“It occurs to me to somehow reimagine the bouffon week as a punch and judy show involving Trump, Berlusconi and Boris. How would that work?”
Part one: Punch & Judy (I)
PUNCH Mr Punch is one jolly good chap,
He left his baby in the back of a cab!
After a country supper he came back
But the foetus had turned into a pig!
PIG Oink, oink, oink!
PUNCH That’s the way to do it!
JUDY I’ve just seen the news on twitter!
Naughty Punch, you had better
Explain what it is you’ve had for dinner —
What have you done to my poor baby pig?
PUNCH Calm down, dear! I’ve only done to this little victim
What I’ve been doing to the country since the election!
CROC Snap! Snap! Snap! goes the telephoto lens
Starving the poor to feed up our friends!
Let’s hope this party never ends!
THE CROCODILE EATS JUDY
CROC Snap! Snap! Snap!
PUNCH That’s the way to do it!
SCARAMOUCH Bunga! Bunga! What, again!
I’m not a Saint, you can tell by the tan!
It’s better to like beautiful girls than be gay
Ciao Pretty Polly, come stai?
PUNCH Scaramouch, do you do the fandango?
SCARAMOUCH Solomente for the love of Italio!
I had to a-save it from myself
Tutto for the love of obscene wealth!
The right-a man for the right-a jail!
ENTER THE DEVIL
PUNCH There’s the Devil, Dodgy Vlad!
All his friends are in a body bag!
See him riding on a horse’s back —
Noone’s told him the nag is dead!
DEVIL Spasibo! Now I am the Tsar!
PUNCH Not so fast, you King of Vodka!
I’ve already planned for my successor
We’ve had cloned Margaret Thatcher’s Vagina —
Our mates did it cheap, it’s made in China!
MARGARET THATCHER’S VAGINA EATS THE DEVIL
PUNCH That’s the way to do it!
Part Two: The Bouffon
The establishment has always permitted a circumscribed degree of satirical attack as a means of enabling the downtrodden to let off steam. Historically, satire has always been bounded by either time (a certain day of the year in which “natural orders” were overturned) or person (only a specified highly ritualised figure is permitted to cross certain lines). The Romans had Saturnalia and the whispering slave on the triumphal chariot, medieval power structures had their jesters, King For A Day and Lords of Misrule.
Local permutations of the medieval jester vary, and for Week 31 of Fig-2, Ollie Broomberg and Adam Chanarin brought one of them back to life. The ICA studio became a ‘green screen’ studio inhabited by a bouffon figure, a grotesque lumpy hunch-backed clown. The Bouffon or ‘Dark Clown’ originated in medieval France. The undesirables of society, riffraff de l’autres, would be exiled from the town and forced to fend for themselves outside the city walls and starve in their own filth and destitution, much as benefits claimants and refugees are forced to by the Department for Work and Pensions. The beautiful people would allow them back for one day of the annual hock-tide celebration, when the Bouffon was invited to the Royal Court with explicit permission to ridicule the authorities. And this is where the problem begins, with regard to Week 31 and the problem of satire as a whole. The bouffon in its first incarnation is officially sanctioned satire, which is an oxymoron. The bouffon would have to be careful not to upset them too much. The pleasure of a pinch, but no blood.
A camera filmed the bouffon and presented her on a TV screen with a background taken from the Imperial landscape that surrounds the ICA studio: the Mall, Downing Street, Horse Guards Parade, Buckingham Palace; an area characterised by daily military parades and other displays of state power. The bouffon mimed bumming the police and the Beefeaters, jumped in and out of traffic, and generally pratted about. A particular highlight was the bouffon pole-dancing around the Duke of York Column behind the ICA. You probably don’t need more than about twenty minutes of pelvic thrusting in any context comedic or otherwise but to its very great credit the performance went on for two hours. Was it funny? Yes, within the bounds of what we were there to enjoy, which was satire, and it has been long observed that satire doesn’t have to be funny to be effective. Not being five years old, we don’t actually find pratfalls funny, but we can contentedly agree to find them funny in the context of appreciating their implications in the company of a group of like-minded people who have come to appreciate the same thing.
