3.4 / Of Friction, Of Location, Of Context

The Cheese Stands Alone: The Trouble with Funny Art

By Jessica Brier November 1, 2011
Ilene Segalove. Today’s Program: Jackson Pollock, “Lavender Mist”, 1950, 1973; collage of offset lithographs. Courtesy of the Artist and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

L.H.O.O.Q.”—Marcel Duchamp, 1919

The problem with being funny

In 2007, I attended a screening of films by Mike Kelley at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). The program included selections from Day is Done (2005), introduced by an art historian (who will remain nameless here). I was excited to get another dose of Day is Done after experiencing it two years prior at Gagosian Gallery in New York. The scholar’s introduction was indisputably articulate, but I was shocked and disappointed that he made absolutely no mention of what, to my mind, is the most powerful aspect of Kelley’s work: it’s hilarious. I wanted to hear insights that acknowledged and complemented the humor of the art in question. This experience made me wonder: Do scholars and critics deliberately avoid writing about what makes funny art funny, and if so, why? Is it just difficult for critics and scholars to take humor seriously? Or are writers simply lacking the language to describe humor as a stylistic and substantive device? If so, how do we fix this?

One of my theories about this scholarly oversight is that, in the current landscape of art criticism, it is simply out of fashion. Not unlike talking about beauty in contemporary painting, it seems that analyzing a strategy as basic as making someone laugh is perhaps considered shallow and/or too subjective. Contemporary art criticism, particularly the kind found in the pages of Artforum or Frieze, is steeped in theoretical analysis solely interested in conceptual content.1 To the casual-but-curious reader unarmed with an encyclopedic knowledge of art theory and a good dictionary, Artforum may as well be a medical journal on neuroscience. But I’m not here to demonize the current state of art criticism—that would be another (possibly more boring) essay. I point this out in an effort to isolate why criticism in particular has ignored the humorous.

Funny works of art have immediate visceral impact—laughter is one of the most primal physical reactions we have as humans. The best works of art reveal more complex meanings and layers of humor the longer we engage with them. Scholarship too often functions to distance us from our own gut reactions. It’s not enough to simply observe that something makes us laugh as a side note. It’s time writers caught up with artists, making room for the discussion of gut reaction—in this case, laughter—and reuniting it with the conceptual.2 

Rather than trace humor chronologically through art history, I’m attempting to take the first step by looking at humor on its own terms, skipping around in time, in hopes of making connections that were unlikely under other critical circumstances. That said, it’s important to set the stage with a nod to the historical precedents set by artists in the early twentieth century.

Key to understanding the tactics of contemporary artists are the strategies of Surrealism, Dada, and Fluxus, as well as the satirical precedents set by artists like Francisco Goya, George Grosz, and John Heartfield, who were equally important as social critics as well as artists. Surrealists interwove puns, bawdy jokes, and punch line–esque titles into their work, and the relationship between text and image was central to their use of humor. Dada continued to fine tune these methods with its own particular flavor and tone. Marcel Duchamp famously championed the idea that art could be play as much as work and could strive to make people laugh. Satire was a key strategy in art between the two world wars and created a bridge between the cartoon or caricature and fine art traditions.

Mike Kelley. Day is Done, 2005; multi-media installation; installation view, Gagosian Gallery. Courtesy of the Artist and Gagosian Gallery, New York.

In her introduction to The Artist’s Joke (2007), Jennifer Higgie connects early uses of humor in art with postwar movements like Situationism that sought to close the gap between art and life.3 Artists have long recognized that humor is a tangible link to the “real world,” something instinctual and—at its most basic—unlearned. This device allows viewers to access works of art more directly, to understand them on a level far deeper than the analytical, in the same way readers respond to a text that makes them cry. At their best, funny works of art function on multiple levels; there is a guttural reaction that acts as a hook, leading to prolonged viewing and attention and ultimately yielding a deeper connection between art and audience. Humor rewards those who linger and tends to draw us closer and sustain our attention.

