BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 13 FEB 16
Featured in
Issue 177

These Foolish Things

Dada's centenary and the importance of absurdity

BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 13 FEB 16

‘The man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.’
Attributed to André Breton

As the long winter nights drag on, all I want to watch on TV is Toast of London. It’s an idiotic, brilliant show about Steven Toast, a furious, failed actor and moustachioed voice-over artist who elongates his diphthongs and syllables in a fruity baritone. Toast is scripted and played by art school-trained comedian Matt Berry, who recently told the Guardian: ‘Most of the things I do are inspired by things that frightened me when I was young.’ He must have had a terrifying childhood: plotlines include him being cast alongside dogs in an avant-garde version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; reading aloud the entire Bible for an advert while secretly being fed hallucinogens; and dating a beak-keeper (as in, a woman who collects beaks). In one episode, ‘Hamm on Toast’, the rampantly heterosexual actor falls in love with Mad Men’s Jon Hamm simply because, I suspect, the title was a gift. I find that when the world feels too much, watching Toast car-crash his way through it is the best antidote available, which perhaps says as much about me as it does about the world. Which is what, exactly?

That it’s nuts? Obviously, but that’s nothing new. Neither is mocking it and its inhabitants – after all, we’re the only animals that (as far as we can tell) can laugh. A few years ago, the world’s oldest (attempt at a) joke was uncovered in what is now southern Iraq. In 1,900 BCE, a Sumerian graffitied a toilet wall with the words: ‘Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.’ (Fart jokes are one of the most enduring forms of expression: discuss.) In 2014, the classicist Mary Beard published a book, Laughter in Ancient Rome, that discusses Philogelos (Laughter Lover), a collection of jokes from the Roman Empire compiled in the fourth or fifth century ce. In an article for the Guardian from the same year, Beard tells how the British stand-up comedian Jim Bowen recently performed jokes from Philogelos and the audience were apparently in stitches. How, she asks, despite the specific cultural and temporal context that laughter stems from, ‘do we explain the fact that Roman jokes can still get an audience cracking up, so many centuries later, in such a radically different world?’ Perhaps, she suggests, it’s because ‘ancient jokes are the direct ancestors of our own modern comic quips’. 

That humans always have, and always will, need a little levity in their lives is a truism. But, as last year’s tragic events in Paris taught us all too well, ridiculing certain things (e.g. politics or religion) is a luxury: only the most tolerant of governments and faiths allow anyone to poke fun at them. The world’s prisons are full of comedians, many of whom have been incarcerated for the most innocuous of offences. It would seem that people in positions of power – especially the paranoid – know that a witticism is as capable of revealing the truth of a situation as a blunt statement of fact. It’s no joke (boom boom) that laughter can be the most subversive tool around.

Even at its darkest, humour usually entails, in the most roundabout way, a sense of camaraderie – an admission that we’re all in this mess together. Being human means that we regularly encounter situations where someone will be inflexible, stupid or cruel. Most bullies/fanatics/fascists aren’t known for their sense of humour; neither, it must be said, are the self-important politicians, activists, artists et al. who, despite their best intentions, often only serve to irritate. One of the best ways to deflate (and, occasionally, enflame) such posturing is to poke fun at it. In terms of efficacy, just think of Charlie Chaplin’s parody of fascism in The Great Dictator (1940), in which he played both a dictator and a Jewish barber, or Richard Pryor’s brilliant, acerbic take-downs of racism. (Jerry Seinfeld described him as ‘the Picasso of our profession’.)

This year marks the centenary of dada. In February 1916 – when the world was busy blowing itself up – this most innovative of protest movements was launched at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Its ammunition may have been laughter but its target was deadly serious. Writing in his diary in 1916, Hugo Ball, one of dada’s founders, famously declared: ‘Every word that is spoken and sung here [Cabaret Voltaire] says at least this one thing: that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect.’ Reading about the wild nights of surrealist performance, outrage and revelry that took place in this small back room of a Zurich bar makes very clear that, while mirth in the midst of dark times was a way of refuting the terrible logic of war-mongers and fascists, it was also a fun way to pass an evening. Who could want for more?

The dadaists were arguing for a language that represented an actual, as opposed to an ideal, version of life; embodying absurdity was, for them, the most accurate reflection of the horror that was engulfing much of the planet. Their enduring influence has proved the value of humour as a form of protest about the fact that life is irrational, unreasonable and (to borrow from Woody Allen) far too short. Dada’s legacy can be seen across decades of radical art, writing, music and theatre, from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to Andre Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour (1940) – another response to another terrible war – Samuel Beckett’s plays, John Cage’s atonality, Mike Kelley’s caustic cabarets, Kara Walker’s blistering employment of caricature and beyond – the list is endless. Personally speaking, I can still remember the lightning bolt of recognition that hit me when, as a young art student, I first encountered the feminist work of the Guerilla Girls who, for 30 years, have been ‘fighting discrimination with facts, humour and fake fur’, and who ‘discovered that ridicule and humiliation, backed up by irrefutable information, can disarm the powers that be, put them on the spot and force them to examine themselves’. Amen to that.

In the past year alone, I’ve seen fantastic work by seemingly countless artists – Jimmie Durham, Tamara Henderson, Sanya Kantarovsky, Ahmet Öğüt, Amalia Pica, Dana Schutz, Jim Shaw, Frances Stark, Martine Syms, Annika Ström, Bedwyr Williams (who is profiled in this issue) and many more – all of whom use varying degrees of absurdity to reflect on everything from social anxiety to dictatorships, misogyny, the refugee crisis, sexuality, gender, race and mortality: in other words, the challenges faced by the inhabitants of this planet every day. I applaud them all. If we can’t occasionally laugh at what we’re all going through, I hate to think of the alternative.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.