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At The Table with Pablo Helguera: The Serious Need for Humor In Art

May 12, 2021

Header image: One of Pablo Helguera’s many single-panel Artoons, a series started in 2009 which offers an ironic look at the contemporary art world, a prestigious and insulated sphere ruled by highly idiosyncratic systems of power and influence.

At the Table: Art + Dialogue

Can humor offer a route to radical change?

What’s so funny about the art world? Like any self-serious cultural behemoth, both plenty and much too little. Pablo Helguera has long felt that a serious sense of humor is missing from most corners of contemporary art, though particularly the hyper-institutionalized side of things.

He’s a bit of jokester — pieces and projects throughout his career include tours explicitly of areas where art is not on display, dressing up as an over-eager Q-and-A audience member, a lot of fake art fair guides, jokes, and jibes — much of which stems from a formative interest in institutional critique, using any, self-referential means possible to subvert expectations, leveling criticism at and leveraging power against those in charge.

“I became very interested in fiction and the whole idea that you, as an artist, can construct this environment that really questions the limit of what you consider reality,” Helguera has said. “Museums become particularly attractive when you are interested in fiction. That is what a lot of Institutional Critique artists do, modifying certain aspects of the interior of the space, which all of a sudden make you realize that there is something else going on. In doing so, you are altering the protocols, the regular expectations.” That inkling for fabrication and fictionalization, the projection of another reality if only for short time, is basically one way of setting up a joke; what counts in the end is the payoff or the punchline, the resonance, always the trickiest part of any creative endeavor to finagle.

As one of the early artists embracing socially engaged art and social practice (and author of what is now the standard for the field, Education for Socially Engaged Art), Helguera has worked across a remarkable variety of formats — performance, sculpture, photography, drawing, lectures, museum display strategies, musical performances, and written fiction. His focus ranges from history, pedagogy, sociolinguistics, and ethnography, to memory and the absurd, issues of interpretation, dialogue, and the role of contemporary culture in a global society. His 2011 public project with More Art, El Club de Protesta/The Protest Club, was based on the Latin and North American traditions of the protest song, in which popular tunes are adopted and readapted by political movements with updated lyrics relating to current issues. Helguera and composer Carlo Nicolau held a series of public workshops in collaboration with Hudson Guild, a community center based in Chelsea, where participants, mostly immigrant seniors, studied the history and significance of protest songs and then wrote their own lyrics based on issues that affected their lives and that they wanted to confront, culminating in a performance on the High Line. Paramount to his practice, Helguera’s work as an educator has always intersected with his interests as an artist; for 13 years, he served as Director of Adult and Academic Programs at the Museum of Modern Art and prior to that, head of public programs in the education department of the Guggenheim Museum.

Helguera (and his send of humor) was the most recent guest artist at At the Table: Dialogue + Art, More Art’s monthly series of intimate salon-style discussions, connecting our community with artists and collaborators. We invite 10 people including one guest artist, purposefully keeping groups are small so all are able to participate, opening a space for thought-provoking dialogue and connection, generating interesting conversation, while strengthening More Art’s circle of friends and supporters; we learn from artists and each other in discussion around public art and social justice during this time of uncertainty, challenge, and change. Each month we’ll recap our most recent At the Table salon, sharing some of the questions raised and ideas proposed, the points of contention and contextual cues kicking everything off. Here are some of the things on our and Helguera’s minds.

On one hand, humor is an incredible force that can help provide a sense of release and relief in moments of crisis or act as a way of processing traumatic experiences. Humor can connect people, help us understand each other, and empathize. But when does humor turn into cynicism or pity?

There is a slippery nature to humor and a fine line between who is laughing and who is being laughed at. Humor can at the same time have a universal quality while not translating cross-culturally. It can be used to make people uncomfortable in a way that provokes self-examination but it also can lead to miscommunication. It can serve as a coping mechanism, or it can make people feel left out.

In our discussion, we were left with many questions: Does it take knowing someone intimately to share humor without the risk of being offensive or feeding negative stereotypes? How can we stop the use of humor that encourages hate or racist comments and behavior? What if we understood how to use humor as a tool for the better?

It seems there are no typical or go-to teachers that we look up to learn humor. It is not a monolithic feeling. But can artists help teach the aspects of humor that can bring people together? Laughing is a physical experience that can powerfully inspire change. It can show someone you are on the same page. Perhaps public art can explore experiential humor better so that together we can laugh safely and inclusively.