Humor as a Subversive Force:
Observations on Context and Intent

An Artist Suggests a Strategy for Lightening Society's Biases

by Nanette Wylde

Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don't mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future...

Italo Calvino

Absurd mainstream mores and political attitudes have been the playground for artists since recorded history. The Western art historical canon reveres Francisco Goya's intense political satire in Los Caprichos of the 18th century, and the social criticism of George Grosz in the 20th. Societal ills expressed by both artists are made digestible by a discernable degree of both lightness of style and contextual ridicule. Consider also the works of contemporary artists Enrique Chagoya, Robert Colescott, Peter Saul, Masami Teraoka and Kara Walker.

In the late 1800's, Thomas Nast, the "father of the American political cartoon," successfully demonstrated the power of visual communication to affect and sway public opinion. Since then, Sunday funnies and editorial cartoons are loaded with observations of public situations that are somehow one-sided, unjust, corrupt, or bordering on the absurd.

As one who was raised on Mary Poppin's "spoonful of sugar," it has made sense to me to apply this concept to my perceptions of the societyin which I reside. However, belief in the positiveness of benign Mary did not come with street smarts or a bursting of the bubble of naivet. In fact, my entree into the world of visual humor was not planned; it just happened.

While a student at San Jose State (late 1980's), I began to work out in my image-making an issue I had been struggling with as a participant in American society . In my mind it was hysterically funny. My first presentation of work on this theme left me totally stunned. I was literally clueless that the work would be received as other than profound and humorous. "Well now, what is she talking about?" you ask. Admittedly, I am shy to say.

My exhibition was titled "Penis Envy"after Freud's phallocentric interpretations of the female psyche. My artist's statement claimed "My images come from my personal dichotomy of liking men, yet disliking male-dominated society, and trying to resolve/make sense out of both...The phallus is the icon, as well as a means of reversing traditional gender objectification... My work seeks harmony, humor and understanding." When interpretations and responses came to my ears I experienced pain at being misunderstood and disbelief that others could not see what I considered the obvious.

At about the same time the San JoseMuseum of Art had an exhibition of drawings by American artists. What I remember strikingly is a group of about twenty to thirty drawings sequestered in a room off the main exhibition with an "adult theme" warning at the entrance. These drawings were primarily crotch shots of nude female models, all executed by notable male artists. They were seriously rendered, some exquisitely, some most ordinary but fine nonetheless. I remember thinking, "How are these images different from their sumptuously photographed counterparts in Playboy and Penthouse ?"

Now the correct answer is: one group represents the future of human society portrayed by the vision of genius and the other group represents the debasement of human society via capitalist exploitation of the female body as commodity. No, no, no, no, no. Well? What is the correct answer? What defines one group as OK and the other not? One group as pornography and the other not?

Context. Context is the only suitable guideline for determining the intrinsic meaning of work that I can accept at this time. The context of the museum told me "this is art. This is the art of America's best." I knew this work was not to be taken personally as an assault on the value of my gender, my character, or my beliefs. This was not the same as walking into the corner store for a paper only to find the cash register flanked by numerous message-explicit girly magazines.

What was the situation surrounding the making of the work and what were the artists' intents? The drawings could be purely formal exercises, they could be political statements or representations of our times. If so, however, one would expect additional contextual information to be included in the images in the form of meaningful elements or readable symbols. One would expect more from the images than the approach of the traditional nude study.

Works that involve political statements, be they Sunday funnies or serious fine art, generally require a grounding or some familiarity with characters or information presented. Otherwise, they make no sense to a viewing audience. When confronted with an Enrique Chagoya depiction of an exchange between Ronald Reagan and Mickey Mouse and you don't know who these characters are, it can appear to be just a silly cartoon. Similarly, once its been pointed out that Joe Camel is a gigantic rendition of penis and balls, that is all you see up there on that Joe Camel billboard. If you can recognize and make connections between seemingly incongruous elements in an image, you can read it and perhaps understand its message. Likewise, a mental connection needs to be made by the audience if parody, satire, ridicule and other forms of humor are to be gotten or understood. This is in part the importance of understanding context in artwork.

It has been my observation that sometimes folks are so embedded in their culture they can't see except through the filters of that system. It does happen, however, that sometimes the funnybone gets struck and all the subsequent oxygen to an individual's brain helps the individual to see a different way of assessing a situation. Enlightenment! Change has been affected! The artist cries, "It was worth all my efforts and sufferings if I positively affected a single soul!" Well, perhaps not so dramatically, but I do think that many folks who make political work hope that they are not just preaching to the converted, hope that somehow the honey of the funny will do the work of a more potent medicine.

If I may meander back to my own humorous renderings of society as I sometimes see it in the form of the dominant male member--we have in the English language certain aphorisms related to genitalia that can be considered common and standard usage. For example, the term "dickhead" and the phrase "he thinks with his dick" are common enough, but have no female counterparts. Neither is there a female counter for this expression of assertiveness or bravery: "She's got balls!" Imagine if you can, "He's got ovaries!" or "That was a breasty thing to do." It just doesn't work. This is because these female counterparts do not represent society's internalization of itself.

American society can be said to be represented by the Washington Monument, the skyscraper, tube lipstick, and even the Pope's hat. Certainly there are countless additional phallic metaphors on every street corner. Certainly, one becomes incredulous as one becomes aware of their usage and the underlying message they communicate.

What is an artist to do? I am neither so crazy as to require institutionalization, so sexually malnourished that all I can imagine is the object of my desires, nor so off track as to never have received the sound of laughter and nod of recognition from viewer's of my "offending" images.

I am reminded of a conversation with painter Rupert Garcia, after my "Penis Envy" exhibition. He said, "That part of the male body is sacred, special. It is not meant to be exposed. If I was to do a work of this subject I would paint them as bombs lined up in a row, but very ambiguously. You must not see right off what the bombs are made of."

Well, Maestro Garcia is a serious artist, and I, admittedly, am a girl who just wants to have fun. Besides, the makings and the horrors of war are already indelibly imprinted, by artists past and media present. Imprinted in a manner and to a depth that I can find no fun to poke with, can see no underlying humor in.

Thus, being one who has yet to achieve the grace of Zen, the blindness of faith, or the apathy of hopeless youth, I have not been able to ignore the consistency and humor of my own visions. I have chosen to heed the adage, "Catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar." I have chosen to make light of my perceptions. I have chosen to laugh with hopes that others will laugh with me and break these ties that blind. I hope that by pointing to the obvious, the sheer ridiculousness of some of our more absurd societal constructs will cause us to burst forth into such a laughter that we lose the gravity of such realities and float in the air like Mary Poppin's uncle. Burst forth into such a laughter that the realities of those absurdities will dissipate with the chuckles and fade to past. Fade and be remembered with the lightness of a smile rather than with anger or with tears. ¥

Nanette Wylde, Oh. Please. Mister. Please. Please. Take. Me, clip art image from A Brief History..., interactive multimedia installation, 1996.

Nanette Wylde is a new media artist and cultural worker. She
currently teaches art and technology for Foothill and Canada Colleges.

The Importance of Lightness

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