by our editor
What is Joke Art?
I know it's difficult to believe but we were all there, all the great old
masters, assembled under the one roof, and brought back especially to decide
on which paintings of the 20th century should be kept and which should be
let slide into obscurity. We were using one of Watteau's old palaces as agreed.
How come I was in such august company I hear you ask. Well you all know I
was JMWTurner's plein air apprentice before things got too frozen and I had
to work inside. Anyway, I just happened to have passed the guild test for
old masters. But that's another matter for at the moment I was just
daydreaming and mainly thinking about my tough childhood. Never remembering
a time when I woke other then being wet and hungry ... weaned much to early
and obsessed ever since.
"Well, what shall we do with this fellow Picasso?" asked Michelangelo
simultaneously pointing with his outstretched arm and turning toward
Rembrant, who just happened at that same instant to be appraising the ample
charms of the plumpish countess seated on his left.
"Whaa...t, where, quite a handful I'd hazard," Rembrant replied instantly.
"A pale naples yellow with a smidgin of madder on the secondaries. Maybe a
little umber in the shadows."
"Not that! Over here you old fool." Again Michelangelo pointed at the
Picasso painting of the double imaged bull's head, the candle and what to
him looked like a book. Rembrant sighed deeply and somewhat ruefully as he
turned to the bearded blond sculptor whose impatience was legendary since he
received that knock in the head playing fullback for Milan. Everyone agreed
it was accidental though I had my doubts as Michaeangelo had enemies aplenty.
"As an example of joke art it is one of the best I suppose."
"What's this 'joke art' you keep mentioning?" I asked, suddenly awake and
leaning over Rembrant's shoulder to get a better look.
Rembrant looked up, "Humph" I don't know how you ever passed the guild test
Hagan. "What answer did you give when you were asked to name two days of the
week starting with 'T'.
"Today and tomorrow of course," I replied still amazed they would have such
an easy question in a test for 'oldmastership'.
"Well I guess you got that right at least," the old fraud acknowledged, then
he shouted out to Rubens who was supposed to be chairman of the twentieth
century sub-committee but as usual seemed to be jetlagged, or as we say
here, 'windbagged'. "Hey Rube', could you come over here and explain to
Hagan what 'joke art' is."
We watched as the preening friend of kings and courtiers brushed invisible
specks from his multicoloured vest and strode over.
"Well Hagan," Rubens quickly assumed his usual lecturing mode, "In
literature we have humour, in plays we have comedy and in painting we have
joke art. Twentieth century art is largely based on the premise of comedy.
Those who don't 'get it' - miss the joke ... they miss all the fun.
"But most of the artists couldn't draw a bucket from a well or paint a
rocking horse red. They painted shallow, flat on flat."
"Listen here my boy, when you realize comedy is literature then you will
read some of the best literature you will ever read on the back of toilet
doors. Was Bill Cosby not a literary giant, didn't Gerry Seinfield rival TS
Elliot. Who says art must be deep and meaningful?"
"What about those people who wrote volumes to explain the essence of a
Rothko or the meaning of a Pollock? Some were scholars with degrees in fine
"That's their problem, anyway, they probably think 'Flying High' was an
apercu of Gothe's theory of transparent color. If they miss the joke I can't
"Can you give me an example of this joke art ... say from a conceptual
artists point of view".
Suddenly Rembrant interrupted. "What did you answer Hagan, when you were
asked to name two African wild cats?"
"The oldmaster test again?"
"Damn! You even got that right".
Rubens was growing impatient at the interruptions "You asked about an
example of conceptual art Hagan?" he snapped. "Well the conceptualist will
propose a cow has teats. Then might say the same for a woman. Viola, the
artist will paint a woman with four breasts. A equals B, B equals C,
therefore A equals C ... Capice?"
"I still don't get it".
"What, the joke?"
"Yes, it doesn't seem very deep".
"You fool ... see you are still looking for depth when you should be looking
for the joke".
"But surely there are clever jokes and just ...."
"...and just cows in formaldehyde sure, but there you go getting elitist
Rembrant interrupted. "Aw, give up Rube, I really don't know how the dolt
ever got in the guild in the first place".
"I was made a consultant," I retorted. "You said when you wanted my opinion
you would ask for it".
But Rubens was on a roll and hadn't taken a breath. "The artist was saying
that his last blind date was a metaphor for a cow in formaldehyde. Don't you
see, that's a joke?".
"What about the minimalists?" I asked.
"Watch my lips move".
He slapped his thigh. "SEE ... that's art!"
"Again, watch my lips move".
"I saw them move but you didn't say anything".
"But Rothko committed suicide Polock drank himself to death, not very funny
"So did Peter Sellers, Dean Martin and Tony Handcock, Lenny Bruce ..."
"Picasso got top prices".
"Letterman got as much".
"Are you saying that the whole art scene of the twentieth century was a
joke.?" I asked undaunted.
"Name me one famous artist who got publicity at that time who wasn't?
Look you young fool ... it wasn't 'a joke' it is 'the joke'. Up here we
know that certain corrupt angels refer to the kickbacks they get as 'the
joke'. What do you think they mean when they said 'everyone is in on the
joke'? They meant the heavenly officials, the brothel owners, the
developers, the writers of environmental impact statements .. they meant
everyone up here in art heaven gets part of the action. Well it was the same
with the art world in the twentieth century. You were either into comedy or
not. Not only is it art ... it is an art form. Remember, the most expensive
art piece of the whole century was a photo of a Kelvin Kline model in
Monica's blue dress. If that is not a joke what is? But still ... if you
happen to be one of those humourless clowns who missed the boat ... bad luck".
"What about the General?" said Rembrant in the pause. "Did you get that one?"
Everyone sighed and knew he referred to the oldmaster test that involved
finding the name of a famous General and the clue was supposed to be in a
room with bottle of brandy inside a refrigerator. The contestant was to enter the room, open the refrigerator door and search the for the clue.
"Yep," I said. "General Electric".
"Damn, didn't you paint in the twentieth century Hagan. Where's all your stuff?"
"Didn't make the cut, I'm afraid."