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


Dear Kevin,

I loved the letter you wrote about your recent weekend combination of ArtWalk and “Connect the Dots” event, designed to help raise people’s consciousness about global warming and its effects on life on earth.  It’s a very serious topic — what could be more serious? — but at the same time, if it is only approached from the point of view of super-seriousness, then people are easily turned off.  It is, in fact, by definition almost an overwhelming topic, one that’s both crushing and devastating. 

All that to say I thought your were right to inject a “clown person” into the mix.  The whole idea of clowns is, in fact, an interesting topic in itself.  It makes me think, for example, of the many ways that traditional American Indians incorporated clowns into some of their most sacred ceremonials.  I think that when non-Indians first saw this they were shocked and put off, even a little appalled.  The Western idea of the sacred seems to have no room for any kind of levity in it.  Which is odd, isn’t it?  I mean, who says that God has no sense of humor?  Anyway, I was surprised myself, I have to admit, when I first came to understand that clowns were an integral part of some of the most sacred AmerIndian ceremonials.  I wondered for a while why that might be.  Finally, it began to dawn on me that there were lots of reasons, and no doubt I only understand some of them. 

One of the things that occurred to me has to do with what I think of just as a lightening of the mood.  The “sacred” sounds awfully serious, and I suppose in a way it is.  Some people even find it frightening, especially when dance and masks are involved, and the playing of the drum, that mimicking of the heartbeat in all of us.  But people feel a bit of a load taken from their shoulders when the clowns arrive and they start making fun of everything — of themselves, of the people standing around watching, and even of the very ceremonials they’re part of.  They seem to have this ability to speak to people at some very basic, almost pre-cognitive level, and to say that it’s alright, it’s a good thing, to laugh in the face of that which is most serious, in the face of danger, maybe even in the face of death itself.  This, in turn, reminds me too of your wonderful painting “Leonard Says That Some Things in Life Are Serious, But Everything Is Funny,” which you included a photo of attached to your letter.

One of the other roles that clowns take on in some of these ceremonials is to, in a sense, turn things upside down.  If the ceremony takes place in the summer, they might appear in full winter gear; and if it’s freezing out, they’ll dance around in very little clothing, complaining to everyone around about how hot it is.  It always seemed to me that this has something to do with realizing that our expectations about how things are, or how they should be, are so often not necessarily the case.  In other words, for example, you can pray to all the gods for an answer about some question or problem, and you will get an answer, but that answer may be very different from what you thought it would or should be.  It’s a way of getting out of our head and into some other place that is open to the unexpected and the magical.  It’s a way of saying: “Surprise me!  I want to laugh and to wonder.  I want to be amazed!” 

Your clown persona incorporated all of these things, I think, and a bunch more that I’m not clever enough to understand.  But it seemed to me that you played the “adult-child” in order to contribute to the opening of  people’s hearts (not just their minds) in a way that was funny and enjoyable.  I saw people laughing in the photos, and it’s good to laugh.  Even when things are serious.  Especially when things are serious.

So, congratulations to “Pretty Pretty Snowflake” on his clowning about matters that matter. In the realm of ritual and mythology, you come from a long, long line of such clown people.  As Leonard wisely said to us many years ago, somethings really are very serious, but in the end everything’s pretty damed funny.