These Foolish Things

Dada's centenary and the importance of absurdity

‘The man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.’
Attributed to André Breton

As the long winter nights drag on, all I want to watch on TV is Toast of London. It’s an idiotic, brilliant show about Steven Toast, a furious, failed actor and moustachioed voice-over artist who elongates his diphthongs and syllables in a fruity baritone. Toast is scripted and played by art school-trained comedian Matt Berry, who recently told the Guardian: ‘Most of the things I do are inspired by things that frightened me when I was young.’ He must have had a terrifying childhood: plotlines include him being cast alongside dogs in an avant-garde version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; reading aloud the entire Bible for an advert while secretly being fed hallucinogens; and dating a beak-keeper (as in, a woman who collects beaks). In one episode, ‘Hamm on Toast’, the rampantly heterosexual actor falls in love with Mad Men’s Jon Hamm simply because, I suspect, the title was a gift. I find that when the world feels too much, watching Toast car-crash his way through it is the best antidote available, which perhaps says as much about me as it does about the world. Which is what, exactly?

That it’s nuts? Obviously, but that’s nothing new. Neither is mocking it and its inhabitants – after all, we’re the only animals that (as far as we can tell) can laugh. A few years ago, the world’s oldest (attempt at a) joke was uncovered in what is now southern Iraq. In 1,900 BCE, a Sumerian graffitied a toilet wall with the words: ‘Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.’ (Fart jokes are one of the most enduring forms of expression: discuss.) In 2014, the classicist Mary Beard published a book, Laughter in Ancient Rome, that discusses Philogelos (Laughter Lover), a collection of jokes from the Roman Empire compiled in the fourth or fifth century ce. In an article for the Guardian from the same year, Beard tells how the British stand-up comedian Jim Bowen recently performed jokes from Philogelos and the audience were apparently in stitches. How, she asks, despite the specific cultural and temporal context that laughter stems from, ‘do we explain the fact that Roman jokes can still get an audience cracking up, so many centuries later, in such a radically different world?’ Perhaps, she suggests, it’s because ‘ancient jokes are the direct ancestors of our own modern comic quips’. 

That humans always have, and always will, need a little levity in their lives is a truism. But, as last year’s tragic events in Paris taught us all too well, ridiculing certain things (e.g. politics or religion) is a luxury: only the most tolerant of governments and faiths allow anyone to poke fun at them. The world’s prisons are full of comedians, many of whom have been incarcerated for the most innocuous of offences. It would seem that people in positions of power – especially the paranoid – know that a witticism is as capable of revealing the truth of a situation as a blunt statement of fact. It’s no joke (boom boom) that laughter can be the most subversive tool around.

Even at its darkest, humour usually entails, in the most roundabout way, a sense of camaraderie – an admission that we’re all in this mess together. Being human means that we regularly encounter situations where someone will be inflexible, stupid or cruel. Most bullies/fanatics/fascists aren’t known for their sense of humour; neither, it must be said, are the self-important politicians, activists, artists et al. who, despite their best intentions, often only serve to irritate. One of the best ways to deflate (and, occasionally, enflame) such posturing is to poke fun at it. In terms of efficacy, just think of Charlie Chaplin’s parody of fascism in The Great Dictator (1940), in which he played both a dictator and a Jewish barber, or Richard Pryor’s brilliant, acerbic take-downs of racism. (Jerry Seinfeld described him as ‘the Picasso of our profession’.)

This year marks the centenary of dada. In February 1916 – when the world was busy blowing itself up – this most innovative of protest movements was launched at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Its ammunition may have been laughter but its target was deadly serious. Writing in his diary in 1916, Hugo Ball, one of dada’s founders, famously declared: ‘Every word that is spoken and sung here [Cabaret Voltaire] says at least this one thing: that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect.’ Reading about the wild nights of surrealist performance, outrage and revelry that took place in this small back room of a Zurich bar makes very clear that, while mirth in the midst of dark times was a way of refuting the terrible logic of war-mongers and fascists, it was also a fun way to pass an evening. Who could want for more?

