My dog’s got no nose: Humour as a contemporary art strategy

The problem.
There is a crisis in contemporary art. The post-modern condition is rife. Like herpes, you may be able to treat the symptoms, but whatever you throw at it, it always has a way of coming back.
I think the problem of creating art within the context of herpes, sorry, I mean the post-modern landscape, is a feeling of impotence. However hard one tries to critique the society, society absorbs and reflects the criticism, creating an affirmation, whatever the original intent. By absorbing criticism so effectively, the culture industry, (which has absorbed what we call the art world) manages to create a situation where there are no outsiders. There is no oppositional stance, at least not one with a voice that can be heard. The global nature of late-capitalist production and the global media subverts any idea of a grand narrative. But still, dominant ideologies exist. These are not founded on nationhood, but on wealth and the changing obsessions of the media.
The ‘bourgeois’ (that term is as confused as ‘avant garde’, which I shall also be using later) absorption of critique has been around for as long as there has been critique for the bourgeoisie to absorb. Andre Bréton spoke of how “Bourgeois society tames its rebels, savouring the poison and calling it entertainment or the avant garde. Thought, art, even spiritual revolt can be reduced to commodities”.i He was right then, and it only got worse. I suppose he is thinking of the pretence of authenticity gained by affecting communist ideals (something Breton himself could easily be accused of!). Think of more contemporary examples: Che Guevara T-shirts, Nike’s proposal of some sort of existentialist life plan through their ‘just do it’ campaigns and the relentless comodification of black culture, specifically the violent rebellion of hip-hop and rap. I went to see a show of ‘street art’ at the Baltic, one of the pieces involved an upturned truck with, ‘Smash the State’ spray painted in huge letters on one of the walls.ii If it was an ironic gesture to point towards a dialogue concerning officially sanctioned revolt, then it has done its job. I do not think it was.
But then, what is so important about subversion? This piece has been written with the assumption that subverting the dominant ideology is always good. Take my earlier example of the comodification of black culture through hip-hop. Often, hip hop is a way out of an endless cycle of poverty. Not all rappers are or were obsessed with money, but let’s not kid ourselves: one of the end goals of many rappers (or any musician struggling to ‘make it’ from a background of poverty) is to have money. To be successful normally means subjugating yourself to people whose main interest is making money. The same with ‘street art’. The show at the Baltic seemed to me like a cynical affirmation of a culture obsessed with novelty, and a culture obsessed with choosing sub-cultures to put in a little white room and poke. But it was the first international survey of ‘urban art’ and to the artists involved I’m sure it represented a turning point in their culture. Does anyone really want to be an outsider for ever? I suppose there is a difference between being accepted and actively seeking acceptance. The contemporary art world accepts most viewpoints (apart from maybe any kind of right wing leaning) and however cynically it prospers from this tactic, it does allow a certain freedom for artists. It is easy for me to sit and criticise the art world for the way it works, but I can do this safe in the knowledge that my criticism is sanctioned completely by the art world. Where do you think I learnt the term ‘Culture industry’? In fact, some of my ideas concerning the problems that I am writing about are discussed in the book, ‘Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism’ by Hal Foster. This is not some photocopied magazine distributed by revolutionary artists. This is a coffee table book surveying contemporary art. The round table discussion at the end presents a very distressing view of how art is developing. They talk about Guy Debord’s idea of, ‘the integrated spectacle’ and how, ‘if there are artistic practices that still stand apart from this process of homogenisation, I’m less convinced than ever that they can survive, and that we as critics and historians are able to support and sustain them in a substantial and efficient manner, to prevent their total marginalization.’iii
All of my dissection and critique is officially part of the art world. It is post-modernism's sublimation of the oppositional we have to thank for this. It is a good thing, in some ways. Artists are no longer dismissed completely if they do not fall in line with the latest manifesto, but then post-modernism’s manifesto is that there cannot be any manifestos. We no longer have specific mediums, we only have pluralism. Nothing is right, nothing is wrong. Everything can be fine, as long as we can sell it, and we can sell everything.
I think the idea of impotence is relevant to the odd place we find ourselves in. I am even finding this essay quite hard to write. What is the point of writing 6000 words of institutional critique when at the end, I will just get a slap on the back and a decent mark? Well, partly because if I don’t write these 6000 words of institutional critique, I won’t pass my course, and partly because I am hoping to find a way through, a way out, even.
