Humour in Art
Why so serious? This is a question often aimed at art – and for fair reason. Much has been turgidly written about aesthetic choices that, outside the silos of art, seem inconsequential. Art itself however, is not always interested in such pedantry. For as long as artists have been mark-making, they’ve embraced levity as a weapon with a wink.
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp played his infamous prank on the art world: getting a factory-made urinal to be declared fine art. In Australia, contemporary artists like Richard Bell have used humour to upend our stereotypes of Aboriginal art. There’s an argument to be made that pop art, surrealism and appropriation art are, at heart, exercises in being funny.
Humour As Tragedy
Charlie Chaplain famously said that “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up but a comedy in longshot”. Indeed, comedy and tragedy are just interchangeable lenses for the same stimuli.
An artist attuned to this is McLean Edwards. His work was once described as harbouring the “same sour humour as Samuel Beckett’s plays and prose, an absurd, theatrical sadness that celebrates idiosyncrasy while acknowledging the seeming impossibility of fighting the universe”. Edwards’s tragicomedy stares into the abyss and chuckles, it’s a funny anecdote told in an obituary, a smile curtailed by a tear.
In ‘Untitled (Cool Cat)’, he pictures a cat and man hidden by sunglasses. The set-up is comical: two cool cats meeting in the shadows. Astute viewers will notice “44” scrawled in the bottom right corner - this is ͢McLean’s calling card, his age acting as a countdown towards mortality.
Humour As Critique
Humour is among the most effective entryways into provocation. It functions, as Freud theorised, as the “succession of bewilderment and enlightenment”.
Shaike Snir’s ‘Mmona, I can’t create, I can just multiply’ adds a few more steps into Freud’s recipe. At first, you recognise the work — it’s Leonardo DaVinci’s iconic ‘Mona Lisa’. You might wonder why she’s reproduced here, is Snir a plagiarist? The work’s title provides the next clue: ‘Mmona, I can’t create, I can just multiply’.
Snir is following from Marcel Duchamp’s ‘L.H.O.O.Q’, in which the artist drew a moustache on a postcard of the ‘Mona Lisa’. In her omnipresence, Mona has slipped from the echelons of high art into mass culture. She is reproduced ad infinitum: a mug; goddess; mystery; icon; celebrity; postcard; painting; and stranger. She’s the punchline in a joke that probes consumerism, originality and context. She’s a meme.
Humour As Absurdity
Both art and humour are denials of reality. In the telling of the chicken’s pilgrimage across the road, we don’t question how the chicken could relay their motive or even have one. To access a joke or work of art’s punchline, we must accept its terms — only through surrendering to absurdity, do we gain meaning.
A reptilian twist on the canine masterpiece 'Dogs Playing Poker', Pasquale Giardino’s 'Crocodiles Playing Cards' depicts a bask of crocodiles mid Poker game. With the same same cigar-scented ambiance as any late night soiree, this work is both absurd and familiar – reminiscent of cubism or surrealism. It recalls the truth that sometimes, when face to face with the absurdness of living, laughter is the only response.
You enter a gallery. Visitors, hushed and solemn, circle a work of art — it’s one of Andy Warhol’s soup cans. A giggle escapes your lips. Here we all are treating a can as reverential — is it what Warhol would have wanted? Acknowledging comedy is not to belittle something’s importance, it is to find joy in its presupposition. Laughing is vivifying — it, as David Hockney observed, “clears the lungs”.
It’s a radical act to accept that life can be cruel, absurd and unjust, yet still find room for levity — better yet, wall space.