For the Love of Art: Humour

For the Love of Art: Humour

In the lastest in our series exploring the power of art, writer Raven Smith, dubbed the funniest man on Instagram, dissects the sometimes complicated relationship between art and laughter.
In the lastest in our series exploring the power of art, writer Raven Smith, dubbed the funniest man on Instagram, dissects the sometimes complicated relationship between art and laughter.

A bit like money or sex, or £2 scratch cards from corner shops, people can get very serious about art. It’s a thoroughly thoughtful business, a system of deep understanding that can oft err on the side of pretention. I’m not knocking reverence as a thing, but all the historical understanding and political controversy and sombre self-expression can be trying.

Sarah Lucas, Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996. © Sarah Lucas. Tate collection. Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles, London.

Important art interrogates our humanness and stimulates emotions, changing our state. I want to be bowled over by a devastating Nan Goldin or sucker-punched in the gut by a fist of sculpted marble, to feel the gentle ripples of a quiet painting weeks after seeing it. I want to be touched, as we all do, by a great painting, to have the tendrils of it reach out of the canvas and stroke my senses. I want to be transported, while standing still. I want to be challenged. I want to be wooed. I want all of this and more, but sometimes I want to laugh too.

I love to laugh. Loud and long and clear. You get happier when you laugh, and it allegedly boosts your immune system. In laughter therapy (I went for research), I learned that even forced, fake laughter releases those good chemicals into your brain. Like a Christmas cracker joke, humour should be immediate, not requiring a lengthy explanation nor delicate calibrations of understanding. You experience the joke and you laugh. Humour art is different in that it immediately stirs something in you but it’s not a vomit of giggles.

Raven Smith's Trivial Pursuits is out now and published by 4th Estate.

There’s more seduction. A sleight of hand. A delayed punchline. It doesn’t punch you necessarily, so much as it gives you a cheeky tickle. You’re never stifling hysterics like that time in school assembly. Nor is this the barely-suppressed titters at a sleepover after midnight.

The best humorous art doesn’t fall back on slap stick caricature to leave the viewer in creases. The comedy is wry. It’s elevated and considered. It’s witty. Each piece a silent charade of stand up that quietly goads you. You instinctively, knowingly react, the why comes later.

It’s difficult to unpeel the banana of funny art and slip into a comedy turn without first acknowledging the absurdity of all human life. On closer inspection, our human endeavours and their apparatus are a little bit silly—lattes maybe, or battery packs, the need for salad forks, the concept of a duvet cover. Life itself is a Jenga of odd, important rituals we’re very committed to.

Philippe Halsman, Dalí Atomicus, 1948. © Philippe Halsman / Magnum Photos.

When it comes to the arts, acting, for example, is just pretending to be someone else who coincidentally has your face, music is just old notes in a new order, a painting is just splodges on a canvas. We suspend disbelief in the raw materials of art and it’s literalness so we can allow it to strike accurately at our souls, to help us see the world better like de-icer in December.

"A bit like money or sex, or £2 scratch cards from corner shops, people can get very serious about art."

You’d think that the serious affairs that art tackles effectively kill off any jokes, the punchline tumbleweeding across on deaf ears. But the opposite is true. Each time we glimpse the futility we’re relieved. Humour allows us to embrace absurdity safely, lest we completely crack up.

Erwin Wurm, The bank manager in front of his bank, 1999. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg.

To laugh is to allow a manageable gurgle of senselessness, not a tsunami. As is tradition, we’re silent in museums, the appreciation of the work expressed in soundless awe (much like a shockingly high monthly phone bill).

But funny art is playful, arching an eyebrow, curling a lip, stifling a grin. It’s a naughty interlude from the usual codes of behaviour in a gallery. You’re not meant to be rolling in the aisles like you do at the Odeon, you’re still part of the performance of ‘viewing-art’. It’s more of a Just William response of naughtiness, a harmless and gratifying inclusion to the joke, a rising tide of comedic gratification—you ‘get’ it. Not aloof. Not unreachable. Not smarmy. Just the right blend of art and wit.

Contemporary Art

About the Author

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos & news.
Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's

Close
arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top