Whatcha Looking at Funny: Humor Taken Seriously

by Emma Magee

Art has always been known to cause controversy and it is only natural for it to do so. Since art serves as a means for expressing opinions freely and it is obvious that people do not always agree with one another, it makes sense that controversy would surround the art that dares to analyze societal topics. However, are the serious issues being scrutinized by artist always reflected seriously in the art itself?

The answer is no. Many times throughout history, artists have used their art as an outlet to openly ridicule the people and objects around them, and sometimes even themselves. Similar to the way artist use colors, texture, and brushwork to express their emotions, the comical subject matter of their artwork speaks volumes about the underlying message that the artist is trying to convey. The humor is meant to be thought provoking, asking viewers to think beyond the hilarious subject matter or playful technique in order to gain perspective on a bigger issue.

Yet, sometimes the perspective the artist is displaying is not a flattering one. Many groups of people, governments, and actions have been satirized, and this mockery has not always been accepted well by the ones being mocked. All around the world artists have suffered the consequences of voicing their opinion. Their punishment goes beyond a simple slap on the wrist. Artists have been persecuted and exiled by their own societies and in extreme cases, artist have been sentenced to death. This is a very serious reaction for what appears to be a joke, right?

So here are the real questions: Is the humor in art ever really just a joke? Or is the silliness presented in the satirical art recognized today always alluding a bigger message that is not as funny as it appears to be? How seriously should we take the humor in art? The answers to these question can one be answered by one group of people: the viewers.

Ancient Egyptian Art

Nubia Relief.jpg

Satire has been present in art as far back as the Ancient Egyptian Civilization. Since Egyptian art is normally associated with things such as hieroglyphics and pyramids, it can be hard to detect the satire within the works of art during this time. However, the humor lies within the subject matter itself. It is how the subject matter is depicted that is satirical and reveals the true sentiments of the artist and the Egyptian culture at this time. This limestone trial piece, shown above, was dug up at Tell el-Amarna during an excavation campaign by William Flinders Petrie in 1891 [7]. This relief sculpture was made during the Akhenaten period in Egypt, which was known to be small period of time when Egyptian artists strayed away from typical linear Egyptian style of art and used more curvy lines and rounded figures. This figure is meant to depict a Nubian man, and not in a flattering way. Many of this man’s features are exaggerated in a humorous way that is similar to the way caricatures are drawn today. The sinister smile of the figure is very unsettling and unattractive, and the “protruding lips” [5] and “curly hair” [5] add to comical sense of this image. Though the features of this figure are silly and cartoon style, they are actually harshly mocking the Nubian people. Egypt was conquering many places during this time and was not accepting of the other cultures that they reigned over. Because of this, Nubians were considered to be lesser people in Egyptian society. This piece is a perfect example of how the humor and ridicule depicted in an artwork can represent something larger than comedy. A depiction such as this would have been considered widely offensive to the Nubians, since the mockery represented feelings of oppression from the Egyptian people [5].

Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Flemish Genre Painting

Netherlandish Proverbs.jpg

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is recognized as one of the silliest painters known during the Renaissance. This painting, Netherlandish Proverbs, made in 1559, is a genre painting that represents about a hundred dutch proverbs that were a part of dutch culture at the time, some of which are still used today [3]. Each of the character acts out a different proverb, however each proverb is reenacted through the same absurd and comical manner. One cannot help but laugh at some of the crazy actions of the peasants, such as the peasant in the bottom left hand corner who is literally beating his head against a brick wall. Even the landscape of this painting has a lighthearted sense, as the landscape looks like it could be straight out of a children's novel [1]. Yet, this playful setting and subject, although seems innocent, does reveal Bruegel’s perspective on society and their behavior, whether Bruegel meant to or not. Bruegel depicts everyday peasants acting stupid and this reflects that Bruegel felt as though the masses of his society could be senseless at times. Even though Bruegel isn’t specifically addressing a social issue, that does not mean he is not making a commentary. A topic as simple as everyday life still can be express ridicule, even if it’s humor is very cheerful.

