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Seeing Shlock: Jewish Humour and Visual Art

by Judy Batalion

Judy Batalion  |  Autumn 2008  -  Number 211


A Jewish couple visits the Sistine Chapel. The guide points up and says: ‘It took Michaelangelo five years to paint this ceiling!’ The husband turns to his wife and says:  ‘Wow. He must have had the same landlord as us.’ (Old Jewish Joke)

It is well known that Jewish humour is a not a common cultural fixture in Britain so imagine my surprise, while walking around the fashionable Hayward Gallery, when I heard ‘Two wise men of Chelm went out for a walk…’ relayed in a loud ‘New York’ accent. A string of Jewish jokes was emerging from a plastic yellow joke box adorned with a clown face, attached to the wall, and named Joke Master Jr. On closer inspection I learned that this was, in fact, ‘art’ by the American-born London-based artist Doug Fishbone. Granted, it was an exhibition — and one of the first of its kind — about laughter, humour and visual art. But still, among the cool works of Finnish photographers and fictitious Korean performance troupes, the hot hyper-vowelization, and volume of the Jewish comedy stood out.

Did I find Fishbone’s piece funny? Well, no. In fact, nothing in this exhibition of laughter made me laugh. There could be several reasons for this. Perhaps the show set up too high an expectation for emotional outburst, a factor that comedians at comedy clubs learn to manipulate. There certainly is funny visual art but perhaps the art exhibited was meant to contemplate humour instead of actually make people laugh. Maybe the context was difficult; people don’t tend to laugh when standing-up, especially if they are shlepping heavy bags through a gallery. If the leading question of the show was: Can humour transcend culture? Can things be funny in different contexts? The answer was clear: not really. 

Questions of cultural specificity mixed in with loud rabbi-based one-liners got me thinking. What is the relationship between Jewish humour and visual art? There has been no dearth of writing and talking about Jewish humour in the performance and literary worlds, if not in Britain than certainly in North America. But does this Jewish humour extend to creatives who express themselves in the visual realm? Does Jewish humour translate to the fine arts and, if so, how? Is there a mode of Jewish humour created specifically by the fine arts, and what Jewish concerns might it reflect and address?

This question was tricky for two reasons. The first complication is defining Jewish fine art, a dilemma considered by several scholars who have contemplated the ambiguous role of Jewish identity in image production. Is this art made by Jewish artists, art that explicitly addresses Jewish concerns (according to the artist’s intention), art that critics have taken to express Jewish concerns, or even art that has a ‘Jewish sensibility’? There is no established Jewish artistic canon and there was no clear point from where to begin my study. But, as someone who has spent a decade working in the visual arts, I have been struck by certain motifs and comedic stylings.

The second complication is defining Jewish humour. From Freud to Avner Ziv and Ruth Wisse, those who have pontificated on the topic have, while focussing mainly on verbal humour, identified several different strategies at work within Jewish humour. For instance, most agree that it frequently includes self-deprecation. This disparagement might function in order to downplay Jews’ achievements and help them ‘fit in’ — if Jews make themselves look inferior, or even take-on stereotypes, perhaps they will be less intimidating and more accepted by others. Famous examples of this self-denigration include the following: 

‘I’m very proud of my gold pocketwatch. My grandfather, on his death bed, sold it to me’ (Woody Allen)

My one regret in life is that I’m not someone else’ (Woody Allen)

 ‘Rapists tap me on the shoulder and ask, “have you seen any girls?”’ (Joan Rivers).

Perversely, Jewish self-flagellation might be a way to come to terms with or control the fear of anti-Semitism by adopting and expressing it:

In 1938, a German Jew asks another why he’s reading der Shturmer? His friend answers, ‘Everywhere else it says Jews are in trouble, Jews are terrible. But look at the headlines here — ‘Jews are rich’, ‘Jews control the government’, ‘Jews run the media’. At least in der Shturmer, it sounds like we’re doing well!’

Adopting anti-Semitic opinions might also be a way to debunk anti-Semitism:

 ‘A lot of people say to me, “Why did you kill Christ?” I dunno, it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know’ (Lenny Bruce)

‘Alright, I’ll clear the air once and for all, and confess:Yes, we did it. I did it, my family. I found a note in my basement. It said: “We killed him, signed, Morty.”’ (Lenny Bruce)

‘I hope the Jews did kill Christ. I’d do it again. I’d fucking do it again — in a second’ (Sarah Silverman)

Self-deprecation can also be a strategy for offering palatable social critique, by making one’s self the object of criticism, as well as for acknowledging and coming to terms with one’s imperfections. 

