The Toronto Star’s critic, Murray Whyte, makes a very convincing case for Sacha Baron Cohen’s work as meaningful, bold and fearless art:
What Cohen makes, I have no qualms in saying, is art in its best sense: He is engaged, confrontational, topical, provocative and fearless. He shrinks from nothing, and risks everything – including his own safety: In Brüno‘s closing scene, a crowd of people in Arkansas are invited to an ultimate-fighting cage match, only to be met with Cohen, as Brüno, and his would-be adversary lustily making out. The crowd quickly transforms into a bloodthirsty, chair-throwing mob; one of them climbs into the cage with the intention of beating Cohen to a pulp.
Hilarious. But the key to Cohen’s work is that he is not, strictly speaking, funny. That would suggest a desire to please. He has none. He dares you, in a way even the greatest popular artists never do – like Stephen Spielberg, whose most provocative work maintains a Hollywood sheen of everyman palatability. On the other end, Cohen trumps the great contemporary art provocateurs, such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, on sheer accessibility: They may sell works for tens of millions of dollars, but it is, for the most part, a massive inside joke bought into by an elite few. Cohen’s door is wide open – and millions of people, along with their dollars, have come inside.
The easy label for Cohen’s shtick is performance art, a much-loathed distinction that has, over the years, elicited endless (and usually much-deserved) eye-rolling. It’s incorrect only in that it suggests obscurity, and perhaps the principle genius of Cohen’s art, as Borat’s vast commercial success shows, is how broadly accessible it is.
But it’s a reasonable forebear to suggest, and surely, it could be hard to grasp. Think of Joseph Beuys, who probably initiated the form with his work with the Fluxus in the 1960s; his most famous piece, from 1965, featured Beuys, his face coated with honey and gold leaf, wandering the gallery space cradling a dead rabbit in his arms, mumbling softly to it. He called it How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.
To most, it was bizarre, obscure, pointless. To the avant-garde art world, it was a point of departure: Art wasn’t hung on the wall – it could be anything, anywhere.
Artists who followed took it to heart in increasingly nervy, confrontational ways: In 1971, the L.A. artist Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm with a rifle, on film. He went on to lock himself in a locker for five days, and crucify himself on the back of a VW Bug.
Is Sacha Baron Cohen the Greatest Artist of his Generation (Toronto Star)