Here is Slim Whitman’s version of Rose Marie:
And here is Andy Kaufman’s version of the same song.
If you find this on YouTube, you’ll find that Andy Kaufman’s version of the song has 175,000 views versus 19,000 views for the Slim Whitman version. What’s the difference?
Andy Kaufman’s version is a pitch-perfect rendition of the song, so the comedy of Andy is not dependent upon making fun of Whitman’s voice. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that Andy Kaufman comes out in a diaper and a turban. Why should that make such a huge difference?
Appreciation for Slim Whitman’s version of “Rose Marie” requires that you be invested in, not only the music, but in the lifestyle that surrounds country music. This becomes apparent when reading the comments on Andy’s version of “Rose Marie.” People who like Slim Whitman feel that Andy is being disrespectful of Slim Whitman. And, let’s face it, he is. But the people who like Andy Kaufman can overlook the disrespect shown to country music because they themselves are not being targeted.
On the other hand, the people who don’t know Slim Whitman are shocked at how good Slim Whitman’s song is. Often people have both experiences at once: they’re somewhat shocked that Andy’s presentation, but they can hold onto the fact that Andy is singing the song itself respectfully. Only his clothing—something we’ve been taught is irrelevant to the truth—makes this song a parody. This makes it acceptable to all but the most hard-core “believers” in country music.
This is the key to Andy’s success. We have a choice with our response to Andy Kaufman. We can believe he’s a fool, but we can still respect his music. We can believe he’s a genius, and we respect his music.
Slim Whitman offers the cosmopolitan audience a starker choice. Not only must we embrace Whitman’s music, but we must embrace the American country music “lifestyle,” as well. Such differences are exclusionary. Those who are in the know, know. Those who are not in the know, are invited to become members of the country music “culture.”But if they choose not to play by the rules established by “culture,”, then they quickly find themselves uninvited.
Andy is inviting us into his world, opening up doors that have been closed to us on account of our not wanting to participate in country music culture. As a result, Andy Kaufman is playing on a more “universal” theme than Slim Whitman. None of this has to do with “culture.” It has to do with something more “universal” than culture. The insistence of those who want to appreciate Slim Whitman only on his terms in his American country music culture are shown to be narrow-minded people. The cosmopolitan viewers of Andy Kaufman can even take some delight (often a great deal) in the fact that they are superior to the “masses” of people who “believe” in their narrow and provincial “culture.”
That is how aesthetic experience was once explained to me by one of my favorite professors in college. He related the story of how he once walked into a room which had been painted completely white. He found the experience disorienting. He had been delivered from rooms with functions into a room that had been rendered completely functionless. As a result, he looked for a feature that he could fix his attention upon. He found a light switch. It was at this moment, as he was staring at the light switch looking for meaning in it, that he realized that he was having an “aesthetic experience” of the light switch, rather than the everyday, ordinary experience of the light switch.
This distinction of “aesthetic experience” from regular experience goes a long way towards explaining the reaction of audiences to Andy Kaufman. By repositioning an object out of the every day, ordinary experience, into the “aesthetic experience,” we can grow more fully aware of that object than we would if we had simply passed over it in our daily lives, taking it for granted.
This process of decontextualization was one of the most productive of art in the 20th century. Andy Warhol’s soup cans were simply reproductions of the originals, by taking out of its context and environment into the aesthetic world. This decontextualization raised the soup can from being one of many utilitarian objects in the universe to being one of the rare “aesthetic” objects in the universe.
This experience was masterminded by Marcel Duchamp at the 1917 New York Art Exhibition when he submitted a piece of art called “Fountain” under the assumed name “R. Mutt.” The work of art, which was nothing more than a urinal turned on its side and displayed out of its normal context, was not even displayed. Beatrice Wood explained the purpose of Duchamp’s work of art:
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Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
In defense of the work being art, Wood also wrote, “The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” Duchamp described his intent with the piece was to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation. (Wikipedia)