Thomas Sutcliffe: Time for art to find its funny bone

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The Independent Online

I once asked the Tate's director, Nick Serota, whether he ever got the giggles when working in his professional capacity as a heroic consumer of contemporary art. Unfortunately, we were on the record so his reply was diplomatic, suggesting that laughter wasn't entirely alien to him, but only when, as it were, the artist had tacitly invited such a response.

The reason I'd asked the question was because quite a bit of contemporary art practice yokes together two qualities that are generally an unfailing trigger for laughter. On the one hand you have earnest intent, on the other you have the oddity of the means. And it's the solemnity that mostly causes the problems, because there are few things as likely to provoke a giggle (in me anyway) as the idea that whatever else you do you must not laugh. I couldn't quite believe that in all the countless studio visits he'd made, all the tours of galleries and all the reading of weighty monographs, there weren't quite a few occasions on which Serota had been left helpless by the pretensions of the contemporary art world.

Perhaps if we'd been off the record he'd have owned up to such a moment to the impiety of laughing at contemporary art for once rather than knowingly with it though I have a suspicion that Serota doesn't have an off-the-record mode. And perhaps he doesn't have that kind of sense of humour either the insurrectionary and adolescent instinct to pull the rug out from under anything that is taking itself too seriously. You can see that it might be a handicap in such a job, which like most senior posts in art administration requires an impressive capacity to suspend one's disbelief (or, having failed to suspend it, the ability to conceal the fact tactfully). Humour is famously inimical to belief suspension, nipping in to snip the strings so that the whole Calder mobile comes down in a clatter of hilarity. And that's at least one of the reasons that contemporary art has such a problem with it.

Not all contemporary art, of course. I was reminded of the question I'd put to Sir Nicholas by reading about the Hayward Gallery's planned exhibition Laughing in a Foreign Language a show that will presumably be happy to have visitors sniggering through the galleries, since it intends to "explore the role of laughter and humour in contemporary art". A closer reading of the press release suggests that it might not be quite the laugh-riot the headline leads you to expect. "In a time of increasing globalisation," it reads, "the exhibition questions if humour can only be appreciated with similar cultural, political or historical backgrounds and memories or whether it can act as a catalyst for understanding the familiar", which sounds more like a sociology special module than an invitation to a belly-laugh. That's the catch with high art humour. It isn't a joke very often, it's "about" joking, which is a quite different proposition.

There are good reasons why this should be so. Indeed, you could probably write a decent doctoral thesis on why conceptual and high art is inherently humour-phobic in nature, with the whole question of quiet persistence sitting at the heart of the matter. Good art can't be a one-use-only affair and while that's also true of good comedy there is a distinction between the way in which the content is delivered. Imagine a comedian telling you a joke and then just sitting there grinning at you expectantly for the next two hours and you have a rough model of how awkward a gag can be when it gets hung on a gallery wall.

But there is another crucial distinction, too, which involves an audience's expectations of its role. There's a clue to how this works in an interview the artist Marcus Coates once gave about a video piece called Journey to the Lower World, which is to feature in the Hayward show. In it Coates put on a stag skin (complete with antlers) and conducted a shamanic ritual for the inhabitants of a block of flats in Liverpool that had been threatened with demolition. "I took the ritual and occasion very seriously but I didn't want to take myself seriously, because I wasn't in a position to," he explained. "It was up to the audience how serious the event was. They laughed all the way through, which made the film very comical." Imagine, though, that Coates had presented his piece to a group of Hoxton sophisticates, well-tutored in their duty of solemn respect. It might have been a grievously dull affair, I think. One can only hope the Hayward show encourages all of us to exercise our sense of the ridiculous a little more freely. Only the mediocre would have anything to fear.

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