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Pastor Projects’ talk at Relaciones Inesperadas in Tijuana, 31 Jan 2018: ¿Nos reímos con o del arte contemporáneo?

Spanish text with pictures: PDF – English text/pdf: Are we laughing with or at contemporary art?

Claes Oldenburg. Two Cheeseburgers, with Everything (Dual Hamburgers). 1962.

The reason why I use the word laughter and the concept of contemporary art in the title it is because they are important to me. I’ve tried to do funny and silly projects within contemporary art for 15 years and they are also the focus for my research that is a part of my practice-based doctorate at Goldsmiths College in London.

But let me first explain the logic of the question Are we laughing with or at contemporary art?

To laugh with or at someone is a question we normally associate with bullying in school.


To laugh at someone is to have fun at his or her expense. To laugh at someone’s expense means that you take or deduct value from the person laughed at and raise or add this value to your own worth.

It means that the bullies that laugh at others feels more valuable than the person they’re laughing at.

By this the bullies assume a higher position in the hierarchy by ridiculing someone else.

This higher worth that heightens the bully and his friends also works to deepen the bonds between the bullies and his friends. The bullying group becomes tightly knit; it becomes an exclusive group with an exclusive membership, which only few can hope to obtain. The sense of humour is exclusive.

Then there is the question what triggers the laughter of the bully. We know the bullying happens in order to facilitate a transfer of value. But the laughter of the bully also needs a reason, a pretext, to occur.

Here it is interesting to note that the laughter of the bully is often not funny. It is a forced, artificial kind of laughter.

Many of us have experienced bullies laughing along without understanding why they are laughing. With the bully group this becomes more evident as the group grows stronger and more “valuable” with the steady extraction of value from its victims. The criteria for what triggers their laughter become more obscure until a certain point where the members themselves are unsure why they are laughing.

The bully group has now grown so big and powerful that it is bigger than its individual members. The pretext of humour behind the laughter is no longer visible or recognisable and people in the group are now laughing from fear of ending up on the other side to be laughed at. 

In this situation few people actually get the joke, if there ever was one to from the start.

This is in part also a result of the ever-increasing need to expand the value of the bully group, which means they need more and more victims to laugh at. This is why it is so easy to end up being laughed at even if you are a bully yourself. There is no solidarity and love between bullies, so it is very easy to end up as a victim for bullies too.

Then there is the opposite kind of laughter – to laugh with someone. We might hear a school teacher say that it is important that we laugh with someone instead of laughing at him or her. Often, they will say this in an attempt to intervene when somebody is being bullied.

The logic here is that the laughter doesn’t occur at someone’s expense. There is no transfer of value from one to the other. Instead everyone participates on an equal footing. Everyone laughs because they all get the joke. They are all in on it. The sense of humour is inclusive.


Up to this point I have explained the logic of bullying. Now remains the task to explain how contemporary art relates to bullying and why I have asked whether we are laughing with or at contemporary art.But first we have to offer a definition of contemporary art:Contemporary art is something that takes place, something that takes space and something that takes time.

When I say it takes place, I mean contemporary art is a certain activity that exists in time. This activity claims a specific space either in our minds or in an actual, physical location. Finally, the activity takes time. It takes time to make and it takes time for the audience to perceive. There is of course much more to contemporary art than this, but this is the basic ontology of contemporary art. On the surface of contemporary art, we see this ontology in different modalities. We see it for example as

panel discussions

Panel discussion

English language

art jargon

art fairs

Art fair


private views

art schools


instagram feeds

art journals

big cities like Los Angeles, Bogotá, London, Berlin, São Paulo, Mexico City, New York

New York

emailed newsletters


etc etc

These are all modalities of contemporary art, which we can recognise as part of the field of contemporary art.


Here it is interesting to note that contemporary art does not exist in a modality of a single work of art. The work of art as such is not contemporary art.

A contemporary artwork can only be understood as contemporary art via its relation to the field of contemporary art. There must be a recognition of an artwork as contemporary art for it to join the field of contemporary art with its specific modalities.

If we see an artwork, we can all agree that it is an example of art, and the artist is free to claim that he has made an artwork.

