Conceptual art can and has been labelled many things – but is it ever humorous?
Recently, at a conference on art of the 1960s and 70s a participant asserted that conceptual art didn’t involve humour, so I thought a corrective of that misapprehension was necessary. Of course, it’s true that humour isn’t the first thing most people would associate with conceptual art. Conceptual art is often seen as the most austere and reductive art of the last century, but despite this typical characterisation there are some very funny works, alongside some quite absurd ones.
For ‘laugh out loud funny’ conceptual art, I would point you in the direction of two short videos by American artist, John Baldessari, both from 1972: Baldessari sings LeWitt and Teaching a Plant the Alphabet. These videos are conducted in the dead-pan manner we associate with conceptual art’s anti-aesthetic practices, but with content that is totally at odds with the serious tone of delivery. If much humour is founded on incongruity, and even more is based on bringing the high down low, then these videos are textbook examples of the genre. In Baldessari sings Lewitt, Baldessari sings Sol LeWitt’s famous theoretical text ‘Sentences on conceptual art’ (1969) to a range of tunes, including ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ He isn’t a bad singer by the way. In Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, an unassuming indoor plant is drilled with flash cards showing the English alphabet. The pedagogical function of art, seriality, conceptual art’s sobriety, artists’ arcane theory, all are at once ridiculed and flaunted as part of the videos’ conceptual art credentials.
How do we account for this humorous vein in conceptual art? Mark Godfrey has argued that the use of photography (and lens based media) by conceptual artists is crucial for the change in tone from relentlessly impersonal art to the injection of comedy and feeling. He cites, in particular, the work of Charles Ray and Bas Jan Ader.  Ader’s work is a particularly interesting case of ‘funny feeling’ as it is often very hard to determine the affective tone of his work. Specifically, I’m thinking of his short silent film, I’m too Sad to Tell you (1971).
The film consists of a close-up of the artist crying, preceded by the handwritten title of the work. Not, one might think, the stuff of humour. But the work very cleverly engages the anti-expressive stance of conceptual art, managing to at once promise, deliver and withhold feeling. The trope of the romantic, expressive artist (I’m sharing my sadness with you, see me weep) is undercut by the withholding anti-expressive artist (I’m too sad to tell you, and in any case my film is silent). The clash of sensibilities gives Ader’s work an understated, absurd quality that delivers the distance or humour necessary to partially distinguish the work from the thing it appears to represent – distress.
Mark Godfrey and Jan Verwoert maintain that Ader’s work is nonetheless moving.  In relation to I’m too Sad to Tell You, Verwoert argues ‘neither the conceptual framing nor the rhetorical character relativizes the emotional truth of Ader’s display of sadness.’  While I agree that the film is moving, the conceptual framing is not redundant, it does complicate the emotion shown.
Verwoert’s argument partly rests on the idea that, as he puts it: ‘Crying is one of the most basic and straightforward ways to communicate sadness.’  To some extent this is true: crying is one of those mimetic corporeal activities, like yawning or vomiting, that is hard to observe without a similar sentiment or reaction being stirred in the viewer. Hence watching Arbeit Macht Frei (1973), Stuart Brisley’s film of him continuously vomiting, can make the observer feel quite nauseous even without the much more potent effects of smell. The much less private activity of yawning also provokes an immediate reaction: I watch someone yawn and unknowingly replicate the same action. Crying, however, is somewhat different. As a sign of distress, it can certainly elicit what American psychologist Silvan Tomkins calls the desire for remedial action, either on the part of the person feeling the distress or an observer.  That said, the vision of an adult male crying could also make some viewers feel very uncomfortable; the uninhibited distress of an adult can be experienced as invasive, overwhelming or confronting and thereby elicit aversion as much as empathy. In other words, the reaction to Ader’s tears may not be a straightforward registration of his sadness. His humorous note about this work – ‘I know a man ain’t supposed to cry’ – certainly indicates his cognisance of the general cultural aversion to the public display of male tears. 
To further complicate matters, because Ader’s film is without sound and lacks a context to establish the emotion on display, there is some ambiguity about the facial expressions that are shown, despite the ever-present tears. Under these circumstances, and with the obvious theatrics of Ader’s tears, a level of scepticism is encouraged about what is shown, so that momentarily the distortions and contortions of his facial expressions could be read as laughter rather than distress. To again invoke the work of Silvan Tomkins, while he states that the face is the primary site of the affects, he also notes how difficult it is to interpret facial expressions in terms of a single affect. Affects are often registered in very quick succession, making it hard to ‘catch fleeting affect on the wing,’ as Tomkins puts it. 
Ader’s decontextualized distress amplifies normal ambiguities, thereby attracting as much curious interest as empathy on the part of the viewer. One might conclude that his work purposefully puts into play a reflection on feeling. In other words, alongside the display of feeling and the audience’s visceral response to that display, there is a distance that allows thinking about feeling. For instance, Ader’s work provokes innumerable questions: Is this real or simulated emotion? Are they real tears? Is he laughing or crying? In Ader’s work, then, we glimpse just how strange (or funny peculiar) feeling can be. Something everyday like crying is opened to unanticipated interpretations and speculations. ■
Susan Best is the author of Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-garde, winner of the AAANZ (Art Association of Australia & New Zealand) Best Book Prize for 2012, and Professor of Art Theory, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary art, with a particular emphasis on women’s art, conceptual art and South American art.
Top image: John Baldessari, Conceptual Art, , Video 1972, [photo, Lee Plested 2008]. Courtesy The Apartment.
 Mark Godfrey, “From box to street and back again: an inadequate descriptive system from the seventies,” Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970, ed. Donna De Salvo, exh. cat. (London: Tate Publishing, 2005) 46.
 ibid, 49, fn 65. Godfrey states: ‘As many writers have noted, what is surprising and engaging about Ader’s work is that for all its knowingness about the construction of emotions, it is no less touching’
 Jan Verwoert, In Search of the Miraculous (London: Afterall, 2006) 19.
 Silvan Tomkins, “Distress–anguish,” Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995) 120.
 Ader’s sketchbook note cited in Ingrid Schaffer, Bennett Simpson and Tanya Leighton, The Big Nothing, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2004) 71.