Home Magazine Can Art Ever Be Funny?

As Ian Hislop’s curated exhibition at the British Museum, “I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent” opened at the start of September, reviews started to flood the internet, all with a similar theme. “Joyless in the extreme” ran a Guardian headline, with others noting that the exhibition overall did not contain any of the humorous, satirical or subversive value that the individual artworks supposedly did.

Even the labels next to the exhibits, optimistically shaped like speech bubbles containing the letters “HAHAHA” did nothing to convey the intended humour. It is unfortunate that Ian Hislop’s renown as a funny man did not help him curate a similarly funny show – the emphasis here very much on it being funny, not simply enjoyable or entertaining. But did he stand a chance? Can an artwork ever be truly comedic, in the same way that written or spoken humour is?

Discover some ironic artworks on Kooness from Luca Moscariello, Stikki Peaches, Rubens Fogacci!


Ian Hislop, "I Object: Ian Hislop's Search for Dissent" at the British Museum, 2018


Laughter is not a sound usually heard in galleries or museums, and art’s relationship with comedy is not one that sits in the mainstream of contemporary discourse. It is also often the case that an artist’s primary objective is rarely to make people laugh, as practicing fine art carries with it a seriousness and gravitas that does not leave much room for humour alongside it. The inherent mysteriousness of art, of what Art is, actively hinders laughter being an appropriate response to it, as laughter is often the result of a sudden burst of understanding, a split-second epiphany where the penny drops. If something is left under contemplation for too long, the boat is missed, and the comedic timing is stretched beyond its limits.

As ever there is a difference between laughing at and laughing with something, but in the case of art the distinction can be very revealing. Especially now, when contemporary artists are constantly pushing the boundaries of what can even be considered Art, very often one might come across a piece at a gallery or fair that will not be to your personal taste. In this instance, it is very easy to laugh at an artwork in order to discredit it, in order to project your disbelief onto something you don’t define as Art. This act of laughter, directed at a piece rather than in accordance with it, equates to a statement of your superiority, of your power to make the distinction between what is Art and what is not. It is telling then, that whatever piece your personal tastes decide can be considered among the ranks of Art, does not get laughed at, but rather respected. Again, the mystery of what Art is exactly to us humans, and the philosophical weight attached to that question, means that whenever we can stand and acknowledge a work confident in the knowledge that whatever it is in front of us is definitely Art, it is revered, not mocked.

The most popular form of comedy in an artistic sense, is in cartoon. The nature of caricature and cartoon was drawn on in Ian Hislop’s I Object, the works of historical satire taken from the British Museum archives mirroring Hislop’s own interests and career path as editor of Private Eye - a magazine full of cartoons, exaggerations and political lampooning. The nature of humour in cartoons, however, often relies heavily on the use of captions, speech bubbles and other forms of text to augment or subvert the image. The specific imagery of cartoons is also always figurative, as the image and internal story needs to be instantly recognisable in order for the structure of the visual joke to work.


Banksy, "Show Me the Monet" 2005


Cartoon humour stems from three main areas of comedy: a satirical or social reference to contextualise the joke, an exaggerated and perhaps rude element to shock and titillate the reader, and a touch of the ridiculous to remove the setting of the cartoon from real life and thereby allow it to play by its own rules. All three of these comedic traits can be found being practised amongst contemporary artists today, but rarely do artworks exhibit all three simultaneously.

When the viewer can recognise immediately the social references in his work "Show Me the Monet", such as the disregard Banksy has for respected artists like Monet commenting on and mirroring the disregard modern society has for nature and the environment, then in that instantaneous “punch-line” moment perhaps you would let out a laugh. Sadly the pun in his title could be considered the funniest bit of this particular artwork, another similarity with Hislop’s exhibition, word-play again coming to the rescue of a weak visual joke. Follow here to read more about Street Art. Example Banksy, a satirist and popular icon, uses relatable and appealing imagery to convey his messages.

Acclaimed sculptor Sarah Lucas, whose current show "Au Naturel" at the New Museum has been making headlines for its provocative brilliance, captures an irreverence, a brash bawdiness, a rudeness and a distorted libido in her work that together aims to shock and possibly disgust the viewer. Her exaggeratedly erotic style shares many themes with historic comedy, specifically the grotesque 18th Century cartoons of London life by British artist William Hogarth or even the more coarse and vulgar scenes of an Aristophanic comedy. The nature of laughter here, in response to shocking or embarrassing themes, is founded in its unique ability to diffuse tension, a way to lighten the mood when anti-social topics are exhibited in a social space (gallery, museum, theatre). Enjoyably, Lucas did not worry about the confrontational nature of her work getting laughed at or dismissed when she exposed it to the art world, saying:


 “I was quite reconciled to people not being so interested in me, but that freed me up… I could really have a lot of fun, humour, between me and me.”


A final artist who definitely enjoys his own brand of humour when he works is someone who captures the ridiculous and the absurd with a very personal flair. The irreverent, surreal conceptualism of Maurizio Cattelan often incorporates confusion the possibility of laughter is not only allowed but encouraged – laughter caused by incomprehension. This is the flip side of the laughter through incomprehension we saw earlier, when people laughed to discredit that which they did not understand. This laughter arises from the same place, but follows a different path.bizzare contrast to infuse his sculptures with surprise and a certain confusion. This jarring juxtaposition is very similar to how verbal jokes are structured – the set up works on the listener’s preconceptions to establish a set of rules, and the punchline breaks through those rules, creating an incongruous reality. Take for example his "La Nona Ora".


Maurizio Cattelan, "La Nona Ora" 1999


So we see there is scope in art for humour, but not with the same potency that can be delivered through verbal or aural means. This is primarily to do with comedic timing, as an artwork exists in a temporal framework of its audience’s choosing, in terms of how long it is viewed for, and so the artist has little say in how a comedic message could be delivered. This is often counteracted in ‘comedic’ art through the use of words or text integrated into the art. Richard Prince’s “Monochromatic Jokes” are simply jokes printed in engaging colours onto large canvases. What effect the scale and colour have on the humour of the piece is hard to quantify, no doubt they look appealing, but the main comedic drive is clearly found in the text. The length of sentence and the corresponding time therefore taken by an viewer to read it creates a specific timeframe in which to experience the artwork. The experience is not complete until all the words are read. The humour then is delivered through the withholding of crucial information until the last punchline, as in all written comedy.

The American writer E.B. White once famously stated,

“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”


Well, explaining a joke through art is a similarly counterproductive task. Art at all levels is often accompanied by auxiliary methods of helping the viewer understand it; a museum leaflet, a gallery label, a didactic press release. Whilst this level of academic engagement is necessary to understand an artwork better, the process of explanation negates any humour that could be found in a cucumber arranged to look like a penis, but once you start to understand the layers of dialogue the artist is hoping to open up about preconceived notions of sexuality, gender and a modern sexualized society, the humour dies away. It can be initially funny to see a Sarah Lucas piece...


Sarah Lucas, Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges and cucumber, 1994


Art survives on a pedestal, and works at a level removed from everyday life. It is precisely for this reason that it has become almost untouchable by humour, and certainly not actively involved in making people laugh. It was commendable of Ian Hislop to try stage an exhibition dealing exclusively in the history or humour, dissent and satire. But as objects on display, in their glass cases and on their pedestals, these artworks just aren’t funny.


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