Honore Daumier and Political Cartoons


One of the more recognized forms of satirical art are political cartoons. Political cartoons are infamous for offending people through the ridicule of sensitive topics, which is exactly why they were created. This exact political cartoon, Gargantua by Honore Daumier, made in 1831, particularly caused a huge upheaval between Daumier and King Louis-Philippe of France, the man depicted in this cartoon. It is obvious that Daumier is purposefully making fun of King Louis since the King’s head is shaped like an ugly pear. Also, the King is seen as disgusting and extremely overweight as tons of townsmen and women lug heavy piles of money into the King's mouth. Needless to say, Daumier gets his message across, that he deeply resented the King's “salary” that was 180 millions Francs, a sum that was “37 times more than Napoleon Bonaparte or almost 150 times the amount the American President received” [2]. The King did not take this satirical cartoon as a joke however, as Daumier, and other artist that tried to publish cartoons similar to Gargantua in newspapers, were “sentenced to six months in prison and 500 francs fine plus charge of the legal costs” [2].

Dadaism and the Ridicule of Art


So what can be concluded so far is that yes, people have been ridiculed by society in art and yes, they have gotten mad about it. However what about ridiculing the art itself? Does art ever get the same scrutiny from artists, even though they are the ones creating it? The answer is, OF COURSE! Artists have not shied away from mocking art, and have even used their own art to mock the very existence of art, which just sounds ridiculous in and of itself. This is most apparent in the Dada movement, an art movement that began after World War I, and that challenged “the notion of a work of art as something beautiful made by a technically skilled artist” [6]. One of Marcel Duchamp’s most famous works of readymade art, The Fountain, made in 1917, is simply a urinal signed "R. Mutt 1917" placed upside down. This simple piece of artwork “inspired heated argument among the society's directors” [8] and was rejected even before the exhibit was open to the public [8]. It seems a little ludicrous that a urinal could cause such controversy, but that is because Duchamp did not place this urinal on display simply to get a laugh. Yes, the urinal is intended to be perceived as humorous and slightly gross by the audience, however it is also meant to confuse them into thinking about his bigger message. Duchamp picks a completely random item like a urinal in order to prove that something as arbitrary as a urinal can be accepted as art. Therefore if a urinal can be considered art, what cannot be considered art? What defines art? Is there suppose to be a definition to art? These are all questions that Duchamp purposefully provokes his audience to consider when he decided to present his humorous display of The Fountain.

Present Day: How Seriously Do We Take Humor?


As this post comes to an end, it is important to reflect on the ways we approach satirical art produced, as it is still a relevant topic today. Recently, Charlie Hebdo, an artist for a French satirical magazine called “Je suis Charlie”, was brutally murdered after drawing some satirical pictures of the prophet Mohammad, something that is extremely forbidden in the Muslim faith [4]. This tragedy sparked a huge world-wide debate on freedom of speech, a freedom that a lot of people now take for granted easily. People are still asking how seriously is the humor in artworks going to be taken, and this event proves we as a society still have a long ways to go when it comes to accepting the satirical humor and controversy that will always surround art.

Works Cited

[1] "Bruegel, the Dutch Proverbs." Khan Academy. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2015. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/northern/antwerp-bruges/v/pieter-bruegel-the-elder-the-dutch-proverbs-1559.

[2] "Gargantua." Gargantua. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2015. http://bir.brandeis.edu/handle/10192/3930

[3] Wisse, Jacob. "Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/brue/hd_brue.htm (October 2002)

[4] "Je Suis Charlie? Attack Sparks Debate on Free Speech Limits." The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Jan. 2015. Web. 08 June 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/01/10/world/europe/ap-eu-france-attack-free-speech.html?_r=1

[5] Melikian, Souren. "Finding Ancient Egypt's Sense of Humor." The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 May 2011. Web. 07 June 2015.

[6] "MoMA Learning." MoMA. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2015. http://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/dada

[7] "Sculptor's Trial Piece Showing a Nubian Head | New Kingdom, Amarna Period." The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I.e. The Met Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2015.http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/view?exhibitionId=%7b84492AE0-E217-43C5-85C0-

[8] "SFMOMA | SFMOMA | Explore Modern Art | Our Collection | Marcel Duchamp | Fountain." San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2015. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/25853