Helene Deutsch

On humour in contemporary art


On repeated occasions, artistic works make us smile, laugh or grin. And though it may seem paradoxical at first sight it is often precisely those works that have a bitterly serious context. This mingling of elements of the serious and nonserious produces a specific mixture of emotions that can be described by the term humour.

Essentially, a humorous encounter can only develop from circumstances that trigger sensations such as embarrassment, hurt or sadness. Only humour is capable of defying the unfortunate situation, adding a portion of fun to the negative feelings and removing some of the heaviness from the suffering sustained. It is this protective element that distinguishes the phenomenon of humour from its associated manifestations of the funny such as the joke, wit, comedy, the various forms of irony, parody, cynicism or satire, which can also serve as an expression of aggression. Yet humour is intricately bound up with the various forms of the comic – on the one hand, it is only through harmless manifestation of the comic and wit that humour is able to express itself, on the other it is impressively capable of preparing the ground for the development of widely varying phenomena of the funny. So in order to grasp the specific humourist achievement in its method and impact it always needs to be considered embedded in the complex of the comic.

Since it requires a humourist achievement, in other words a preceding discomfort, the artistic positions to be examined as part of this project are those that respond to problematic situations triggering negative emotions. In the process those artistic products appear interesting that are not limited to the context of private concern, but rather reach out to the socio-political trends of their time and consequently are capable of claiming they are critical of the age. As such, though seldom recognisable at first sight the choice of positions to be examined will always focus on art that we would describe as operating within the field of social criticism. The fact that the selection is made up of contemporary art is due to the fact that what is considered funny always depends on its contemporaneity, in other words temporal proximity ensures it is easier to observe and appreciate.

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On the one hand the intention will be, taking the example of the artistic works, to elaborate on the use of humour as an aesthetic strategy, on the other the focus will be on examining the humour-related form of attention generated by employing this strategic method. The aim is based on the resulting findings to develop a theory of humour in the domain of the aesthetic, while the focus lies on the question of a possible subversive potential of humour with regard to societal processes.


​Prof. Dr. Juliane Rebentisch