Riccardo Giacconi

Riccardo Giacconi

It was meant to be funny, I said, knowing they couldn’t possibly believe me.

– Milan Kundera, The Joke, 1967

“Don’t you think contemporary art takes itself too seriously?”

I was asked this question by a friend of mine, a physicist, as we were leaving an exhibition. I immediately tried to answer back, telling him about work by Maurizio Cattelan, Richard Prince, John Baldessari, Fischli & Weiss, and finally Piero Manzoni and Francis Picabia. “I find them very funny”, I told him. “Yes, maybe”, he replied, unconvinced “but I mean something that will make you burst out laughing, a crepapelle, like watching The Simpsons, or reading Three Men in a Boat”.

After thinking a bit about it, I had to admit that he was right in some way. Not only I couldn’t think of a piece of contemporary art that made me burst out laughing; I couldn’t even recall anyone telling me of they’d had this kind of experience.[1]

But I didn’t give up, and I told him about the text that Marcel Duchamp published (with Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood) in the magazine “The Blind Man” in 1917. It dealt with the exclusion of Fountain, his famous upturned urinal, from the exhibition organized by the Society of Independent Artists in New York. The text defended the fictional artist Richard Mutt, alleged author of the work:

What were the grounds for refusing Mr Mutt's fountain:–
1. Some contended it was immoral, vulgar.
2. Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.
Now Mr Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ shows windows. [...]
As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.

I told my friend about this text as if it were a joke. That is what it has always been to me, with its perfect punch line, a sharp remark on the American artistic context of the time. I explained that the text was also one of the first theoretical formulations of the ‘ready-made’. Therefore, our idea of contemporary art is in a way founded on it, and especially on this fragment:

Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view–created a new thought for that object.

“The Blind Man” n.2, 1917 (part.)

“That’s the reason!” my friend replied after he had reflected on this a moment; “If it’s true that contemporary art started as a joke, I’m not surprised that it must constantly take itself seriously”. So we began to reflect on how the history of art would have been different if Duchamp’s “joke” hadn’t been taken seriously, if the idea of art shared until now by the Western world hadn’t been built on that joke.

My physicist friend then started to tell me about the ‘Sokal affair’. In 1996 the influential academic journal of cultural studies Social Text published the essay Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity by American physicist Alan Sokal. The article, full of quotations by eminent postmodern thinkers, aimed not only to reveal the capitalistic, patriarchal and militaristic nature of traditional mathematics, but also to demonstrate how “postmodern science provides a powerful refutation of the authoritarianism and elitism inherent in traditional science”.

The same day the essay was published, Sokal revealed in another journal that it was a joke, describing it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense, […] structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics”. Transgressing the Boundaries, therefore, was not to be taken seriously. Its real aim was to show how a text, even if totally devoid of sense, could be accepted by a cultural system if plausibly presented and provided with the vocabulary in vogue among ‘experts’.[2]

Anton Raphael Mengs, Giove che bacia Ganimede, 1759

I replied by telling of a joke made by painter Anton Raphael Mengs to a friend of his, renowned art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. In 1759 Mengs made a fresco (Jupiter kissing Ganymede) in the manner of an ancient Roman painting, imitating the scrapings, the restorations and the craquelure. Winckelmann fell into the trap: not recognizing the fake, he defined it as “one of the most beautiful figures to survive from antiquity”.

I remember an anecdote that Giorgio Agamben used to tell us during his classes in Venice. It was about the medieval theologian Pierre de Poitiers, who contributed, with a singular theory, to the dispute on the validity and effectuality of the sacramental liturgy.[3] At the time, the problem was to decide whether a sacrament was valid no matter who administered it. For instance, one wondered if the baptism was valid even if the priest who celebrated it was a thief, an apostate or a murderer.

After a lengthy debate, the Church decided that no matter the moral character of the priest, the baptism would be been valid. However, Pierre de Poitiers’ theory specifies that the only case in which the baptism is not valid is if the priest who administrates it is joking. The joke, therefore, would be the only the only element with the power to nullify a sacrament.

