: Is there ever a wrong time to laugh at an artist’s work? This is a question that has worried me. I suppose the answer is, when the humour isn’t intentional
. But it’s a tricky business. I remember going to a few early shows by Guy Benfield and thinking the work was really funny. That wasn’t the work’s only virtue — it was also smart and aesthetically adventurous — and I wrote about it. I knew Guy, and he wasn’t that thrilled that I discussed the humour. I got the impression he thought mentioning it somehow downplayed the seriousness of his intent, and I felt chastened by that. But then years later he was doing performance/installation/video works where he’d have a full kitchen built in his studio, fill up the sinks with paint and use an electric guitar as a paintbrush. His deadpan in these works really reminded me of Buster Keaton but it was confusing — is it funny or not? — is it ok to laugh?
: That can be confusing, but I think the most confusing thing for audiences is when an artist’s work is explicitly funny. Look at Marcel Duchamp. His work was intentionally funny and it makes people angry. People don’t want humour in their art — it undermines the bourgeois values they project onto it. Serious cultural values like authenticity, originality, genius. I remember people complained about a work in a solo show by Adam Cullen at Sydney’s Yuill|Crowley Gallery. They were offended by the title, Dead woman can’t say no
. ‘Feminists’ were outraged by Adam’s ‘misogyny’ and wanted the work taken down. What they didn’t know was that I, a proud feminist, titled the work. It was meant to be funny. I think people are worried that traditional values are undermined by humour, which is associated with low cultural forms. This is the problem with how art is understood. It involves a literal mindedness that mistakes people taking themselves seriously for having a serious practice.
: I’ve never been that convinced that Duchamp is funny, or Da Vinci for that matter, but if I were going to think of a favourite Modernist joker it’d have to be Francis Picabia. He used humour as a provocation to the audience, he wanted that negative reaction as much as he wanted to cultivate a sense of collusion with people who thought his work was hilarious. I guess the use of intentional humour in art has as many uses as there are artists. When I think of the work of an artist like Kenny Pittock, I don’t think of the humour in his work in the same way that I feel Cullen used it — Pittock is more gentle, even when he paid tribute to Cullen’s pig’s head performance, in which Cullen had a real pig’s head attached to his leg for several weeks until it started to rot. Pittock did a tribute work where he attached a Subway Sandwich to his leg. It seemed an affectionate tribute, but the humour of Kenny’s gesture deflated the masculine absurdity of the pig’s head.
: Yes, Pittock’s work does prick the masculine ego at the heart of Western art. His work has an earnestness that I really like — the humour plays off this really well, it’s sweet without being soft. I’ve always been attracted to Australian artists who are interested in the essential failure of traditional masculinity. I’m thinking of Paul Saint and also Todd McMillan. McMillan’s pathetic attempt at swimming the English Channel is perhaps the best example of this. I remember reading a review of McMillan’s work by you and there was a line about a monkey that I thought was the funniest thing you’d ever written. It was about how artists performing the most basic tasks get congratulated like they’re freaks in a zoo. You said about Todd’s performances, ‘Look — the monkey’s wearing pants’. It raises the question about the extent to which art writers and particularly critics are able to be funny themselves, especially about work they don’t like. When is it ok to be funny about art?
: As a critic you can try to be funny about art but it always seems more people don’t like it than do, because it’s seen as undervaluing the seriousness of the overall project, and everyone knows you can’t make fun of artists! I wrote a short piece on David Capra’s project at the Museum of Contemporary Art and jokingly said that his dog Teena, who was an essential part of the art, could afford to lose some weight, as David was always carrying her around. I was accused of fat shaming Teena. Thank God she can’t read — or maybe she can. Sorry again Teena! One artist who I think exemplifies a really interesting approach to humour is Kate Mitchell. She’s done a series of works that investigate the tropes of humour, such as the silent movie-style fall into water from a bridge, or cutting a circular hole in the floor with a saw while she’s standing on it, then she falls through. It’s an interesting conceptual approach to slapstick and cartoon jokes that play on the audience’s understanding of how comedy is set up — anticipation, payoff, call back etc. — but it’s still funny.
