The Joke’s on You: Humor in Art

Yesterday was April Fools’ Day and I posted on The White Cube Diaries’ instagram (yes we just got an instagram, time to get on the bandwagon, so follow us!!! @the_white_cube_diaries) Marcel Duchamp’s hilariously clever L.H.O.O.Q, which made me think more about humor and jokes within art. So today (surprise, surprise) I’ll be sharing with you a bit about the somewhat overlooked, and underrated genre/topic/means of presentation in art – humor. Jokes, puns, and clever wordplay may seem a bit out of place in the serious, snobbish, and elitist Art World; however more and more artists have turned to humor as a vehicle for viewer accessibility. Though some artists make work that is funny for funny’s sake, like Marcel Duchamp’s naughty wordplay in  L.H.O.O.Q. which pronounced phonetically in French says, “Elle a chaud au cul” translating in English as, “She has a hot ass,” or Ed Ruscha’s deadpan rhymes “Ice At Nice Price”; more often than not artists use humor as a tool to make otherwise dark, controversial and sometimes just f’ed up subjects more approachable or even laughable.

keep reading to see who were/are the “class clowns” of the art world…


From Giggles to Gasps

Just like you don’t find every joke funny, not all the “humorous” artwork presented here will make you “lol,” in fact in some cases you may be shocked or slightly disturbed by some of the following works presented (or maybe you will be shocked you find something so disturbing funny?). But like I stated earlier, most artists disguise artwork, which is socially, morally, and ethically challenging, under a layer of humor. The artist truly succeeds when you feel the hilarity of the object/drawing/painting/sculpture etc. first, then begin to think about the underlying concept.

For instance, Mike Kelley’s Estral Star #3 and Sarah Lucas’ Chicken Knickers, pictured below, are pretty hilarious at first glance. But, no matter how funny it is to see two sock monkeys in an x-rated position, it becomes disturbing and upsetting to see a familiar childhood toy, representing innocence and purity, being violated and tainted in such a way. (side note: its title “Estral” is the adjective of estrus, meaning: “the period of heat or rut; the period of maximum sexual receptivity of the female,” so, yeahhh…makes you feel a little more uncomfortable). Just like Kelley, Lucas uses a familiar object in an unfamiliar way; it too having the same effect – funny, but not funny. Though masked with comedy, Lucas is sending us a serious message about the violation and gender stereotyping associated with sexual innuendo jokes.

Finding the Humor in Harsh Truths

Humor can also be a tool to portray forgotten or ignored truths. African-American artist Kara Walker examines issues regarding race, gender, class structure, sexuality, violence and personal identity in a comical way through provocative cut-paper silhouettes. Other artists such as The Guerrilla Girls and Barbara Kruger use clever wordplay and punchy, yet poignant, questions to address concerns about women’s rights, material capitalist culture, and dangerous personal obsession.

Making a Mockery of the Museum

The original joker- Marcel Duchamp loved to poke fun at the art gallery/museum. His infamous readymade sculpture Fountain, consisting of a urinal signed “R. Mutt,” was submitted as an artwork for a Society of Independent Artists exhibition; in which, contractually, all works had to be displayed. (there was a hot debate whether to display the work or not, they choose the latter…) However, the piece was hidden from view and after the show was “mysteriously” lost (aka thrown away). In the end, the joke was on them. Little did they know the Fountain would become one of the most famous and important works of art in history (can you say irony!).

On the other hand it is kind of funny that we revere a urinal as a great work of art just because Duchamp said so…

Following in the Duchampian vein, Andy Warhol recreated Brillo boxes (along with other name brands as well) to be displayed as art, and Ad Reinhart presented to the world – black paintings. (I think most might find it funny watching people stare at a black rectangle on the wall, no matter how many people (aka curators/critics) claim that all the black paintings contain traces of color and are “different.”…whatever…) Honestly, I think the artists were all just pulling our leg and seeing what they could get away with…joke’s on us, right?!


Funny for Funny’s Sake

Not all artists have a serious message masked in humor or are trying to pull a fast one on us, some just want to be a little goofy sometimes…



2 comments on “The Joke’s on You: Humor in Art

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