The art world according to Jayson Musson

THIS JULY, after more than a year of working quietly as the artist-in-residence at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, Jayson Musson finally revealed His History of Art, a raucous multimedia installation featuring three episodes of a sidesplitting sitcom starring Musson as Jay, a pontifical art collector in a corduroy suit, and his unlikely roommate Ollie, a permastoned puppet rabbit. Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and the Venus of Willendorf make cameos, the latter inspiring an orgy. Produced and filmed inside the museum, His History’s sets and props—which alternately needle, salute, and blaspheme the art-historical canon—remain on view. Visitors can also pore over storyboards, notes, and puppet prototypes, the guts of TV magic laid bare.

Musson and I have been friends for twelve years, during which time his slapstick ambivalence about art’s shifting social roles and systems of valuation has proved consistently entertaining (and instructive). From the viral 2010–12 YouTube series “Art Thoughtz,” to his ambitious 2014 film collaboration Easternsports with Alex Da Corte and Dev Hynes, to his deconstructed Coogi sweaters sewn into convincing Ab-Ex monstrosities, he has loathed art profoundly, as only an earnest art lover could. In clumsier hands, the art-sitcom might have been funny—Harold & Kumar Go to Whitechapel—but forgettable. Musson, however, has only gotten better with age. His writing is razor-sharp, his eye for color preternatural, and he’s grown comfortable sharing his vision with collaborators. We hadn’t seen each other in person since I moved out West in 2018, so last month, I flew to Philly to see the show and catch up.

Sean J Patrick Carney: I can’t believe it’s been four years. You look taller.

Jayson Musson: Perhaps you’ve grown shorter, my Irish friend.

Sláinte, a toast to your oversize coffin. 

Damn, my man’s quoting Sinéad O’Connor out here.

No need to bring up my hair. All pleasantries aside, how did you arrive at the familiar, nostalgic architecture of the multi-cam sitcom, laugh track and all, for His History of Art?

The sitcom format was a response to the project’s conceptual needs. When I first tooled around with what His History would look like, I was leaning toward a video survey of art history using the Art Thoughtz approach, where I’d do monologues about different works. But rehashing that format was excruciatingly boring. I just couldn’t bring myself to produce that shit. Conversations—literal ones—with the denizens of art history seemed much more interesting, like a séance of sorts. An oddball comedy, in the vein of The Mighty Boosh, Pinky and the Brain, or Alf became a workable place to stage that fantasy.

Jayson Musson, His History of Art, 2022, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

The fantastical elements also riff on children’s television classics like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street. Ollie and Jay’s expletive-riddled world isn’t perfect, but there’s a consistent and affecting moral compass—even if it’s caked in bong resin.

“Expletive-riddled”? We don’t curse that much.

Ollie and Jay both scream “fuck” like thirty seconds into the first episode. Was it challenging toeing a line between pure PBS saccharine and the nihilistic maximalism of mid-aughts kids’ satire series Wonder Showzen?

With each video centered around one character attempting to teach another character a lesson, that moral compass you mentioned is built in. The lesson is the goal. This skeleton of a guiding light structure allows tonal fluctuations between the overtly educational and the ridiculous. But I wasn’t really thinking of a polarity of sensibilities—PBS versus Wonder Showzen—as I was writing the scripts. It was more, “How can I have fun solving problems I’ve given to Ollie?” Through the torture of writing, I’d eventually reach that special point of exhaustion where I convinced myself I’ve struck a perfect balance between insightful and irreverent.

How was writing Ollie?

Writing Ollie was fun as fuck. He gets the best lines. He has the most fun. He carries the comedy for the whole project.

He’s such a loveable scrub.

I mean, I get Ollie, maybe because I was a little bit like him when I was younger. Perpetually wasted at some club. Living for the moment.

Jayson Musson, His History of Art, 2022, still from a digital video in sound with color. Jay (Jayson Musson).

To bring Ollie to life, you worked with lead puppeteer Cedwan Hooks and assistant puppeteer Jimmica Collins. Did Ollie evolve through that collaboration? 

My earliest notes while developing Ollie had him as this curmudgeonly East Coast type—Archie Bunker, sans racism. Cedwan’s audition for Ollie was a far call from those casting notes, but his interpretation was phenomenal. I knew instantly that Cedwan was Ollie. As a writer, you spend so much time with your characters on the page that you assume you’ve developed a solid sense of who they are. But when an actor introduces elements of a character you never knew you wanted, that’s a real gift. It’s corny, but I’m always amazed by how an actor’s performance completely transforms a script. Cedwan and Jimmica blew me away on set.

Ollie’s a perfect Odd Couple foil for Jay, the sharply dressed, pretentious intellectual who unironically calls himself a “custodian of culture.”

Jay is definitely the archetypal “straight man.” He exists primarily to deliver information to the audience and Ollie. But there’s still humor with Jay. He’s completely delusional about his cultural importance, to the point of being pitiable. Writing such a condescending but disconnected character was almost as fun as writing Ollie. Jay is sort of like Mr. Drummond from Diff’rent Strokes, this benevolent patriarch but with a touch of asshole. Now, to be clear, I don’t like Jay, but I can respect his belief that understanding can be found through examining the past.

That’s really empathetic of you to respect the beliefs of a character that you made up.

Remember, my Irish friend, just because I made up a character doesn’t mean they’re some kind of projection of my psyche.

Tell it to Joyce. Anyways, your work has always resonated beyond the suffocating confines of contemporary art. And after laughing out loud to His History with people of diverse ages and backgrounds, I’d say it’s your most accessible work to date.