Was it effective satire? This is where we run into difficulties. Given the history outlined above, it is surely no coincidence that the bouffon’s style of ‘satire’ is limited to physical comedy. The bouffon’s comedy is literally silent, or rather, mute. The bouffon comes from a tradition of not wanting to bite the hand that feeds it. For satire to be successful, for it to be satire at all, it can’t just be mocking. But the bouffon is limited to mocking, restricting to poking fun but unable to construct the ironies necessary for satire to occur. The word bouffon is appropriate; it comes from the Latin verb buffare, to puff, to fill the cheeks with air. It just gives us hot air. The bouffon is intended to be provocative, to poke fun at everyone in society and reveal uncomfortable truths, but I’m not convinced. Not incidentally, there was something very comfortable about being in the studio that day. The police officers and guardsmen representing the establishment were, of course, oblivious to the Bouffon’s presence; tucked up in the ICA’s cosy home on Pall Mall, we all pretended to be doing something a little daring in the very heart of the establishment, but the fact is none of what happened there was projected outside the walls. It was the other way round; the establishment was projected in.
Interestingly, Broomberg and Chanarin’s new film work Rudiments (currently on display at the Lisson Gallery) develops the themes raised in the Fig-2 show adding the missing element of direct interactivity. Instead of poking fun at soldiers digitally overlaid via green screen, the film documents a group of military cadets whose rigorous training of martial codes is interrupted by the Bouffon’s comic pratfalls and play. The conflicted reactions of the young soldiers-in-training gives a better illustration of the possibilities of the bouffon than the green screen perhaps could.
Part Three: The Buffoon
A few weeks after the Bouffon’s cavorting at the ICA, it emerged that the four-dimensional lizard-made-of-ham Prime Minister David Cameron“put a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig’s head while he was at Oxford during an initiation ceremony for a drinking club called the Piers Gaveston Society. It’s the kind of revelation that will rot your teeth and straight up give you Type 2 Diabetes. My favourite thing about this story in a crowded field is that Charlie Brooker felt obliged to issue a disclaimer that he’d known about it when he wrote Black Mirror in 2011 in which the Prime Minister is forced to fuck a pig live on television.
But even the pig is itself a blind, a sideshow, something George Osborne for one is quite happy for us to laugh at (witness his calculated snigger when asked about the revelations). Lawrence Richards (“What the British are really laughing about”) and Rob Fahey (“The PM, the Pig and musings on Power” both quickly published impressive pieces that Joanna Walters (“Hazing, #piggate and other secret rites: the psychology of extreme group rituals”) also developed. They outline how Pig-Gate fitted into a tradition of “hazing” in networks of power. Throughout history exclusive and extravagant elites have bonded through rituals of humiliation. Revelations are held in check by a model of mutually assured destruction if anyone’s secret came out. The system is also upheld not so much by the threat of revelation as the curious fraternal bond of secret knowledge; possibly even a post-traumatic survivor’s mentality, particularly following instances of bestiality and homosexual rape in these rituals.
It has emerged recently that there was a rash of child abuse being committed by politicians in the 1980s, and that this was hushed up ‘in the interests of national security’. Richards examines how paedogeddon being committed by politicians was kept secret and how for the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher this was useful as a way of holding power over others by holding their dark little secrets over them. She was a real nice lady, the Baroness. As with the Pig Gate revelations, it’s remarkable how no-one has questioned the truthfulness of revelations of a cover-up about paedo rings in the upper echelons of the Tory political class in the eighties. It’s just accepted as a fact, with a bit of a tut, but it’s abstract. And it is all so, so much worse than any of us ever imagined. I mean, secret cabals of powerful men (and so far as I know we are mostly talking about men) colluding in concealing child abuse and murder? Really? The stuff of paranoia, surely. Well, no it seems not.
