In February 1962, Alberto Greco was invited to take part in an exhibition of thirty
Argentine artists ‘from the new generation’ in Paris. His work consisted of
presenting thirty foul-smelling rodents in a box under the title 30 Rats from the New
Generation. And so with the insolent, revelatory power of the joke, his ‘living art’
was born. Federico Manuel Peralta Ramos took a similarly playful approach to words
and concepts when in 1974 he made the ‘Collective Subconscious of the Country’ a
reality by selling a replica of a mailbox - a reference to a popular saying - at an
exhibition. Humour as a means of criticizing the clichés of the artistic institution and
society is a key way of keeping art vibrant and vital.
Is humour a part of art, is art possible without humour? In his famous text
Laughter, the philosopher Henri Bergson noted that the comic is aesthetic in itself
as it ‘comes into being just when society and the individual, freed from the worry
of self-preservation, begin to regard themselves as works of art.’ According to
Bergson, laughter is the means by which humanity frees itself from the rigidity of
the body and the thoughts that dominate when one fears for safety, struggles for
survival and is wary of imminent tragedy. Freud saw humour as a strategy for
releasing the tension of a hidden truth repressed in one’s subconscious. With this
vein of thought in mind, it is difficult to conceive of a human experience that has
more in common with the strategies of contemporary art: criticism of the
establishment and profanation of solemnity, the appearance of the unexpected
and introduction to new meanings, the reorganization of the laws of the world,
and the search for the truths hidden beneath the surface of the everyday world.
Without a degree of parody, irony or at least a playfulness with regard to traditional
forms, it is hard to see how new forms and original concepts can arise that will allow
us to envisage things we do not yet understand.
The humorous power of an image like Asado en Mendiolaza [Barbecue in
Mendiolaza] by Marcos López lies in the parody of one of the iconic artworks in the
western canon and the way it challenges set modes of beauty and presents new
ones while also recovering a lost truth with the profanation of a religious image and
reaffirmation of the secular ‘communion’ of friendship that had been lost under the
cloak of solemnity. Even work as critical and mordant toward western civilization
as that made by León Ferrari would be impossible without the humorous gesture of
“Es dibujante y es poeta y sonríe cuando se lo dicen”
placing powerful historical figures in unexpected places, next to objects that
undermine their symbolic power and images that say what they would prefer to deny.
In the presence of the scourge of rigid, close-minded thought and the solemnity of
power, humour offers a new, liberated space. As Mikhail Bakhtin, says “laughter can
never be converted into an instrument of oppression or brutalization. It can never be
made official, it was always a weapon of liberation in the hands of the people.’ When
art turns everything upside down and achieves that same degree of liberty, it makes
common cause with humour in the quest to recover the lost beauty of humanity.