There are multiple tiers of access in His History of Art, in both form and content, which result from my own experiences making art and just, like, living. Most people who make art—the sane ones—consume lots of media and culture from the wider world beyond the petri dish of contemporary art. So, when drafting the scripts for His History, non-art experiences and normal culture found their way into my writing because, for better or worse, they’re the more universal experiences that more folks are going to understand, which makes for a better sitcom.

Jayson Musson, His History of Art, 2022, still from a digital video in sound with color. Ollie and Jay (Jayson Musson).

The living room set is packed with multiple objects from Jay’s art collection that riff on canonical works of art, like the Piss Christ aquarium, an impressive facsimile of Michelangelo’s Pietà, carved out into a bachelor’s throne—

I actually refer to it as a despot’s throne.

In which episode?

In my mind.

Of course. My mistake.

I also privately refer to it as a drug dealer’s armchair. Who else would sit in a chair that’s the lap of the Virgin Mary? You gotta be either a fascist or move major weight.

Alright. So, these art-historical fabrications—the Hilma af Klint floor decal; the comedic chorus of David Hammons snowballs; the Louise Nevelson-ified Cézanne still life—what do you call them? Props? Sculptures? Jokes?

All of the above. The objects are what I need them to be, when I need them to be something. They’re props, because they help establish the world of His History. They’re also sculptures; because in the exhibition, they have to stand alone as compelling visual objects. Then, naturally, they’re jokes, because I’m stupid and can’t resist a good gag. They also ease the anxieties an overeducated art person might have upon entering a space where lowly comedy takes place. Seeing the props, they say to themselves, “Ah! I get that reference! My education has been rewarded.” Then, if they can chill out, they’ll permit themselves to let out a giggle or two.

Despite Jay’s curatorial tidiness, Ollie’s interior decorating creates constant tension. Jay’s got a custom coffee table, laser-cut into Holbein’s forced-perspective skull, upon which, horrifically, Ollie keeps his Rick and Morty bong.

To generate that friction, the prop-sculpture-jokes had to include more than just art history references. There’s Kaneda’s leather jacket from Akira, Princess Leia’s bounty hunter helmet, the beautiful orange iMac G3 with Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds on it, and a miniature Anish Kapoor “bean”—which Ollie uses as an ashtray, for that bong you’re horrified by.

You collaborated with a sizable team from the Fabric Workshop, and All Ages, a production crew you’d worked with on your web series The Adventures of Jamel. I imagine such practical and technical interactions further pushed the project to transcend the myopia of art about art.

Because our end goal was, essentially, to make a functional television show, rather than a hermetic piece of video art, getting past the limitations of art about art ended up being relatively easy. By prioritizing entertainment, the scope of His History’s appeal widened automatically. I sandwiched the galaxy-brain cultural critiques between jokes, so people might actually sit through them. And since an episode’s goal is that Ollie learns a “lesson,” there is, from the start, clarity of purpose. When you’re working with puppeteers, actors, and a film crew, you want to communicate clearly, minimize confusion, and not waste people’s time. Clarity is key.

Jayson Musson, His History of Art, 2022, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

His History of Art collages mainstream comedies like Frasier, edutainment like Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, and high-concept kids’ programs like Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Were you simultaneously drawing influence from artists who have appropriated television as a medium?

I fucking love the work of Michael Smith.

Art-comedy hall of famer, and a fellow short king.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about his work—particularly the everyman character, Mike—and how funny and inventive it is. Any time I need a real reminder of how much my art still sucks, I look at Michael Smith’s work. It’s always in the background. By the time I was seriously working on His History of Art, though, I think that more “traditional” television comedies were in the front of my mind, as I had become invested in ensuring that what we were producing would function properly, first and foremost, as media.

Earlier, you mentioned the “torture of writing.” But it’s the basis of so much that you do. I get the feeling that you’re kind of a pain pig.

It’s like that famous quip: Do I like being a writer? Well, I like having written. Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, elaborated, saying, “It’s pretty much satisfying in the past tense, but the job itself is like driving nails into your forehead.”

The process of writing, especially in relation to art, is pretty Catholic. 

Vince is, of course, talking about television writing, but, yes, the sentiment is the same. The end result of writing is what I love, but the process is really isolated and can be fairly grueling. That’s why at the outset of this collaboration, before any real writing, I jumped right into the making of objects and props. I didn’t even know that we’d be making a television show. I just wanted to spitball with Avery Lawrence, who was the Fabric Workshop project lead on this, to start making things.

Jayson Musson, His History of Art (detail), 2022, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Avery mentioned that once the first prop got produced—a rug hybridizing a drippy Dalí clock with Nino Brown’s Rolex from New Jack City—collaborative trust was established.

There were several months of me sending design document after design document over to the workshop before that Dalí rug got made. Things had been very nebulous. Knocking out the first set piece solidified the project, so I was able to begin the writing process confident that the visual side of things wouldn’t be neglected by me diving into the writing hole. I’m not a very good multitasker.

Have you considered, instead of trying to juggle so many things, letting your work work for you? I’m thinking Ollie in a fedora with a Granny Smith apple over his face. Ollie wearing Tom Ford glasses, and the background is International Klein Blue, or Anish Kapoor Vantablack S-VIS, or Yayoi Kusama polka dots. Ollie’s entire head encrusted in diamonds. Ollie submerged in piss. Ollies of all stripes, racking up value on a decentralized blockchain marketplace. Picture it, Jayson: Ollie NFTs.

Have you considered that your talents are wasted in writing about art? You’re obviously suited toward being a Multi-Level Marketing Money-Fool-Separator slash Web3 Proselytizer.

I do love recklessly using the word “community” . . .

You’re right, though. I need a solid hook, because comedy has limited returns. Maybe I gotta mint a catchy line of NFTs: Neurodivergent Mussolinis or Synesthesiatic Stalins. Y’know, something the people can actually get behind.

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