this performance has not, as far as I know, been discussed critically or historically in relation to Gilbert and George’s famous “Singing Sculpture.”
Gilbert & George - The Singing Sculpture
Gilbert and George began presenting the Singing Sculpture in the late 1960s. I say “presenting” rather than “performing” because Gilbert and George have consistently insisted that this work is a piece of sculpture, not a performance, and they have always presented it in art galleries and museums rather than performance spaces. This presents a whole set of boundary issues in itself, since I suspect that many commentators, including myself, would be quite comfortable thinking of this work as a performance and treating it critically and historically as such (performance historian Roselee Goldberg includes this piece in her book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, for instance). How do we justify not taking seriously the artists’ claim that it is a work of plastic art?
The main question I want to pose, however, is why the possible connections between Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse piece and Gilbert and George’s Singing Sculpture have not been made, given the interesting similarities and differences between the two works and the fact that Kaufman’s work had much in common with some strains of the art world performance of his time. His play with character and persona, particularly his creation of the obnoxious lounge singer Tony Clifton, was similar in significant ways to Lynn Hershman’s creation of Roberta Breitmore. Between 1971 and 1979, Hershman portrayed Breitmore in a wide variety of situations, including psychotherapy. She denied being Breitmore and sometimes had other people perform the character. Kaufman likewise inserted Clifton into a variety of “real life” situations and insisted that he and Clifton were separate people; this illusion was reinforced by having other people also portray Clifton, thus allowing Kaufman and Clifton to appear in close proximity (and for Clifton to live on after Kaufman’s death). But whereas Hershman describes her portrayal of Breitmore as a “private performance” that became public primarily through the documentation of Breitmore’s “adventures,” Kaufman always performed his personae publicly in comedy clubs and on television. It is perhaps because Kaufman operated outside the art world, always styling himself an entertainer no matter how outré his performances became, that his work has been discussed only rarely in relation to performance art or visual art.
The cultural and aesthetic gap between the two forms and their respective contexts has been acknowledged from both sides. The stand-up comic Bobcat Goldthwait dismisses art world performance by saying, "Last night there was a lull in my act, and I said, 'Jesus, one more lull and I'm going to be a performance artist.'" Performance artist Jacki Apple for her part begins a 1995 essay entitled "Notes on Teaching Performance Art" with a litany of performers she insists are not performance artists, including Sandra Bernhard, Reno, Eric Bogosian, and Holly Hughes because their work is not grounded in visual art. This is not to say that Kaufman’s work has gone unnoticed by visual artists—the Spanish artist Dora García recently included a video of Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby as part of an exhibition of her work, for example. However, the only time that Kaufman has been exhibited directly in an art context as far as I know was in a show devoted to his work and that of Ernie Kovacs at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1989.
Although Gilbert and George’s Singing Sculpture is a public performance, the artists only ever present their sculpture in art spaces that do not enjoy the same degree of mass cultural exposure as Kaufman’s venues. Nevertheless, there are any number of grounds on which to compare and contrast these two performances. Both are lip-synch performances: Kaufman lip-synchs to the Mighty Mouse theme song and the Singing Sculpture lip-synchs to a recording of “Underneath the Arches,” a perennially popular English song originally from the 1930s. Is there an element of nostalgia in both pieces? What is to be said about the difference between using a song associated with one’s own generation, as Kaufman did, and a song (more or less) from the previous generation? Gilbert and George were both born during the Second World War, yet chose a song from before the war. What of the “British-ness” of the song and the music hall tradition from which it emerged as against the “American-ness” of Mighty Mouse and the song’s origin as the theme for a series of television cartoons? In the Singing Sculpture, the song, a popular cultural object, is reframed (perhaps ironically) as fine art, somewhat in the manner of a Warhol soup can. Can the same be said of Kaufman? Does his performance of the Mighty Mouse theme song translate it from one cultural context to another or reframe it in any way?
Both Kaufman’s and Gilbert and George’s performances can also be understood as performances of masculinity. In Kaufman’s case, it is a soft, boyish masculinity, insecure and eager to please. Gilbert and George, by contrast, dressed in suits and with gilded faces, portray a far more remote, rigid, and authoritative masculinity—or a parody of such masculinity--even as they present themselves explicitly as objects of the audience’s gaze (sculptures). But what kind of gaze do they invite? Do we read their identity as gay men into (or off of) their double act? If there is any sense in which the Singing Sculpture is legibly gay, what reading in relation to sexuality does Kaufman’s performance invite?
