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Humor in Art
Commentary by: Nancy Kranzberg
Aired August 06, 2010

Usually we know when to laugh in a play. It certainly happens often in one written by Neil Simon and before the singers in "The Barber of Seville" even sing a note. The audience is usually in fits of laughter after seeing the characters in their comical costumes with their exaggerated movements and antics.

At a new music concert, a clarinet player broke his instrument into two pieces, put them both in his mouth,and played a tune. Again the audience took the cue and began laughing.

So why are we so intimidated and afraid to laugh when we enter a gallery in a museum of works that seem strange or that we don't understand? Take for example Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans and their commentary on commercialism. Humor is not the end in itself, but the force that opens our minds to contemporary issues.

In a traveling exhibition entitled, "Situation Comedy: Humor in Recent Art" co-curated by Dominic Molon and Michael Rooks, the project description says, "The human condition has been the subject of comedy for thousands of years, from ancient Greek theater to the daily comic strip. During the past five to ten years, however, humor has turned up with increasing frequency in contemporary art, perhaps satisfying an urgent need among artists and audiences alike to reflect upon the absurdity of daily existence.”

Contemporary artists, as well as those of the past, often use art to make their point through the use of satire, caricature, irony, and sometimes jokes. Bryna Campbell, PhD candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Washington University, says of an exhibition that she has recently curated, "While we tend to associate visual humor with the pleasures of escapism, it also frequently serves as one of the most effective (and entertaining) modes of social criticism. Jokes can have the uncanny ability to catch us off guard, rendering us quite literally speechless. And in that moment of laughter, we often experience a shift in attitude of understanding. By creating a new sense of awareness, humor has the power to impact or, at the very least, challenge the way we come to see the world."

After 911, everyone wondered if we would ever laugh again and sure enough we did. Even Jay Leno felt that through humor, we could lighten our wounded souls. According to writer Dixie Reid in an article about Robert Arneson, known for his ceramic sculptures of mischievous self portraits, "He planned his own exit two decades before his death: He would go out like one of his sculptures. He wanted his body glazed and fired to 2,000 degrees, and when it had cooled, he said, "Roll me over and shake out my ashes. Make a glaze and color it bright." His widow had him cremated in the normal way.

Before we wonder about the latest offbeat art exhibitions or comedies in any form, let's think about the power and persuasiveness of humor in art.

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)

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Nancy Kranzberg

Nancy Kranzberg

Arts Aficionado Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years. She serves on numerous arts affiliated boards, including The St. Louis Art Museum, Laumeier Sculpture Park where she is the Co-Chair, The Sheldon Arts Foundation and the Sheldon Art Gallery Board, Jazz at the Bistro, The Missouri Mansion Preservation Inc., The Mid American Arts Alliance, and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Nancy was named Women of Achievement and was awarded the Distinguished Alumnae Award at Washington University Nancy is a docent at the St. Louis Art Museum and is an honorary docent at Laumeier Sculpture Park. At age 60 she became a Jazz singer. She performs with the Second Half which features Chancellor Tom George on the piano.

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