PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


The Artist's Joke by Jennifer Higgie

Megan Milks

What is surprising is that so little of 20th-century art criticism has focused on humor in art.

The Artist's Joke

Publisher: MIT Press
ISBN: 9780262582742
Author: Jennifer Higgie
Price: $22.95
Length: 240
Formats: Trade Paperback
US publication date: 2007-10

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.