Humor is a quality that has the ability to induce funny thoughts which are intended to create laughter for the purposes of amusement. (Houghton Mifflin)  A joke differentiates itself in the sense of a physical presence, whether it is a joke told, a joke played, or a joke presented.  Similar to humor a joke is made for the purpose of evoking laughter and amusement.  (Houghton Mifflin)  The slight nuance that differentiates humor from a joke is within the action.  Creating jokes and finding ways to convey humor within an artistic context is difficult in a sense; objects are a particular medium employed to develop funny types of artwork.  In which case, the object is a performer, conveying the joke as a comedienne would.  The only thing lacking is spoken language.

This is where the interpretations of the work and the joke become interesting.  Whether or not the artist intends for the work to be read a particular way, the viewers perception drives how they internalize the joke.  In a recent article, John Waters describes his favorite piece by Cy Twombly, “Letters of Resignation.”  It consists of thirty-eight squares of paper with illegible pencil scribbles representing text consisting of his personal musings.  Upon first glance, this particular work is funny when applying one’s own context to the piece.  The idea of scribbling in pencil an illegible mini-manifesto representing a resignation letter to one’s current station in life is entertaining and humorous. (Waters)  John Waters performed a translation of the “Letters of Resignation.”  Waters performed a translation of the “Letters of Resignation,” this nicely illustrates intention versus interpretation.

It is not easy to understand the comparative and conceptual ideas revolving around the use of objects in art and how objects relate to humor.  Claes Oldenburg has a fascinating way of generating a blend of these ideas within a literary piece, “I Am for an Art.”

He wrote, “I am for an art that is political-eriotical-mystical that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.  I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given chance of having a starting point of zero.  I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top. I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.  I am for an art that takes its form from the lines itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.  I am for an artist who vanishes, turning up in a white cap painting signs or hallways.” (Oldenburg)

He speaks to the use of the everyday object in an everyday context.  It describes the humor within the irony of affectation wrapped around common items once elevated into an art context.  An object today is art tomorrow.   It raises the question of whether or not the object maintains its stability as an art work or reverts back to object hood once the context it is contained within morphs.

A current exhibit featuring the work of Beth Campbell illustrates the use of everyday objects within an artistic context, objects curated together to create an installation within separate spaces.  The initial encounter with Campbell’s work, “Mirror, Mirror,”[1] presents two convex mirrors hanging as a diptych—together the mirrors reflect the space you are in and multiply it; this foreshadows the work to come.  The next piece is an installation utilizing objects to create, “The Artist’s Studio.”[2]  The work includes everyday objects:  a painted desk, chairs, a filing cabinet with documents organized on top, canvas clipped to the wall covering the windows, a shelf with a cup of brushes, art related ephemera pinned to the wall, a saw horse with two five-gallon buckets beneath, within the buckets dried remains of b messy, crunchy, rough black the other is light green.  There is a pile of miscellaneous cardboard, wood and foam-core. An apron hangs on the wall next to a dustpan and broom, complete with paint stained clogs.  The objects in the space tell the viewer it represents an artist’s studio.  Once the viewer approaches the next room is when the hilariousness ensues, it is a mirror image of the previous room.  All of the objects are the same just flipped.

This brings back to the humorous question raised earlier, is the art an object, is the object art, and is it just an object?  Campbell collected the objects utilized within this particular installation from Materials for the Arts[3] that allows artists working with non-profits to come and take objects they may need for a show at no cost.  Objects that otherwise would have become discarded are recycled and in this case the objects become art.  The desks became paintings and the canvas wall coverings became prints as she engaged the objects into the practice and process of art making.  This particular installation will go into storage once the exhibition is complete. All the objects keep their definitive as art work for the time being.

Campbell plays with the idea of object versus art.  She has returned objects used in an exhibition to the store she originally bought them from.  This insinuates an object, elevated into art context, then returned to the context whence it came attributes to the perceptions put upon an object and what it represents based on the context it presents itself within.  Once the object leaves the gallery and is returned Campbell believes it is no longer art, only secretly.  It is once again an object.  This point is proven with a piece she generated; she refers to loosely, as the constellation tables.  This work was shown and upon closing, Campbell returned all the tables, when later an interested party inquired about showing the work, Campbell explained she did not own the tables.  As such, the exhibitors went and purchased the tables per her instructions in order to exhibit this work, it is now in their collection. Campbell never even touched these particular tables however, the objects are now considered to be art and are attributed to her as her artwork.

Slowly, the queries of this paper started with jokes, humor and art, soon after the effect of the object upon the joke within an artistic context becomes the focus.  In essence, the critical ideas within the execution of the work dictate the level of humor the artist intended.  Without knowledge, none of these ideas even exist.  All of these objects, these actions, these perceptions, these abnormally normal happenings within daily life are all art.  Similar to the subtle difference of action distinguishing a joke from humor, the differentiation between the art and the object lies within the context.

Works Cited:

Houghton Mifflin. Dictionary. n.d.

Oldenburg, Edited by Jennifer Higgie by Claes. I Am for an Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1961.

Robbins, David. Concrete Comedy. New York: Pork Salad Press, 2011.

Waters, John. “Lights Out with Cy Twombly.” Art in America January 2015: 41.

[1]   Beth Campbell:  “When You Cut Into the Present The Future Leaks Out,” Old Bronx Borough Courthouse.  April 23-July 19, 2015

[2] Beth Campbell:  “When You Cut Into the Present The Future Leaks Out,” Old Bronx Borough Courthouse.  April 23-July 19, 2015

[3] Materials for the Arts:  A reuse center available in New York City providing a space for companies to donate unneeded supplies to be utilized by nonprofit organizations with art programming as well as public schools.

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