“You should make art that’s funny…” a friend suggested to me.
“…Ya know, funny like YOU are.” This was the first (and only) time someone has suggested that to me. Was it a compliment or a curse?
Okaaay, I thought, putting the suggestion in the back of my mind. It seemed valid enough. After all, I’m definitely better at being funny than being an artist. Humor is a strength of mine…but to make art that’s funny is another thing entirely.
At the time I was knee-deep in my kokeshi-doll-army phase. I was fresh off of my first museum show at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, so I wasn’t exactly looking to switch it up.
“Funny?” I wondered. “What’s more fucking funny than hundreds of traditional kokeshi dolls? Dolls are hilarious!” Then I thought perhaps I can title these paintings in haiku and can call the show 5-7-5. That would be funny, right?! After all, the kokeshi dolls in my paintings weren’t fucking or fighting so they HAD to be FUNNY. If any kind of art can be funny, it has to be doll art—second only to clown art. (Thanks, Red Skelton.)
Lady artists, such as Sherry Markovitz and Phyllis Bramson, are favorites of mine. Their work uses dolls for subject matter, but is it that funny? Not really. I’ve never heard someone remark, “Oh, that Sherry Markovitz, her art is SO FUNNY. The way that beaded Kewpie Doll was giving birth to a Howdy Doody, shit’s hilarious!” More common is, “Once again, Sherry Markovitz takes up the theme of life, death and rebirth in new dolls molesting each other. Genius strikes again!”
Perhaps in a different social context—if a man or painted something like Phylis Bramson’s playful-yet-filthy oils—they could be funny? But when a woman paints a panda fellating a geisha, it’s damn serious business!
You’d think Jeff Koons‘s art would make him the King of Comedy. But he’s not.
If Koons’s work was a practical joke, we’d all be laughing at the huge shiny metal balloon dog. But as it’s not on the street, next to a fire hydrant, with a yellow puddle next nearby—and instead at LACMA—it’s VERY serious. Laughing at it will get you escorted out (so I’ve heard). The only thing funny about Koons’s art is that he gets other people to make it. Intern, slave, whatever.
There are the times when art is funny, but ONLY to the artist herself.
Like, “Tee-hee-hee that hair on my sculpture is really my lover’s pubes and the rouge on the cheeks my menstrual blood…and someone bought it!” That is hilarious, yes, but only for a few people.
There HAS to be some element of the inside joke to Nick Cave’s many Sound Suits. He HAS to have mixed sperm into his PVA glue, or sneezed all over one of his magical creations. SOMETHING that makes him chuckle to himself when some chump grad student is galloping around in it. Then again, he has never made one that exclusively makes a fart sound, and I have to wonder why not….
Perhaps funny art doesn’t run rampant in some sort of School of Funny Art, because funny art doesn’t sell?
Come to think of it, I’ve never really been to an exhibition intended to make the viewer laugh. I’ve experienced plenty of so-crappy-it’s-funny art. I have experienced ironically funny art. And I-had-to-think-about-till-it-became-funny-and-I-kind-of-chuckled-on-the-bus-ride-home-art. And it-makes-me-feel-funny-in-my-groins-or-uncomfortable-in-my-skin art. But I’ve never truly experienced thigh-smacking, side-achingly funny art.
I got to think that art isn’t funny because art galleries and museums are fully unfunny places. Is a padded cell at an asylum for the criminally insane funny? NO. So its kissing cousin, the maddeningly stark white art gallery, can’t be either. Perhaps if wine and cheese were replaced with laughing gas and poppers, then the art would be funny.
Hands down, performance art has to be the form with the greatest funny potential.
And if one living performance artist is equivalent to the great Richard Pryor, it’s Marina Abramovic. After all, what’s funnier than performance art? Oh, I dunno, maybe a performance art INSTITUTE! No, wait! A KICKSTARTER to FUND a performance art institute. That shit’s funny!
But no one laughs at it.
Here’s what’s truly TRULY FUNNY:
People DONATE through a KICKSTARTER to FUND a Performance Art Institute! (I’m not even going to link to Lady Gaga’s supporting video). But no one is laughing because it’s serious. It is seriously because it is Art.
When Marina stares into someone’s eyes, that should be funny (when it’s not happening to you). So why is no one laughing?
I’ve been to five yoga workshops and/or retreats where we were commanded to stare into a stranger’s eyes. At one workshop in particular, after moments of deep, intense eye staring, we were then expected to act like this person was your mom and they just gave birth to you! Oh, I laughed at that…only later, after Savasana.
I think about David Blaine, and his master illusions/endurances. People come out to mock him mid-epic feat. But no one DARES heckle Marina. It’s confusing to me. David Blaine must be fueled by the negativity. I have to assume that Marina uses her docents like bouncers: if anyone acts up or gets loud THEY’RE OUT!
I’ve come to realize that there are two kinds of people in the art world: cool people and fun people.
Cool people take it all in very seriously, and fun people are just along for the ride. Cool people talk about how they were in a gifted program in High School, having gone to school “out East,” and connect with art on a cerebral level. Fun people talk about their favorite John Waters movie and the crap they obsessively collect, and connect with art from creative charge it gives them.
It’s hard for cool people to find humor in art, even if it’s intended. Fun people tend have more success with this, as well as more success annoying cool people. I have found that cool people are most annoyed by James Franco. He is the kryptonite to coolness.
Here is my vulnerable and tender personal truth:
I try to be funny at all times. It’s my way of keeping interested and curious in a sometimes bland world. I roll through life crafting jokes for myself, not to make others laugh. If you do find me funny, I take you by the hand and never let go. Laughter is my litmus.
I have found outlets for my funny: my tweets and drawing scribbly mocking cartoons of other people. I’ve always been this way, a seeker of humor. As a child, I used to paint rocks with gold spray paint and sell them the next day at school as “gold nuggets.” Now I have to wonder, was this my greatest performance art piece EVER? Have I jumped the art shark? I still haven’t really incorporated funny into my paintings…except when I sell a piece of paper with pigment on it for $1000. That shit’s fun-knee!
Just to help you out, here is some guidance regarding humor in art.
Funny: Rude animals.
Not funny: Plastic surgery as art.
Not funny: When other people make your art for you. AKA interns AKA my daughter.
Funny: Tiny penises whenever they are where they shouldn’t be, like on girls.
Not funny: Any everyday object cast into metal, such as a wooden shipping pallet, card board box or cigarette butts.
Funny: Camel toe in sculpture.
Not funny: Lead, chemicals and toxins in art.
Funny: Lickable wall paper. (Thanks, Mr. Wonka!)
Not funny: Performance art that splashes me with food, wine or feces. (If it splashes YOU, then it becomes funny. If a video of said incident goes viral, back to not funny).
Funny: Piñatas on fire or filled with toothbrushes and travel six tooth pastes. Sorry kiddies.
Not funny: Dressing with prosthetic limb or mask like an old person, homeless person or monkey.
Funny: Dressing like the artist, and pretending to be them at their own art reception.