Arts writer Jessica Lack looks at how jokes and satire have impacted the cultural politics of art

Marcel Duchamp, 'Fountain' 1917, replica 1964
Marcel Duchamp
Fountain 1917, replica 1964
© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

A condemned man is being led to the gallows on a Monday. ‘What a way to start the week’.

Andre Breton, Anthology of Black Humour

Humour has been a key component in art over the past 100 years. This subversive element can be traced from the early twentieth-century avant gardes, like Dada and Surrealism, through Fluxus and Pop, to the work of contemporary artists today.

Yet relatively little has been written about how jokes, satire, wordplay and humour have had an impact on the cultural politics of art. Which is interesting if you consider that the most influential work of art of the past century is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain 1917, an upturned urinal.

Duchamp was part of the Dada art movement that responded to the atrocities of the First World War with an absurdist humour, mocking the civilization that sanctified such horror.

In 1940 the leader of the Surrealist movement André Breton came up with a term to characterise this ‘gallows comedy’. He called it ‘Black Humour’ explaining that the wit often arose from a victim, with whom the audience empathised.

Perhaps this is why artists are so fascinated by clowns, as a symbol of this dark heart of comedy. Bas Jan Ader was inspired by the silent actor Buster Keaton, whose deadpan performances played on the tensions between comic incident and tragic fate.

Bruce Nauman’s multi-media installation Clown Torture 1987, depicted a clown, smeary in grease paint and lipstick undergoing varying stages of a nervous breakdown. For Nauman, a clown’s mask was a potent metaphor of the fraught relationship between reality and artifice, which is such fertile ground for comedy.

I'm Dead 2010 © David Shrigley, courtesy Collection Hamilton Corporate Finance Limited, Image courtesy Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
I'm Dead 2010

Perhaps humour’s defining characteristic is the ridiculing of the status quo. It is no surprise that artists, who are conditioned to question the boundaries within which societies operate, naturally respond to this. Artists like Paul McCarthy and Jake and Dinos Chapman take great delight in work that plays with what is deemed acceptable in today’s society. (See McCarthy’s TrainMechanical 2003–9, and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Ubermensch 1995, for example).

While there are many examples of art that is rooted in comedy, little of it is actually funny; in fact Nauman’s is distressing. It is an example of how art and humour will always be awkward bedfellows. 

In Henri Bergson’s essay Laughter, he wrote that ‘the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human’ – a statement that the artists David Shrigley and Maurizio Cattelan seem to agree with, with their stuffed animals adopting human characteristics that externalise our doubts and fears. Breton said humour was the mortal enemy of sentimentality. So if you’re hoping for a laugh, ditch the cute kittens and go for the dead dog.

Watch the hangout on Tuesday 24 September 2013 at 19.00 GMT on Tate’s YouTube Channel