In ‘Who Is America?’, Sacha Baron Cohen Tries to Dupe an Art Advisor. Can You Guess How She Fared?

The art consultant who appears in the premiere has responded to the prank.

A screen shot of Sacha Baron Cohen as Rick Sherman speaking with Christy Cones from Who Is America?

Sacha Baron Cohen premiered his new Showtime series Who Is America? on Sunday night. While the most talked-about part of the first episode seems to be his jaw-dropping skewering of the American approach to gun regulation—he convinces several gun advocates, including a former member of Congress, to back the arming of toddlers in a fictional initiative dubbed “KinderGuardians”—another segment sees the comedian set his sights on a softer target: the art world.

Cohen has previously assumed the personas of such audacious fictional characters as Borat, a Kazakh TV journalist, and Ali G, a cringe-inducing poseur talk-show host, to gain access to unlikely interview candidates. Now, his latest prank show follows him as he travels across the United States under the guise of several new ridiculous characters—including the over-the-top gun-rights activist and a reflexively apologetic straight white liberal male—in an often-successful attempt to dupe the likes of Alaska governor Sarah Palin, former vice president Dick Cheney, and senator Bernie Sanders. 

In the past, Cohen’s satirical victims have been noteworthy as well: In 2003, Ali G scored a deliciously awkward interview with Donald Trump and (in one of our favorites) took on the renowned linguistics professor Noam Chomsky. So Christy Cones, the unwitting Laguna Beach art consultant who appears in Who Is America?, can count herself in good company.

In the first episode, Cohen visits Cones’s Coast Gallery in the persona of Rick Sherman, a supposed British ex-con with a neck brace and face tattoos who has recently been released from a 21-year stint behind bars.

Sherman had said he wanted to talk to Cones about art for a British reality TV series, and they do, gradually building up to the big reveal that Sherman himself was a painter in prison, creating artworks with his own bodily fluids.

A screen shot from Who Is America? depicting art by “Rick Sherman.”

After eliciting some slightly uncomfortable praise from Cones for his work, Sherman disappears into the bathroom and returns with a freshly painted likeness of the art consultant, which, as she later told the Washington Post, “really stunk.”

In the Post interview, Cones appears to take it in stride when reporter alerts her—for the first time—that the man she encountered was actually the comedian: “That was Sacha Baron Cohen? What a nutcase. God bless him.” She says she really found Cohen’s graphic descriptions of making his art from semen and feces in jail “fascinating,” adding, “I know now it’s fake, but I think think a lot of the ideas are real.”

It’s easy to mock Cohen’s gullibility, but the use of bodily fluids in art is not exactly unheard of. In 1961, Piero Manzoni canned 90 specimens of “artist’s shit” and valued them at the price of gold. (One 30g specimen sold for $19,430 in 1997 at Ketterer Kunst auction house in Berlin, according to the artnet Price Database.) Other artists from Marcel Duchamp to Andres Serrano to Antony Gormley have also availed of their bodily fluids in the creation of art. More recently, it was revealed that Zehra Doğan, the imprisoned Turkish-Kurdish artist and journalist, has been painting in jail using her menstrual blood.

Rick Sherman’s portrait of Christy Cones. Screen shot from Who Is America?

On the show, Cones is sympathetic to Cohen’s character and the suffering he tells her he experienced, and even offers up one of her own pubic hairs for a paint brush apparently made from the pubic hairs of famous artists like Banksy and Damien Hirst. “I think I surprised him,” Cones told the Post. “He didn’t expect me to be as amenable as I was…. We used to make home movies in my family when I was a kid. I don’t fold up in front of the camera.”

With the farce revealed, Cones displays the acumen of an art dealer who, ahem, smells a potential sale. Her message for the famous actor? “Come down to the gallery. Come down and buy a painting.” After all, Cohen and wife Isla Fisher’s art collection includes the likes of Damien Hirst (albeit a shark and a butterfly the artist reportedly scrawled on the back on an envelope at a dinner party) and a painting by the British artist Beryl Cook. Cones also calls Cohen out for reneging on his promise to send her the portrait he made on the show.

The art consultant now views Cohen’s program as a kind of performance art and takes objection to his simplified message that the art world is full of shit. She’d love a follow-up interview, she says. “I spent years studying art, in this country, in Greece,” Cones told the Post. “So let’s see what he really has. If he wants to play intellectual and butt heads, then come down, and let’s do that for real.”

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