18 February 2013
The art of humour
When Katie Cuddon explained her process of translation through reframing The Wreck of the Hope by reorganising the shards of rock, I thought of how humour acts as a medium for reconstruction to make sense of things. I was curious about how and why we use it – what sort of humour can art achieve as apposed to a standup comedian? The sheer variety of humour discourse – not only in visual arts – brought me close to burying the curiosity so as not to ruin it. But as I kept reading, concerns in my studio work kept fusing in and I realised the need to critically explore my interest in what humour does in art, so that my research can inform my practice and support my process. Working with my dog I am looking at the way his body conforms to the space around him, sometimes limp and often silly. I wonder why we find it funny seeing his sorry face stuck in a cone – because we know he can’t escape? Why do we at times let a smile take place of the laugh? This diminutive gesture silent and subdued though aesthetically gentle and elegant can channel humour as a platform for attack. There is a constant disjunction between what we see and what we know, how things are and how they are purported to be. Would an artwork be perceived as funny if presented in any context or space? In what contexts would the work not be humourous? If the presented space of a work served as an extension of the art, when it is moved would the joke change or not work at all? Because art is so visual, what about the absurdities of language? How does the use and abuse of language in text or titles make or break the humour?
Some argue the assumption that art is intellectual, therefore requires an intellectual response rather than emotional and so studying humour in art is pure nonsense. I would challenge this judgement and deem humour nonsense to be taken seriously, since nonsense itself “pivots on ambiguity, punnery and displaced logic” (Klein, 2007). I prefer John Currin’s thinking that “the sillier [his paintings] looked on the surface, the more they seemed to contain” (Yablonsky, 2004). I had hoped to unscramble some of the theory behind what we find funny in art so I could see where my practice fits in but I seem to have only scratched at the surface of the stuff. Still, my research has shown me the Brobdingnagian territory of my curiosity, affirming my enthusiasm to explore its lands after learning about the basics of it.
The art of art lies in its visual nature. By communicating optically humour can be seen by an exclusive audience as language would serve between peoples. Not seeing the humour in an artwork would be like missing the punch-line of a joke because a necessary essence of words is lost in translation. If metaphorically sense of humour was a ball, it would be assumed that when one person threw another the ball s/he would catch it and throw it back. But some people instead of throwing it back, put it in their pocket (Wittgenstein, 1980 cited in Critchley, 2002, p.4). In this way joking becomes a game and players must abide by the rules.
Humour has method in its madness and sits on the brink of impossibility when looked at as an object for philosophy. Because we all know what we find funny or not we are all masters of the domain. Trying to sway someone into finding your joke funny is equivalent to why E.B White wrote that writing about humour is like dissecting a frog, few people are interested and the frog dies of it (n.d cited in Yablonsky, 2004, p.6).
Seeing art’s crusade for ‘goodness’ as a conservative idea, by believing in art’s intrinsic value would be “bad religion” (Hickey, 1996 cited in Higgie, 2007, p.118) and likewise pulling apart humour in art would be bad worship. Looking at the disjunction between what we see and what we know, “‘good’ works of art that reside in our museums reside there not because they are good but because we love them” (Hickey, 1996 cited in Higgie, 2007, p.118). Art doesn’t matter. What matters is how things look and the way we look at them. Not quite siding with the extreme of Hickey’s parallel of the art world to that of sport where “the sports world conducts an ongoing referendum on the manner in which we should cooperate and compete…[and art] on how things should look and the way we should look at things…[but realising] if art were regarded as sports are, as a wasteful, privileged endeavor through which very serious issues are sorted out” (1996 cited in Higgie, 2007, p.120), can the same be said for humour? Humour as a means of taking up a critical position to subvert and reflect. Would fighting this be like jabbing and poking at E.B White’s already dead frog? We continue to prod and pry regardless because it seems we like the sticky mess that follows. Humour in art becomes sense in nonsense. If art is a game, as Maurizio Cattelan describes the play of “[trying] to move the borders further…then [realising] how easily the art world can absorb any blow” (Morton, 2005 cited in Higgie, 2007) likewise so is humour.