To demonstrate this phenomenon, I've identified six major strategies drawn from close examination of works I find particularly funny, which have stayed with me over time, using them as case studies. Here, I offer three key strategies: deadpan humor, which I argue is the major manifestation of satire in contemporary art; the punch line, or the use of text in visual art; and the inside joke.4 I’m analyzing singular works on the terms set above and will continue this experiment in the next installment of this series with another set of strategies: pure silliness and slapstick; bawdy humor; and art that is unintentionally funny. This reading will be necessarily incomplete; my analyses are meant to answer the questions, “Why is this funny?” and “How does humor function in this piece?” Most other information is left out.

1. Deadpan Humor, aka “Critical Joy”

Let’s first go back to Mike Kelley’s Day is Done (2005), an immersive audiovisual experience that transformed the entirety of Gagosian’s New York exhibition space into a dream-like high school gymnasium decked out for a Lynchian school dance. The installation included thirty-two video chapters and a cacophony of signs, sculptures, disco balls, lights, and makeshift partitions. Visitors navigated this maze to find scenes restaged and often totally reimagined through photographs and video from images found in yearbooks and in Kelley’s hometown newspaper. Kelley was interested in identifying “performance types,” or rituals performed by students that could be decontextualized to be understood in new ways.5 But this gesamtkunstwerk worked on another level: the restaged rituals of high school students were presented in an atmosphere that felt like the aesthetic equivalent of a hormonal explosion. In his review of the exhibition, Ben Davis describes the hilarity of this environment: “With its carnival atmosphere, ADD pacing, calculated irreverence, snarky quotations of junk culture (you gotta admit, a soulful portrait of Garth Brooks staring at a nude breast is pretty funny) and unabashed kinkiness, Mike Kelley has finally made high art as good as MTV.”6 The humor in this work is multivalent; it is both unabashedly silly and, at the same time, darkly satirical—somehow exuberant and deadpan at the same time.

The connection between deadpan humor and satire in the art of the past sixty years is an important one. This connection is exemplified in Day is Done. When asked whether he finds the project funny, Kelley responded: “I think that’s the joyfulness of it. But then it’s a black humor, it’s a mean humor, so it’s a critical joy. You know, it’s negative joy… But that’s art I think—for me at least.”7

This “critical joy” is also expressed, in a totally different tone, in Stina Wirfelt’s Oasis (2007), which captures, with uncanny simplicity and brevity, the late-night atmosphere of a Swedish roadside restaurant called The Peacock. The stage is set by a nearly silent panning around the restaurant’s exterior and interior; we see the palm tree constructed of neon lights, flashing monotonously but exuberantly at passersby, and then the lone customer quietly sipping coffee among a sea of empty tables. Cutting the silence with an abruptness that makes me laugh every time I watch it, Sean Paul’s “Temperature” suddenly blasts overhead, and absolutely nothing and no one in the room changes or responds in any way. On her website, the artist explains: “The video is about making connections between things we perceive but usually ignore, a suggestion that everything we hear can be seen as a soundtrack to what we see.”8 The incongruity of sound and image, as in Kelley’s Day is Done, is the crux of the humor in Oasis, taken a step further with a title that underscores this idea that we can be jolted out of our complacency by combinations that seem impossible until we notice or construct them.  

2. The Punch Line: Pairing text and image to get a laugh

An even more pared-down sense of humor is demonstrated in Ed Ruscha’s Ed Ruscha Says Goodbye To College Joys (1967), which took the form of an Artforum advertisement. Starting in the 1960s and ’70s, Ruscha and his contemporaries set an important precedent of using what I’m calling the punch line: the comedic effect created through the pairing of a particular image and word(s), neither of which would necessarily be funny on its own. In Ed Ruscha Says Goodbye To College Joys, Ruscha pokes fun at himself while also thumbing his nose at Artforum, taking up precious ad real estate. By referring to himself in the third person, Ruscha establishes a decidedly flat tone, mocking the importance of a newspaper or magazine headline—or the title of an artwork, for that matter—by assuming its sense of implied self-importance. But part of the piece’s black humor is the sense we get as viewers that this isn’t just a joke; Ruscha really is mourning the loss of his careless bachelor days, real or imagined. The “critical joy” that Kelley spoke of is, here, turned in on the artist himself, then presented wryly and rawly to the world.

