3.14 / Sidesplitting

The Cheese Stands Alone (Part 2): Art, Humor, and the Rest of the World

By Jessica Brier May 3, 2012
Thomas Kinkade. Mountain Retreat, 2005; print on canvas; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Thomas Kinkade Gallery, Placerville, CA. 

From the very origins of criticism, humor has been fighting for a spot on the bookshelf. Trace it back to Aristotle’s Poetics, the earliest surviving critical text, which was written in two parts. While the treatise on tragedy survived, the one on comedy was lost. Since then, humor has needed to justify itself as a valid form of catharsis and, by the same token, as a sophisticated artistic device.

Both humor and art are means of self-expression that position an individual in a particular relationship to society, ranging from dissent to connection, depending upon the forms the works take. Satire, as discussed in Part 1 of this series, sets up a social critique while farce makes that critique palatable. Art that incorporates these forms amplifies the intent to deliver critical commentary or to bond with a viewer on a visceral level. Humor, then, becomes both a tool for individualization and a coping mechanism for artists.

The examples offered here are all forms of farce that seek humor in humanity—in failure, in the quotidian and utterly mundane, in sexuality, and in sincerity—and reflect it back to us through art. But the works discussed are also examples of artists attempting to thwart the seriousness of the art world and to cope with the expectation to make serious work. Freedom from the burden of soberness affords artists the opportunity to encourage us to laugh and to add laughter to the list of acceptable reactions to a work of art. By making keen observations about shared human traits and experiences, artists underscore the importance of humor as essential to our understanding of ourselves—and the role of art as a lens through which to see it.

In Part 1 of this series, I set the terms for analyzing works of art primarily through their use of humor as an artistic device, making case studies as examples of three types of humor identified through close engagement with art objects: deadpan humor, the inside joke, and the punch line. These previous examples were rooted in self-reflexivity; they used humor as a device to expand what art could do. The examples that follow speak more to the relationship between funny art and the everyday: silliness, slapstick, or tomfoolery; bawdy humor; and art that is unintentionally funny. These strategies are more clearly related to the monotony of everyday life; we use our senses of humor not just to assert individuality but also to inject texture and joy into quotidian experience. The humor of the everyday is easily identified by a viewer and is for artists an obvious go-to for source material. From a critical perspective, these examples allow for the illustration of humor in art as parallel to the broader importance of humor in life.

1. Tomfoolery: Silliness and Slapstick

The word tomfoolery, defined simply as silly or foolish behavior, derives from tomfool, which originates from Tom Fool—Tom being a common early English nickname for the everyman—a fictional name denoting a man who plays the part of the fool.1 Tomfoolery seems to be the best word we have to describe the most unadulterated embodiment of humor, in the form of silliness and slapstick, as it points specifically toward an action that is foolish or silly. It was the earliest form of humor found in cinema; the silent films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin relied on the highly visual nature of slapstick to convey the absurdity of a situation. The two artists cited here follow that tradition, in which a gesture taken to its extreme or occurring in an unexpected setting creates the humor in the work.

Bas Jan Ader. Fall I, 1970; 16mm film. Courtesy of Patrick Painter, Los Angeles.

Two classic examples of artwork-as-tomfoolery are Bas Jan Ader’s silent films, Fall I and Fall II (both 1970). In Fall I, the artist sits casually on a simple wooden chair atop the roof of a house, presumably his own. After a few seconds of stillness, he simply topples over; the chair slips down the pitched roof and plummets, along with the docile artist, into the bushes. There is no sense of imminent danger or threat to what, at its core, is a violent act. In its very deliberate staging and deadpan execution, it is clear that this is an act of folly rather than suicide. It is also a carefully staged scene depicting failure—a fake accident. As viewers, we are aware of the fine line between intention and accident, a fall and a fail. Fall II depicts Ader cycling along a canal in Amsterdam when, for no apparent reason and without warning, he falls into the canal, bike and all. Ader relies on our anticipation of the fall, knowing that he has supplied in the title the only piece of information we need.

It is important as well to place these works in the context of Conceptual Art, in which artists often engaged in simple but absurd actions, executed over and over to no clear purpose. Absurdity itself was central to this movement. Watching Fall I and Fall II, we imagine the artist painstakingly setting up each shot and rehearsing each “fall” ad nauseam. Our awareness of this unseen staging is significant to the absurdness of the resulting film; we laugh not only at the action but also at the incongruity between its silliness and its deliberateness.