This thesis clearly reveals the destructive potential of the joke, a device capable of disabling the dichotomy between truth and fiction. What concerns the joke, in fact, no longer has to do with the true or the false; it rather concerns a performative world in which a community, even the smallest one, decides to accept the existence of a certain reality. Simon Critchley speaks of “a tacit agreement about the social world in which we find ourselves as the implicit background to the joke; [...] a sort of consensus or implicit shared understanding as to what constitutes joking for us[4].

In the same way in which a joke could undermine the foundations of the very existence of the liturgical sacrament, today’s art regime would be questioned if its foundations were not taken seriously, as Duchamp’s ready-made could be. Structural similarities have often been highlighted between the system of values and beliefs on which a religious credence is based, and the system at the basis of the social institution of contemporary art.

The philosopher of religions Mark C. Taylor asserts that: “In finance capitalism, wealth is created through the circulation of signs. […] As art becomes a progressively abstract play of non-referential signs, abstract financial instruments increasingly create an autonomous sphere of circulation whose end is nothing other than the endless proliferation of monetary and financial signs. When the art of finance becomes the finance of art, art is no longer merely a commodity to be bought and sold, but […] it is traded like any other financial asset”[5]. It is clear that, as an object of enormous economic investments, contemporary art needs, intrinsically, to be taken extremely seriously.

Angus Fairhurst, Gallery Connections, 1991. Courtesy The Estate of Angus Fairhurst

The sound installation Gallery Connections (1991) by Angus Fairhurst makes fun precisely of the seriousness of the economics of art. Among the Young British Artists, Fairhurst was perhaps the one who most brilliantly employed the typical British wit. Rather than being an installation or a sound work, the medium of Gallery Connections seems to be the joke itself. The artist recorded a series of contrived telephone exchanges between unwitting gallery employees. Fairhurst rang two different contemporary art galleries simultaneously and then held the handsets together, remaining silent. The speakers, initially disoriented, gradually became more hostile, like in typical telephone jokes. Fairhurst’s work generated chaos among the London galleries, which for a few days avoided using the telephone, fearing the Inland Revenue was bugging them. The transcriptions of the Gallery Connections were later published in the first issue of frieze magazine..

Some time after the conversation with my physicist friend, I had lunch with Israeli artist Roee Rosen. I told him about my questions regarding jokes and art. He totally disagreed with the idea that contemporary art was precluded from making people laugh and he told me about an essay[6] he wrote on the juxtaposition between, on the one hand, irony, sadism and Bruce Nauman, and on the other hand, humour, masochism and Vito Acconci. The distinction between irony and humour is traditionally linked to the spatial duality between inside and outside: the first uses language distancing itself from it and, according to Freud, “imparting the very opposite of what one intended to express”. Humour, instead, always operates from within: it is “a means of obtaining pleasure in spite of the distressing effects that interfere with it” in the situation in which one finds himself: “it puts itself in their place”[7]. According to Rosen, irony and sadism belong to the same conceptual axis, which traverses several of Bruce Nauman’s works. An example is the video-loop from the 1987 Clown Torture (Dark and Stormy Night with Laughter), in which the torture of a clown consists in the incessant repetition of an endless nursery rhyme: “It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were sitting around a campfire. One of the men said, ‘Tell us a story Jack.’ And Jack said, ‘It was a dark and stormy night. Three men were sitting around a campfire. One of the men said...’”.

Some works by Vito Acconci, on the contrary, would be traversed by the axis of humour/masochism. For example: Seedbed (1972), the well-known performance in which the artist, hidden underneath a ramp, was masturbating recounting fantasies about the visitors walking above him, while his voice was heard through loudspeakers in the gallery.

