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Does the art world have a sense of humour?

31 August 2021

From the September 2021 issue of ApolloPreview and subscribe here.

When was the last time you laughed with, rather than at, a work of art? Is there still a place for characters in museums or galleries? Or were some people and practices never funny in the first place?

Susan Moore

Does the art world have a sense of humour? It certainly used to. There were always wits, such as the wickedly funny John Gere of the British Museum, the delightful Dick Kingzett of Agnew’s or the irreverent David Carritt, whose quips were as sharp as his famous eye. I recall, for instance, the stately Raine, Countess Spencer walking into a private view at the National Gallery in London with her trademark starched bouffant hair and wearing a navy lace frock, and John instantly announcing that he was going to walk up and say ‘Good evening, Mrs Thatcher. May I have your autograph?’ Or Noël Annesley at an auction at Christie’s wryly knocking down a lot ‘to the Italian gentlemen talking at the back of the room’, self-evidently a dealer’s ‘ring’. Yet in my fledgling years as an art critic and, later, saleroom correspondent in the mid 1980s and ’90s, their kind of quick, cultivated repartee was already something of an endangered species. Even so, a keen sense of the absurd prevailed among those who took their work, but not themselves, seriously.

What this particular young woman did not expect to find back then – I can’t think why – was the kind of humour and exuberant sense of fun that prevailed among the dealers and saleroom staff of Bond Street and St James’s. This is perhaps best described as the high jinks and practical jokes of boisterous overgrown public schoolboys, which of course they all were. Imagine now golf being played in the aisles on a quiet day at Maastricht, or cricket in the stores of an auction house – which led to its chairman pleading with his staff to desist as they were down to the last insurance company in the city. Then there was an approach to cataloguing Old Masters that defied attribution. Perhaps the least lewd example is the undistinguished Dutch landscape attributed to the hitherto unknown Van Essabell – a riff on the Bloomsbury painter of (almost) the same name. That artist made it into Art Prices Current.

Practical jokes alleviated the boredom of long art fairs where most of the sales took place over the opening and closing weekends. Johnny van Haeften remembers when fellow dealer Peter Tillou, with the aid of Johnny’s four-year-old daughter, rehung a still life of dead game upside down. It was there for a week before he noticed, and then only because a client commented that the birds were flying north. Sometimes these japes took on epic, tit-for-tat proportions, with hoax calls, labels of entire stands changed to comic captions, or premature hotel check-outs that left colleagues suddenly without a room. During a porters’ strike in New York, the entire community of international dealers colluded in bidding, painfully slowly and in tiny increments, on a very heavy painting held up by the relevant auction house’s head of department.

It seems unlikely that any of this would ever happen now. What was once (fairly) harmless and gleefully silly now sounds downright unprofessional. Red tape and regulations have largely put paid to a congenial and very possibly no-less-profitable art world, as has the workload in oppressed, ever-leaner organisations dominated by accountants or hit by government cuts. Moreover, the stakes are just too high now that works of art – and real estate – have become so expensive, and also so horribly worthy.

In the museum sector, the very existence of works of art – and certainly their exhibition – seems to be justified wholly on the grounds of educational value or social justice, with little acknowledgement of the aesthetic pleasure that looking at art may bring the viewer. It is as if joy is being sucked out of the whole experience. It has to be said that those involved in contemporary art – not infrequently beyond parody itself – are even more po-faced and humourless. Now that they are forced into dealing with NFTs, their mood can only get worse. Working with art has become no laughing matter – and those who are seen to enjoy themselves do so at their peril.

Susan Moore is associate editor of Apollo.

Niru Ratnam

Earlier this summer, the curator Francesco Bonami dished out some advice in an Instagram post to a number of art-world professionals, myself included, who had signed a letter telling him off: ‘Please do not take yourself too seriously.’ This was a second response on Instagram to an article in the Art Newspaper that had pointed out the trend of Chinese museums appointing white chaps of a certain age as directors, and dared to suggest that this might not be ideal. Bonami’s first response to the article had included the comment that he sometimes identified as a 35-year-old Iranian lesbian, so the observation that he was a white man was invalid, as was the whole article.

I normally don’t get involved with this sort of thing – at least not since an unfortunate episode in which I may have (completely wrongly) accused the Hepworth Wakefield of being indirectly responsible for home-grown terrorism in the Spectator (sorry, Hepworth!). But I was at Lord’s and had imbibed perhaps too much hospitality when I was alerted to an open letter arguing that Bonami had trivialised the issue – undermining critical theory around identity and gender – by basically taking the piss. Bonami was further fired up by the letter, or at least he saw an opportunity to attract more Instagram followers. He acknowledged that there were serious issues around cultural and gender identity (no shit, Sherlock) before telling us we should all lighten up.

This seemed unfair – in my mind, I have a sense of humour. In my younger days I acted as an occasional adviser to the satirical art-world blog ‘Cathedral of Shit’, which, while uneven in quality, made an occasional stab at humour. It also ran agenda-setting stories such as ‘Antony Gormley’s Giant Knackers’, and revealed that Munira Mirza (now one of Boris Johnson’s key advisers) spent £10 in Old Street on lunch with Matthew Slotover and Ed Vaizey in 1998, and speculated that this might have been enough for a couple of small kebabs.

Yet this spat made me wonder: does the art world have a sense of humour problem? Have we all become humourless woke warriors spoiling the sense of play and fun that Bonami and his generation embodied? Am I getting old and humourless? Determined to prove that humour still has a place in the art world I decided to look into the matter, despite being on holiday and having to file this from next to the pool.

I figured that the arena in which Bonami now expresses himself, Instagram, would be the place to look. I was happy to see that accounts such as @jerrygogosian and @freeze_magazine have followings of coming up for 100k. The feeds are pleasantly comedic, using what I believe are referred to as ‘memes’ to make points about the art world being a generally bad place. Yet to be honest, both are a bit rubbish. @freeze_magazine recently captioned a photo of Pablo Picasso with the text ‘Imagine being named after a family car’, which more than 2,000 followers apparently thought profound or funny. Recent posts on @jerrygogosian seem a bit more incisive, including ‘Guys sending unsolicited art career advice on Instagram is the new dick pic’ and a post featuring Prince Harry shrugging at Barack Obama with an observation about commercial galleries that commit to climate change before tripling their gallery space and attending more art fairs. Pretty good points, but pretty vacuous without naming names. Try it, it’s easy.

My 20 minutes of research were perhaps in vain. I have little idea if the art world has less of a sense of humour than it once did. I suspect that this might be the case. It might have something to do with a generation of readers (swipers?) who are generally a bit angry about the art world, but perhaps have no specific idea what they are angry about. But this sounds old and patronising. Bonami’s humour, however, seems to be that of the supposedly renegade old white guy. He was the future once, but then again, so was I.

Niru Ratnam is a gallerist and writer.

From the September 2021 issue of ApolloPreview and subscribe here.