Funny Dada: Notes From Hrag Vartanian’s Talk on Humor in Art Criticism


“How can I write something funny without putting someone down?” Hyperallergic co-founder and editor-in-chief Hrag Vartanian asked last night to the audience at the New York Studio School. “That’s a huge challenge.” The preceding talk had surveyed the role of humor in art criticism from the days of Denis Diderot viciously dismissing inept academicians up through William Powhida drawing out the art market’s insider trading, Hennessy Youngman cutting down Damien Hirst, and the New Yorker’s delicious Matthew Day Jackson takedown.

Vartanian chronicled what he considers the golden era of humor in art criticism, stretching from Diderot in the 18th century, through Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, up until the early 20th century. He saw that period’s critics as benefiting from a fairly uniform set of standards governing aesthetic tasts, promulgated by the all-powerful academies, which could serve as the basis of derision. “Cracking a joke was a lot easier then because there were certain shared expectations that everyone had,” he said.

With the breakdown of the academy system and the advent of successive, self-serious modernisms, art criticism became mostly humorless, in Vartanian’s view, for the first half of the 20th century. A montage of hilarious cartoons responding to the 1913 Armory Show with derision illustrated the period’s rapid shift in tastes. In this era the stereotype of the art critic — performance of which he traced back at least to Wilde — as a fussy, condescending, and perpetually sad figure gained further traction.

Vartanian credited the post-war feminist art movement with helping to re-inject humor into art criticism. For groups like the Guerrilla Girls and the V-Girls, humor offered a powerful way to critique the art world’s male-dominated institutions. The Guerrilla Girls’ classic piece of satire, “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist,” illustrated this point perfectly. In the wake of such critiques, he observed that today “a lot of the humor in criticism is being used to poke fun at the art world, not art,” a fact further corroborated by Youngman and Powhida’s works, whose humor is intended for a very specific and informed audience.

The continuing resurgence of humor in art criticism, Vartanian posited, is also partly fueled by the nature of online sharing. Funny content traffics better, a truism corroborated by a recent New York Times study he cited, and thus art critics are increasingly using humor to reach new audiences. The responsibility of comically inclined critics is not to be taken lightly. As he sees it, their task is to harness humor not for the purpose of panning exhibitions, but to enlighten artists and readers. If they sometimes do so while making light of the work, so be it.

— Benjamin Sutton

(Photo by the author.)