Guy Ben-Ner. Moby Dick, 2000; digital video (color); 12:35 minutes. Courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Slightly more complex but equally lighthearted are the video works of the Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner. Ben-Ner stages video works, often in his own home, using only domestic elements—household appliances, furniture, himself, and his kids—as props, set, actors, and stage. Moby Dick (2000) is a silent restaging of the classic story that stars Ben-Ner and his then-six-year-old daughter, navigating the high seas from a laundry-room-turned-nautical-vessel. The video is absurd and charming in all its homespun details, from the daughter sloppily mouthing subtitled dialogue to the low production value of a home movie. This charm comes not only from our knowledge that this is meant to be an artwork screened in a gallery setting but also from our gently voyeuristic vantage, observing moments of play and tenderness between a father and daughter.

Ben-Ner’s work taps into our enjoyment of recognizing simple, quotidian silliness reflected back at us and foretells the Internet’s facilitation of the melding of performance and everyday life. Twelve years after Moby Dick’s making, we live in a moment when we have millions of windows into private worlds through YouTube. This phenomenon has given rise to a particular kind of humor: one that relishes the absurdity all around us, now caught more easily on smartphones and digital cameras, and elevates the mundane to the status of farce.

2. Bawdy Humor

The sexual realm has long been a favorite territory of artists, as it is closely tied to our notions of ourselves as creatures only variably in control of our desires, emotions, and actions. Over the course of the twentieth century, a number of artists have believed themselves to be uniquely qualified to capture this irrational, instinctual aspect of human nature. For Dadaists and Surrealists, there was an important link between sex and humor: both seem innate and subconscious in nature. (Dorothea Tanning’s oil painting, Voltage [1942], springs to mind: a Surrealist deconstruction of a topless woman, holding an eyeball mask in one hand). Sexual instinct and bodily sensation tap into our most primal selves, as does our sense of humor; both are simultaneously learned and instinctual. The link between sex and humor was central to explaining the very compulsion to make art. If art is irrational and born from the subconscious, then sex and humor were obviously linked to this way of seeing the world.  

Pipilotti Rist’s Closed Circuit (2000) is a video installation that combines a surveillance camera, an LCD monitor, and a spotlight in a bathroom. The camera is installed beneath the toilet bowl so that visitors can sit on the toilet and observe their genitalia in the monitor in front of them, displaying a live feed from the camera. The humor of the piece comes

from its sheer simplicity: it gives us an otherwise impossible view of our most intimate body parts, making us realize how visually unfamiliar they actually are. The incongruity of the experience, combined with the utter absurdity of installing a surveillance camera in literally the most private place possible, is strange, unsettling, and comical. This absurd work underscores how we are inexplicably fascinated by our own anatomy.

There is a complexity to Closed Circuit that points to its Surrealist predecessors; our fascination with our own sexuality is a complicated mix of desire and repulsion. The toilet seems the perfect venue in which to make that point. As a woman, Rist is keenly aware that while all people sometimes sit on the toilet, women always do; there is something unavoidably gendered about this exercise in self-observation. Rist expands the traditionally male terrain of toilet humor to include women by putting men in a typically female position. She also uses the surveillance camera to conflate the public and the private, allowing a viewer to experience an intimate moment with herself in a public place. This voyeuristic element is the cornerstone of sex in art: we are fascinated with looking at each other and ourselves, and art provides an arena for the gaze in many forms. The title of Rist’s piece acts as a punch line of sorts, closing the loop between genitalia and eyes. For Rist, perhaps the humor of the piece is secondary, but the idea of estranging the familiar is integral, and this is key to bodily humor.


Dorothea Tanning. Voltage, 1942; oil on canvas, 11.13 x 12.13 in. The Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive.

Conrad Ruiz’s watercolor painting, Multiple Peaks (2009), embodies the intersection between sexuality and humor in contemporary painting, specifically by illustrating the complexity of male sexuality and identity. It combines a gaggle of snowboarders, “guns” blazing in an undefined environment with a formidable bald eagle, an unmistakably winking symbol of American patriotism. Ruiz’s unusually large-scale watercolors and oil paintings do everything to thwart current expectations of the medium. They feature surreal, colorful, and almost photorealistic sexy men in states of physical exertion and ecstasy, including actual celebrities such as Barack Obama. Ruiz’s paintings depict exuberant, high-camp, and explosive scenes that feel ripped from science fiction or action movies but are completely of his imagination. They always seem to depict a climactic moment in an undisclosed narrative; their sexual content is more suggestive than explicit, conveyed through the energy of the painting and the innuendos of the titles. Ruiz depicts athletes, rappers, and our current president, using them as symbols of masculine sexuality, specifically that of men of color. Ruiz strikes a pitch-perfect balance between sincerely relishing in icons of masculinity and mocking media-supported stereotypes, without simply reproducing them. This balance, in combination with a hilarious title, is the source of the humor in Multiple Peaks.


