LIGHTENING UP! — The Shared Aesthetics of Humor and Art

Dear Paul,

Your letter about lightening up is a most enlightening upper! The fact that American Indians employed clowns in their sacred ceremonies is fascinating. Holy Mother Church could use a good dose of that right about now, don’t you agree? But it has been my observation that humor often comes with age and maturity, and the Holy Roman Catholic Church is not nearly as old or as highly evolved in many ways, as most of the native cultures of our planet are. Allowing clowns in the temple requires enough humility among the authorities to permit them to laugh at themselves and their most cherished beliefs. Many authorities can’t do that. They hold rigidly to an unshakably solemn belief in their dogmas and their own sober roles enforcing them. Allowing anyone to mimic or make fun of these beliefs would be threatening to their sense of reality and their own importance, and out of the question.

When I was only 20 in 1969, living in Aix-en-Provence, France and studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, I had the great good fortune to rent a room in the apartment of Mme Marbain, who turned out to be well-connected in the art world, and a truly great art critic. Her husband and her father had both been artists, and she had known Henri Matisse when she was a little girl and used to sit in his lap when she went with her father to visit the master. Mme Marbain was kind enough to look at my paintings and drawings and offer her insightful critiques. One day I drew a self-portrait, looking at my very serious face in the mirror. It looked a bit like Trotsky and betrayed my ponderous view of my young self, trudging through the streets of Aix in my trench coat, with long hair, goatee and wire rimmed glasses, reading Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in the original French. When Mme Marbain saw my self-portrait, she burst out laughing. I was offended, of course. I didn’t think my self-portrait or my life were the least bit funny and I did not appreciate her laughing at me, but I have never forgotten what she said next: “Is this how you see yourself?… Well… It’s the serious young men like you who grow into fun old men!” I hope she was right.

After all, what are humor and clowning but agents of change and growth? Social psychologists tell us that what makes us laugh is an unexpected or absurd twist in the presentation of reality. Clowns represent people or animals or beings who are behaving absurdly – inappropriately – irreverently – immaturely – and we find that very funny. So, humor is essentially a representation of reality with an unexpected, surprising element that strikes our funny bone. I have always felt that art and humor have a great deal in common. Art is also, largely, a representation of reality with a layer of abstraction, form, performance or interpretation placed over it, which causes us to see “reality” in a new way. Both humor and art give us the opportunity to look through a lens of excellent craft, formal technique and emotional expression, into an alternative universe. The humorist, or clown, and the artist are often saying, “Here is the world as YOU see it, and here is the potential world as I see it.” Both art and humor challenge society to see “reality” in a new way – as an evolving picture, rather than as rigid dogma – and to consider options for new behaviors, social forms, norms, institutions, and ways of being. Both art and humor are revolutionary and prophetic views of the future in this sense, and therefore, they can both be equally threatening to some elements in society that are not eager to embrace change.

Your assertion that clowning is a way of helping people to lighten up is right on target. And I have always felt that “lightening up” is one of the major goals of art as well. But in both cases, it’s more than that, isn’t it? Both the humorist and the artist, while urging us to lighten up and not take ourselves quite so seriously, are also challenging us to question reality – to deconstruct what we think we know today and put it all back together in a new form. And, of course, that process never ends. Change may be the only constant in the Universe. In some Asian religions, even God is defined as “ever-new, ever-changing Bliss.” I’ll go out on a limb here and admit that I believe both art and humor are part of humanity’s response to the Creator – our attempt to reflect back to the Heavens some of that ever-new, ever-changing Light of Creative Bliss that shines upon us every instant of every day. “Lightening up” is just that. Lightning is one of the few forms of light that moves from the earth upward into the heavens. Lightening up through humor and art is part of humanities effort to reflect what we receive, like lightning, adding our own surprising twists. We’re all clowns and artists in one way or another! It’s actually pretty funny, when you think about it. – Kevin

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