There is a strong case to be made that what we recognise as “high” art and laughter are entirely mutually exclusive: take the famous ‘Laughing Cavalier’ by Frans Hals found in the Wallace Collection. The title was bestowed on this anonymous sitter by tittering Victorian punters, and it’s been known as a gimmick painting ever since, famed more for that daring moustache than its representation of the Golden Age of Flemish painting. Tate Britain examined the art of comics and cartoons in its 2010 show ‘Rude Britannia: British Comic Art’ in which humour played an enormous role not for its own sake, but for political satire: (Gilray, Spitting Image, anti-Fascist Wartime imagery) with more obvious, low humour used for popular postcard images in the ‘Carry On’ vein. The Hayward tackled the phenomenon head-on with its show of contemporary international artists examining laughter in high art: ‘Laughing in a foreign language’, in which precisely nothing was funny or remotely witty.
Post the era of religious art, high art emerged as a lofty discipline, respectably expressing the high emotions of tortured artists: unrequited love, historical events, that dog waiting patiently for his master to come home in the most saccharine of Victoriana. This continues today, with many high artists terrified to be seen as anything other than deadly serious. Tracey Emin’s preponderance with the legality of her anal sex life is tiresome and trite: it is extremely telling that she complained heartily at the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe’s portrayal of her sitting on the toilet. The sketch itself is a wonderful antidote, Emin shown turning her head at us happily in the most embarrassing of situations. It would have been fine, she said, if she had been shown throwing up in the toilet, or staggering over it. Her career depicts a lack of control, artfully controlled with extreme care and attention to PR. And god forbid anyone, least of all herself, actually laughs at her.
The only realm where humour creeps into contemporary ‘high’ art – for there is none simply for the sake of, perhaps due to the sophistication of audiences and the crucial marketability of works – is when the art world pokes fun at itself. There are precious few ‘high’ artists who dare to do this, and often the controversy and deafening sound of the outraged establishment masks the fact that these pieces are pretty bloody funny. Paul McCarthy hit the spot with his giant green butt-plug erected in the middle of the stuck-up Palace Vendome. Jake and Dinos Chapman were brilliant when entering the Turner Prize with a bronze blow up doll seemingly entirely to piss off the eternally pissed off crusty Brian Sewell (“If it ain’t Renaissance/Dalí/Anthony Blunt it’s shit”).
The Turner Prize is a case demonstrating this point well: David Shrigley, long deemed a ‘non-artist’ by traditionalists for his reliance determinedly on humour over pathos using stick figures – minimalist pieces which appear more as amuse-bouche than ‘proper finished artwork’ – submitted an ultimate piss-take in the form of a giant, crude nude figure in a mock life-drawing class as his entry. The figure periodically pissed into a bucket, with deliberately crude proportions and a wanton lack of anatomical accuracy. This showed more willingness than any to highlight how ultimately ridiculous the stuffy traditionalism of art and the Turner prize can be.