authors note: As I’m sitting down to write this a little over a week before my deadline for B@S, I’m sitting across from a younger student in a library amidst the Art and Art History Stacks. She is visibly frustrated at her reading, fidgeting often and being easily distracted by her frequently vibrating iPhone. Amidst deep sighs, eye rolls, and aggravated throat clearings, she lifts her book off the table just enough for me to read the spine: Postmodernism for Beginners. Perhaps all to obvious, I feel her pain.

Even though I’ve spoken, written, and thought about humor often in my own visual work, it is a research topic for me that I’ve felt particularly compelled to reconsider lately. This desire to continue to explore, or else rehash, previous considerations on this topic of critical inquiry have been spurred by a couple of recent inspirations and events that I hope will act as benchmarks for what will inevitably and unfortunately be too short of an essay (I’m writing in the future tense here, so you’ll have to bear with me). These events are as follows: a serious reading of an essay by Brad Troemel entitled Why No Serious? A Case for Idealism in and Era of Constant Irony, rewatching Sshtoorrty by Michael Snow while in the midst of reading Hegel, and recently finding things – in a very general sense – to not be very funny.

I’ll start with the last order of business. “Funny” is an illusive and nefarious trait of things. Saying that I’ve been struggling to find the funny in things – objects, scenarios, events, exchanges – is not to say that I haven’t been laughing. This might strike most as an emotional paradox, but I’ve unquestionably been given to guffaw and genuinely LOL on many a recent occasion. Lately, however, I have noticed that this laughter is not coming from a place of celebration, or from enjoyment of humor, but instead is driven by a recognition of the desperate state of authentic communication. In my mind, laughter, as a communicative gesture, has little to do with something being funny but more to do with a person’s display of empathy. A case study for this could be found in the comedic oeuvre of Louie CK. A recent episode (Eddie – season 2 , episode 9) of his FX show is almost a perfect example of this point in that although there are scenes throughout the show of more “typical funny” moments, the entire episode is dedicated to (SPOILER) an old friend taking Louie on a binger in order to tell him at the end of the evening that he is going to commit suicide. Louie, to his credit, attempts to convince his friend not to go through with his plans, but ultimately the episode ends with a knowledge that he was unsuccessful. Although I understand the potentially severe dark humor that Louie CK might be playing with at these margins, I’m fairly certain that the lack of funniness in this episode still invites laughter due to a shared desperation between this scenario – which I suspect to be a reenactment or semi-diaristic event – and the personal experience of the audience.

However, I wouldn’t classify the show as being tritely bittersweet, but instead would say that the humor of the show is attempting to move through or beyond the funny, and into an emotional territory rarely explored in traditional comedy: authentic empathy. Troemel’s essay attempts to address the lack of empathic exchanges through grounding the current sustained onslaught of irony through a critical lens of cultural history. His description of early Parisian Surrealist performances provide a backdrop for the contemporary mainstream joke paradigm and situates MTV – via Mark C. Miller and Robert McChensey – as the catalyst for the emptying out of irony as a critical device for Gen X’ers and the current Millennial generation. His argument that the commercial manipulation of youngsters perpetrated by MTV resulted in a development of radically harmful porous identities amongst those that proverbially “took the bait.” Even though I think there is an underlying subtextual irony presented by Troemel in writing such a treatise due to the frequent (and arguably unjust) allegation of trolling the netart community, his attempt to critically engage ironic tendencies within those that work in creative online environments does bear noteworthy merit:

Used as a coping mechanism for the anxiety caused by rapid cultural turn over, constant irony is the reclamation of hopelessness or lack of idealistic creativity spoken through the voice of detached coolness. Being constantly ironic is an effective deflection of one’s own porosity because it provides the illusion you were too cunning to have ever wanted anything more solidified.

It is precisely this hopeless and detached deflection that has contributed so much to the now dominant standard of humorless funny. As a result of constantly having to reconfigure ones own identity in relation to new standards and status-quo’s that necessitate a pastiche of subversion, artists and cultural workers of my generation suffer from a lack of self-criticality that is required to create an empathic response. Certainly this is partially due to the speed in which artists working online are expected to produce content, and that the minimal layover time between conception of an idea, its production, and eventual distribution, leave little opportunity for the emerging artists to devote to critical self-reflexivity.

Troemel’s concern with irony superseding idealism is stressed near the end of the essay when he claims that this porous process “does not [just] conceal idealism, but is a reactionary response to the compounding belief that political change of any kind is unfeasible.” Even though I agree that the political left is in serious danger of the hand-in-hand apathy that comes with the current status of irony, I would argue that the underlying problem with contemporary manifestations of irony is that its overuse has resulted in a lack public discourse concerning the formulating of new modes to convey sincerity and authenticity.