I am getting ahead of myself though (especially concerning the slap on the back and the decent mark). I think I have made it clear that the art world is ready to re-define anything in order to make it an affirmative statement. But why does this make artists impotent? If they have the opportunity to say anything they want, does this not empower them? Well, yes and no. Benjamin Buchloh writes how, ‘the antinomy between artists and intellectuals on the one hand and capitalist production on the other has been annihilated or has disappeared by attrition’.iv Now, obviously, I’m not calling on artists to become Communists (although I think revolutionary facial hair definitely needs a renaissance). But there is a problem here. Post-modernism allows us to hold any viewpoint we like. We do not have to align ourselves with a particular ideology to make ourselves heard. Unfortunately, an ideology of capitalist production still unifies the decision makers in the world. Artists working within this post-modern context, do not feel it is their right to attempt to unify people of divergent viewpoints. That unification smells like domination or subjugation of someone’s belief systems; and that smells bad. Also, post-modernism is a relativistic place, you can’t even really be sure of why you hold your own beliefs, especially beliefs concerning other people, so how can you possibly make a definite statement about anything without undermining your own viewpoint at the same time?
That’s just it. You can’t. If you are attempting to work within the paradoxical constraints of post-modernism, you can’t make any statement. You can pastiche and self-reflexively comment, but you can’t ever go beyond that, beyond yourself or your own experience. So impotence is the inevitable symptom of post-modernist art making. Frustrated, fruitless masturbation characterises the contemporary art of play.
Is that it then?
Can artists continue to make art, within this context of futility? Well yes. Look at Bill Viola. He makes faux spiritual experiences for a culture that has denied God. Jeff Koons makes big colourful dogs that look like small colourful dogs and Damien Hirst, who is one of the richest artists on the planet, still churns out spot paintings for a few grand a go. This market is perpetuating itself, it has a system and that system is working perfectly. The problem is, liberal individualism contains a myriad viewpoints and aims, but capitalist art production (and capitalism as a whole) contains a completely autonomous aim above and beyond the people involved in it. A system has evolved that makes choices based on money regardless of varying opinions of the individuals involved. Individually, one can opt out of the system. But unless every single person involved in the art market agrees to stop making money (all at the same time) the market will be necessarily taken over by the people remaining within it.
Opting out/opting in.
So there is no way of destroying the system that has been created, and we are not opting out and going to live in a hut on the moon. We must, then, be opting in?
Well, yes and no.
There we have it, we have our get-out clause. Yes and no. There are no clear oppositions anymore; things aren’t as polarised as simply in/out or yes/no. We can both be within the system and without it. Critiquing from the inside. Yes, it is assimilated by the system, but no, that is not the be all and end all. Free interpretation of ideas remains a constant. People who see your work as an affirmation of the institutions of art see it as such, but people who see it as a criticism, a revelation of hypocrisy or malignance in the institutions are still turned on to the work and the ideas. The artist, meanwhile, can hold any of these ideas within the work simultaneously.
The problems with this are two-fold. Firstly, this is just a positive re-jigging of a post-modern concept to give us an escape route out of a situation that has been defined by post-modernist thought, and secondly, how do you maintain that contradictory status without looking like a complete hypocrite? While making art, you can maintain the reality of multiple viewpoints and interpretations, but viewers still want to have a coherence to the work, otherwise they will be confused and angered by it. Like a drunk attempting a cryptic crossword, they will kick over the table and go and play the fruit machine (which is equally confusing but has prettier lights).
The first problem is unsolvable, but the nature of post-modernism is that some problems are unsolvable. It contains all the antinomy, dichotomy and paradox within its acceptance of multiple viewpoints. So as long as we are in the realm of post-modernism, then we are permitted to manipulate it for our own purposes. Every other road ends up in Nihilism. A friend once got so depressed about the inexcusable pointlessness of making art that he found a builder’s hat, wrote ‘nihilist’ on it and spent an afternoon underneath a table painting a piece of wood a darker shade of black than it already was.
The second problem finally brings me to the crux of the piece. This was not a 2000 word introduction though. At least, I hope not. It is necessary to set out the problem we face to be able to look at the strategies that can be adopted to overcome said problem.
Solutions or, more problems.