What is satire to do in the face of such dementedly awful realities? The prurience of the general public as presented in Black Mirror was dutifully reproduced by all us lot in our glee over PigGate, which is the main thrust of that show: Brooker wasn’t really satirizing politicians (who can do that themselves, after all), he was satirizing us. We’re left bitterly and humorlessly maundering on the street corner or screaming into the void of the internet, irony evaporated, stuck with raw sarcasm. It’s not just the bouffon. It’s the mode of the age, borne out of resignation and the impossibility of outdoing reality at its own self-satirizing absurdism.
Dan Brooks, writing about “Banksy and the Problem With Sarcastic Art” sees sarcasm as the dominant aesthetic of our age: “a contempt so settled that it doesn’t bother constructing ironies”. He discusses a passage of ‘snark’ a ubiquitous form of internet writing that participates in sarcasm “typically by adopting the derisive tone of satire without the complex irony… There’s no insight here to raise this irony to the level of satire. There is only mockery.”
But poor old snark is all we’ve got left, isn’t it. Satire is once more the preserve of the establishment just as it was in the age of the Bouffon. Mark Fisher (“The strange death of British satire”) deals with satire’s history in the twentieth century (or part of it). He traces the emergence in recent decades of the sniggering, knowing-yet-adolescent non-humour which now defines political light entertainment like Have I Got News For You and This Week and roots it in the survival techniques of pupils at British boarding schools, “self-mockery… used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation”.
The star exhibit here is Boris Johnson. His antics are carefully calculated to look anti-establishment but serve to entrench it by neutralising criticism, dissolving it in mild self-mocking buffoonery shorn of issues of importance, full of a distracting power. The pseudo-satire of Bojo neutralises real satire. As in medicine, a little dose of the real thing helps us develop immunity. Boris is like satirical small-pox. Actually, to think of it, it was actually cowpox that Jenner injected people with to immunise them against smallpox, so in fact Boris Johnson is political cowpox.
Had Fisher cast his net further back in time to capture the likes of the bouffon he would have seen that the establishment have always taken a harmlessly low dose of satirical poison to inoculate themselves against true revolution. If it is true, as he claims, that truly satirical voices thrived as never before in the middle decades of the twentieth century, well, what we’re seeing now is nothing more than hammy, lizardy hands massaging it firmly back into its traditional box. The buffoon triumphs over the bouffon.
Satire as a force had eaten itself by the time Henry Kissinger, who as National Security Adviser to Richard Nixon had Vietnam napalmed, won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. Saudi Arabia, a country that practices sexual apartheid, religious oppression, summary beheadings, and is about to crucify a child, a country that doesn’t even drink, has won its bid to become head of the UN Human Rights Council. This is like putting Gary Glitter in charge of a children’s party (or David Cameron in charge of the pig-feed). This stuff is irony writ larger than it’s ever been writ. There’s a room full of comedy writers somewhere outside the universe trying to outdo each other, but they all work in politics.
Part Four: Punch & Judy (II)
Jeet Heer (“Donald Trump’s Comedic Genius”) describes how presidential hopeful Donald Trump isn’t just a joke, but is a serious comedic talent. He has mastered disruptive comedy and the stand-up takedown in the comedy of insult. He is a clown who acts perfeckly outrageous but who “suffers no punishment—indeed, goes from triumphant poll to triumphant poll”, a punishment evading Pulcinella (Punch) self-describing himself as a “non-politician” in order to inveigle himself into politics. Like our own Jeremy Clarkson, he deflects criticism of his bigotry and misogyny by maintaining that he’s not politically correct. It’s just a joke, like on top Gear! Broomberg and Chanarin’s Bouffon is described as a ‘dark clown’ but it’s really acts like Donald Trump who are the dark clowns, “using laughter for sinister ends” to voice bigotry rather than interrogate it. Satire eats itself and shits out establishment heterodoxies. Funny that.
