Humor in Modern and Contemporary Art

Traditionnally, we have this idea that art is supposed to be a serious matter. In this case, comic, humorous art would be on the lowest of ladders. Artworks that make us smile and laugh are nevertheless seen across galleries and art fairs. These include quips, tricks played on the viewer, pile-ups of incongruous objects and so on. Is this phenomenon one of the reasons behind contemporary art‘s lack of popular understanding? Maybe laughing in front of artwork can help, contributing to the joke of which the spectator can only be the victim.

Artsper retraces the history of humor in art across the 20th century, considering its place in the contemporary art world of today.

To begin, it may be helpful to try and define humor… Often described as “what makes us laugh,” it seems that this very definition can vary a lot from one person to another. After all, people don’t laugh about the same things.

Humor is inspired by gaps, the distance between codes, social conventions and preconceived ideas. In this sense, humor is always transgressive. No wonder humor is so strongly featured in art today, seeing as contemporary art has made transgression one of its core objectives.

1. Humor and Art: Dadaism and Ready-Made

L.H.O.O.Q, Marcel Duchamp,1919

The 20th century marks the turning point for humor in contemporary art, as art movements such as Dadaism and ready-made their appearance.

Dadaism is an intellectual, literary and artistic movement that arose from within the chaotic context of the WWI. Dadaism defines itself by its rupture with social conventions through humor, derision and irreverence. Humor is therefore at the foundation of this movement, as its name shows well. “Dada” carries no meaning in itself, but is a simple joke when faced with the absurdity and gravity of the war. Dadaism is all about freedom and creative spontaneity. In terms of artistic creation, it translated to quippy artworks, full of wordplay, ready-mades and artistic performances. It was also known for exploring the role of chance and randomness in the creative process.

Marcel Duchamp joined the art movement very early on. The famous Fontaine started a revolution and can be understood within the framework of the anti-establishment Dadaist philosophy. After all, what is a ready-made if not a trick played on the viewer, with a daily life object presented as a work of art?

2. Humor and Art: Surrealism

La reproduction interdite, René Magritte, 1937

Soon after the arrival of Dadaism, the Surrealist movement followed. It adopted the same light and provocative attitude as the Dadaists, but integrated elements of irrationality and dreams.

As strong admirers of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, the Surrealists advocated for the liberation of desires by looking to the unconscious and its manifestation in our dreams. This ultimately reduced the importance of consciousness and will power.

Surrealist creations were often made from the combination of bizarre and heterogeneous elements. They are the inventors of the “exquisite corpse” game, consisting of a visual or verbal collaborative assemblage, during which participants ignored what others were doing, leading to absurd and humorous creations!

Both Dadaism and Surrealism enthusiastically encouraged humor and play in artistic creation. However, it mostly consisted of a light and childish humour, based on playful unlikely associations in response to the weight of the war years.

3. Contemporary Art and Dark Humor

"La Nona ora", Maurizio Cattelan, 1999
“La Nona ora”, Maurizio Cattelan, 1999

The difference with humor in contemporary art stems from its penchant for darker, black humor. In comparison to the playful humor of the Dadaists and Surrealists, more and more artists resort to dark humour and irony as a weapon in social and/or political protest.

Today, artists claim that one of their missions is to denounce the rules imposed by society and its deviances. As such, consumerism, waste, inequality, environmental issues are recurring themes in contemporary creation.

Some internationally known figures of the art world have built their empires on dark humour art. Maurizzio Cattelan, for example, has produced a body of work that is all together paradoxical, provocative, dark and funny.

His work “La Nona Ora” for instance, is a hyperrealist sculpture of former Pope Jean Paul II who appears to have been hit by a meteor. Here, Maurizzio Cattelan uses humor to call the papal institution into question. Staging such an accident with a beloved worldwide figure is highly provocative and subversive in itself. As was stated before, this is the very reason why this piece is funny.

Maurizio Cattelan’s humour is far from the liberated, playful mindset the Dadaists and Surrealists were praised for. This biting, dark humour aims to disturb the very foundation of society and comes from a kind of profound disillusionment. Maurizio Cattelan once said in an interview that he hasn’t done anything more provocative or brutal than what we see every day around us. Compared to daily news, his works are not all that cynical. In other words, they are simply powerful enough to wake people up.

4. Street Art

Napalm, Banksy, 1994

In a completely different style, but with a similar type of spirit, Banksy is another artist who resorts to subversive humour. In his work, dark humor and irony are employed as weapons for political protest. He criticizes the capitalist economy, governments, authority in general, the military and other social conventions.

It’s no surprise that countries with repressive governments are particularly prone to artists who use humor to highlight the society’s paradoxes. Consider Yue Minjun, for example, and his burlesque work. The famous Chinese artist has made of irony his ultimate device for political criticism. When open criticism is censored, only humor is left to express one’s disagreement.

Humor is Everywhere…

It would be impossible to capture the large panel of artists using humor on some level in contemporary art. However, we can recall that art and humor both exist as an illusion, functioning as a gap between reality and what’s possible. This is why both have the capacity to offer us distance and open our eyes to the familiar reality that surrounds us.

Humor serves different purposes in art. Lighthearted humor often plays with the codes of the artistic institution itself, while cynical humor is used for socio-political criticism. In both cases, humor is far from turning art into something trifle. In fact, if we will refer to Freudian psychoanalysis we see that humor arises from the ability to play, allowing the “principle of reality” and the “principle of pleasure” to coexist.

Humor therefore has the ability to reconcile opposites. Lightness in the face of reality’s gravity allows us to distance ourself from our fears. In other words, humor can work as a defense mechanism against shame, depression, anger and despair.

After all, it’s possible we expect the same from humor than from art: a break from our usual reality, an escape from our daily life, and encouragement to keep on living despite the bad that surrounds us.