Although we now have a sophisticated vocabulary for talking about the interfaces between the live body and technology in performance, these issues come up primarily in the context of performances perceived as experimental or cutting-edge: the work of Stelarc, for instance, or Orlan. Rarely are the analytical possibilities opened by this discourse used to frame discussions of earlier performances whose dependence on technology is less sensational. Both Kaufman and Gilbert and George engage in what is often called cyborg performance in the sense that the entity we see performing is, in both cases, an amalgam of human bodies with voices produced by machines. The engagement with technology is, in both cases, transparent: We see Kaufman place the needle on the record and Gilbert (or is it George?) press the button on the cassette recorder to activate the voices, and the moment of technological initiation is an important part of both performances that mediates against illusionism. There is no attempt in either case to create a seamless representation: the fact that we are watching people lip-synch is not masked in either case. The means in both performances are similar, but are the ends? And why aren’t these two performances included in the history of technologically mediated performance?
The brief clip of Gilbert and George I have included here is in fact a clip of what might be called a reconstruction or reenactment of their work. They began to develop the piece in 1967 and to present it in 1968. In 1971, they presented it as part of the opening of the Sonnabend Gallery; the clip featured here is from a 1991 version made to commemorate that event. Is this a reenactment, or simply another enactment of a work these artists had presented many times before? What status do we grant to the artists’ own claim that this is a reenactment not of the “original” performance (whatever that may mean) which presumably occurred around 1968, but of a specific performance in 1971, done after they had been presenting the piece regularly for several years? And if we take seriously the idea that the work is a living sculpture, are these iterations to be thought of as enactments and reenactments or as an unlimited edition? (Hershman, for example, refers to Roberta Breitmore as a “multiple” because she was portrayed by several people.)
Kaufman’s “Mighty Mouse” has also been reenacted and I shall briefly consider two of those recreations.
Jim Carrey As Andy Kaufman As Mighty Mouse
This clip comes from Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Kaufman in Milos Forman’s 1999 film Man on the Moon. Although the recreation of the performance itself is fairly accurate, if abbreviated, it is not clear that the narrative frame into which it has been inserted is factual (though I’m not saying it needs to be). If the clip from Saturday Night Live is a faithful reflection of what happened on the show, Kaufman did not hesitate nearly as long as Carrey-as-Kaufman does before dropping the needle on the record. There seems to have been no reason for the anxiety displayed by some of the other characters in the film about whether Kaufman has frozen or just what he’s going to do. In the clip from Saturday Night Live Kaufman comes off much more as someone consciously performing nervousness and anxiety rather than someone whose nervousness and anxiety may be getting the better of him. The filmmakers appear to have decided to use this event as a means of conveying how the undecidability of Kaufman’s performances (is he really nervous or just pretending to be?) created real anxiety for his audiences (which was, in fact, one of the professed goals of his performances). This is an important aspect of Kaufman’s performance strategies and one that should be conveyed in a movie about him, but the use of this particular performance to convey it is probably an historical distortion.
Jeff Roth in: A Tribute to Andy Kaufman
Finally, this is a reenactment of Kaufman’s piece as part of a talent show at a high school in New Jersey, USA, in 2006 (it is interesting to speculate on the nature of the “talent” on offer in this case). The issue I wish to raise here brings us back to the fine art/popular culture dichotomy I invoked in explaining why Kaufman and Gilbert and George have not been discussed in the same contexts. In the wake of Marina Abramovic’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the issue of performance reenactments is high on the cultural agenda (see "Reduce, Reuse, Re-perform" by Harry J. Weil in TASfor April 2010). But the discussion generally seems to focus on performances that took place originally, and are subsequently reenacted, in art world contexts. I suggest that performance reenactment also takes place in a more popular register. I see the performance reenactment in the clip above as a kind of community theatre in which the audience’s voluble response must be as much to the performer and the occasion as it is to the performance itself. It is noteworthy that the young man in the clip is described on YouTube as “covering” Kaufman’s performance rather than recreating or reenacting it. The use of that term, which comes from the realm of popular music, suggests another possible set of connections among artistic practices. How is “covering” like and unlike “reenactment”? What status do “covers” and “reenactments” have in the cultural spheres in which they take place?
I realize that I have posed far more questions here than I have answered. I trust that my decision to frame these questions around a limited set of specific examples has not obscured my purpose of suggesting that as much as we need categories and boundaries to enable critical and historical analysis, we also need to cross those boundaries to find new relationships among things that are usually sequestered in one cultural context or another. The transgression of boundaries presupposes the distinctions on which those boundaries are based and the result of such transgression can be to shore up those distinctions and boundaries just as readily as to dismantle them. But either outcome has value. We need categories and boundaries to make sense of the world and we need to transgress them in order both to understand better our current ways of thinking and their blindspots and to see that the world can also make sense in other ways.
Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.
He presented an earlier version of this essay at the 2008 meeting of the Theatre and Performance Research Association at Leeds, UK.
Auslander also wrote about Andy Kaufman in his book Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance (University of Michigan Press, 1992).