The standard postmodern claim about popular culture is that its emergence dissolved the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow culture. If highbrow is emblemized by, say, avant-garde visual art and lowbrow is emblemized by, say, screwball comedies, then it’s no wonder that the early 20th century ushered in a domino set of art movements fueled by any of multiples strains of humor, beginning with the Dadaists in 1916. What is surprising is that so little of 20th-century art criticism has focused on humor in art.
This paucity of critical interest in the comedic is not limited to art criticism; I’ve noticed it with regard to experimental literature, most of which, in its linguistic and formal play, is quite obviously invested in expressing a sense of humor. Yet, when a university class discusses, for instance, Gertrude Stein’s circuitous repetitions, to describe how funny her use of language is seems somehow absolutely trifling; a discussion James Joyce’s behemoth wit in Ulysses seems beside the point when there are 800 pages of unfamiliar allusions to get through; Walter Abish’s alphabetical picaresque, Eunoia, becomes immediately intimidating only because no one reads it out loud (what a riot!).
For whatever reason, a divide remains: we tend to see the avant-garde as lofty and anemic of humor, and we tend to see humor as somehow beneath Great Art. This, despite the numerous jokes that tattoo the walls of the most preeminent art museums. Duchamp’s urinal is a joke, for instance. More so than many other artists’ jokes, its punch line is recognized as the joke that it is. We might laugh out loud at his smirk to the institution; we might chuckle at the absurdities of the Dadaists, the audacity of Fluxus and Pop and the contemporary culture jamming they have inspired, and yet, art is still seen as Very Serious. No laughing in the museum, please.
The Artist’s Joke, an anthology of diverse writings on the intersection of humor and art, seeks to challenge that perception. In fact, from the dozens of writings excerpted here, it looks like numerous folks have already challenged that perception; to read them here collected together, it seems obvious that a study of the artist’s joke has been a long time coming, and that it is absolutely essential to a study of 20th-century art.
Edited and with an introduction by Australian art critic Jennifer Higgie, The Artist’s Joke begins with Henri Bergson’s essay, “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic” from 1900 and moves vaguely chronologically from there, with excerpts from Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) and Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975), Duchamp’s Anthology of Black Humour (1940) and the Guerrilla Girls’ The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988, from the poster of the same name), among many, many others.
The anthology is organized into four sections that cover, respectively, the period from 1900 to 1940, which saw Dadaism and Surrealism emerge as rejections of bourgeois reason and rationality; the ‘50s and ‘60s, which saw the Fluxus and Pop Art movements use humor to poke fun at consumer culture; the ‘70s through the early ‘90s, which saw a rise of feminist artists using satire and wit to disrupt authority; and the mid-‘90s to the present, which has seen a number of diverse and expansive approaches to using humor in art. Perhaps unusual for a book on art, it is almost all text; even its few visual complements are textual, full-page blowups of excerpted passages. But, of course, this is a book collecting writings about humor in art, and as such it’s not that interested in presenting the art itself.
The texts included cover a wide range of forms and content. Andrea Fraser’s “Official Welcome” monologue is a script; there are a few interview excerpts, notably with Zurich-based artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss; a prose poem by Picasso; a short work of dark fabulist fiction by British novelist and painter Leonora Carrington; an excerpt from an unpublished scatological film script by Nathaniel Mellors; a short comic essay by David Sedaris; and an analysis of L.A. laughter in Ed Ruscha’s work by Peter Schjeldahl. That, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg. But, then, the iceberg might be just a wee bit mammoth, in a problematic way.
With 50 texts in only 225 pages, the average number of pages per text is four and a half. As one might imagine, many of the texts included have been sliced and diced. If the entries seem truncated, well, they are. Helene Cixous’s landmark essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”, for example, has been cut from 19 to three pages, and the majority of everything else is a two- to five-page excerpt from a longer piece. Consequently, the book feels more like a sampler than a full-on anthology, as though you’re previewing the mp3s before buying them. Moreover, there’s very little supporting commentary to bind all of the works together. We get a seven-page introduction, and then we’re off to whirl through 50 excerpted texts with no further context offered.
I’m grateful that Higgie managed to put all of these wide-ranging writers and artists in one place, grouped together appropriately and umbrellaed under a hugely fascinating, under-discussed theme, but I’m always one to prefer lengthier, less choppy excerpts, each introduced by biographical and/or critical context. This is a minor complaint, however, considering that Higgie accomplished the great feat of collecting Claes Oldenburg, Barbara Kruger, Kara Walker, and Freud all in one place, and managed to evoke some laughter while she was at it.