30 September 2021
A Sense of Humour
By Lynda Goetz
These days it would seem that a sense of humour is not only not required in diplomatic circles, but it is positively frowned upon. In the art world, on the other hand, you can apparently not only get away with it, but make a profit out of it as well; unless that is you are applying for the Turner Prize 2021, where earnestness is the order of the day.
Earlier this week, our ambassador to Spain, Hugh Elliot, was apparently forced to apologise after making light of Sir Francis Drake’s attempt to capture the port of Corunna in 1589. Pictured in front of a statue of Maria Pita, a Spanish heroine for her role in defending the city, the ambassador wrote in Spanish, ‘It seems that 432 years ago there was a small contretemps in Corunna’. In spite of the four centuries which had elapsed since the event, historical novelist Albert Vazquez was unable to see any humour in the situation and said that the ambassador had made a mockery of a ‘terrorist act’. Mr Elliot, diplomatically and in the spirit of the 21st century, said “If I have caused offence, I beg your pardon”.
This is not, of course, the first time that British diplomats’ sense of humour has failed to go down well with the locals. On August 24th 2014, the British Embassy in Washington sent out a tweet featuring a photo of a cake in the shape of a miniature White House decorated with burning sparklers to ‘commemorate’ 200 years since British troops had set it on fire during the war of 1812. The American backlash prompted attempts by the Brits to explain their humour before they finally apologised.
John Casson, our ambassador to Egypt between 2014 and 2018, got into rather hot water over a tweet made in May 2015, which made a joking reference to a remark by the Egyptian justice minister which had led to his resignation. Many Egyptians were offended by the idea of a foreigner ‘sticking their nose’ into what they considered Egyptian business – even if they did not agree with the sentiments of their own ministers.
One could find endless examples of jokes which have misfired or gone down badly, but it has equally been argued that humour has a role to play in diplomacy. Diplomat magazine ran an article in 2018 on the subject, simply entitled Humour and Diplomacy, by James Landale, the diplomatic correspondent for the BBC. Boris Johnson was at that time Foreign Secretary. His use of humour in that position did not always win approval, even from those in his own party. The use of humour can be both useful and risky, was essentially the conclusion of James Landale. However, that was in 2018. As everyone seems to have become increasingly touchy, not only about contemporary events but about events in the past, perhaps the use of humour in diplomacy is, for the moment at least, rather more risky than useful.
In the art world, at least the art world in Denmark, humour it seems still has a role to play. It was reported this week that Danish artist Jens Haaning was commissioned by the Kunsten Museum of modern art in Aalborg to recreate two of his pieces, ‘An Average Danish Annual Income’ and ‘An Average Austrian Annual Income’, originally done in 2010 and 2007 respectively. In a written agreement with the museum, Haaning was lent the money to enable him to display the actual banknotes. The artist however had different ideas. When the museum received the box which they expected to contain the framed banknotes, they found instead a ‘conceptual’ work – empty frames entitled Take the Money and Run’. “The work is that I have taken their money,” Haaning told the Danish radio program P1 Morgen last week. “It’s not theft. It is a breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work.” The exhibition is called Work it Out (about the role of artists in the wider labour market) and as Artnet points out in its article on the subject, it remains to be seen how this particular concept will play out once the show ends on 16th January.
Whatever one thinks of conceptual art, and there are very differing views on its value and role, there is no doubt that in many instances a sense of humour on the part of the artist plays a role – either that or perhaps simply a sense of opportunism. Much of it feels rather like the Emperor’s New Clothes, that classic tale where the gullibility of both the elite and the public are gleefully exploited by the tailor/artist until a child or similar cuts through the hype and confirms what everybody thought they knew but didn’t dare admit. Given the background to this particular piece of conceptual art (the poor pay and working conditions being complained of by the artist), it is not difficult on this occasion to side with the tailor. In general, a sense of humour in the art world would currently appear to be rather lacking as this weeks’ announcement of the short list for the Turner Prize 2021 reveals.
The Guardian regards it as ‘A collective effort to make art radical again’ and claims that it shows ‘lashings of creativity in a collectivist clash’; The Independent considers that ‘Art comes second to the happy-clappy spirit of lockdown’ and The Telegraph declares ‘The worthiest Turner Prize ever – and maybe the worst’. Which you agree with is of course entirely up to you, but what is quite clear is that humour plays no part in this year’s shortlist, which is made up of offerings from five collectives, all very earnest and with feel-good or do-good intentions. Perhaps it will be a while yet before we have another Damien Hirst (reputedly the world’s richest living artist) who clearly had both a sense of humour and a sense of opportunism. In 1990 he is reported as saying, “I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say ‘f off’. But after a while you can get away with things”. There is really nothing further to be said, apart from perhaps to wonder if Jens Haaning will get away with his thing.
Cover page image: Christine Zenino (Creative Commons)