There are many ways to deal with the slippery problem of post-modernism. For some it is to retreat into modernism, becoming obsessed with process and technique as an end in itself; a personal journey through your chosen medium. The problem with this strategy is how self absorbed one becomes. There is no self-awareness or impetus to comment on the world around you. Its insularity is its attraction for those who would practice it, but it does not face the problem down, simply backs away from it, waving its craft as some sort of crude defence. Another technique is to embrace the idea of spectacle, attach some kind of meaning to it and let us be wowed by the bright colours and big pictures. Bill Viola chooses this path, attaching a non-specific, new-agey spiritualism (Buddhism lite) to his video pieces, while upping the volume of his art. Not just in physical terms of sound, but in terms of the loudness of the ideas being projected. We let ourselves be overwhelmed by his art. He allows us to project all our lost religion upon his pieces, all our reverence for long lost ideas of afterlife and the soul.
I suppose Matthew Barney interacts with spectacle in a similar way, but uses sexuality (as opposed to spirituality) to reel the viewer in. The dry shock tactics of affected, freak show sexuality draw us into his films of high-budget: his films are the most expensive art films ever made - high stimulus spectacle. There is a lot of theory that surrounds Barney. It is interesting to read David Hopkins in his ‘Dada’s Boys’ essay praising Barney for his films which, Hopkins writes, ‘suggest a way in which men might playfully, rather than mournfully, be reconciled with their masculinity’.v (Hopkins, 2006) I understand the context in which Barney might be said to be reclaiming a sense of masculinity, but he does so through the application of wealth and domination. This is a complete affirmation of everything the (male dominated) art world stands for. I would also say, it falls rather into the stereotypes applied to high modernist American art, namely that it is based on nothing but affirmation of personal expression, at the expense of self-reflexivity and humour. It is unfair to classify Barney simply in terms of his nationality, but there are echoes of macho-men such as Jackson Pollock, stumbling around with his cigarettes, casual violence and paintbrushes. Matthew Barney simply swaps painting for film making, and doesn’t bother with the feigned introspection.
So, Humour?
Matthew Barney’s work strikes me as humourless. It seems to ignore a basic human function. In almost all situations, there is humour. That is why it strikes me as an odd way for Hopkins to end his Dada’s Boys essay. I believe Dada’s legacy only really makes itself apparent in the humour, the self-reflexivity shown by the artists influenced by Dada. Matthew Barney’s work is interesting in terms of his exploration of masculinity, but his work embraces the absurd, while ignoring the hilarity of the absurd. It unselfconsciously explores ideas of maleness.
I think the humour I really enjoy in art is the self-conscious humour, the self-reflexivity that Hopkins writes about. Douglas Gordon’s piece, ‘Self-portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe’ (1996) explores male identity, in a lazy, jokey way. This would be a problem if he weren’t doing it self-consciously. He knows that he is referencing all these people, without ever really looking like any of them. He also knows that the viewer can make all these lazy associations with him because they are so obvious and easy. The point is, where Matthew Barney silences us with his views on masculinity, Douglas Gordon opens up discussion. He only does this by being self reflexive. You are not sure where the point is, or whether there is one. He points towards one, but is he just taking the piss? Christ, if I met Matthew Barney I’d be so scared I didn’t ‘get’ his work I probably wouldn’t voice an opinion at all, but everyone can project an interpretation upon Gordon’s work precisely because you aren’t quite sure what his take on the whole thing is. It is almost his lack of authority that lends authority to his work. He isn’t giving up his viewpoint, but he knows that his viewpoints aren’t coherent enough to bother with an answer, so he just gives us a succinct version of the question (although, we probably have to define that question).
In terms of this ‘opening-up’ style of humour, one of my favourite artists is Mark McGowan. McGowan is a performance artist who works in London. His most famous piece is probably, ’Monkey Nut’ (2003) in which he,
pushed a monkey nut along the road for 7 miles with his nose, starting at Goldsmiths College in South London and ending at Number 10 Downing Street where he handed his nut in, he was protesting against student fees.’vi
That is funny. But when I first heard about it, I didn’t know who I was laughing at. Was it the stupid artist, attempting to make a political statement, and failing miserably? Was it the papers, for their consistent obsession with defining contemporary art as non-art absurdity? Later, I spoke to a friend about the piece. Apparently McGowan had not rolled the nut at all, simply posed for the cameras at the start of the day, had some lunch and did some shopping, then arrived back at 10 Downing St. at four o’clock for the cameras. Obviously the press knew it wasn’t real, but it served them perfectly. The 6 O’clock News had their quirky story, the tabloids had their eccentric artist to laugh at, and Mark had his story all over the national press. Now who are we laughing at?