Roee Rosen, Hilarious, video still, 2010. Courtesy the artist

Roee Rosen’s interest in the mechanisms of laughter is at the basis of his video Hilarious (2010), interpreted by the Israeli-American actress Hani Furstenberg in front of a television studio audience. In the form of a stand-up monologue, she tells a series of news items about death, violence and politics, often linked to the Israeli context and mixed with stories and jokes resembling the Jewish ‘Witz’ studied by Freud. According to Rosen, “Hilarious is set to examine the possibility of dysfunctional humor and laughter stirred when there is no reason to laugh. […] If humor is a mechanism set to cope in particular ways with disturbing, sometimes forbidden topics, this performance not only offsets these structures through their failure, but also offers a different manifestation of these topics, left exposed without the guise of laughter”.[8]

Following Roee Rosen’s indication, I read the most famous studies on the mechanisms of laughter, those by Freud and Bergson. I was surprised to find several traces of the enigmatic analogy between art and joke. In his essay on Jokes and their relation to the unconscious, Freud noted that jokes structurally need an audience, because “no one can be content with having made a joke for himself alone. [...] Something remains over which seeks, by communicating the idea, to bring the unknown process of constructing the joke to a conclusion”[9]. Bergson, in Le Rire, had already highlighted that “our laughter is always the laughter of a group”, given that “laughter must answer to certain requirements of life in common”[10]. These observations could easily be applied to what we think of as art today. Freud also noted that the existence of the joke is conditioned by the willingness to accept it as such: “only what I allow to be a joke is a joke”. Dino Formaggio’s tautological definition, dated 1981, comes immediately to mind: “art is everything that mankind calls art”[11]. Bergson was even more explicit when he stated, “the comic comes into being just when society and the individual [...] begin to regard themselves as work of art”: the same comic “oscillates between life and art”.[12]

When I met my physicist friend again, I told him a story that I then discovered to be a variation of one of Freud’s ‘Witze’:

Duchamp borrowed a bicycle from Picabia, and upon returning it was sued by his friend, because the bicycle was missing the front wheel and was therefore unusable. His defense was this: “In the first place I never borrowed any bicycle from Picabia; secondly the bicycle was already lacking a wheel when I received it from him; thirdly the bicycle was in perfect condition when I returned it.”

[1] Cfr. What’s so funny?, symposium on art and humour organised

on 14 October 2014 during Frieze Art Fair (participants: Nathaniel Mellors,
Aleksandra Mir, Roee Rosen and Olav Westphalen).

[2] Alan D. Sokal, “A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies”, Lingua Franca, May/June, 1996.

[3] Cfr. Giorgio Agamben, Liturgia and the Modern State, European Graduate School Video Lectures, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jK-s3qHfLgw Transcription: http://automatist.net/deptofreading/wiki/pmwiki.php/Liturgia

[4] Simon Critchley, Did You Hear The One About The Philosopher Writing A Book On Humour?, Richmond Journal of Philosophy 2, 2002.

[5] Mark C. Taylor, Financialization of Art (January 28, 2013), in “Capitalism and Society”, Vol. 6, Issue 2, Article 3, 2011.

[6] Roee Rosen, Sore Eros Conversions. Aggression and Submission in the Art of Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci, Studio Art Magazine n. 55, 1995.

[7] Sigmund Freud, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten, 1905 ((English translation by J. Strachey: Jokes and their relation to the unconscious, W. W. Norton, New York 1960).

[8]Hilarious is set to examine the possibility of dysfunctional humor and laughter stirred when there is no reason to laugh. If humor is a mechanism set to cope in particular ways with disturbing, sometimes forbidden topics, this performance not only offsets these structures through their failure, but also offers a different manifestation of these topics, left exposed without the guise of laughter.” Cfr. Roee Rosen, Towards the work Hilarious – Former Cases of Dysfunctional Humor, http://roeerosen.com/tagged/Writings-by-RR

[9] Sigmund Freud, op. cit.

[10] Henri Bergson, Le rire, Paris, 1900.

[11] Dino Formaggio, L'arte come idea e come esperienza, Mondadori, Milano 1981.

[12] Cfr. anche Situation Comedy: Humor In Recent Art (Independent Curators International, 2005); When Humour Becomes Painful (JRP|Ringier, 2005), The Artist's Joke (MIT Press – Whitechapel, 2007); Black Sphinx: On the Comedic in Modern Art (JRP|Ringier, 2010).