But an artist cannot postulate on his own that his work is contemporary art or that it belongs to the field of contemporary art. The artist can only claim that his work is “art” in a general sense. He is free to claim that he believes his work is art and that it shares qualities with other works of art. But only in a most general sense — this general category of contains everything from the cave paintings in Baja California to works by Leonardo da Vinci and humble portrait painters in theme parks or Bosque Chapultepec and works by the likes of Andy Warhol and Picasso.

To qualify for the narrower category of contemporary art, the work must exist simultaneously across a number of modalities that are recognised as modalities of contemporary art. It must be different from itself in the way that it leaves its own isolated ontology as a unique, limited piece to become or participate in the ontology of contemporary art, which is a different ontology than the ontology of the original artwork.

It means that there are two moments of creation involved in the production of contemporary art. In the first moment of creation the maker gives shape to the artwork. In the second moment of creation the artwork is stripped of its unique identity and given a relational meaning and value that is wholly foreign to its origins.


I find this fact that no artist can presume to be making “contemporary art” really interesting, because it means that the power to obtain the coveted designation “contemporary” lies in a matrix of modalities that few individuals can claim to control.

In order to obtain the designation “contemporary” artists must engage in a certain behaviour to be able to have his artwork adopted and accepted across various modalities of contemporary art.


Now when it comes to the question of bullying and contemporary art, I have to admit that I hadn’t thought properly about the question “Are we laughing with or at contemporary art?”

I actually intended to ask the inverse question: Is contemporary art laughing with us or at us?

This is because the structure of the question for this talk as it was advertised implies that we are the ones who have the power to decide whether we choose to laugh at or with contemporary art.

If this were to be the case, it would mean that we are in fact bullies ourselves. This could very well be true. And if it is, I find it quite funny, because everyone involved in art have a tendency to think about themselves as good people, who are working for the good in the world.

If I could somehow prove that all artists are bullies –– that would be fantastic — because it would liberate not only the artists but also the field of contemporary art from a lot of sanctimonious, self-serving, careerist bullshit.


But the fact is that artists are in the weaker position, they don’t have the power themselves to define their work as contemporary. It follows that they can only hope that contemporary art is laughing with them and hope that they are not being laughed at.

If artists try to laugh at contemporary art, they would be excluded immediately, because they as individuals don’t hold the power to define what is contemporary or not.

If we are not laughing with contemporary art, we are not a part of contemporary art and so we would be excluded in the same way that victims of bullying are excluded.


Whether we like it or not, contemporary art is a bully because it takes value from its victims –- the hundreds of thousands of artists who make art that they hope will be accepted as contemporary art.

This value is then transferred to exclusive circles.

Furthermore we see how — like with the groups of bullies that can easily turn to laugh at one of their own –- we see how the meanings, rules, modalities and codes that make of contemporary art can be so difficult to understand that even the most powerful individual in contemporary art is scared that he or she is being laughed at.


2nd part

There are two kinds of laughter in art.

One is easy –– like a joke. The other is funny too, but complicated and deeper. It contains many layers and often implicates its own frame or context as well as its maker. The easy joke never implicates the maker or the frame. It is a straightforward, short laugh that is as thin as the idea that conceived the work. This is not necessarily bad. Sometimes slim ideas are good. Especially in times when so much is trying to catch our attention. Attention is a valuable resource that is ever diminishing.

Conceptual art is the most recognisable precursor to contemporary art and many conceptual artworks take the form of a quick joke.

The longer laughs are more complicated but not less funny than the quick jokes. They are also not less accessible than artworks that take the form of jokes. They are actually more accessible to a broader audience than a narrow contemporary art audience, because their complication and depth offer many more points of entry and contact than the one-joke artwork.

I would call the two forms of laughter “easy laughter” and “dark laughter.” Lots of dark laughter artworks also plays out within conceptual art and contemporary art, but because they are more complicated and undecidable they are often situated on the boundaries or the fringes of contemporary art. They are not as easily recognisable because they often incorporate fewer contemporary art modalities than the easy laughter art.

I like jokes a lot, but I have come to think that joke art, which was once refreshing and progressive, has become rather stale and conservative. My problem with joke art is that it doesn’t move or threaten anything; it is complacent and distant and plays out in a pure art space without risk for the frames of the art space and without risk for the maker of the joke artwork.

When joke art first started it was as threatening and undecidable as dark laughter art. It constituted a great risk for the maker and the framework, because it didn’t look like anything else. It didn’t share many modalities of recognised, leading art forms.