Ed Ruscha. Ed Ruscha Says Goodbye to College Joys, 1967; Artforum advertisement. Courtesy of the Artist.

The often comical pairing of text and image is arguably a hallmark of the California strain of Conceptual art that flourished in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Ruscha relished the interplay between pithy text and straight-ahead images. He embodied a sense of humor that he found illustrative of his environment, namely Los Angeles (there’s that “critical joy” again). Conceptual photography in California is, in retrospect, defined by its particular sense of humor—one that is dry, self-reflexive, and shrewdly observant.

The work of Bay Area photographer Bill Owens also exemplifies this particular sensibility. Owens’ work straddles the genres of documentary and conceptual photography, using titles to inject his photographs with a three-dimensional personality that text or image alone can’t convey. A perfect example is Owens’ photograph I was a lawyer before I became a private detective. This is a more interesting way to make a living. I've been in business for more than twenty years now and have worked on just about every case imaginable (1975), from the series Working (I Do It For The Money). This series documents individuals in the context of their professions; the titles quote them explaining what they do for a living. The combination of Owens’ knack for finding quirky-looking subjects and his signature impassive style, combined with rich titles, gives each portrait a tangible personality and sense of humor. The particular tone of this recipe is as unique to Bill Owens as his laugh.

Working today in the lineage of California Conceptualism is Walter Logue, whose painted, sculptural text pieces employ elements of graphic design in the use of text for comedic effect. Logue’s Holy Shit (2001) is as straightforward as it can be: two identically sized pieces of wood are painted black with the words “HOLY” and “SHIT” painted on each, respectively, in perfect, white sans serif block print. The precision functions to make the piece look completely manufactured (mimicking signage in much the same way Ruscha mimics a headline), and the color scheme and text treatment give the piece a flat tone, in total contrast to the expletive it bears. This use of graphic design is a classic conceptual prank, which functions both to heighten our awareness, as viewers, of the relationship between form, message, and concept—and not unrelated, to get a laugh.

3. The Inside Joke

Integral to the understanding of humor as an artistic strategy—and perhaps most obvious to those not accustomed to looking for art that’s funny—is the inside joke, or the use of insider humor to heighten the meaning of an artwork. This tactic generally requires an art-educated viewer in order to be effective. Mark Tansey’s Innocent Eye Test (1981) is a great example of the inside joke because it is a funny painting about art criticism. The title is borrowed from the nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin, who coined the term “innocent eye” to describe an unbiased, uneducated viewer, such as a child. Tansey takes this a big step further by imagining a cow as the innocent eye, standing solemnly in front of a painting in a museum, surrounded by what we imagine to be psychologists and art historians. For added cleverness, the painting itself is an innocent eye test: anyone can appreciate that a cow standing in front of a painting (of a cow) in an art museum is funny. For those with an art education, the joke is twofold.

Mark Tansey. The Innocent Eye Test, 1981; oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Artist.

Unexpectedly, Ilene Segalove’s Today’s Program: Jackson Pollock, "Lavender Mist" (1974) acts as a perfect foil to Tansey’s Innocent Eye Test A lesser-known contemporary of Ed Ruscha, Ilene Segalove juxtaposed found photographs with her own, often using seriality to illuminate absurd tropes in advertising, media, and daily life. Here again, the inside joke is found in the act of looking as subject, this time in one of Segalove’s conceptual photographs. Segalove has constructed a fictitious scene in which airplane passengers look intently toward what would typically be a movie screen at the frontof the cabin—replaced instead by a Jackson Pollock painting. Segalove pokes funat art in a few different ways. First of all, replacing a movie screen with an abstract painting seems absurd because it implies that these captive viewers—literally trapped in their seats—will be forced to gaze at the painting for the duration ofthe flight (or at least the length of a feature film). The piece makes both a serious point and snide quip about the impossibility of sustained viewing when it comes topainting (despite artists’ best intentions). Segalove is also playing with the high-low binary, territory that is rife with humor because it emphasizes the absurdity of one without the other.

