Humor has been a major component in the work of many twentieth-century artists – the Dadaist and Surrealists in the early decades, the Pop and Conceptual artists, and a diverse and distinguishable group of others since the 1960s. In recent years a significant number of artists have used humor to critique social, political, and cultural issues. No Laughing Matter examines this phenomenon by focusing on thirteen artists.
Because the work in No Laughing Matter concerns serious social, political, and cultural issues, critics have previously tended to overlook or make perfunctory reference to its humorous aspects. Once the province of literary critics and philosophers, humor has also been scrutinized by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists. Some early theories suggested that humor was universal – that a definition could account for all kinds of humor. These theories have been supplemented by empirical approaches that take into account social, cultural, and psychological variables. Humor can be a powerful tool in the hands of both political reactionaries and progressives. The artists in this exhibition use humor subversively, as a means of undermining the dominant order or critiquing the status quo. It also offers a means of addressing social, political, and cultural issues without abandoning art for polemics or propaganda.
Curator Nina Felshin compiles contemporary artworks which use humor as a means to convey a larger ideology or statement, presenting a genuinely funny collection of political and social art about subjects that are really no laughing matter at all. Incongruity is apparent in almost every piece in No Laughing Matter, most often generated by a contradiction between style and content – as, for instance, when artists mimic the forms and conventions of commercial advertising to deliver messages that subvert the usual intentions of communication in that medium.