Aside from self-deprecation, writers have agreed that Jewish humour might emerge from a self-conscious anxiety about potential danger and a resulting sensitivity to the surrounds; it can be very observational, obsessing over minutiae:

‘The Swiss have an interesting army. Five hundred years without a war. Pretty impressive. Also pretty lucky for them. Ever see that little Swiss Army knife they have to fight with? Not much of a weapon there. Corkscrews. Bottle openers. “Come on, buddy, let’s go. You get past me, the guy in back of me, he’s got a spoon. Back off. I’ve got the toe clippers right here.”’ (Jerry Seinfeld).

 Sometimes, this might even appear to be faux Talmudic-style reasoning — logical, but then paralogical, twisting situations and parameters. Jewish humour, claim some, is part of a coping mechanism for dealing with trauma and making dangerous situations seem less frightening:

An old Jewish man was hit by a car. He was lying on the ground, and the paramedic asked, ‘Are you comfortable?’ The man thought for a moment and answered, ‘I make a living’.

Humour might be used by Jews as a way to manage hypersensitivity and mollify the experience of emotions, to mitigate extreme emotions of anger and love, as well as to reduce inter-personal conflict. Humour can also function as a non-violent means of attack, retaliation, or expression of the negative (see Bruce and Silverman above).

There is an argument that Jewish humour is avoidant, allowing us to veil negative emotions and avoid conflict. On the whole, it is granted the function of social catharsis, offering group solidarity and belonging, by showing that, as Jews, we share a particular world experience:

 ‘Why don’t Jews drink? It interferes with our suffering’ (Henny Youngman.)

Others credit humour as being a much needed and potentially fruitful mechayeh — jokes can give you sideways perspectives and open up possibilities for creative thinking:

‘Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends’ (Woody Allen.)

Keeping all these functions and characteristics in mind, I wondered if visual Jewish humour had similar functions? In this short essay, at the risk of generalizations or cultural and academic faux-pas, I will briefly explore this question with reference to artworks that I find funny, and Jewish (or at least Jew-ish).

Much visual humour is achieved through the distortion of boundaries and extreme juxtaposition. London-based artist Oreet Ashery created an alter-ego for herself in Marcus Fisher, a Chassidic Jewish man. In her Self Portrait as Marcus Fisher Ashery portrays herself as Marcus, with a large breast peeking through his Chassidic garb. This is certainly a funny piece of work — I would say, laugh-out-loud — the humour located in the visual immediacy and content juxtaposition. She is both man and woman, bending gender and questioning the most basic assumptions.Brilliantly, the image connotes yeshiva and bra-burning at the same time, challenging strict rules with extreme liberation. Her character examines the breast lovingly as if it is both strange and familiar, conflating self and other, mother and son, lover and loved, self-portrait and the recording of a dramatic performance.           Ashery isn’t new to a line of feminist Jewish artists who consider the body and present it as a site of alternates and contradictions in a humorous way. The 1970s American feminist art movement was in large part driven by Jewish women making funny art about their pulkes and pupiks. In 1972, American artist Eleanor Antin created Carving: A Traditional Sculpture — a photographic documentation of her 36-day attempt to lose weight and mould her Jewish body into a more ‘ideal feminine form’. She photographed her naked self first thing in the morning, presenting the photos as a type of scientific table, with uncomfortable echoes of eugenic and racial representations. The jarring of the feminine body with the square diagram and her ambivalent desire to conform poke fun at accepted ‘ideals’ about the female body.

In these works the female body, objectified in traditions of Western art as sacred and sensual, becomes the subject. No longer sacred or sensual it becomes a site of contradiction and subversion in a humorous way — the late American artist Hannah Wilke memorably chewed up wads of bubble gum and stuck them on her naked body to look like a proliferation of female genitals. The humour stems from the witty reframing of female body elements which are disguised, and de-contextualized, juxtaposing light and serious, adornment and core.

But how is the humour used? It seems that the humour functions in several ways: to confront taboo and discomfort; to make strong statements palatable to a wider audience; and to offer playful alternatives to traditional binaries. Challenging tradition and authority, this is also a humour of the underdog. These self-portraits critique others, but use the self as the site of the attack. A comment on patriarchy involves them sarcastically recreating and thus owning it on the female body. This parody enables control and assuages anxiety.

