Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 11, 2018
Angela Rosenthal, David Bindman, and Adrian W. B. Randolph, eds. No Laughing Matter: Visual Humor in Ideas of Race, Nationality, and Ethnicity Interfaces: Studies in Visual Culture. Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2015. 328 pp.; 12 color ills.; 112 b/w ills. Paperback $45.00 (9781611688214)

The essays in No Laughing Matter: Visual Humor in Ideas of Race, Nationality, and Ethnicity interrogate humor as a transcultural device used to address the thorny issue of racial, social, and political difference. Each of the book’s contributors carefully considers human representation and classification and how stereotypes are constructed through visual culture. One of the book’s coeditors, the late Angela Rosenthal, argues that visual humor must be rigorously examined because comedy attracts our attention to issues of human worth and variance. For Rosenthal, interpreting visual satire is one key to understanding the fluidity of socially fixed categories such as race, a way to “deal constructively with increasingly multicultural societies and their diverse historical memories, constructs, and—importantly for us—images” (xi).

In his introductory chapter, Kobena Mercer narrows the discussion of humor to focus on the act of laughter, which he labels “an intrinsically sociable experience” (1), collective rather than private. However, for Mercer, laughter also has an antisocial side that emerges when jokes within one group target those outside of the in-crowd, and laughter is at the expense of those not in on the joke. Mercer is thus concerned with the ambivalence of humor as a mode of social bonding. He uses Mikhail Bakhtin’s definition of the “antagonistic interdependence” (4) between laughter and seriousness to describe the ambivalence in the representations of the grotesque and carnivalesque in late-medieval paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Mercer applies that same dynamic to the contemporary artists Robert Colescott and David Hammons, who use humor in the work they make about the legacy of blackface minstrelsy in America, hoping to incite laughter as a form of protest against brutal racial stereotyping.

The first section of No Laughing Matter, titled “Encountering Humor: Racial, National, and Ethnic Stereotypes,” starts with an essay by Paul H. Kaplan, “Bartolomeo Passarotti and ‘Comic’ Images of Black Africans in Early Modern Italian Art,” which examines Merry Company (ca. 1570), a unique, early modern Italian painting by Bartolomeo Passarotti. The comic tavern scene features a bunch of “carousers,” the most interesting and unusual being a black African couple. Kaplan argues that in Merry Company Passarotti aims for “harsh laughter” at the sexual deviancy of the couple (40). Though now commonly recognizable, the references to the black body’s primitive sensuality and animalistic associations seen in this image (the inclusion of a dog, suggestive placement of sausages and figs, gaping mouths, and exposed tongues) were not mainstream until the 1700s.

Essays by Frank Felsenstein and Katherine Hart both take up forms of eighteenth-century English satire. Felsenstein, in ‘“If You Tickle Us, Do We Not Laugh?’: Stereotypes of Jews in English Graphic Humor of the Georgian Era,” offers art analysis by way of a textual interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. He maintains that many of the stereotypical representations of Jews in England at the time emerged after the appearance of Shylock, Shakespeare’s unsavory protagonist. Jews were cast as outsiders to English society—peddlers and swindlers, sexually inappropriate, and potentially violent. Felsenstein argues that Englishmen laughed at these caricatures so as to distance themselves from the “demonic” other (58). Jews represented what they were not, as opposed to what they were.

Hart’s essay, “James Gillray, Charles James Fox, and the Abolition of the Slave Trade: Caricature and Displacement in the Debate over Reform,” explores the nuances of a single Gillray print while thoroughly explaining how the rise of print culture and the pseudoscientific study of physiognomy combined to produce powerfully suggestive visual stereotypes. Hart suggests that Gillray’s satirical prints helped ease feelings of anxiety over tense issues of race, slavery, and the politics of abolition.

Misadventures while traveling to foreign countries call for empathy on our part but can also be funny. Allen Hockley, in “The Other Within,” examines such cross-cultural encounters in a humorous late-nineteenth-century lithograph created by Georges Bigot. Hockley argues that the viewer’s notion of racial otherness is complicated by the narrative quality of Bigot’s lithograph and the lack of understanding the bewildered traveler faces from the Japanese locals. We waiver between empathizing with the traveler and taking up the role of the locals, whose bemused stares at the traveler’s incompetency make us want to laugh with them at the Westerner, with whom we may identify more closely.

In “Material Culture, Slavery, and Governability in Colonial Cuba: The Humorous Lessons of the Cigarette Marquillas,” Agnes Lugo-Ortiz explores how humorous advertising and packaging helped spread feelings of racial prejudice against enslaved Africans in Cuba in the late nineteenth century. During the transition from slavery to wage labor, people of color and their attempts at social mobility appeared as a common theme on collectable illustrated cigarette wrappers called marquillas cigarreras. The “mechanism of laughter,” according to Lugo-Ortiz, lay in the “pleasurable mockery” deployed by demeaning images of Africans (123). For those in the owning class and for Cubans against abolition, possessing marquillas appeared “as a symbolic re-elaboration and reassertion of fantasies of control and immobility” (142). Even after slavery, visual humor was used as a device to “fix” the black body in a permanent state of hyper-visibility and as a commodity.

