But is it REAL? Is Art a Joke? – Five Funny Things

I have been thinking about abstraction recently, particularly the relation of what is abstracted to what it has been abstracted from, since it seems to me to have a bearing on things that are of interest to me, such as philosophy, metaphor and art. So I was amused to run across a couple of things on Facebook and Google Plus which seemed to have a bearing on the ideas I was trying to develop, and which in turn reminded me of a couple of other things. Here they are, in the order they occurred:

First, from Google Plus:

miracles photoshop graph

next, from Facebook:

F OFF Harriers

The picture was accompanied by this (rather earnest) commentary:

Look at this carefully. It is a brilliant example of British humour! 

The British government has scrapped the Harrier fleet and on their farewell formation fly-past over the Houses of Parliament they gave the government a message.

Lean back a bit from your computer monitor and squint. Seriously … push your chair back a couple of feet.

My hat is off to the man who was leading this Squadron. (Shorty)

On Facebook, the discussion turns very rapidly to the question of whether or not the picture is genuine, in the sense of recording an actual event (as the commentary suggests). Some people are not bothered at all, pointing out that it is funny in any case; but others get quite angry and exercised on the point – evidently, for them, the picture only makes them laugh if it depicts an actual event; if it is ‘faked’ it just makes them angry (perhaps because they feel they have been taken in).

This called to mind something from Flann O’Brien’s celebrated ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column in the Irish Times, which he wrote under the name of Myles na gCopaleen:

WANTED, WIFE, copper-faced, any length, capable of being bent. Box – ‘

This is an advertisement that appeared recently in an evening paper. It is obvious, of course, that ‘wife’ is a misprint for ‘wire’.

To be honest for a change, I invented this advertisement out of my own head. It did not appear in any paper. But, if any reader thinks that any special merit attaches to notices of this kind because they have actually appeared in print, what is to stop me having them inserted and then quoting them?

Nothing, except the prohibitive cost.

 -The Best of Myles, p114

And I was also reminded of a famous incident from classical antiquity – some 25 centuries ago – the contest between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius:

…when they had produced their respective pieces, the birds came to pick with the greatest avidity the grapes which Zeuxis had painted. Immediately Parrhenius exhibited his piece, and Zeuxis said, ‘Remove your curtain that we may see the painting.’ The painting was the curtain, and Zeuxis acknowledged himself conquered, by exclaiming ‘Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself.’

– Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary

and finally, to round it off nicely and tie the last piece to the first, that camera & photoshop graph, there is this,


the news that one of the four Turner Prize finalists this year is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, ‘a portrait painter, whose subjects are imaginary.’

These five things seem to me to combine so happily, and to be so pregnant with meaning concerning the things I discuss in this blog, that rather than comment at length, I shall leave them for you to savour and make your own inferences.


8 thoughts on “But is it REAL? Is Art a Joke? – Five Funny Things

  1. I think you’re missing the point. The wife/wire thing can only be funny as a mistake. As a creation it’s too easy and not good enough as a joke to be very funny but as a genuine misprint there would be cause for humour. It’s not about publication, but about the reality of the mistake.

    Similarly, it would be overwhelming funnier for people to go to the trouble of flying planes to say fuck off, compared to faking it. It works a little without it, but it’s cheating to make people think it’s real.

    • Hello, and thanks for taking the time to read my piece and comment on it. I think some further explanation is in order.

      The plane picture is effectively a political cartoon drawn with photoshop rather than a pen. Its genesis is the same as many stories: ‘wouldn’t it be funny if – ?’ As a practical exercise, it does not bear serious examination: those who know about such things have observed that there simply were not enough Harriers in existence at the time to execute the manoeuvre, but in any case, it only works as a joke if the words can be read when the flight is juxtaposed with the Houses of Parliament, since the joke is about a message from the armed forces to the government; for that to work in practice, you would have to be standing in a very particular spot and looking at just the right time as the jets swept past at several hundred miles an hour, being careful not to blink for the brief moment when all the elements were visible in the right arrangement.