: Mitchell’s work is really interesting — that meta-level approach to humour. It reminds me a bit of the comedian Andy Kaufman who deconstructed the very nature of what ‘funny’ is while remaining funny rather than pretentious. As far as your comments about Teena, they weren’t very nice, were they? At least you didn’t slut shame her. I’ve found that, as you say, people think you have to take art very seriously, there’s no room to be funny when you’re commenting on art. I wonder if that’s true of other aspects of culture. I guess it is. You probably can’t be funny about the theatre or the ballet. Commentary on reality TV is always sarcastic. Imagine if we could talk about contemporary art and artists like we talk about My Kitchen Rules
: Isn’t sport coverage just a cavalcade of gags?
: Absolutely. Roy and HG, while very funny, were completely unnecessary. The best thing said about Rugby League by a commentator was: ‘Football is a game played in two halves’. I’m pretty sure that was Steve ‘Blocker’ Roach. I guess you are his equivalent in the art world. We need that sort of comic genius brought to coverage of the Sydney Biennale.
: People in the art world love to make fun of it, from the commercial aspects, to inflated auction prices, to blatant careerism and so on. But people are also very serious about the work of art. The hard part of trying to be humorous about art — from the art object to the artist to everything else — is that someone will get offended. It’s not just that you run the risk of being unfunny, it’s that you get people who are fanatically
offended by a perceived lack of respect. I have learned from more than a decade of running The Art Life
blog, and more recently on social media, that the first comment on almost any post will be someone telling me I’m wrong, that I’ve never been right, and that I should just get fucked.
: It’s definitely true that you should just get fucked. But I think you’ve nailed why people in the art world so often lack a sense of humour about themselves and what they do: a perceived lack of respect. When they go to a school reunion and people ask what they do, they have to think twice about how they answer that question. They run the risk of someone saying, ‘How is that a real job?’ They bring that experience into the art world where people take art seriously and so they think they deserve the respect they don’t get anywhere else. As a result, they expect people like writers and critics to serve and promote artists’ interests. Artists have come to think they have the right to determine what should or shouldn’t be said — a situation that sucks the funny out of everything.
: A guy walks into a bar with a dog but the barman says, ‘Hey, you can’t bring that dog in here’. The guys says, ‘It’s ok, he’s my helper dog. He does errands for me’.
‘Like what?’ asks the Barman.
‘Well,’ the guy says, ‘he’ll go and get the paper for me.’ ‘OK,’ says the barman ‘I’d like to see that.’ So the guy gives the dog some money, tells him to get the paper and five minutes later he returns with the newspaper. The barman is impressed.
‘Wow, what else can he do?’
‘He can get my lunch’.
‘That I’d like to see’.
So the guy gives the dog $10 and says, ‘I want a ham on rye sandwich with hot mustard and a coffee with cream and two sugars’.
The dog goes off and comes back twenty minutes later with the sandwich and a coffee.
‘That’s incredible,’ says the barman. ‘Will he do an errand for me?’
‘Sure,’ says the guy.
‘I need a five foot length of plastic piping, a set of masonry screws, some builder’s plastic sheeting and a large tin of white paint’.
The barman gives the dog $50 and off he goes.
Half an hour later the dog hasn’t returned.
‘Where is he?’ asks the barman.
‘He’ll be back’.
Forty-five minutes later and no sign of the dog, the barman is getting suspicious.
‘Is this some kind of a scam?’
‘No,’ says the guy. ‘Just give him another fifteen minutes’.
Fifteen minutes later and the dog still hasn’t returned, so the guy is obliged to give the barman $50. The guy leaves the bar and walks down the street, wondering where the dog got to. He turns a corner and sees his dog with a half eaten cream cake, a bottle of scotch and he’s fucking a French poodle.
The guy is shocked. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’
‘Sorry,’ says the dog, ‘but you’ve never given me $50 before’.
Carrie Miller is a freelance writer and occasional curator who loves getting snacks from the service station next door.
Andrew Frost is an art critic for Guardian Australia and the writer and presenter of the occasional TV documentary on art. His wife once told him he was a mean sober person but a nice drunk.