Henri Bergson wrote a brilliant book called, ‘Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic.vii In it he proposed that laughter was a social conditioning tool, a way of correcting people when they differed from our ideas of normality. In traditional satire this is true, we direct our laughter towards those who have done wrong, hoping for them to be embarrassed into changing their ways. As Bergson puts it ‘to intimidate by humiliating’ (1935, p198). McGowan’s piece seems to contradict all those ideas. We can laugh at the newspapers for their obvious and prejudice portrayal of the artist as idiot outsider, but McGowan seems to have played up the absurdity for their sake. We also have to laugh at the artist for the lack of correlation between action and projected meaning. Rolling a monkey nut along the ground with your nose is a convoluted way of protesting against student fees.
What happens with this piece is an opening up of all the issues it touches upon. By being such a ridiculous protest, we start to look at the nature of protest itself. What does it mean to protest? How do we decide to engage with political issues when nothing we do seems to effect any change? Only by engaging so fully with the press does the piece allow us to examine the press. The Turner Prize always gets a similar style of story, but how much of that is unwilling attention? McGowan was not cynically using the press to get his piece all over the news. The piece became real by being in the news. The art world co-operates in its own sideshow status, simultaneously denying and embracing its own futility, as perceived by the media. The artists in the Turner Prize are unaware of this, but the promoters exploit the free publicity for all its worth. Although the action seems irrelevant to the issue of student fees, the piece also brings that to the attention of the national media. We are wrong-footed by the piece. It fails as a protest against student fees, but that was never really the main objective, and ironically, by failing it succeeds in gaining attention, and therefore does raise awareness of the issue. The only reason ‘Monkey Nut’ works is because of McGowan’s self awareness while planning the piece. If the meaning of art always ends up being constructed through multiple interpretations, then meaning can only be defined by the artist when he or she takes this into account. By using the media to create the piece, he effectively opens the media up for dissection and critique, without having to directly involve himself in such a mucky business as direct criticism.
Earlier I wrote that the reality of multiple interpretations and contradictory ideas within art was somewhat complicated by the viewers need for coherence. We may recognise that in reality there is no fixed meaning, but we sure as hell like to be presented with one in a gallery.
The stand up comic Jimmy Carr wrote a book called, ‘The Naked Jape’.viii It is also written by Lucy Greeves (who appears to have done all the proper, academic research for the book). I would not normally read anything by a man whose sole job seems to be to present clip shows on channel 4, but I would like to point out the only reason I bought it was because one of the mini reviews on the back said, ‘Like most people, I hate Jimmy Carr. But this book is actually ok’ (Walliams 2006). Its research is broad and mostly lightweight, but it does contain a nice chapter concerning the idea of the mythological trickster. It seems most cultures have a trickster somewhere in their pantheon of myths and legends. They all seem to be highly sexualised, neither human nor godlike and take delight in ‘inverting the status quo, for no purpose other than mischief’ (Carr and Greeves, 2006). They are also often gatekeepers, ‘monitoring the physical boundaries of the societies that conjured them into being’ (Carr and Greeves, 2006). This translates into their metaphorical role as boundary keepers in terms of ideas and morals. They are pushed to the edge of normality, and filter the chaos and anarchy back to us in the form of jokes. This anarchy in art could be said to be the reality of an infinite variety of interpretations and meaning, but this anarchy would be impossible to understand. Artists can use humour to filter the chaos of post-modernism into digestible contradictions. Digestible contradictions are those that can be talked about meaningfully. They are not necessarily problems to be resolved, but paradoxes that can lead to discussion.
Humour as a defence mechanism.
Maintaining contradictions can be a positive aspect of an artists work, but it can also be seen as a defence mechanism. It defies criticism by slipping between contradicting viewpoints. If you point out a problem with a piece of work, the artist can simply move the meaning of the piece to deny the problem’s validity.