The dadaists were arguing for a language that represented an actual, as opposed to an ideal, version of life; embodying absurdity was, for them, the most accurate reflection of the horror that was engulfing much of the planet. Their enduring influence has proved the value of humour as a form of protest about the fact that life is irrational, unreasonable and (to borrow from Woody Allen) far too short. Dada’s legacy can be seen across decades of radical art, writing, music and theatre, from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to Andre Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour (1940) – another response to another terrible war – Samuel Beckett’s plays, John Cage’s atonality, Mike Kelley’s caustic cabarets, Kara Walker’s blistering employment of caricature and beyond – the list is endless. Personally speaking, I can still remember the lightning bolt of recognition that hit me when, as a young art student, I first encountered the feminist work of the Guerilla Girls who, for 30 years, have been ‘fighting discrimination with facts, humour and fake fur’, and who ‘discovered that ridicule and humiliation, backed up by irrefutable information, can disarm the powers that be, put them on the spot and force them to examine themselves’. Amen to that.

In the past year alone, I’ve seen fantastic work by seemingly countless artists – Jimmie Durham, Tamara Henderson, Sanya Kantarovsky, Ahmet Öğüt, Amalia Pica, Dana Schutz, Jim Shaw, Frances Stark, Martine Syms, Annika Ström, Bedwyr Williams (who is profiled in this issue) and many more – all of whom use varying degrees of absurdity to reflect on everything from social anxiety to dictatorships, misogyny, the refugee crisis, sexuality, gender, race and mortality: in other words, the challenges faced by the inhabitants of this planet every day. I applaud them all. If we can’t occasionally laugh at what we’re all going through, I hate to think of the alternative.

Jennifer Higgie is co-editor of frieze and editor of Frieze Masters.

Issue 177

First published in Issue 177

March 2016

Most Read

Tate Modern, London
London’s fourth plinth artists announced; a new fund to protect cultural heritage in war-torn areas
Annika Eriksson, The Social, 2017, wallpaper and objects on a shelf, 500 x 450 cm. Courtesy: The artist and Moderna Museet, Malmö
Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden
Paul Scheerbart, Nusi-Pusi, 1912. Courtesy: Berlinische Galerie/Kai-Annett Becker
From a short history of plagiarism to Trisha Brown's walk: what to read this weekend
Q. What is art for? A. To tell us where we are.
The work of filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins on the occasion of his inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial film...
Trisha Brown has died, aged 80; two new appointments at London’s ICA; controversy at the Whitney
A round-up of the best shows to see in the city ahead of this week’s Art Basel Hong Kong
How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-...
Charlie Fox on a new translation of Hervé Guibert's chronicle of love, lust and drug-addled longing
Three highlights from the New York festival promoting emerging filmmakers
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
A report and the highlights from a show themed around fluidity, flux, botany and the subterranean
From growing protests over the gentrification of Boyle Heights to Schimmel leaving Hauser & Wirth, the latest from...
kurimanzutto, Mexico City, Mexico
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland
The body is a troubled thing ...
Sir Howard Hodgkin dies aged 84; finalists for Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017 announced

From the Women's Strike to a march that cancels itself out: what to read this weekend
The most interesting works in the IFFR’s Short Film section all grappled with questions of truth, honesty and...
With the reissue of their eponymous debut album, revisiting the career of legendary Berlin art project / punk band Die...
Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil 

Tramway, Glasgow, UK
A work by self-taught artist Martín Ramírez
Munich’s Haus der Kunst embroiled in Scientology scandal; Martín Ramírez to inaugurate the new ICA LA
If politics today obsesses over the policing of borders, art in France is enacting multiple crossings
A new video installation from Richard Mosse investigates the refugee crisis
Gustav Metzger has died aged 90; director of the Met resigns
What draws us to certain stories, and why do we retell them? 
It’s time that the extraordinary life and work of Anya Berger was acknowledged

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Nov - Dec 2016

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017