One domain that has offered a tremendous amount of personal reflexive space for myself has been a rekindled attraction to experimental/avant-garde cinema (I must give proper credit here to Phil Solomon for my re-found appreciation for cinema). While thoughts of humor had been milling around in my head for several weeks, I had the timely fortune of having a second viewing of renowned artists/filmmaker Michael Snow’s Sshtoorrty. This approximately 30 minute examination of a three minuet staged scene cut in half and superimposed on itself reveals hidden temporal and spatial considerations of an otherwise cliched melodramatic Farsi mise-en-scène. The repetition of the scene forces audiences to closely examine color, shape, composition, and movement that normally remains obfuscated through a seamless professionalism, or else completely removed from the conversation of traditional narrative cinema. What at first seems completely ironic and ill-purposed develops into a complex musing of form and cinematic space. Over time, the absurdity of this surfaced staging made to emulate authentic drama becomes apparent and a humor emerges precisely due to a kind of transparent reflexivity between Snow and his medium – a self-awareness that translates into an audiences ability to empathize and laugh.

Coincidentally, while in the midst of rediscovering gems of humor found within various formal and conceptual gestures in experimental cinema, I was also reading Hegel for the first time (this juxtaposition should be read as a kind of joke, i.e., “So, Michael Snow and Hegel walk into a bar…”). During my reading of Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, I couldn’t help underline passages in Chapter 5 that directly discuss the ironic and sincere properties of art’s relationships to the history and development of Modern Philosophy:

… negativity which displays itself as irony is, then, on the one hand the futility of all this matter of fact… on the other hand, the reverse may happen, and the I may also find itself unsatisfied in its enjoyment of itself… so as in consequence to feel a craving for the solid and substantial, for determinate and essential interests. Out of this there arises misfortune and antinomy, in that subject desires to penetrate into truth… but yet is unable to abandon its isolation and retirement into itself, and to strip itself free of this unsatisfied abstract inwardness (of mind).

In this way, Hegel provides some philosophical context to both what Troemel is criticizing while also showing that aesthetics and the artists should – in one way or another – be involved in an outward reflexivity that Snow is approaching in Sshtoorrty. That is, if the artists or cultural producer limits themselves to ironic tendencies, then s/he will inevitably limit themselves to a aesthetic discourse and experience. They will develop a propriety for an “antinomian” funny; one that is inherently in contradiction, incapable of mixing in with greater society/culture, always at odds, and unable to function in an empathic humorous way.

In a sense, humor must rely on the utmost pursuit of an honest communication. Certainly we can apply the old comedy adage of humor needing space to be able to “tell it like it is,” but this cliché – which now is mired in its own irony – won’t suffice. Hegel himself equates the “eternal lamentations over the lack of profound feeling, artistic insight, and genius” as a result of the proliferation of a “half grotesque and half characterless” ironic “insincerity.” The grossness of those that operate solely in self-interest engender a cultural state which “affords no pleasure,” and as a result marginalize attempts at sincere communication. One could easily trace the rampant fear/paranoia that is generated by mass telecommunication to the prolonged repulsion of sincerity in online formats. A potential downfall of drawing this comparison, however, is that alternatives to the standard impersonal/ironic behavior might become less visible to those seeking profound exchanges.

In this way, I offer an alternative way in which humor can occupy a public dialog of communal reflexivity, criticality, and empathy: Wit. As one of my more favorite subtopics within the strata of humor, wit, as a communicative gesture, requires – if not outright demands – an attention to comic subtlety. Wit, in its most profound execution, requires two fundamental properties: timing (which is all but lost in this article), and an acute awareness of context – especially the context of self with others. A deep understanding of social-self, and a willingness to strip ones self of social convention, allows for wit to become a critical tool for creating conceptually and emotionally charged humor. For wit operates not just as an observation of a scenario, but as an act of interruption. This witty interjection is not meant directly to undermine the subject material of any specific conversation, but instead made to enhance an exchange by grounding it in an attentive reclamation of subjective experience into more “solid and substantive” realms of shared empathy.

To do this effectively, and for full humorous effect, one must conceive of any and all social scenarios to be a potential moment for communal self-reflection. In this way, wit requires a devotion to the moment; an immersion in a discourse like none other, a commitment where an individual willing to powerfully invoke wit must “strip [themselves] free of unsatisfied abstract self-inwardness.” A result of this phenomenological embodiment of the moment, one can use wit as a tool against the demanding pace of online activity and situate themselves in a position of critical presentness. This ability to take ownership of the moment can simultaneously be used as a weapon against fighting ironic tendencies due to a new-found self-agency and self-awareness. The mitigation that wit provides against the pulverizing pace of the internet’s demanding creative production cycle not only allows for more temporal space for reflection, but also generates a public voice that stimulates reactive (read engaged but not reactionary) public discourse.

Even though I’m finding a lack of funny things – a problem, as I said, that motivated me to critically revisit humor – I want to emphasize that I’m not observing a climate of overwhelming heartlessness amongst my peers. The amount of empathy that is generated amongst the community that I find particular affinity towards – a vibrant pool of artists, activists, writers, and curators – is most likely the most visible aspect of the variable social networking channels available to these individuals today. However, I’d argue that the empathy and shared communal reflection that occurs within comment threads and group chats, needs to be more tangibly translated into the visual and conceptual work generated by this community. These efforts will hopefully bridge the gradual shrinking gap that still separates those working under the netart classification and the rest of the contemporary art world.

Nicholas O'Brien