      Had it been drawn as a political cartoon, the Houses of Parliament would have been in the picture and it would have appeared in the place in a magazine or newspaper where such cartoons are expected (the upper half of the right hand middle page in The Times, for instance) and, crucially, it would have appeared at a time when the story of retiring the Harrier was current, so that the readers would immediately have made the connection. It would have been just as funny, without anyone ever imagining it depicted an actual event. Likewise, if the photoshop picture appeared, say, on an RAF forum on the Internet, it would not require explanation, provided the story was current at the time or still resonated, because the typical visitor to the forum would know enough to recognise the Harrier and see the joke; again, no-one in that knowledgeable audience would have thought it depicted an actual event – they would have known it was a joke from the outset.

      The rather laboured explanation that accompanied the picture when I came across it on Facebook has evidently been added because the person posting it fears his audience will not get the joke from looking at the picture alone. The humour of it is not, in fact, peculiarly British, but the political point of it is; had the US government done something similar, then a flight of F-15s (or whatever) making the same message over the Capitol would have been immediately understandable to an American audience without any explanation.

      Having to explain any joke beforehand diminishes it of course (rather as if someone telling a joke that depends on national stereotypes has to start out by first explaining what the stereotypes in question are, in case his audience is not familiar with them). It is only in its Facebook form that it is liable to be mistaken for a possibly true story, and only then by someone who does not think about it very hard.

      Context is similarly important in the wife/wire example: in this case, the column ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ which appeared in the Irish Times for many years, starting in the early 1940s. The man who wrote it under the name Myles na gCopaleen also wrote humorous novels as Flann O’Brien, though in everyday life he was Brian O’Nolan, a senior civil servant and an erudite Gaelic scholar with a serious drinking problem. The last point is important because his column (which was frequently savage in tone and generally satirical) often has a tinge of desperate invention as he struggles to come up with something funny against a deadline (and after a heavy night’s boozing). I think that is the case here.

      Myles was a very witty and intelligent man but that could not be said of the level of newspaper humour in his day, and he frequently pokes savage fun at some of the stuff he finds his column surrounded by (he describes one such contribution as ‘a slice of bubonic marzipan’). Misprints of the kind he cites were a staple of newspaper humour in his day (still are, to some extent) but Myles himself did not find them as riotously funny as some people do, which is really what the joke is about – the closing line, ‘nothing, apart from the prohibitive cost’ is typical of the peevish and cantankerous persona which O’Nolan adopted for his column.

      • I think you’re still missing the reasoning behind the objection. There are things which can be funny either because you witness it yourself or because someone makes you believe it really happened, but which wouldn’t meet a high enough standard to raise much laughter outside of that. We simply have lower standards for things that are real- eg humorous shaped vegetables that only slightly resemble a cock. Portraying something as real that isn’t is effectively lowering your audience’s threshold for laughter and gaining a dishonest comedic disadvantage. I don’t always mind it, but it’s really lame when a joke only raises laughter BECAUSE assumed as real.

        The concept of paying to have a misprint deliberately printed is certainly amusing, but it remains a fact that the fake misprint itself is a really very weak piece of material that would only be funny if it happened by accident. It’s not funny enough as a creation to work on its own merits. Likewise, making planes say fuck you isn’t exactly uproarious. The fact it wouldn’t be funny if explaining the context for it as a creation only makes it a case in point. It’s simply not that great a gag outside of the momentary context it was created for (except for the surprise when you first notice what it says). To portray it as real adds nothing to the level on which it does work. The biggest potential laugh (and doubtless the reason for it being shared) comes out of thinking it happened, not from the quality of the gag. It’s a really cheap way to turn a mediocre joke into an instant crowd pleaser. Really strong material stands up every bit as well when you know it’s concocted. This is just another optical illusion with a slightly humorous surprise, not a really good quality gag. For me, its comedic fraud to use a lie to make for an undeserved level of impact.

  2. I take your point about how the joke would have worked better in its time and place whether real or not (although I still don’t think it would be as funny as when imagining it had happened). However, I don’t see this as any kind of justification for stealing unwarranted laughs from dishonesty. It should simply be a reflection of the fleeting nature of topical satire- not a justification for using lies to resuscitate a rather ordinary joke that was only fit for that time.