There is a thin line between self-reflexivity and self-obsession. By constantly evaluating what you say as you say it, you can lose the ability to comment on anything other than yourself. It is hard to know when this becomes a problem. Martin Creed has been doing it for years, but occasionally it can be successful. Occasionally it just disappears up its own arse. His is a hard path to take, a sort of ironic formalism. I watched a documentary about Martin Creed.ix He was directing a curator on how to display his piece, Work 79: Some Blu-Tac Kneaded, Rolled Into A Ball, And Depressed Against A Wall. With this work we have to be aware of the irony before we can even begin to engage with the it. There is not much difference between a man telling someone how to push a bit of blu-tac onto a wall ironically, and a man telling someone just how to push a bit of blu-tac onto a wall.
This work does raise issues about what art is and how it functions, but it does so in a simplistic and limited way. In fact, most of Creed’s work raises the same point. What is the least you can do to effect a change in an environment? He attempts to make minimal impact with his work, he even has a formula for it, ‘1+1-1=0’, and yet his style references the entire artistic movement of minimalism. The obvious criticism would be that the work is too predictable. For example, in his art-band he plays a song called ‘Numbers’. The lyrics, in an ironically, un-ironic1 fashion proceed numerically upwards from 1, but for Creed predictability would not be a criticism, it would be a tangible aim of the work. That, to me, feels like more of an escape route. Where does it get us? The persona he has created is entirely safe from criticism, but never reaches out beyond the realms of self-reference. The works are circular, pointing us back towards a non-interpretative appreciation.
It is ironic that this is done with the technique of identity branding, being able to see a piece of work and knowing it is, ‘A Creed‘. For such a thoroughly post-modern artist his creation of a single, well rehearsed persona seems like a fixed state, unwilling to change, and unable to. He has backed his little art puppet into a corner, and the strings are wrapped too tightly around his fingers to let go.
A denial of fallibility is in evidence when humour is used in this way. You cannot criticise Martin Creed’s work because he has done all the criticism for you. Unfortunately (for the artist, not the clever, infallible critic…) this technique is self defeating, because it is the easiest to ignore. When we listen to Creed talk about his work, it elicits little more than an art laugh. The little sniff that says, ‘how clever all of us are, we all get the joke!’. When Creed gets it right his work is actually rather beautiful, but I suppose he is just scared to embrace the idea of beauty as a possible outcome of his work. The formality of minimalism is evident in all of his pieces, from blu-tac on the wall, to lights going on and off, to a stack of tiles in the corner of a room. He makes us appreciate the space we stand in, but at the same time lets us enjoy the ridiculous assumptions and outcomes of formalist thought. But while we can allow ourselves to enjoy his work in this way, his persona will not allow us to do so.
The bigger picture.
It is time to ‘get real’, as some people say (not me). The problem with art is that it is essentially functionless. It does not feed people, it does not save lives or teach children to read. The issue with this nihilistic outlook is that if we want to, we can extend this pointlessness to all human actions. I recently made the point to a friend that it was quite chauvinistic of humanity to attempt to stop climate change, as it just shows how self important we are as a species. Now, this comment is technically correct. If all our decisions are based on a survival instinct and we live in a Godless world, then our entire existence is nothing more than a short lived, chance happening upon a tiny piece of rock, so everything is pointless. Ahhh, Nihilism.
How does that help us? Well… once we have been talked down from the window ledge we can acknowledge this reality and move on. If our entire existence is just some long, futile, existential wank, then the futility of art within the bigger picture is relatively insignificant. This is the paradox that everyone lives within, everyday. To attempt to stop discussion about art, or to kill it in some dadaistic splurge is a futile strategy within a pointless context.
I’m not saying that all artists have to constantly deal with the paradox of existence, but it does help to be aware of it. To be making work that only deals with art critics (and to a wider extent, art itself) is to engage in the making of truly pointless art.
The Germans.
Freud wrote a book on humour.x It is less well received than his other books, perhaps because people did not expect a German man obsessed with his Mother to be so funny. (Sorry, that is what is known as ironic racism. I hope.) I think it is definitely true that people are a little uncomfortable with the idea of humour being analysed. Dissecting humour is an essentially humourless task, and no one dissected it in a more disturbing way than Freud.