This game of comedy that imitates life (Bergson, 2008) relies on sociableness. Though humour can rise into the realms of history, literature, theology, religion, anthropology and more, one rule is that for a shared understanding to understand laughter humour must hold social significance. Society is its natural environment and it feeds into and off of humans. Humour digs its teeth deep into the very soul of being human so much so that theorists question whether someone who does not laugh is suspicious of inhumanity (Critchley, 2002). If we use humour to divide humans and animals we must recognize that animals certainly play, perhaps with more punch than punch-line. Still it can be acknowledged that humour stems from a craving to clown, fool and monkey around. Where tigers tumble, lions lick, and rats race, humans frolic and frisk in an urban playground of societal values, critiques and judgements. It is release.
Humour puts things in place, sometimes for the better whereby shared conscience is validated and we are reminded of what we already know in a new light. We know why we laugh and in these cases feel a sense of joyful liberation and “childlike elevation” (Critchley, 2002). Other times things are not quite as peachy. Sometimes a joke “like illusions, may bear uncanny truths” (Klein, 2007), casting doubt on our certainty with the world as we see it. “For humour to exert any power in art, where meaning is layered and context is all, it must turn the ground on which it stands to jelly” (Yablonsky, 2004). Now we laugh the mirthless laugh: the “laugh at that which is not good” (Beckett, 1970 cited in Critchley, 2002, p.49). Now the joke induces an eery sensation, quite simply we are awkward in our own bodies because we are troubled by what we laugh at. The ground is jelly and we wobble about to stop it from swallowing us up whole. In Freudian terms we laugh to cope with our insecurity when repressed unconscious material threatens to force its way through into consciousness. We are “[shown] how prejudices that one would rather not hold can continue to have a grip on one’s sense of who one is” (Critchley, 2002).
By laughing at power we expose its deficiencies. As we mock and ridicule, the pillars on which the authorities stand crumble under our “oscillating organs” (Kant, 1952 cited in Critchley, 2002, p.9), which is why it can hurt when we laugh. Another reason for this faint sense of pain is dark or black humour: when we laugh at a joke one would rather not laugh at. “Not laughter at power, rather powerful laughing at the powerless” (Critchley, 2002). Just as we pick on prominent institutions, we also play with social reach. Sometimes humour takes us back to locality and we laugh in the company of a people who share the same set of customs and characteristics as ourselves. ‘True’ humour reinforces social consensus not wounding a single victim, rather containing self-mockery. It is a comedy of recognition “toy[ing] with existing social hierarchies in a charming but benign fashion…returning us to common sense, by distancing us from it” (Critchley, 2002). Other times we give permit to comic scapegoating and we laugh at the belittling of another sector of society, or the stupidity of a – in our minds – social outsider. The feeling of glory over someone else’s expense is the reason for sexist and racist jokes. Like true humour supports consensus, reactionary humour publicizes societal repression. It tells us important truths about ourselves and reveals us to be persons we would rather not be (Critchley, 2002).
For Mark Twain the “secret source of humour is not joy but sorrow” (n.d cited in Klein, 2007, p.5) so humour functions as a mechanism to overcome the tragic. With slapstick humour we laugh at others by seeing them as matter. We laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing because of the awkward relationship between intention and material. Though it often frightens us “humour can make the unbearable actualisation acceptable” (Semerau, 2005 cited in Klein, 2007, p.103) acting as “the sugarcoating that makes [our fears] digestible” (McKimens, 2004 cited in Yablonsky, 2004, p.4). We don’t always enjoy laughing at ourselves. Humour unearths the sublimity and suffering of the human condition. Then is laughter a counter to the sublime? We may see ourselves as ridiculous but we also delight in another’s misfortune. Our lives don’t seem so bad when we recognise the shortcomings of others. There is a degree of hostility associated with humour, as there is with terms we use within it. We need a glossy varnish on jokes because we can’t possibly accept the dark lucidly.
