Art Brut(ally) Funny

Art Brut
Bang Bang Rock & Roll
Fierce Panda

French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term “art brut” to refer to those artists either incapable of being—or unwilling to be—assimilated by the official art world or culture. Literally translated to mean “raw” or “rough” art, Dubuffet was interested in those artists whose work retained their primal power and authenticity by virtue of it not being put through the conventional “cooking process” of art schools, galleries, and agents. These artists, usually self-taught and often oblivious to the tenets of technique, operate in a world of incongruity, where their canvases invariably exude unconventional subjects and unedited fantasies, while their forms elude the principles of institutional teachings.

Art brut’s earnest innocence has periodically been redeployed as a practice of subversive humor, such as when Marcel Duchamp put forth his “readymades” and Pablo Picasso drew from the techniques of children’s drawings. Certain rock rebels have also found aesthetic and comedic inspiration in this genre that has recently been re-tagged as “outsider art”, among them Half Japanese, Half Man Half Biscuit (halves of the same coin?) and—not coincidentally—Art Brut.

Like their art counterparts, Art Brut traffic in raw expression, in their case via the primal minimalism of lo-fi, three-chord punk rock. They also present themselves as innocent, bare-boned truth-tellers, far from the madding crowd of indie rock pseudo-poetics, oblivious to the pretensions of their peers, and obsessively concerned with the minutia of the everyday rather than with any global or philosophical ruminations.

Incongruous to the implicit manifesto credos of much contemporary rock, Art Brut present themselves in the art brut tradition. Yet, this stance is actually a comedic pose, more caricature than characterization, more allusion than reality, for Art Brut’s primary subversion emanates not so much from them being outsider artists but from their implicit mockery of such an “alienated rebel” identity.

To recognize Art Brut’s aesthetic is to preface all their riffs and representations with the word “mock”. Manifesting the incongruity theory of humor, they evoke, as John Morreall says of such wit, “an intellectual reaction to something that is unexpected, illogical, or inappropriate.” Cloistered within the cluttered world of modern indie guitar rock, Art Brut mock from within, disrupting our expectations of that genre’s conventions. As Morreall says of such incongruity, “We … expect certain patterns among things” and “we laugh when we experience something that doesn’t fit into these patterns.”

Serial piss-takers, Art Brut function as a triple threat, neither fitting into the “patterns” of mainstream rock nor alternative rock, nor into the very outsider rock persona that they have elaborately crafted for themselves. Indeed, some critics’ inclusion of the band within the UK’s so-called “art wave” movement is particularly ironic as their brand of irony has little in common with the brooding angst and “arty” cool of similarly labeled acts like Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand.

Have you ever wondered what would have become of Holden Caulfield had J.D. Salinger succumbed to his readership’s cravings for a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye? Well, enter Eddie Argos, Art Brut’s singer-speaker-wordsmith in-chief. Hitching his wagon to the spirit, tone, and perspectives of Salinger’s much-beloved (and much-beloathed) loser anti-hero, Argos assumes the Holden role, with all of its sexual confusions, escapist fantasies, and unreliable narration. Now established as a cultural “type” almost 60 years after Holden first arrived in print, Argos’ caricature of the classically mixed-up adolescent is note perfect, though he delivers the various trials and tribulations of his everyday life in lispy, London-parochial vocal notes (appropriately) less-than-perfect.

Like Salinger, Argos employs a first-person narrative approach (mostly), the better to conjoin voice with character. And like Holden, his character’s exploits squeeze social satire from banal interactions at the same time as his naive speaker is ultimately always the butt of the humor. By playing (with) the traits of the most famous youth rebel character of the 20th century, Argos and Art Brut are able to channel what has become an “everyboy” figure, one that elicits an immediate and broad audience recognition, empathy, and love.

The original outsider rebel loser, the Holden template has, not surprisingly, been assumed, adopted, and adapted by various other rockers over time. Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison employed his persona, marking an incongruous differentiation of themselves from the cool kids (Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent) as well as from the hard kids (Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley); Jonathan Richman used his wide-eyed observer feature, along with his “straight” geek image, to contrast from the leather-clad social combatants of early punk rock.

Waves of Holden-ites soon followed, as David Byrne and the Talking Heads ushered in an era of indie outsiders with quirky visions, “square” looks, and self-effacing wits: They Might Be Giants, Flaming Lips, King Missile, Weezer, Camper Van Beethoven, Dead Milkmen. With common interests in reader-storytelling, imaginative flights of delusion, and boy-next-door identities, Art Brut can be seen as furthering this now-rich rock tradition of loser humor into the new millennium.

Like The Catcher in the Rye, Art Brut songs chart the fantasies and realities of adolescence, a time when, as author Annie Dillard once recalled, “feelings lasted so long they left stains.” With the occasional highs (usually the fantasies) tempered by the more frequent lows (usually reality), Eddie Argos invites us to revisit and recall the details of that tormenting time, when the seemingly insignificant felt life-changing and little else mattered except rock ‘n’ roll and relationships, relationships to rock ‘n’ roll, and the relationships of rock ‘n’ roll to relationships.