He does see the funny side of jokes, as it were, but he also ends up talking about making and laughing at a joke as a kind of psychical expenditure. He talks about the relief of a punch line, being released from the state of confusion inherent in the ‘joke-work’ (Freud, 1905). For the listener, this is a catharsis of sorts. They are brought through an absurd situation, and then have it dissipate before their very ears as the punch line is told. They laugh at whatever the joke was about, and then go on with their day. Now, Freud spends a lot of time defining different styles of jokes and attempting to link jokes to dreams, but what interests me is his idea of psychical expenditure. The listener of the joke gets to laugh at the joke with very little effort involved, in fact, as is so often said, the less effort involved in understanding a joke, the funnier it is. Brevity is not the soul of wit, but it is its personal trainer, or maybe its life coach. It makes it sharper, quicker and more pointed. To make a joke, however, involves a hell of a lot more expenditure of psychical energy. The joke itself will come to light without much thought, but quickly sculpting it, editing it and then telling it is a lot of effort. Once you have told it, your laugh is often the quietest, maybe because of the effort involved in producing everyone else’s chuckles. Perhaps this is why people often become compulsive jokers, constantly chasing a laugh that they personally will never experience. We are back to the idea of the mythological joker, patrolling the boundaries. An outsider, looking in towards what they cannot experience.
Laughter is always based on novelty. Jokes are funniest the first time you hear them, and the same with art. If art is succinct enough to be funny, then it is probably shallow enough for enjoyment to disappear after a first viewing. If this means the art work is short lived, then the artist has to chase the novelty factor. I have nothing against novelty as such, but I suppose it can be seen as a problem of a society that has rejected its history and now focuses only on that which is new. I think it has its place though, that which is new always references that which has come before it, so the only problem with novelty is when it fails to interest a viewer. In our case, when it isn’t very funny.
The problem here is not necessarily the production of a work that is a one liner, such as Creed’s often pertains to be. It is more the lack of adaptability, if a work’s meaning moves beyond the original joke the artist has to recognise that fact, and allow it to do so. Style and content should be fluid, not held back by the need to make the punch line as funny as possible.
Humour. A way in or possibly, a way out.
While researching this piece, I spoke to Mark McGowan and John Smith.xi John Smith is an artist/film maker who used to work with the London Film Co-op. His early films are very influenced by Structuralist theory. Whilst he does produce films about the process of making films, he approaches the subject in a looser, funnier way than a lot of his contemporaries. He struck me on the phone as being very relaxed about his work, and the interpretation of it. Now, that must partly come from the fact that he is an experienced and well exhibited artist, but it also strikes me that a lot of the ambiguity in his films is placed there by him. It is made especially apparent with the humorous approach he takes. Apparently, one of his funniest films called ‘The Black Tower’ was shown in Japan and was perceived as a disturbing psychological portrait of a man on the edge. The narrative itself does deal with a man who slowly goes insane, chased by the eponymous tower that apparently follows him everywhere. But, there is definitely too much humour for the film to be taken as simply that. At one point, the narrator is afraid to leave his house and lives on choc ices, and then later, for the vitamin C, strawberry mivvie ice lollies. It is also (although I was unaware of this when watching the film) a pastiche of a horror film. The narrator’s voice is dry and calm, as though retelling a story of only anecdotal interest. The horror felt by the character is expressed as merely incidental to the odd situation involving the moving tower. I must point out that these are my interpretations. The only fixed interpretation that John confirmed to me about the film is the idea that the tower is obviously not really moving, but just being filmed from different angles and using different framing techniques. This is made obvious and the viewer gets to be in on the joke. We are manipulated by Smith’s work, and yet we can only be manipulated willingly. We are always aware that this is a camera, and this is a film. That was the only time he seemed confused by the reception of his work. Apparently, with the advancement of digital effects, some people now think that the tower has been placed on different backgrounds using a computer. Since the film was produced exclusively by John, in 1985-87, that seems like an unlikely technique.
I think Smith’s work definitely points towards a way of making art that is self aware, while retaining a real sense of place within a wider context, and not just an art environment. He has always (until his recent films) worked within an area of East London, and that really gives his films a sense of place. Not only in the sense of actually being located in an area, but also in terms of a mental space. He makes jokes that laugh at the ambiguous nature of reality itself. I suppose that awareness came to him through his Structuralist work. Film is a medium. By working with film you are submitting yourself to that medium. However much Structuralist film dissected the process of film, it was always going to be working within film. Ironically, Structuralist film making is sort of a genre in its own way. Smith is aware of this, and lets it work to his advantage. He talked about how he doesn’t, ‘think you can get away from manipulation within films’. By not seeing that as an obstruction to making work, it becomes part of the work. In his films you can laugh at the idea of the omnipotent director, or the stupidity of horror films, or our obsession with abnormality in mental states, but at the same time you can partake in them. Submit to the directors fantasies, take part in a horror film and revel in the breakdown of the man in ‘The Black Tower’.