Laughing at that which is unhappy draws in a moral complex. Despair in David Shrigley’s drawings are delivered with unique comedy. “There is a morbid fascination in following [his] narrative logic…because the blatancy of his tragic pronouncements is wholly recognisable as an articulation of our darkest moods or fears” (Bracewell, 1995 cited in Higgie, 2007, p.149). Perhaps stand-up comedians know what everyone laughs at because they know what everyone represses, making ‘good’ comedians those whose jokes say the unsayable. “A real comedian dares to see what his listeners shy away from” (Griffiths, 1979) and through joking about it changes the situation. In destabilising a situation the artist draws the viewer in and allows something else out. Often humour is a medium for artists to connect with their viewers in a more intimate and meaningful way. Methods could range from association, transposition, transformation, exaggeration or disguise, to appropriation. The post-70s Feminist Art Movement made use of these techniques to subvert sexism, racism, oppression and injustice. Humour was employed to empower women. When humour mingles with art it can be “a clever, social mirror and a force against disillusionment” (Klein, 2007). Without others we would have no sense of ourselves. We reflect off others – a crossing of looks – to identify. Richard Prince said of his work: “The jokes are funny. The paintings are not” (Yablonsky, 2004) so laughter is proof of art that is functioning well. An artist has accomplished something in making work that has done something to enlighten, elevate and educate us.
Why so many feel the need to break down humour as a philosophical object confuses me just as much as the unbridgeable gap between body and soul: ‘having’ and ‘being’, and humour’s stand in the battle of physical versus metaphysical (Critchley, 2002). I feel like Hickey we should “lift this burden from our shoulders and see humour as nothing more than silly, frivolous play” (1996 cited in Higgie, 2007, p.119). Can we shamelessly take the joke that is not supposed to be taken at face value, at face value? Is it possible to be ironic about irony?
Trying to deny humour has philosophy echoes Cattelan’s art practice. More and more he tries to escape the art world’s habitual workings, making art that “refuses institutional authority while embracing it” (Morton, 2005 cited in Higgie, 2007, p.206). Likewise humour plays on common sense and the moment between looking and seeing the work. Looking is an act of choice (Berger, 2008) but smiling, giggling or outright guffawing is an unlooked-for reaction. The artist assert’s their vision of the world and by snickering we do the same in return. So humour does not inhabit an artwork, rather it is constructed by the artist and confirmed by the viewer. Like Cattelan’s work humour is stuck in “[a] hazard zone between love and hate” (Morton, 2005 cited in Higgie, 2007, p.211), polarized in itself, trying to strip it of its theories deprives it of its effects. Because humour plays on sociableness and phenomena, responses depend on cognition. How else would this happen if not through our own psyche? “No matter how badly you want to be hated, somebody will come and love you. And no matter how much you want to be loved, somebody will always hate you in the end” (Cattelan cited in Higgie, 2007, p.211).
Humour is said to be the product of incongruities, a disjunction between the way things are and the way they are represented. Much like the uncanniness between what you look at and what you see, humour plays on expectation versus actuality. Same as perception what you see is not always what you get. Once that punch-line kicks in, the bubble pops and the tension disappears we face “a sudden evaporation of expectation to nothing” (Kant, 2007). “What makes humour both so fascinating and tricky to write about is the way in which the examples continually exceed the theoretical analysis one is about to give – they say more in saying less” (Critchley, 2002). A joke may say what it has to say by not saying it. The paradox intrigues fascination. Salvador Dali represented the unconscious eluding logic and rationale, showing us a reality not bound by conventions of the waking world. Like the theory of jolie laide, humour is diametrically deceptive and we recognise beauty in absurdity. We take pleasure in seeing the familiar defamiliarised, the ordinary made extraordinary and the real rendered surreal. It spices up the mundane and we delight in being naughty and nice at the same time.
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