Why does it seem odd to suggest that art can be humorous? It’s not as though we don’t encounter the words ‘art’ and ‘joke’ often enough in the same sentence, especially if ‘art’ is qualified by the adjective ‘modern’. But when we do it usually means that people’s suspicions are aroused. We make out that the joke is on us, so the art can be dismissed as not serious and therefore irrelevant. Art is supposed to come out of some discernible effort on the part of the artist, and the apparent effortlessness of a good joke inevitably undermines that expectation. If art is a joke then it’s not art, or so the thinking goes.

On the other hand, jokes and art have a good deal in common. They challenge assumptions, unsettle cosily habitual thought patterns and mock stereotypical behaviour. Surely they should often be found in each other’s company? In fact they are.

To take just two examples, the films of Swiss artist Roman Signer, currently showing in Edinburgh and soon to be seen in London, explore the comedic poetry of our encounter with objects. He calls himself an “emotional physicist” – maybe he really isn’t far removed from the comedian who walks into a lamppost. And the fact that we laugh at David Shrigley’s drawings reinforces rather than detracts from the sharp eye with which he observes life’s darknesses.

Making art nearly always involves destruction, even if it’s only the pristine purity of a white sheet of paper. Humour, too, can be merciless. Harnessed together they can add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Modern art’s iconic figure, Marcel Duchamp, was nothing if not a joker. His sardonic sense of humour is evident everywhere, especially in the postcard-size reproduction of the Mona Lisa to which he added a moustache and goatee, together with the words LHOOQ. Telling us that the only reason we look at Leonardo’s painting is because the subject has a hot arse (elle a chaud au cul) is, of course, deliberately provocative.

Duchamp’s defacement of a cherished treasure is insolent, yet if it causes anger it does so not because it is attacking Leonardo – who is beyond that, anyway? – but because it is mocking our lazy prejudices about what has cultural value. Art, he is saying, is about ideas, so seeing it requires us to use our brains rather than merely indulging our propensity to emotional incontinence.

Michael Archer
The Guardian