In part two of the book—“Racial Humor and Theories of Modern Media”—Ana Merino, in her essay “Fake Nostalgia for the Indian: The Argentinean Fiction of National Identity in the Comics of Patoruzú,” introduces Patoruzú, a native Indian character in a contemporary  Argentinian graphic novel, who is adopted by a wealthy cosmopolitan man. Their humorous interaction as Patoruzú tries to adapt to a modern lifestyle completely ignores the real plight of Argentinian Indians, who ultimately suffer as the butt of the stereotypical, deeply racist joke.

The joke, however, is on us in Mark Williams’s essay “Passing for History: Humor and Early Television Historiography.” He delves into the intricacies of racial passing in the television career of Los Angeles personality Korla Pandit. Pandit, actually John Roland Redd, an African American man, performed as an Indian man from New Delhi. Williams complicates our belief in stereotypes by pointing to psychoanalytic theories that describe stereotypes as “fetishes . . . a recurring hegemonic process by which dominant white subjectivity is continually reinscribed, especially via a fantasy” (185). Williams argues that Pandit got the last laugh. The drive to categorize the unfamiliar allowed the inauthenticity and inconsistencies of Pandit’s performance of Indian cultural traditions to go largely unnoticed until after his death.

In the final essay of the second section, “Comical Conflations: Racial Identity and the Science of Photography,” Tanya Sheehan discusses the connection between early photographic processes, race, and skin color. The photo negative made white skin appear darker and vice versa for black skin. This was a source of humor and contestation for nineteenth-century viewers, and fodder for satirical prints. Sheehan aligns the skin-color flip created by the photograph with blackface minstrelsy. Both the popular stage show and photographic chemistry served “an invaluable social function: the (re)production of racial difference” (207), while simultaneously conflating the races in interesting ways. Sheehan questions what is at stake when we try to cement certain racial characteristics, especially those linked to skin color.

Coeditor David Bindman looks at the performative nature of laughter in “Laughter as Performance: Some Eighteenth-Century Examples,” the first essay of the final section, “Performative Comedy and Race.” Bindman works to tease out the distinction between the physical act of laughing one might perform in a public space (eighteenth-century burlesque in this case) and the solitary, often silent reflection on advertisements or prints where laughter is implicit in the text or image, and ridicule is private. Bindman decides that laughter is “clearly provoked as much by the context in which it is experienced as it is by its object” (239).

For three weeks, performance artist Eleanor Antin, a Jewish woman, darkened her skin so she could live and work as a fictional black prima ballerina she named Eleanora Antinova. Cherise Smith argues that humor in the form of irony and exaggeration plays a significant role in Antin’s project. Such comedic strategies “disrupt the illusion of integrity that shrouds narratives and signs of identity” (244), helping Antin to uncover the role community expectations play in building identity. Smith, in her essay “Bittersweet Blackness: Humor and the Assertion of Ethnic Identity in Eleanor Antin’s Eleanora Antinova,” challenges us to think about blackness as a signifier in and of itself that is separate from the African American body and culture. Identity is performance art, and the “assumption, negotiation, and maintenance of identity is profoundly complicated” (245).

Sam Vásquez looks at how humor functions as a strategy of resistance in twentieth-century Caribbean postcards. Beyond the obvious signifiers and desires of colonialized leisure, in “Traveling Humor Reimagined: The Comedic Unhinging of the Western Gaze in Caribbean Postcards,” Vásquez insists that these postcards are engaged in a type of “counter-discursive humor” that opens up an “autonomous space” created by Caribbean individuals (271). She believes that other postcolonial and Caribbean scholars often overlook the ability of the local Caribbean artist to actively disrupt negative stereotypes propagated through colonialist activities. Images featuring humorous exaggerations that invert familiar icons and use ironic symbolism negate old stereotypes and present Caribbean people as individuals.

Veronika Fuechtner’s essay “Springtime for Hitler Every Year: Dani Levy’s Hitler Comedy My Führer,” on Dani Levy’s 2007 comedy My Führer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler, explores the ways the filmmaker challenges our sensibilities regarding the taboo subject of fascism by applying Jewish humor to the Third Reich. She decides that joking about the Holocaust is “a matter of taste and fashion” (311) such that our ability to laugh at a painful past does not occur when we forget or move beyond it, but rather “the comedic release comes only with regret for having momentarily suspended the horror at such suffering” (311).

No Laughing Matter is a complex and sophisticated book that adds a new critical layer to the field of race and representation in art history. Each essay includes numerous images allowing the reader to fully appreciate the range of visual material related to the subject of humor. No Laughing Matter will certainly initiate rich discussions on the myriad ways visual humor invades our social lives and cultural interactions, because humor is at the crux of how we have constructed identities, communities, and nationhood in the past and how we continue to do so in the present.

Sadé Ayorinde
Graduate student, Cornell University