Art, Ha Ha Ha

Is it appropriate to burst out laughing in an art gallery?

I’m not sure whether the Palaeolithic artists had a GSOH (for all I know the Chauvet cave paintings might have had early Homo Sapiens rolling around lolling) but it’s clear to see that as long as there’s been art, there’s been humour in art.

The Greeks did it, the Romans did it, the Medieval lot did it, the Renaissance painters did it, the Dutch masters did it, the Dada-ists made a point of doing it. Abstract Expressionism dripped humour; Pop Art thrust it into your face. In the post-modern era, it was pretty much verboten NOT to put a wry, subversive twist into artworks; Maurizio Cattelan has made a stellar career taking the piss out of the art world.

This all came to mind when I saw Julian Wild’s statue Salvia Corrupted, a photo of which we used to illustrate this column last week (see below), about the Lewes District Artwave Festival. A tangled angular web of pink steel eventually thrusts itself vertically into the sky, covered in shiny golden blobs, mocking the militaristic Norman reverence of Lewes Castle and the giant Russian cannon it shares a space with, in the Gun Garden of the Barbican Tower. Brilliant stuff.

It also came to mind when I saw the postcard publicising Marco, Jacob and Martha Crivello’s wonderful Outside In | Inside Out exhibition at the Continuum Gallery in Lewes, also part of Artwave, (pictured above). In front of one of Marco’s beautiful painted experiments in colour, bringing to mind Rothko (but playing a very different tune) is a little pile of salvaged wooden blocks, the top one precariously balanced on a rusty old nail. The shape of the blocks echo the shapes in the painting: perhaps they are making a statement about Armageddon, by thrusting the horizon apart. That they are prone to imminent collapse shows that Marco is simultaneously doing a rare thing for an artist: laughing at the seriousness of his own practice.

I was leading a stag party round Lewes last weekend: in the daytime we did a dry Artwave crawl, in the evening we did a very wet pub crawl. Not all of the participants were habitues of artworld settings; a lot of the laughter that came from certain stags was of the mocking, ‘my nephew could have done that and he’s three’ type. The humour, for them, was incidental rather than intentional. But humour, nonetheless.

Humour in art can be satirical (think Gilray), moralistic (Hogarth), sociological (Teraoka), surreal (Dali), bawdy (McGill), juvenile (Koons), enigmatic (Magritte), irreverent (Shrigley), shocking (Duchamp)… you can’t find humour in every artist, but you can find an artist who employs every different form of humour (though you may have to dig).

The point, I guess, is this: for many people, the word ‘art’ is associated with seriousness, reverence, pompousness. They might picture scrawny men in berets, scratching their goatees, making serious pronouncements, perhaps in a French accent. In any given year, over 50% of the UK population haven’t set foot in a gallery or museum, put off, I reckon, by this image of the art world as being pretentious and over-serious; the situation isn’t helped by the impenetrable jargon-filled language that is often used to describe the medium.

The Artwave Festival, and other open-house-style events in a similar vein, are a great antidote to all this. By taking art out of its usual environment, and into pubs, and gardens, and living rooms, and shops, it makes it more accessible to the public. It makes it seem like part of the fabric of their ordinary life: if you can’t take the people to the art, take the art to the people.

A lot of the work on show at Artwave is, in one way or another, humorous. And whether viewers are laughing with the work – as one might hope – or at the work, they are laughing; a ‘momentary anaesthetic of the heart’, according to philosopher Henri Bergson. They are, for that short moment, transcending their resting state of seriousness, whether with an inward grin, or an outward splutter. And that can only be a good thing.

So, yes, in my opinion, it is appropriate to burst out laughing in an art gallery. Just make sure you do it in front of an appropriate artwork.