As with many art humorists of today, Art Brut invariably gesture within, commenting upon the state of their art form and their relationship to it. Indeed, the titles of their first two albums are illustrative of such in-house concerns. Whereas their debut Bang Bang Rock & Roll (2005) punned on the rhythms of rock minimalism, it also suggested—like the Pistols had done with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 28 years prior—that the band’s mission was to put rock music as we know it out of its (and our) misery.

The sophomore It’s a Bit Complicated likewise alluded to the stark simplicity at the core of their “outsider” posture, while cheekily suggesting that the band’s musical complexity had developed, if only in a Ramones-like gradation of “a bit”. Besides their playful suggestiveness, both album titles—like the content within—speak to the primary subject of their work: rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasm as experienced by the most ardently obsessive arrested adolescent.

Fittingly, in their demonstration of this theme Art Brut began at the beginning with “Formed a Band”, the lead song from their 2003 “Brutlegs” e.p. Set against a roaring guitar assault that could have been housed on an early Buzzcocks record, Eddie Argos channels Hives-like pride and childish wonder as he announces to one-and-all, “Look at us / We formed a band!” (Exclamation points are always implicit in Argos’ proclamations).

After affirming the anyone-can-do-it principle of the punk manifesto, Argos gets down to the business of providing us with the following missions and ambitions for the band: they will “write the song that makes Israel and Palestine get along,” and they will “write a song as universal as ‘Happy Birthday’.” And as a pre-emptive strike against those nay-sayers who might dismiss his speak-singing vocal as a comedic stunt, Argos defensively implores, “And yes, this is my singing voice / It’s not irony”, before eliciting such irony with the zinger punchline, “We’re just talking to the kids.” This is self-deprecating humor that simultaneously shoots out sparks at the pretensions of the rock world beyond.

Not since the Television Personalities released the “Where’s Bill Grundy Now?” e.p. in 1978 has such brevity and faux-innocence been deployed with such satirically cutting incisions into the artistic processes of common rock thinking. “Dye your hair black / Never look back / My past is my business”, Argos concludes as he exits the song, leaving us with a clear and concise “mission statement accomplished” coda for his band and its ironic rock pose.

Further Bang Bang pot-shots at the illusions, allusions, and delusions of rock fantasy appear in “My Little Brother” (“He no longer listens to A-sides”), “Moving to L.A.” (to “Hang around with Axl Rose” and drink “Hennessey with Morrissey”), and “Bad Weekend” (“Haven’t read the NME in so long / Don’t know what genre we belong”); however, it is on their second album where Argos plumbs the deepest psychological depths of teenage rock obsession. “Is it wrong to break from your kiss / To turn up a pop song?”

Argos-as-adolescent naively asks in Complicated’s opener, “Pump Up the Volume”, while on “Sound of the Summer” the awkward lover returns, this time to explain how music can act as a panacea for poor personal communication skills. Here, mix tapes substitute for “the things we can’t say to each other during the day.” Such bitter-sweet sentiments garner the kind of sad and empathetic laughter we associate with Holden humor.

The “type” remains, only the times have changed, as is revealed on “Nag Nag Nag Nag”, where the narrator speaks of retreats from adult realities into rock fantasy (“Headphones on, I made my escape”) the way that Holden had romanticized about escaping the cut-throat city of phony adults (and adult aspirants) for the idyllic innocence of nature. Like Salinger’s pathetic protagonist, Argos’s is desperately “hold(ing) on” to his fading youth, conceding “I’m grown up now but refuse to learn / That those were just adolescent concerns.”

If, for Art Brut, rock music offers ports in the storms of adolescent hardships, it is in the realm of relationships where we witness those storms at their most tempestuous. Again, Holden Caulfield—with his sexual insecurities and confused immaturity—provides the raw meat that Argos cooks with.

Fan-favorite “Emily Kane”, in particular, encapsulates the male loser character that so resonates with the everyboys who are/were one and with the everygirls who know/knew one. Musing over a lost love a decade later, the speaker grasps desperately for any life-line out there (“If memory serves, we’re still on a break”), as we experience the excruciating lingering pain spelled out in the “ten years … nine months, three weeks, four days, six hours, and five seconds” since he last saw her. But why would such extreme misery be so funny for supposedly empathetic listeners? If I slip on a banana skin it’s a tragedy, whereas if you slip on one…

Such arrested adolescence and angst offer fertile territory for Art Brut’s perceptive musings and pointed reflections. However, whereas a contemporary like Mike Skinner (The Streets) might spin a verbose anecdotal saga out of such torments, the comedic skills of Art Brut are in the thinly-detailed brevity of the lines, the subtle vocal timing (full of pregnant pauses and exclamatory rises), and the evocative caricatures of the universally recognizable types.

Whether connecting via allusive titles (“People in Love”, “I Will Survive”, “Jealous Guy”), or through zinger punch-lines (“I’ve seen her naked … twice!” [“Good Weekend”]; “No more songs about sex, drugs, and rock and roll … it’s boring!” [Bang Bang Rock & Roll]), Art Brut are adept at the art of a comedic communication that is succinct yet resonating, exclamatory yet lingering, and simple yet a bit complicated. These were no doubt the kinds of artistic chords that Jean Dubuffet envisioned being struck when he was discovering and displaying his own art brut purveyors.

Photo of Art Brut from