  3. Pingback: Should we talk about Art? | COMPLEAT TROWZER

  4. Hi, in general philosophical terms I found your article extremely interesting and thought provoking. However, by analogy to this specific situation I think we’d have to include something akin to viewing the artwork having already been told a cock and bull story about the artist’s supposedly tormented and remarkable life (involving some amazing triumph over adversity) before realising that he’s actually a very ordinary person who just made it all up to sound more interesting. At that point, his works pf art had better be pretty damned impressive, if he’s not going to transform into something of a nude emperor.

    My argument would be that it SHOULD be more like the situation where you simply look at the painting for what it is and either appreciate it or don’t.

    Another way of putting it would be in comparison to a magician’s trick, in which the entire thing depends on an audience plant or camera trick and involves no ingenuity of method (which I might admire all the more if I were to see the method). Generally, I’m happy to just enjoy things, but when something’s implied standing is owed almost solely to hot air it does bother me.

    • I think we are probably more in agreement than not. The instance you quote is a good one, because it should not matter in theory who the artist is or what he has done, since there are plenty of cases where we have no idea; but in practice, it can be hard to keep these things separate – for instance, the case of Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 Olympics, which has been condemned for glorifying the Nazis, or the work of the sculptor David Gill, who had incestuous relations with his daughters. Should these things affect how we feel about their work? It can be hard to dissociate the two once you know about them. And of course the sob-story about having come from a terrible background is now almost standard as a preface to performing in talent shows, but I think that raises a point that is relevant to our whole discussion, namely about context and expectation. A show such as ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ – where there are undoubtedly some able performers – is also a masterpiece of audience manipulation (I mean the TV audience – the studio audience is part of the manipulation) because its real aim is to provide emotional heartstring-tugging entertainment for people who enjoy that kind of thing; and it is not about being duped, either, because the audience effectively collude – they know they are being manipulated but don’t care, because they enjoy the emotional ‘hit’ that results from the whole carefully-choreographed performance (of which the the on-stage act is only a part). Context and expectation is the key to most of the examples we have been considering, and the Facebook one is of interest because there is no set understanding about what is to be expected in that context – if an entertainer onstage begins with ‘now, this is a true story…’ (as many of them do) then it does not actually matter because the context – a theatre show – has already established our expectations, which is not that the story will be true (which does not matter) but that it will be entertaining. Facebook, however, is a sort of Wild West territory, where you continually see conflicts and confusions arising from a lack of shared understanding about what is to be expected there. I like your other instance too – the magic trick – which I had thought of quoting earlier, in particular with reference to ‘street magic’ which plays very cleverly with expectation and context. We know that a magic act in a theatre depends on a mixture of stagecraft – the assiduously prepared set, the plant in the audience – misdirection (often crucial) and legerdemain. Street magic is exactly the same, but by shifting to ‘real’ surroundings we are gulled into thinking that the magician is operating alone and without preparation – it wears the appearance of a casual encounter. So when the card we have picked turns up stuck on the inside of the shop window, we are astonished and delighted by the apparent impossibility of it. In philosophical terms, it is a cunning use of Occam’s razor – it is easier to believe the simple explanation, that this is some sort of magic, than to think that someone would go to the great pains necessary to produce the effect by using a pre-prepared set, a huge and varied range of accomplices and so on – but that of course is how it was done. and I would say that if we are entertained, then it is successful, since that is what it set out to do. An interesting parallel case that uses precisely the same methods for nefarious purposes is the ‘long con’ where the mark goes to a party with new friend B and finds all sorts of glamorous and successful people including slightly older new friend (from an unconnected context) A, whose ‘chance’ presence validates the proceedings. At some point the mark is inveigled into a scheme to part him from his cash because of the confidence he now has in the genuineness of his situation – but in reality, A & B are in cahoots, the house is a stage-set and the glamorous people are hired actors and the whole thing is an assiduously-prepared scheme, which in its own way is not without artistry.

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