The taboo-busting subversion of Jewish feminist visual humour is explicit and largely content driven. But a different form of visual humour can be found in more ‘domestic’ art, depicting homes and families, in which content is juxtaposed with form. Here the everyday is stretched to importance by being rendered through the deliberate and slow activity of painting, showing both a serious and a less serious side at the same time, a stance for comedy. This is a Jewish humour that ‘lightens’; a humour that serves to tackle the intensity of family links and of communal obligation and to embrace the paradox of feeling both strangled and nurtured. Scenes of family life may not be inherently comic but there can be great inventive humour in the play of form and content. Cartoonish representations of family members, the home, and sometimes the self, depict these subjects in an almost parodic light, emphasising and often poking fun at dysfunctions within relations. One can see this characterization in the images of Anita Klein, Julie Held, Mark Gertler, Tim Hyman, and even Marc Chagall, in which mothers and daughters, depicted in heavy paint, watch trashy television together, and exquisitely dressed women are on the verge of floating away from their darkly-clad lovers.

Hyman’s depiction of his mother at the centre of the canvas, and as an un-focused and crass character (in Yiddish, she seems to be more of a ‘grepser’ than a ‘grebber’) appears to be a caricature of the Jewish mother; however, by placing himself in the picture as well, as the painter who is both in the room yet removed from the pose, he acknowledges his role in the relationship. The visual representation, where a scene is played out in one frame, might suggest more subtle questions about mother-son dynamics. The sharply character-based humour of these ‘domestic’ paintings is hardly surprising given that Yiddish, the original language of Jewish comic attitudes, is replete with words that describe nuances of personality, and in which a person might be characterised as a schlemiel or a schlimazel based on the particular brand of bad luck that they experience. (A schlemiel falls out the window; a schlimazel is the guy he falls on...) 

Finally, humour of self-reference and context: Doug Fishbone, whose playful Joke Master Jr subverts expectations and associations by placing corny Jewish jokes in a rarefied gallery setting. This is certainly humour of context through juxtaposition, in which the artist playfully questions not just the roles and meanings of Jewish jokes but also Jewish cultural tradition. A large part of Fishbone’s oeuvre deals with comedy of context. Fishbone collects gags and one-liners from the internet and takes them out of context in order to highlight insecurities and prejudice. He replaced the original gags of a Joke Master Jr (a commercially available toy) with old Jewish jokes, told with the clichéd inflections of the classic Jewish joke teller. Through Fishbone’s ironic construction (literally, in plastic), the artist shows a kind of hyper-awareness of the shlock he presents.

Artist Adam Rolston uses Jewish-pop images in order to question the ‘branding’ of Jewish identity in America. In his 1993 Matzo Box Series Rolston recreates the familiar Passover object through reference to Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup can prints. The interrogation of Jewish cultural tokens is explored further in the paintings of Deborah Kass, whose oeuvre also includes Warhol parodies. In Enough Already (2006) and Hard to be a Jew (2003),  Kass expresses Yiddishisms using bright colours that reference pop culture and post-modern art. Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner (2006) refers to none other than Baby from Dirty Dancing. Kass quotes from and refers to popular Jewish characters in such a way as to question the authenticity and simplicity of these Jewish cultural claims. What do they actually mean and what value do they have?

In all, a couple of things emerged from this short investigation. For one, it appears that, in many of the works discussed, the artists were immigrants, creating practices in countries in which they are foreigners. As expressed in Laughing in a Foreign Language, being a foreigner implies being in a constant position of distance, and humour becomes a coping mechanism for the attendant feelings of alienation. Perhaps also it might be harder to take life seriously when one has known alternate value systems. This might reflect the eternal position of the wandering Jew — the constant humour of the tenant, of the outsider. Indeed, many would claim that the reason Jewish humour is so well received in America, is precisely because it is a country comprised entirely of outsiders. Secondly, it seems as if Jewish humour in visual art shares several characteristics with its verbal expression: both share a similar self-consciousness, both offer ways to mediate intense emotion and both invite an  alternate way of thinking. Based observational acuity Jewish humour in visual art works through increased imagery characteristics particularly exaggeration, transformation, appropriation, association, and juxtaposition. Perhaps, as the old joke goes, ultimately, there are really only a few kinds of jokes:

A Jewish family was sitting around table. The father said, 32. Everyone laughed. The mother said 28, everyone laughed. A guest asked what was going on? The daughter explained: there are only a limited number of jokes, and we know them all, so we just need to say the number. Wonderful, the guest thought, and decided to give it a try. 24, he said, but everyone was stone faced silent. He was confused as to why no one was laughing, and asked why. ‘It’s the way you told it.’

Judy Batalion is a Canadian writer, comedian and art historian based in London. She is currently compiling a collection of writing about comedy audiences to be published in 2009.

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