The Beautiful Paradox.
Smith’s films are a great example of the digestible contradictions I wrote about earlier. The awareness shown in his work does not stop the contradictions inherent in the making of films, or in creating anything that we call art, but it does allow the viewer a greater awareness of those contradictions, while still being enjoyable. This essay can be as well written as it wants (and hopes) to be, but unless it is enjoyable to read, its point will be lost. Let us not dwell over the paradox of the terms ‘enjoyable’ and ‘art theory’.
It seems to me a question of acceptance - the art machine is not necessarily unstoppable and there are ways to work around the over-production and novelty obsession of the market. If you get too caught up in criticising it, you are actually submitting to its importance. Also, you end up with your face firmly stuck in irony mode. What I love about Mark Mcgowan’s work is his ability to move between irony and sincerity, often within the same piece. I don’t know how serious he was about protesting against student fees, but he was a student at the time and he raised the profile of the cause, while still making a meta-protest that commented on the nature of protest. All the while engaging in a completely ridiculous task that was never going to make him look as clever as my interpretation of the work suggests.
Much of what I have been writing about is also to do with the viewer. All of these artists can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, but it is important for the viewer not to be lazy. Work that provides a spectacle, or a fixed meaning just feeds that laziness. Sometimes I feel artists like Creed are insulting the laziness of the viewer, but to make that point over and over again seems to hold more than a little contempt for your entire audience.
It is obvious that theory and interpretation shapes a work’s meaning just as much as the artist’s intention, and I believe in more integration between production and reception. In McGowan’s work this is interaction with the media, the general public, or more recently the water board in his piece, ‘The Running Tap’, in which he planned to leave a tap on for a year to highlight wastage of water by Thames Water. In Smith’s work the interaction is that of knowing manipulation by the film maker, and willingness to be manipulated by the viewer.
Humour in art is a strategy to introduce viewers to complex subject matter, or a way of reaching a wider audience. It also the characteristic of an artist who is self aware, and aware of the paradox of making art, without letting either of these things consume their work.
1 The irony in the context of most of Creed’s work is contained in the lack of irony when it comes to correlation between title and content.
i Europe: After the Rain. Dada and Surrealism (1978) Directed by Mick Gold [Videocassette] London.Arts council of Great Britain.
iiSpank the monkey’ at the Baltic centre for Contemporary art, September 2006-January 2007.
iii Foster H., Krauss R., Bois Y., Buchloh B. (2005) ‘Roundtable: The Predicament of contemporary art’ in Foster H (ed), Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. London: Thames and Hudson. p671-679
iv Buchloh, B. as above, pp676
v Hopkins, D. (2006) Dada’s Boys: Identity and Play in Contemporary Art Fife: Fruit market publications
vi McGowan, M. (2003) Mark McGowan Available at: (Accessed: 03 December 2006)
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viii Carr, J. and Greeves L. (2006) The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes St Ives: Penguin Books
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Additional Bibliography
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Bonami, F.; Spector, N.; and Vanderlinden, B. (2000) Maurizio Cattelan London: Phaiden
Hodgart M. 'Satire'. World University Library, London. 1969.
Hopkins D. 'Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction.' Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2004
Kafka F. 'The Trial'. Penguin, London. 1995 (1925).
Kehily M. J.; Nayak A. ‘Lads and Laughter: Humour and the Production of Heterosexual Hierarchies.’ (1997) Available at: (Accessed: 19 October 2006)
Lockyer, S & Pickering, M (2005) Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour Basingstoke: Houndmills
Martin, L. (2001) 6th Caribbean Biennial Italy: EBS
Motherwell R. Introduction. ‘The Dada Painters and Poets‘, ppxxiv. George Winttenborn inc. New York, 1951
Mulholland N. (2004) 'Awkward Relations'. Tate Papers. Available at: (Accessed: 29 September 2006).
Parker, C. (2002) John Smith: Film and Video Works 1972-2002 Bristol: Picture This