Art has been a medium for the expression of everything from societal issues to artists' own inward emotions. However, has it also been used to bring humor and laughter to people's lives? Certainly, but this aspect of art is downplayed and not as common in visual art as other emotions such as sadness and joy. Perhaps it is true that artists have always worked for their own satisfaction. Art is a way to channel one's feelings and to express them in a palpable way. Surely, humor has popped up here and there. Surely, there have been artists who have found therapeutic properties in the act of inserting jokes and gags into a work of their own creation.
There are so many different types of humor. Some are clever, some are silly, slapstick, simple, complex, intellectual, or immature. The focus here is not on comics, which have classically been used to evoke laughter in the viewer/reader. The focus is on works outside of comics and comic books that were still meant to be funny. It is not difficult to look at a painting (or a work of any other medium) and see that the artist's aim was to provoke a chuckle. More often than not, these little jokes are put into works in underhanded, clever, and even sneaky ways. An example of this can be found in the Bosch below. Artists have been known to be sly like this. Lots of humor found in art history is difficult to interpret.
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Jokes are found increasingly in modern art. For example, Canadian artist Stephen Lund has been creating art by cycling around his city and making patterns and images using the highlighted route:


Lund's work is just one example of the creativity that goes into funny art.
Many people say that comedy in itself is an art form. Standup comedy takes as much skill as any performance art. Jokes come out of a comedian's own head and he or she delivers them with panache and style. There is something about a good joke that makes one happy. To take someone away from a mundane everyday life in a standup routine takes talent and bravado, and aren't those some of the qualities that make a good artist?
Artists that combine these two things (hilarity and visual art) are hard to come by. Artists have been known to work mostly for themselves, as an emotional release or outlet. Comedians do what they do because they
love seeing people happy as a result of their words or actions. It is a rare artist who works to exude joy rather than pain.

What is the difference between funny art and art that does not immediately come off as funny? These two works (one by Botticelli and one by Heironymus Bosch) are from the same time period, but one is serious, and one contains elements of humor.
Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, Botticelli, 1490-1510
Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, Botticelli, 1490-1510

The Garden of Earthy Delights, Heironymus Bosch, 1490-1492
The Garden of Earthy Delights, Heironymus Bosch, 1490-1492

The Garden of Earthly Delights, excerpt
The Garden of Earthly Delights, excerpt


The Botticelli is the more classical work, and shows a tragic scene of people sorrowing over the dead body of Jesus Christ. Byzantine influence can be see, (i.e. gold halos and color scheme), and those are traditions of old and very serious art. The Bosch is much more light-hearted. It has countless little nods to hilarity. The particular one shown is a suggestion that in this "garden of earthly delights" (which can be interpreted as some sort of Eden or even heaven) human excrement can be used to grow beautiful plants and flowers. It is made funnier because the expressions on the subjects' faces are placid, as if this is all business as usual. Thus, we distinguish between styles, and between what is meant to be funny and what is not.

Surrealism is a genre of art that can sometimes be perceived as funny, in that it is so genuinely bizarre that the only reaction that seems appropriate is to assume that the artist was trying not to be too serious. The movement came into being in the 20th century as a means to channel the unconscious into the physical world. To say that all surrealism is funny is a stretch, but the thing about it that stumps and interests viewers is that it is just so weird. Salvador Dali (who painted "The Persistence of Memory") is one of the more well-known of surrealists. An artist that tended to inject more humor into his work than Dali and other surrealists is Rene Magritte. What makes much of his art funny is that it shows objects that are totally out of context. For example, he painted ordinary objects, but different in size. Apples that filled up rooms, faces removed from the head, a reverse mermaid (where the bottom half was human and the top head was fish), people raining from the sky in an orderly fashion, mirror tricks. These were only some
Rene Magritte, "Not to Be Reproduced", 1937
Rene Magritte, "Not to Be Reproduced", 1937
of the subjects that appear in his body of work. The painting to the right is called "Not to be Reproduced". This is a perfect example of the type of humor Magritte liked to build his work around. The irony of the title combined with the peculiarity of the subject matter is a sly mind trick by the artist for the viewers' enjoyment, as well as his own. In fact, it almost feels like a joke at the viewer's expense. It is like an inside joke that the painter enjoys alone, but that we can still understand partially.
"La Clairvoyance" Rene Magritte, 1936
"La Clairvoyance" Rene Magritte, 1936




This 1936 piece by Magritte (on the left) also illuminates the artist's sense of humor. This type of humor is more intellectual than slapstick. It is not immediately obvious what the joke is. Eventually though, the viewer realizes that the artist in the painting cannot possibly know what the adult form of whatever is inside the egg would look like. Yet, he has a serious expression on his face as if he is developing a deep philosophical idea on par with than any biblical scene by Da Vinci or Michelangelo. This particular work is a self-portrait of Magritte, and perhaps he is showing off his own wit and developed sense of humor through this artwork.

