What’s so funny about Art?
Was Art laughed to death by dada? Or perhaps this sardonicide took place even earlier, with the first performance of Ubu Roi? Or with Baudelaire’s sarcastic phantom-of-the-opera laughter, which so disturbed his good bourgeois friends?
What’s funny about Art (though it’s more funny-peculiar than funny-ha-ha) is the sight of the corpse that refuses to lie down, this zombie jamboree, this charnel puppetshow with all the strings attached to Capital (bloated Diego Rivera-style plutocrat), this moribund simulacrum jerking frenetically around, pretending to be the one single most truly alive thing in the universe.
In the face of an irony like this, a doubleness so extreme it amounts to an impassable abyss, any healing power of laughter-in-art can only be rendered suspect, the illusory property of a self-appointed elite or pseudo-avant-garde. To have a genuine avant-garde, Art must be going somewhere, and this has long since ceased to be the case. We mentioned Rivera; surely no more genuinely funny political artist has painted in our century—but in aid of what? Trotskyism! The deadest dead-end of twentieth-century politics! No healing power here—only the hollow sound of powerless mockery, echoing over the abyss.
To heal, one first destroys—and political art which fails to destroy the target of its laughter ends by strengthening the very forces it sought to attack. “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” sneers the porcine figure in its shiny top hat (mocking Nietzsche, or course, poor Nietzsche, who tried to laugh the whole nineteenth century to death, but ended up a living corpse, whose sister tied strings to his limbs to make him dance for fascists).
There’s nothing particularly mysterious or metaphysical about the process. Circumstance, poverty, once forced Rivera to accept a commission to come to the USA and paint a mural—for Rockefeller!—the very archetypal Wall Street porker himself! Rivera made his work a blatant piece of Commie agitprop—and then Rockefeller had it obliterated. As if this weren’t funny enough, the real joke is that Rockefeller could have savored victory even more sweetly by not destroying the work, but by paying for it and displaying it, turning it into Art, that toothless parasite of the interior decorator, that joke.
The dream of Romanticism : that the reality-world of bourgeois values could somehow be persuaded to consume, to take into itself, an art which at first seemed like all other art (books to read, paintings to hang on the wall, etc.), but which would secretly infect that reality with something else, which would change the way it saw itself, overturn it, replace it with the revolutionary values of art.
This was also the dream surrealism dreamed. Even dada, despite its outward show of cynicism, still dared to hope. From Romanticism to Situationism, from Blake to 1968, the dream of each succeeding yesterday became the parlor decor of every tomorrow—bought, chewed, reproduced, sold, consigned to museums, libraries, universities, and other mausolea, forgotten, lost, resurrected, turned into nostalgia-craze, reproduced, sold, etc., etc., ad nauseum.
In order to understand how thoroughly Cruikshank or Daumier or Grandville or Rivera or Tzara or Duchamp destroyed the bourgeois worldview of their time, one must bury oneself in a blizzard of historical references and hallucinate—for in fact the destruction-by-laughter was a theoretical success but an actual flop—the dead weight of illusion failed to budge even an inch in the gales of laughter, the attack of laughter. It wasn’t bourgeois society which collapsed after all, it was art.
In the light of the trick which has been played on us, it appears to us as if the contemporary artist were faced with two choices (since suicide is not a solution): one, to go on launching attack after attack, movement after movement, in the hope that one day (soon) “the thing” will have grown so weak, so empty, that it will evaporate and leave us suddenly alone in the field; or, two, to begin right now immediately to live as if the battle were already won, as if today the artist were no longer a special kind of person, but each person a special sort of artist. (This is what the Situationists called “the suppression and realization of art” ).
Both of these options are so “impossible” that to act on either of them would be a joke. We wouldn’t have to make “funny” art because just making art would be funny enough to bust a gut. But at least it would be our joke. (Who can say for certain that we would fail? “I love not knowing the future.”—Nietzsche) In order to begin to play this game, however, we shall probably have to set certain rules for ourselves:
1. There are no issues. There is no such thing as sexism, fascism, speciesism, looksism, or any other “franchise issue” which can be separated out from the social complex and treated with “discourse” as a “problem.” There exists only the totality which subsumes all these illusory “issues” into the complete falsity of its discourse, thus rendering all opinions, pro and con, into mere thought-commodities to be bought and sold. And this totality is itself an illusion, an evil nightmare from which we are trying (through art, or humor, or by any other means) to awaken.
2. As much as possible whatever we do must be done outside the psychic/economic structure set up by the totality as the permissible space for the game of art. How, you ask, are we to make a living without galleries, agents, museums, commercial publishing, the NEA, and other welfare agencies of the arts? Oh well, one need not ask for the improbable. But one must indeed demand the “impossible”—or else why the fuck is one an artist?! It’s not enough to occupy a special holy catbird seat called Art from which to mock at the stupidity and injustice of the “square” world. Art is part of the problem. The Art World has its head up its ass, and it has become necessary to disengage—or else live in a landscape full of shit.
3. Of course one must go on “making a living” somehow—but the essential thing is to make a life. Whatever we do, whichever option we choose (perhaps all of them), or however badly we compromise, we should pray never to mistake art for life: Art is brief, Life is long. We should try to be prepared to drift, to nomadize, to slip out of all nets, to never settle down, to live through many arts, to make our lives better than our art, to make art our boast rather than our excuse.
4. The healing laugh (as opposed to the poisonous and corrosive laugh) can only arise from an art which is serious—serious, but not sober. Pointless morbidity, cynical nihilism, trendy postmodern frivolity, whining/bitching/moaning (the liberal cult of the “victim”), exhaustion, Baudrillardian ironic hyperconformity—none of these options is serious enough, and at the same time none is intoxicated enough to suit our purposes, much less elicit our laughter.