For World Collage Day: Vaudeville as Collage

Once again, we are inspired to acknowledge World Collage Day (two years ago we observed it with a post on the Beatles’ Revolver).

We begin with what is more properly described as decoupage. I’ve been decorating my guitars (per above) with newspaper advertising circulars for a quarter century now, inspired I now realize, by my brother who had decorated kitchen cabinets with old Barney Google comics, and my friend Mary’s mom (a relative by marriage of Henry Moore) who had decorated her fridge with gorgeous magazine images. It was the ’70s. I have also always been impressed by the information, conveyed in John Lahr’s biography, that Joe Orton had decorated entire walls in his flat with collage, and here’s proof:

I’ve been saving up pictures to do this in my office!

And naturally there are those covers to Revolver and Sgt Pepper. (Orton wrote a screenplay for the Beatles that was rejected. More’s the pity. They were clearly on the same visual wavelength at the time).

Typically, collage is thought of as a modernist, 20th century thing, but there ways, as in the animations of Terry Gilliam, that the source image cut-outs can draw from and evoke earlier eras. One of my first dates with my wife was the 2010 Met exhibition Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage, organized by the Art Institure of Chicago, showcasing four dozen whimsical collages from the 1860s and ’70s.

Collage means roughly “glued assemblage”, and the modern birth of it came at the hands of Picasso, Braque and others at the same time they were bringing Cubism into existence. The Dadaists and Surrealists experimented with literary versions, and some (maybe most) of my favorite works of American literature either incorprate the literary equivalent of collage (i.e. Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy) or mash-up modes of writing (i.e. Moby Dick and Life on the Mississippi). Montage is the cinematic equivalent, and as a TV junkie as a kid, this aesthetic was imprinted upon me even more so. For unlike a movie, the experience of watching American television, the jarring juxtapositions between one show to another, broken up by commericals, is a kind of inadvertant modern art. Yes, one person directs a TV show. Another directs a commercial within a program, and so forth. But (generally speaking) NO ONE guides the aesthetic affect of the programming overall. It is randomized, based on a combination of primarily economic considerations. The effect of these accidents can range from hilarious to off-putting to infuriating. It is an aesthetic of constant clash. Harmony and integration in the overall experience are off the table.

Which brings me to vaudeville! I just thumbed through my book No Applause, and was shocked that I never used the word collage, although I danced around it by talking about it the context of modern art. Vaudeville was basically the foundation for the TV watching experience I just described. Each act is self-contained and self-created and completely different from any other act it will appear with on a bill. The closest thing to a “creator” or a “maestro” of the entire show experience would be the theatre booker, who functions as curator and decides the running order of the acts based purely on a handful of rules of thumb, designed to build excitement and to provide contrast between adjacent acts on the bill. And so you are really getting several slices of unrelated smaller shows made by different artists all “glued together”. A trained chimp, a sister act, a magician, a comedy sketch, a violinst, jugglers, a jazz singer. Taken in sum there’s as much much Braque about that as there is Broadway. I have ideas about how to take that concept even further, and I think it would make for a heart stopping theatrical experience, but, oh, the time and money it would take to produce! All I need is just one visionary billionaire and a night of kitchen counter vodka shots….

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,