Conrad Ruiz. Multiple Peaks, 2009; watercolor on canvas; 80 x 80 in. Courtesy of Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

3. Oops, I Didn’t Know I Was Funny (A Tribute to Thomas Kinkade)

One difficulty of writing about humor in art is that, unlike composition or color—which can be analyzed by simply looking at an artwork—evaluating humor as an artistic device necessitates or at least implies an understanding of the artist’s intent. Interestingly, some artists embrace humor for all the reasons I have discussed above while others deliberately omit it from their practice. As Tim Davis articulated in the current issue of Blind Spot, “Most of us navigate the friction of existence with humor. It’s life’s lube. And yet most artists check their humor at the studio door, favoring being taken something called ‘seriously.’”2 When we actively seek out art that makes us laugh, it seems that the more desperately an artist clings to sincerity and seriousness for its own sake, the more likely her work is to be funny by accident.

In this vein, it’s prudent to look at the cultural phenomenon of Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade, who passed away on April 6, was the most-collected living artist in America during his lifetime. Self-described as the “Painter of Light,” a moniker he borrowed from J.M.W. Turner and on which he put an ultra-Christian spin, he branded and marketed his pastel-toned paintings through the Thomas Kinkade Company. His subject matter includes bucolic, pastoral landscapes; scenes of small-town America; and fantastical illustrations borrowing Disney characters. These last are fitting not only with his artistic style but also with the way in which his work has been disseminated, which is to say, in every possible manner. The humor of the work comes from its absolute, unqualified sincerity; Kinkade believed one hundred percent in the impact and importance of art as a form of expression and its ubiquity in the lives of all people. The ideas behind Kinkade’s work include devotion to Christ, the love of family, the comfort of home, and the joy and wonder of nature. Although he has been the subject of many serious essays and books by major art historians and curators, he has also long been the brunt of the jokes of hip, trendsetting artists and critics precisely because of his unwavering sincerity and the clear conveyance of that attitude in his paintings.

In 2004, Mike McGee observed: “If Kinkade’s art is principally about ideas, and I think it is, it could be suggested that he is a Conceptual artist. All he would have to do to solidify this position would be to make an announcement that the beliefs he has expounded are just Duchampian posturing to achieve his successes. But this will never happen. Kinkade earnestly believes in his faith in God and his personal agenda as an artist.”3 McGee points toward Kinkade’s dual status in the art world: on one hand, he was a painter who brought love, light, and tranquility to audiences in many forms; on the other, he was (and remains) a figure of fascination for all of his unintended, but no less potent, value as an artist. The one artist who never cared about being cool got everything artists aspire to: the attention of collectors and critics, monetary success, and real art-world status.

Pippilotti Rist. Closed_Circuit

Pipilotti Rist. Closed Circuit, 2000; bathroom, infrared camera, LCD monitor, cables; dimensions variable. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine, New York.

All art is a delicate dance between intentionality and accident. It’s this dance that situates art objects among the stuff of the rest of the world. The “accidental masterpiece,” to use Michael Kimmelman’s phrase, can be found anywhere and encompass any of the tropes laid out here, and after all, what’s funnier than pure chance? But beyond mere accident is the important fact that humor cannot exist without seriousness, and in turn, seriousness often invites humor. Sincerity is a kind of subset of seriousness and similarly inspires playful subversion or facetiousness. Some people make off-color jokes about grave, horrible things as a way of coping with the horror. Humor cuts tension and eases grieving. Those who seem only to embrace sincerity become the object of amusement or ridicule because such consistent earnestness is virtually inhuman.

In total, this critical exercise has been an attempt to fill a hole in contemporary criticism. By identifying key strategies in the use of humor in contemporary art—deadpan humor, the punch line, the inside joke, slapstick, bawdy humor, and unintentional humor—I have outlined a new framework to consider humor as central to the intent and understanding of the works discussed. In the process, the broader meanings, uses, and significance of humor in human life have surfaced. Humor is a tool that artists use to situate themselves in the history of art and to distinguish themselves from modes of practice that feel disingenuously serious. It is important to understand humor as both an artistic and life strategy toward understanding and relating to the world. Sometimes a joke is just a joke, but humor itself is not to be taken lightly.


  1. Words at Random, The Mavens’ Word of the Day, “Tomfoolery,” December 7, 1998, accessed February 18, 2012, http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19981207.
  2. Tim Davis, “Save Your Receipts,” Blind Spot 44 (Spring/Summer 2012): unpaginated.
  3. Mike McGee, “Thomas Kinkade’s Trojan Horse,” Thomas Kinkade: Heaven on Earth, ed. Jeffrey Vallance (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2004), 31.

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