Or, Why Do Artists Love Fucking, Eating, Breathing, Sleeping, Weed, Alcohol, etc?
As of late, I’m often asked why it seems that the American art world is suddenly embracing comedy. There are exactly three answers to this relatively obnoxious question:
People like shit that’s fucking funny.
The contemporary sociopolitical landscape has become so insane that it’s virtually impossible to address anything without lampooning it.
The question is bullshit and lacks nuance. Artists have always been funny. Why are we expected to explain why the wealthy old white ghouls who run institutions suddenly figured that out?
The Social Value of LOLing
Whenever somebody is trying to set you up romantically with one of their friends, they’ll offer up a laundry list of personal attributes in the hope of predisposing you to liking this person. Almost always, one of those purportedly essential qualities of character is a sense of humor. (“Plus they’re really funny.”) The reason for this is simple: laughing gets us off. Finding someone to be funny implies a kind of social trust that you’ve put in them; you recognize a shared value system and criteria for what is or isn’t funny, and as a result, you share an intimacy with them. In a potential romantic partner, building intimacy is key. It allows you to speak up and ask for what you want in the bedroom, but it also creates a dynamic between you and another individual where you share a unique sixth sense. Partners who are good for each other will both uncontrollably laugh at similar things, and their comedic turn-offs can be equally consistent.
For some, this is getting to see their drunk friend fall off of their bicycle. For others, it’s an agreement that Arrested Development represents a heady, long-con style of comedic writing that network audiences were too stupid to recognize at the time. Or maybe it’s that both find Dane Cook or Daniel Tosh violently unfunny (they would be correct: those two are war criminals as far as I’m concerned). I’d argue that there are few things that people get more defensive about than their senses of humor. And this isn’t necessarily the result of some kind of oversensitivity to personal critique. Rather, it’s much bigger than that--it’s an integral part of one’s social identity that results from a complex mixture of peer influences, exposure to media, development of taste and aversion, familial coping mechanisms for trauma, and far too many other things to count. To put it plainly: our senses of humor are important to us because they somehow make each and every one of us a unique being, while also situating us neatly within a particular social framework of like-minded individuals.
People don’t like people who don’t have a sense of humor. Let me rephrase that: only people who don’t have senses of humor like other people who don’t have senses of humor. Conversely, people who don’t have senses of humor often don’t like those that do. They find them boorish, uncouth. And this is fine, because as aforementioned, people, especially funny people, don’t like people who don’t have a sense of humor. It’s actually quite an easy binary, because even people who don’t think that they’re funny but enjoy comedy are, ultimately, secretly funny themselves. Somebody should draw a flowchart of this. I’m not going to do it because I hate infographics.
So, those of us that like to laugh surround ourselves with those that make us laugh. We crave the pleasure and become attracted to these people, platonically or romantically, a great deal. Artists are indoor kids who are obsessed with approval, so it only makes sense that they’d try to make people laugh. You might notice that extremely attractive artists rarely work in comedy. Because they are attractive, they are already liked, so they spend their time making clean and attractive paintings in order to be even better liked. Many artists who were not born attractive have evolved to make work that is attractive to a sensibility that exists beyond the eye of the beholder. It exists in their guts.
WTF is Actually Happening in the United States rn?
On a more academically critical note, there are myriad reasons why artists would be turning to comedy and stand-up as an approach at present. People are frustrated and pissed off, justifiably so, about multiple social issues around race, economics, misogyny--you name it. Especially in the United States where we're well past the niceties in art that followed September 11th. It's blatantly obvious that we're not "all in this together." The scales are tipped grossly in favor of specific types of individuals, while the rest of the country gets fucked over so egregiously that certain groups are othered to the point where they cannot feel physically safe on a day-to-day basis. The very people appointed to “protect and serve” these people blatantly murder them daily as a result of centuries of institutional racism and a desperation to uphold a white supremacist patriarchy. It is extremely rare that any real justice is seen regarding state-sanctioned violence in the United States.
Are these social injustices themselves funny? Absolutely not. But the institutions that make them manifest are laughable. We all know that comedy, in its basest descriptions, is said to be a social tool of the masses to confront and challenge power. And this is true. There's a feeling of individual power in taking the piss out of something that aims to marginalize somebody. It's why we're seeing such a more diverse approach to comedy and its subject matter. Artists aren't satisfied with it being a white boys' club anymore, thank god. When artists see something they want to critique, they don't wait around for popular culture to validate their opinions.
On a practical note: think about the price of a fucking art studio in New York City. It's entirely cost-prohibitive for most artists. When you don't have a space to make physical work, how do you produce? It seems like a lot of people, out of necessity, are becoming interested in physically performing for an audience because it doesn't require maintaining an expensive studio practice.
From A Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique JK Who Fucking Cares
But why are institutions suddenly recognizing it and giving it a platform? Part of that is likely genuine interest in promoting what artists are doing now. Part of it is figuring out how to monetize it and turn exhibitions into public spectacles with an entertainment factor. Unfortunately, there is no cut and dry motivation, and every curator and every institution has their own angle. Some of them are awesome and supportive, some of them are vapid and lecherous.
Like I said earlier, many artists are born in bodies considered conventionally unattractive. What they lack in socially-approved physical prowess or beauty, they make up for with wit and criticality. It engenders them to an audience, and a natural meeting point of wit and criticality is humor. Much of the art history that influences contemporary American artists is filled with merry pranksters and comedy gold. I’d wager, perhaps, that this is the case as well with a lot of other art histories. But I honestly have no fucking idea because I’m not an art historian and it’s not my job to know every art history. What I mean to say is that artists using comedy is absolutely not new in any capacity. What’s new is an institutional stamp of approval as we see museums scheduling comedy nights, galleries exhibiting batshit crazy comic objects, and people actually asking me to write about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited that the art world, at least here in the States, is finally catching up to the fact that artists are fucking funny. We’ve done it for centuries to attract friends, mates, audiences, etc. The irony that something previously seen as low-brow or anti-intellectual is now being courted by powerful institutions is not lost on me. Andrea Fraser frets and frets over what it means to bite the hand that feeds, and that’s fine. Those of us who are funny don’t really give a shit about “what it means” to continue to act like idiots to the Whitney Museum or a bunch of grotesque megacollectors. We’re too fucking busy writing jokes.
A version of this essay originally appeared as a broadside takeaway at Showroom MAMA's LAFF BOX exhibition in Rotterdam.