Today joke art looks a lot like contemporary art and for this reason we see a lot of it today in contemporary art. To be adopted by the contemporary art field it is important to tick as many boxes of the recognisable modalities of contemporary art. When an artwork does that it becomes safe. When it does the opposite it becomes undecidable and uncomfortable. Like a dark laughter artwork.

Today the risky, tenuous position is held by dark laughter art. It is a brave kind of art that dares to avoid ticking the boxes of contemporary art. The dark laughter is open and inviting, it appeals to broader audiences, which is why it is easily dismissed by more exclusive circles of contemporary art.

The joke art is narrower. Either you get it or you don’t. If you don’t get it, it doesn’t care, because it is too cool to care. And the audience have to laugh and look like they’re totally getting it, so you can share the cool that the artist owns. This narrower kind of art is there to make the artist cool and give you a sliver of cool for you to take home, so you can tell your friends that you own a little piece of cool.

The Queen of Coolness

In dark laughter art nobody looks cool. The artist risks looking very bad. He is decidedly uncool. Larger audiences like this because they feel superior to the artist, who put out a banana peel for him to slip and fall.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screenshot-2022-11-10-at-17.32.06.png

The Banana Album Cover

Narrower audiences don’t like it, because they don’t get any cool to take home. Broader audiences like it because they can come home and tell stories about artists, who made fools of themselves.

As a consequence, more people are willing to engage with the artwork in a much deeper way than the narrower audiences, who just wants to be in on the joke. And if they’re not in on the joke, they pretend to be, so they too can look cool and look like they totally get it.

The dark laughter art threatens individuals and their personal status. It doesn’t humour the few, but laughs with the many. The dark laughter is the many laughing at the cool, shallow laughter of the few. The dark laughter is loud, roaring and booming. it makes the thin, joke laughter inaudible.

A successful dark laughter artwork makes the cool artist and his audience feel ashamed. They will then lose their cool. In dark laughter art the audience is not shamed into a forced “yeah, I get it”-giggle. Instead the audience chooses to laugh or not. If it chooses not to laugh, it is because the audience feels the art wasn’t worth it.

This empowered audience can then leave the artwork behind, feeling superior to the art and the artwork without any kind of shame.

This is opposite to the effect of the joke artwork, which leaves the many ashamed or confounded about the meaning of the joke and invites few to laugh.

Dark laughter art gives the audience a mixture of good ideas and materials and contexts that will appeal to them and inspire them. Conceptual joke art elicits a thin laughter for the sake of a joke. At it worst joke art is a joke only played on the audience for the benefit of a small audience.

Conclusion: What is dark laughter?

I think that art that is genuinely funny is impossible to use for political or commercial purposes. The genuinely funny is something, which cannot quite be trusted, which cannot quite be identified. A funny work elicits laughter in a way that is endlessly more complicated the mere joke. When you involuntarily give yourself over to laughter, you’re also challenged physically; something takes you over and almost shakes your body. You don’t have control over it. The genuinely funny is something that is more than your pleasure, it’s communal, even bigger than the communal. It threatens your ego and your feeling of self-importance. Authorities, businesses, and power don’t like the genuinely funny, they don’t like dark laughter, because you cannot control it and use it for your own purposes. You cannot tame it.

When I ask are we laughing with or at contemporary art, we can see it as an ultimatum put to contemporary art.

This ultimatum looks like this:

We what art that is universally funny? An art that is able to make us all laugh — artists as well as audience.

What is funny? The universally funny is when a person slips in a banana peel. Everyone everywhere in the world will laugh at the person slipping in a banana peel.

For me funny in art can be represented by a banana peel.

Our ultimatum to contemporary art is: Either you laugh with us or we laugh at you.

This mean that when serious, unfunny artists, gallerists or art politicians come running we will throw a banana peel in their way. When they fall, their choice is to laugh with us and let their ego and human nature unite with us and we can laugh as one entity. If they do the opposite and instead feel ashamed, or get angry with us for throwing the banana peel, then we will laugh at them. This is devastating to an individual, as we know from school with its bullies. Bullies laugh at people, not with them. Being laughed at is devastating; it can ruin people for life.

The conclusion is then:

There is only one option for contemporary art and artists and that is to laugh with us.