Amused; humor in Contemporary Art

September 7—November 10, 2001

Featuring work by Dana Wyse, Michael St. John, David Moreno, Norman Mingo, Michael Jenkins, Raymond Pettibon, Roy Lichtenstein, Guy Limone, Konstantin Kakanias, Michael Minelli, Oli Watt, Kenneth Josephson, Tom Friedman, Andy Warhol, Judy Linn, Nina Katchadourian, Richard Hull, Keith Haring, Jim Shaw, Maria Porges, Benjamin Weissman, Claes Oldenburg, Jonathan Borofsky, Erika Rothenberg, Antonia Contro, Liliana Porter, David Lefkowitz, Elizabeth Hoffman, Tom Otterness, Fred Stonehouse, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Red Grooms, Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, Jeffrey Beebe, Stacey Davidson, Diane Christiansen, Gary Gissler, Lou Mallozzi, Andreas Fischer, Marcel Dzama, Jacquelyn Tough, Nancy Dwyer, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Barry Flanagan, Donald Roller Wilson, R. Crumb, Ed Ruscha, H.C. Westermann, Nedko Solokov, Jennifer Bartlett, Rob Craigie, Tony Tasset, David Robbins, Michael Lash, Arturo Herrera, Michael Byron, Terri Zupanc, Jean Dubuffet, St. Clair Cemin, Alexander Calder, Paul McCarthy, Glenn Baxter, and Gilbert and George


An irreverent gallery discussion

[NOTE FROM THE DIRECTOR: Ira Glass is the multi-award-winning creator and host of National Public Radio’s very popular weekly program, “This American Life,” which is heard in over 400 radio markets across the country. Bill Zehme has written humorously about countless humorous people in Esquire, Rolling Stone, and other national publications, is a foremost authority on late-night television comedy, and has authored Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman and The Rolling Stone Book of Comedy, among other works. They came together on the eve of this exhibit’s opening to sort through and celebrate the special relationship between visual art and the experience of humor—as only two nationally noted practitioners of verbal amusement could.]

BILL ZEHME: There has never been a funny sentence written or spoken about humor. You would agree?

IRA GLASS: Wow. I have to say I agree.

BZ: Well, that’s pretty funny already! So here we are—a pair of professional verbalists—about to think funny about visual art. One funny thing about art is that the masses consider it to be intimidating, whereas humor is something that belongs to all of us. Ideally, nobody is intimidated by humor.

IG: I never thought about that. Are you saying the object of art is actually opposite to the object of humor? Art is supposed to make us feel something bigger whereas humor says: “Hey, look, we’re all in on it! Hey!”

BZ: Humor allows us to feel superior, largely because we get it. This remarkable exhibit could have almost been called “Getting It.” And yet we all should “get” art, too—if we don’t, it’s because we’re afraid of it. We’re afraid of the stereotype of art: Mainly, if you’ve got enough dough you can own it, even if you don’t “get” it.

IG: So the perception is that art thinks it’s better than we are? Somehow, what’s funny, what’s not funny—I feel like I can totally judge. With art, I feel like: “Oh, maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong.” But as to whether something’s funny or not, everybody’s an authority.

BZ: We’re all authorities on humor. But then humor is probably just as subjective as art—different people laugh at different things. Of course, if you don’t laugh at what I think is funny, you’re wrong.

IG: I think the object of art is actually the opposite. At the center of a joke is the idea of a surprising connection between two things that you didn’t think could be connected at all—and suddenly boom, they’re connected, and you respond with amusement. That’s true of a painting in a totally different way: It gets to you because you see something that makes you—and especially you—feel a sudden response. But it’s more personal and private.

BZ: As for the laugh: You want to laugh with someone. Laughing with someone is always better than laughing alone. With art, in the subjective sense, you just laugh alone. It’s the classic conundrum: Laughing At versus Laughing With.

IG: I’m not big on the whole Laughing-At. I’m more in the school of Laughing-With.

BZ: The laugh itself is an involuntary act, right up there next to the sneeze. We don’t really know why or where it comes from.

IG: Don’t forget the cringe. I’ve actually thought all of this through. There’s the sneeze, the cringe and the laugh. And crying. What are the physical manifestations of emotion? There’s crying, laughing, cringing. Comedy is the most fragile art form because it’s all about an instant revelation.

BZ: Art that you don’t like, by the way, you cringe at.

IG: God, you do cringe. See, but I think art is often more able to make us cringe than make us laugh. I almost feel like art shouldn’t even be shooting for that. Visual art should not even be shooting for making us laugh. I mean, I love paintings of dogs playing poker, but those aren’t exactly what we consider to be gallery art. That particular painting is The Last Supper of dog art, which I do find funny. But it’s so much easier for visual art to make us dream instead of laugh. In your dreams, you never laugh.

BZ: Let’s talk a bit about what you do. Does it require a certain confidence for you to decide that a story told on your program is funny? Do you have to be confident that your audience will laugh?

