Humor in Art

September 20, 2013
This article originally appeared in the Community Arts Center’s September “Artists ONLY!” enewsletter. If you’re an artist interested in Brandon’s musings as well as calls to artists, upcoming exhibitions, artist tips and more, consider subscribing!Artists

, by nature, are quite a serious lot. I suppose the great burden of creating something from nothing wears the soul thin and such trivial concepts such as laughter are simply reserved for amateurs. The artist‘s black wardrobe, scowl, and rehearsed aloofness are all practiced tricks of the trade. 

Of course, these clichés aren’t generally true. Most working artists are completely normal people – completely indiscernible from the general public from the outside, giving no clue to the brilliant display of fireworks going on inside their skulls. Even still, the sterotype of the artist as a solemn loner is something that we must overcome to reach our fan base and find success in the art world. We do take our work seriously. Bringing our vision from concept to reality is not something to be taken lightly. But are we missing all the fun by being too serious?

If our artwork is a product, we must be cognizant of how we market it. Think of successful advertisement campaigns for other non-art products. I would imagine that some of the most memorable commercials that you can conjure up are also some of the funniest. I’m sure that every marketing director wants his or her product to be taken seriously – everything from sports cars to saltine crackers. Some products lend themselves better to being shown in a humorous light. 

At the Community Arts Center in Danville, Kentucky (where I am the Program Director) – artist-in-residence Mark Wilhelm does a great job of juxtaposing humor and art. His work not only makes you smile, it also makes you think and you quickly start to realize that there is far more to the artwork than just quick one-liners. 

When I asked him if there was any benefit to having his artseen as “funny” – he said,

“Absolutely! I think laughter is the best medicine. When I see something that makes me feel happy, I will always want to see that something again. Hopefully people feel the same way about my art. I want to make people think and emotion of any kind can crack open the blinds, but I think positive emotion is the best! I think most people would agree that happy is better than sad… except maybe Cylons (Battlestar Galactica baddies). Even though it might be considered funny, it is definitely still about the art. I want the finished product to work on a number of levels so that it will be relevant in the future, even if it means different things along the way. My process involves two lists – things I would like to draw, and things that I have observed or that I think are funny. Sometimes the two sides align and that’s when the magic happens.”

Unicorn Sweat

The most interesting aspect of Mark’s work is that the illustrations leave enough room for the viewer to add their own interpretation; anything from a dismissive giggle to a long-winded political rant could result from a discussion among viewers of his possible intent. I should add that Mark seldom inserts his own interpretation into the fray, but rather allows his work do the talking and lets the viewer sort it out. 

By inserting humor into your work, you can often approach difficult topics of conversation without necessarily taking sides in the ongoing debate. Not every work should be a political cartoon by any means, but adding a hint of a smile to your art can enlighten your viewers and allow them to see both sides of an argument.

I’ve often said that not all great art is funny, but all funny art is great. However, humor is not necessarily a part of everyartist‘s arsenal. Like I said before, not all products (or works of art) benefit equally from a lighthearted approach. I doubt you’d want your luxury car to be seen as a laughingstock, but even the Mona Lisa had a smile.