Stephen Colbert proves you can have fun with Steve Martin just talking about art

On last night's edition of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert had comic legend Steve Martin on as his guest, and Colbert made darned sure he wasn't going to have to offer a refund to his viewers afterward. Watching his show is free with a cable/internet subscription. But that aside, Colbert poked fun at the 92Y situation at the top of the program.


And then later, Colbert put Martin's art expertise to the real test, first with a real pop quiz about art. Guess how he fared! No, really. Guess!


And finally, Colbert showcased art in a way that managed to include hoity-toity artists such as Frank Stella, Shepard Fairey and Andres Serrano, but also make it all about Colbert. Which is how it should be. You can watch this whole segment unedited — read: bonus time — now:

By the way, did you know that Steve Martin has a new book out that revolves around art? He does, he does!

Also, if you really want to see what an hourlong conversation with Steve Martin about art and his book would look and sound like, the fine folks at CBS did just that on Sunday. On the Internet! Enjoy it after the jump…


Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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One thought on “Stephen Colbert proves you can have fun with Steve Martin just talking about art

  1. (I’m a sick as a dog, but here goes.) It’s nice to see that Steve Martin has discovered high seriousness in his, um, later years. However, fun as everything might have been, Steve Martin seemed reserved in a professorial sort of way. A smidgen of Rabelaisian humour or Joycean wit might have been appreciated. ‘Gravitas’ is not a matter of wearing the clothes to one’s grave, you know. Since the proceedings seemed, on Colbert’s part, to be alluding to an exchange I had with some English art scholar about Hitler and art, I would like to pick up on the threads of that. For those of you who have trouble reasoning and/or retaining information, I will make all plain shortly. Stephen Colbert showed Steve Martin a piece of Hitler’s student art and, of course, Steve Martin didn’t care for it. As Henry James(author of ‘Portrait of a Lady’, ‘the Ambassdors’, ‘the Bostonians’, etc.) once said, there is no replacing the simple matter of liking or not liking a work of art. Of course, Hitler was an amateur, lacking, as professional wrestlers would say, the complete background. And, of course, Hitler was a political and artistic reactionary. Being steeped in the preconceptions of 20th century modernism, Steve Martin was not likely to ‘appreciate’ such a work of art. Of course, being artistically reactionary is not an aesthetic fault as such. Johann Sebastian Bach(not to be confused with Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Ernst Bach, Johann Lorenz Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, or Wilhelm Friedemann Bach) was an aesthetic conservative, looking back to the Golden Age of Polyphony(Palestrina, Victoria, et al). And T.S. Eliot was a complete reactionary, rejecting fascism solely because it was ‘anti-Christian.’ The question then becomes, did Hitler express his reactionary ideas in an aesthetically meaningful way? Art is, in the semiotic sense, the manipulation of signs by both the creator and the artistic contextualizer(s) to produce, direct, and to some degree restrict the range of semiotic responses in the viewer. (Whether an open text – that is, an artistic work that allows a totally free range of responses in its audience is really possible is a matter of debate, surely.) Of course, Hitler might well have been, as one poster somewhere put it, a ‘shit artist.’ That certainly feeds our complacency, doesn’t it? However, one might flip the whole matter around and ask whether ‘shit’ people(sounds like a horror movie, doesn’t it?) can produce great art. Consider the evidence. Richard Wagner was a vile, gutter anti-semite who, I would argue, would have been Hitler if he could have(there’s no end of academics who argue that Wagner led to Hitler). Perhaps Colbert could, with a guest, play a game of “Name That Quote”, reading aloud one of the more vile passages in Wagner’s writings. (And while Stephen is at it, he could also, in tribute to the great Terry Southern, play a game of “Name That Disease” sometime – just a suggestion.) Celine, the great French author, was a vile anti-Semite as well with many quote-worthy passages, as it were. Stephen could read aloud from a letter by the great composer Gustav Mahler, openly gloating over the death of a conductor in the hopes of getting his job. And Ezra Pound(you do know who Ezra Pound is , don’t you, Stephen?) spent the Second World War making pro-fascist war broadcasts that would have got anyone else’s neck stretched at the end of a rope. Pound once ended a letter with a ‘Heil Hitler’ and when he returned to Italy after the war, he gave Italy a fascist salute. Wonderful people, these great artists. Ah, by Hitler’s art might be formally flawed. Indeed. But then again Moussorgsky, the great Russian composer, was a technically flawed composer with an inadequate grasp of counterpoint. Wyndham Lewis(author of “Tarr”) as a very poor speller(and yet another modernist admirer of fascism). And are psychopaths necessarily ignorant barbarians?Josef Stalin was well-read in high literature and could freely and accurately quote from the Bible; he was a pitch-perfect singer; and he was a talented poet(an early work of his was anthologized by no less than Boris Pasternak). Hell, King Henry the Eighth was an able composer, a passable poet, and a good singer, but it didn’t stop him from lopping the heads off his wives. And, by the way, Stephen Colbert, Hitler once tried to write an opera(I have no idea of the man’s musical abilities – nothing of it remains, as far as I know). The man just had to express himself! There is no relation between ‘shit art’ and being a ‘shit person.’ Any move to oversimplification reveals the limits of your own mind. Dennis Wilson once denigrated Charles Manson’s musical abilities, but the Beach Boys nevertheless recorded a Charles Manson song commercially(originally known as ‘After Cease to Exist’ – check the poet Ed Sanders’s book on Manson). Unfortunately for tidy minds, some of Hitler’s work is undeniably pleasant. Does it make him solely a ‘tourist artist’ as the Times guy would have it. Of course, Hitler painted for money, but then again Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec designed posters and advertisements as did many other high modernists(Steve Martin could no doubt help us out on this one). It is not a matter of putting Hitler in art museums. He was an amateur and his work is too flawed. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t look at it. It’s out there on the Internet – some of it’s better than others. If you find yourself feeling guilty for liking something by a psychotic, remember that is not a matter of Holocaust Denial, neo-Nazism, or thinking Hitler was a warm, fuzzy sort of guy. As Stephen Colbert well knows, New Criticism in literature established the principle of separating the art from the creator and his artistic intentions – even though New Criticism has fallen, that particular insight seems to have stuck amongst the post-structuralists. We are not to judge the art by the artist, no matter how despicable. At any rate, I have said more than enough. I got a kick, Stephen Colbert, out of your swing at talking post-structuralist. What’s next? Talking about the arbitrary nature of the sign? The infinite regress of signs? However, I wouldn’t have namedropped Jurgen Habermas in this particular context, my friend. If I were you. (And for that last sentence fragment, we can both be, from our particular perspectives, grateful, Stephen.) This has been a posting by Greg Cameron(who has no army of writers, unlike the folks at Comedy Central, to make him look good or better than he really is), Surrey, B.C. Canada. P.S. I really like W.F. Bach, Stephen. What about you? Cheers….

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