IG: I don’t feel like I need to rely on worrying about the reactions of other people. What you want is a mix of funny moments, serious moments, thoughtful moments—juxtapositions throughout. Naturally, it pleases me to please other people. But, at the most basic level, you shouldn’t be making work that you yourself wouldn’t be willing to watch or consume or listen to or look at. Or laugh at. One of the things that’s peculiar about being on the radio is that we work all week and kill ourselves, day after day after day, and then it’s Friday night and we have a satellite feed from 7:00 until 7:59. Four seconds after the satellite shuts off and the show is over, there’s a moment of silence and we all look at each other and go, “Okay, I guess that was a good one.”

BZ: Every comedian I know comes offstage thinking—to a degree large or small—that he or she has just died.

IG: That is not true.

BZ: Well, it’s true of the neurotic ones, which is just about all of them.

IG: I view that so charitably. Is it wrong to have high standards? Is it wrong to think that you could do a set where every joke will hit? Where every moment will be perfect? Is it wrong to dream of totally connecting?

BZ: Wait, I thought nobody laughs in their dreams—unless maybe they’re insane. I do think humor comes from, and therefore touches upon, universal insecurity: You laugh at that which you don’t want to admit to about yourself, but must. Jerry Lewis once said, “Comedy is a man in trouble.” Which leads to the long-held theory: “If I fall down on my face, it’s tragic. If you fall down on your face, it’s hilarious.” The experience of humor is egocentric to some degree.

IG: Well, what you’re saying is also more complicated than that. If you’re the person making the joke in order for it to . . . if you’re the person falling down—

BZ: Well, maybe it’s a visual thing.

IG: But aren’t you really letting yourself fall down so others will laugh?

BZ: I’m thinking more of capturing the accident that is human life: You fall down because you tripped. It’s hilarious—as long as you get back up. You and I could leave this gallery and you could stumble and fall and I might think that’s funny. Of course, I’d be a mean bastard to think so, but still. We can laugh at such moments captured in art, right?

IG: The laugh is a solution to a puzzle. It’s a momentary thing, yes. It happens in a second. Not that art has to be anything in particular. I feel like people should do the work that amuses them and also buy the work that amuses them. Art is high-level entertainment. If it’s working for somebody, then it’s always going to be right.

BZ: Because it’s of a moment, humor tends to be disposable, whereas art will be there forever. It’s eternal. Humor is the best way to recognize what’s wrong with yourself or with the world. It gives us an easier way of accepting our failures, our fallibility. Humor is inclusive. Thus, humor in art reminds us of this longer than a quick joke. The joke becomes permanent. So it has to be a very, very, very good joke.

IG: This also touches on a bigger cultural question: “Is it okay for something to just be fun?” We’re suspicious of fun.

BZ: Art, in fact, is a guilty pleasure.

IG: All pleasure is a guilty pleasure by the time you reach a certain age. You would think that humor and visual art would, and should, go together. Because, in a certain way, the project is essentially the same. It’s trying to create a moment of: “Oh, right! That’s who I am. I get that.”

BZ: Artists follow their feelings and their emotions, but also want us to get inside of them and stay there always. The comedian wants instant approval. A laugh—right here, right now. Then, next! The artist can’t always be right here, right now, because the work doesn’t disappear on a breath. Who knows what’s next? Their rhythms are for them alone.

IG: Isn’t it weird that you have to choose between something that happens right now and something that lasts longer than right now?

BZ: Art is about forever. Then again, there’s the adage: “Tragedy plus Time equals Comedy.” The time element applies nicely to art—like a time-release humor capsule.

IG: In order for something to be funny it has to be really simple, right? And in order for art to be good, you want it to be complicated somehow. Because, well, it’s just cooler when it’s more complicated. Don’t you feel that with the comedians you’ve met there’s such a burden for them to be original?

BZ: Always. As long as they keep it simple. And also complex—making simple points while utilizing their individual styles.

IG: It’s a burden that, in a way, almost nobody else in the culture has to deal with—other than somebody in the cutthroat world of visual art. That’s the way we talk about artists, isn’t it? We separate them from us.

BZ: They are us, though, aren’t they? Just like the rest of us, don’t we all just want to amuse ourselves? Ideally?

IG: Yeah, make yourself happy, make me happy. In art, it’s trying to represent the very idea that anything can happen—love can happen, the future can happen.

BZ: Humor should demystify life.

IG: But art should mystify life. What we want to believe is that art is bigger than life.

BZ: When you look at art, what are you looking for?

IG: Well, coincidentally, I’m just looking for amusement. I’m looking for something that will catch my attention, just like anybody else. I think: “What will grab me?” I wander around from space to space, until I see something and think: “Huh! I don’t know why I like this, but I know I do.” Like most people, I’m not ashamed of having odd or offbeat taste when I have it. If it amuses me, I think: “I’m old enough and life is too short.”

BZ: Taste, like humor, should always be shameless. Human nature should be without shame—which is what all of this art is about, happily enough. You know, Woody Allen wrote: “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not.” Wanna go look at some of the sculptures here and test that?

IG: As long as you’re paying.