"The Experts", Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, 1837
"The Experts", Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, 1837


This was painted by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps in 1837. It can be seen that even though the above two works were made almost exactly a century apart, one can surmise that humor had never a dull moment when it came to visual art, nor any other type of media throughout history. Decamps's painting above pokes fun at art critics and other who study art. His argument is that they tend to take art too seriously, and that the Baroque artists of old did not assume that their landscapes would be picked apart by people who think they are smarter than they are. Thus, the critics in this paintings are monkeys. A monkey cannot possibly have any meaningful insight into a Baroque landscape such as the one being examined here. The monkeys see themselves as p
hilosophers, and yet they just look foolish. They do not belong in those clothes, just as art critics of the day did not have the authority to interpret or scrutinize other artists' work to such an extent. This is ironic because Decamps's work is being interpreted and scrutinized at this very moment.

Dogs Playing Poker, C.M. Coolidge, 1903
Dogs Playing Poker, C.M. Coolidge, 1903

In this 1903 series, Coolidge likens dogs to humans, giving them human facial expressions, gestures (i.e. sitting on chairs, wearing glasses, and smoking), and settings. In this particular part of the series (known collectively as "Dogs Playing Poker"), Coolidge paints dogs sitting around a table, with four of them looking at the fifth with accusatory expressions on their canine faces. This in itself is funny because dogs do not act like humans. The thought of this is bizarre and worthy of a chuckle. The rest of the paintings in the series show similar scenes, and most are of dogs playing cards. Though not all of Coolidge's paintings contain dogs and card games, all of them show dogs with human characteristics.

DD LaRue, "Tibetan Terrier"
DD LaRue, "Tibetan Terrier"






Keeping on the subject of dogs, an artist named DD laRue has been making sculptures of dogs and other animals. Her most notable works are the sculptures of dogs hanging out car windows. When one sees this in life, it is comical, so it stands to reason that when it is seen in art it remains so. The dogs are made to look like they are looking out the window of a car as it is moving. This is seen through the way their fur flies behind them and the angle from which they are viewing the worl
L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp, 1919
L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp, 1919

d outside the car. the artists works mostly off commissions. She calls these her "VW Door sculptures" because she uses doors off of real cars. Perhaps this adds to the humor, or at least the realism of her work, though it is not meant to be particularly realistic. It is meant to be light-hearted, enjoyable, and of course, funny.


An obvious example of irony and humor in modern art is Marcel Duchamp. Actually, Duchamp created works beyond his famous urinal, "The Fountain", that were funny. His humor is more scathing and political than light-hearted. He is sarcastic and his work drips with irony. He leaves viewers and critics with so much
to "figure out" as it were. His humor is the kind where something is funny immediately, but one is not immediately sure why one is laughing or even what one is looking at, to an extent. This is an example of a work by Duchamp that is only slightly less recognizable than The Fountain. It is titled "L.H.O.O.Q." It makes fun of classical art, classical, painters, and classical cultures in general. By extension, Duchamp makes fun of anything that can be considered to be "the norm". He stands out in the history of art as someone who simply didn't care what anyone thought of him. In this parody of the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci, the woman has a mustache and the caption (which is also the name of the painting) can be read in french as, "elle a chaud au cul" which translates literally to "she is hot in the behind".

Just as art is essential to the human condition, so is humor. Humor makes people happy. It is said that laughter can add years to one's life and improve one's health. As the saying goes, "laughter is the best medicine". It seems that artists believed this as well throughout all of history. Though this project did not go further back in time than the late 1400s, it can be assumed that people have always sought happiness and laughter. Since this is true, it stands to reason that these would mix with art. Both are essential to keeping the human spirit alive.

The last sentence of this is a joke.