What’s so Funny about Peace, Love and an Inflatable Rabbit?
Art can feel like a very serious affair sometimes. We have built austere institutions in every major city to exalt its importance. Billions of dollars are spent annually trying to acquire its cultural cache. Art represents taste, prestige and social class. So, if an art object can symbolize status in society, what does a multimillion dollar inflatable rabbit cast in stainless steel say about society?
The bunny in question would be Jeff Koons’ Rabbit from 1986. Art historians and critics have argued about the validity of Koons’ work since its inception. It has been dismissed as sensationalist kitsch or praised as postmodern pop that holds a mirror up to society’s guilty pleasures and vacuous need for consumption. However you view the importance of it in the canon of western art, there is a certain pleasure of seeing yourself reflected on the highly polished surface of a multimillion dollar inflatable rabbit cast in stainless steel. The absurdity of it is funny.
What’s funny doing in the serious world of art? Humour has existed in art from its conception, but the latter half of the twentieth century saw the advent of artist as part-time comedian. In the 1960’s the seriousness of the Abstract Expressionists was replaced by the whimsy of the Pop artists. The greatest and possibly the funniest of them all would be Andy Warhol. Along with his depictions of car crashes, electric chairs and consumerism, Andy Warhol had a funny bone. In the 1970’s Andy had a book deal to write The Philosophy of Andy Warhol from A to B and Back Again chronicling his personal views on art and life. He had an assistant write it for him. During a book signing; fans were asking him specific questions that Andy was unable to answer. Andy hadn’t bothered to read the book and had no idea what his own personal philosophy was! That’s funny.
Funny has become more of the norm in twenty-first century art as illustrated by the recent Maurizio Cattelan retrospective at the Guggenheim. His work is truly absurd: an old woman in a fridge, a squirrel committing suicide in a miniature replica of his childhood kitchen and the Pope being struck by a meteorite all cut deep into societal norms. He has been labeled ‘L’Enfant terrible’ of the art world with many critics immune to his charms. For his final act of absurdity (he has said he is retiring) he suspended all his artworks from cables down the center of the Guggenheim’s rotunda leaving all the galleries empty. It was an engaging way to view the work. Pieces floated in and out of your periphery creating unexpected associations. The title of the show was all. Everything was there, including the funny.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen my own reflection in Jeff Koons’ Rabbit at the Pop Life exhibit, walked into a room full of floating silver pillows at The Warhol Museum and made the spiral hike up the Guggenheim to take it all in. All these experiences cemented in me the belief that not only is art meant for you to think about and re-exam the world we live in but sometimes it’s there just to make you smile.