Just as Trump’s ‘humor’ actually leaves establishment assumptions untouched, you know that BoJo wouldn’t take the piss out of the changing of the guard like the Bouffon did at the ICA. Whereas in Italy Berlusconi cocks more of a direct snook at establishment symbolism because bribery and bureaucracy are part of the everyday life experience of Italy, so people really do object to establishment symbolism. Whereas the UK as a nation will happily celebrate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge having unprotected sex.
Fisher describes the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi’s analysis of Sylvio Berlusconi: “Berlusconi’s popularity, Berardi argued, depended on his “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals”. The voters were invited to identify “with the slightly crazy premier, the rascal prime minister who resembles them”. Like Johnson, Berlusconi was the fool who occupied the place of power, disdaining law and rules “in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”.”
In the not-quite-discredited-but-are-you-really-still-teaching-this Freudian structural model of the psyche based on the id, ego and superego the id is the pre-socialized instinctual impulsive driver of the libido and the dark slave of the pleasure principle that is held in check by the critical and rational agencies of the ego and superego.
Berlusconi and Trump are like Punch. Pure walking id, totally dissociated and always evading the consequences of their actions. I have to quickly tell you the synopsis of Harrison Birtwistle’s horse-scaring ‘60s opera Punch & Judy, because it is insane. Punch is rocking his baby, then throws it into a fire. Judy finds the charred baby and freaks out. He stabs her to death, then rides off on a horse to seek Pretty Polly who rejects him, and he murders the Doctor with a giant needle and the Lawyer with a massive quill. Polly rejects him again, and he murders the narrator by sawing him in half. He has nightmares about a satanic wedding with Pretty Polly. He goes to the gallows for his crimes but tricks the hangman into hanging himself. Pretty Polly reappears and they sing a love duet around the gallows, which is transformed into a maypole.
Like bozo BoJo, and the late Jeremy Clarkson, Donald Trump is an overindulged poster boy for the disruptive comedy of ‘plain speaking’ that prises apart but paradoxically reinforces the status quo. It does this by making politics look completely ludicrous and hopeless but without offering the possibility of better. In that sense it’s more related to Banksy’s sarcastic approach but coming from an establishment rather than anti-establishment perspective. How ridiculous it is, quoth-a, to aspire to change this leviathan. It is what it is. Let us laugh. Now vote, and we can promise you tax breaks for billionaires. The joy will surely trickle down!
Theirs is a comedy of disruption, not just that but Trump exactly fits the Borat model. Like Punch he is never punished for his outrages. Cameron too will make it through Pig-Gate largely intact and if he is remembered for being the Prime Minister That Fucked A Pig then history will have been kind to the PM that presided over the Bedroom Tax, taking away children’s school meals, privatising the NHS, tax breaks for billionaires.
Given that satire is now impossible because it’s been neutralized by buffoons and overtaken by events, we are going to need a sophisticated signalling system to tell us when satire is taking place. In Monty Python ‘SATIRE’ flashes up on the screen. But if there is one thing we have learned from PigGate, and which Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle presaged in his satire of satire “What is satire?” it is that for any satire to be satirical it will require the involvement of an animal. “A toilet bowl full of goats? Satire. A limpet shell with a limpet in it? That’s doubly satirical to the point where it could almost be too serious. A crow inside a swift? Yes, that works: they’re two different animals. Sausages? Not on their own, no.”
Postscript: STATE BRITAIN
Broomberg & Chanarin’s depicition of the Whitehall government area of London reminds me that the Whitehall area is suprisingly unfamiliar in art. I can only think of one other major example, but it is a masterpiece. Mark Wallinger’s State Britain (2007) was a meticulous reconstruction a ‘peace camp’ that protester Brian Haw had built up in Parliament Square from 2001 until in 2006 the ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act’ prohibited unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square and Brian Haw’s protest was removed.
To my mind one of the greatest, most fist-pumpingly awesome Eureka moments in the history of art must be the moment Mark Wallinger noticed that the one kilometre exclusion zone exactly bisected Tate Britain. Marking this with a line on the floor of the galleries, he positioned State Britain half inside and half outside the border.
Thanks to Alix Mortimer