Mike Mandel’s Untitled (“Baseball-Photographer” Trading Cards) (1975) is an ingenious set of 134 baseball trading cards that feature photographers and curator-types, simultaneously lampooning and celebrating them as art celebrities. Many of the artists pictured were good buddies of Mandel, who has a card himself, while others were art world elders or authority figures at the time. Each “player” is depicted with a goofy facial expression, posing as a baseball star, giving the project as a whole the endearing patina of self-deprecating humor.9

Now that I’m knee-deep in this undertaking, I realize—at least in part—why it is so rarely attempted: it’s no easy task to explain why something is funny. Analyzing and explaining humor necessitates extracting something more broadly useful from an experience that is, by definition, highly personal. My choices of works discussed here probably say more about me as a viewer than about the particular examples chosen. But once we begin to unpack the reasons why, we can understand a work in an entirely new way. In the next installment of this piece, I will continue to mine recent decades of art practice to further identify the strategies of funny art through my own subjective view. The case studies to come fall under strategies that broaden the discussion beyond the art world and will help situate the importance of funny art within the more expansive role of humor in life.


  1. This trend in art criticism arguably mirrors a similar trend in art education and, consequently, art practice: the pendulum has swung away from basic technical mastery and toward the heavy emphasis on theory and conceptual weight. But this is an entirely separate subject.
  2. I know very well that this is not the first piece of writing on the subject of funny art; a number of exhibitions have been organized around this idea. In 1982, Marcia Tucker’s exhibition at the New Museum, Not Just For Laughs: The Art of Subversion, identified a number of artists, including Mark Tansey, who use humor as a thoughtful tactic to hook viewers. In 2000, the exhibition Making Light: Wit and Humor in Photography at the Loeb Art Center at Vassar College identified this trend among photographers. Ralph Rugoff’s 2008 exhibition Laughing in Foreign Language at the Hayward Gallery showcased humor as an international trend. Some good scholarship on the subject has also been done, namely the 2007 anthology The Artist’s Joke (ed. Jennifer Higgie), which chronicles artists’ writings on and demonstrating the various uses of humor in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But while Higgie’s introductory text sets the stage for this compilation of artists’ voices, she does not offer a critical analysis of funny artworks based on the categories and strategies she identifies. Writers like Dave Hickey, Geoff Dyer, and Matthew Collings also deserve mention for their humorous art world musings.
  3. Jennifer Higgie, ed. The Artist’s Joke (Cambridge, MA: Mit Press & London: Whitechapel, 2007), 14.
  4. There is significant overlap between these strategies; many works employ more than one type of humor and work on multiple levels, but I have tried to identify the key strategy for each of these case studies. My choices are inevitably a reflection of my personal tastes—a necessary hazard of the topic at hand.
  5. Art21 Interview with Mike Kelley, http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/kelley/clip1.html (Accessed October 8, 2011).
  6. Ben Davis, “I Want My Mike Kelley,” Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/davis/davis11-16-05.asp (Accessed October 8, 2011).
  7. Art21 Interview with Mike Kelley.
  8. Stina Wirfelt, artist’s website, http://www.stinawirfelt.net/index.php?/projects/oasis/ (Accessed October 10, 2011).
  9. Aaron Schuman, Mike Mandel: 'The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards', May 2010, http://www.aaronschuman.com/mandelarticle.html (Accessed October 11, 2011).

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