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Museum Art: It's No Laughing Matter

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page N10

This story is about the humor in art museums.

It'll be short.

The sexy, the subversive, the witty and the excellent often bump into each other in comedy that cooks. All of these are also found in mighty works of art. Still, as you may have noticed, Washington's museums aren't a lot of laughs.

Jokes aimed at the eye: "Typewriter Eraser," by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

They're too polite to post "Wipe that grin off" signs. But hang out at the entrance to any proper Mall museum and watch the people coming in, and you'll see their smiles dissolve. Their faces go all somber. They start thinking weighty thoughts.

"It's not the art's fault," says Earl A. "Rusty" Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, and of course he's right. The California drawings made by Ed Ruscha that are now on exhibition there are pictures full of fun. Some of the Dutch genre scenes on display upstairs are saucy as can be. "And don't forget Claes Oldenburg," Powell says of the pop artist whose big, galumphing sculptures -- a floorburger, for instance, or a saxophone gone soft -- are jokes aimed at the eye.

But art catalogues aren't funny. Neither are the contexts in which art is shown. The whole mode of presentation at Powell's big museum owes less to the burlesque hall than to the cathedral. Step into the East Building. The soaring space, the sharp-cut blocks of stone, the pourings down of light tell you what to feel, and what you're meant to feel is awe.

Propriety is called for. One does not laugh in church.

The minister, of course, may slip a joke into his sermon. But the congregation's answer is at best a nervous titter. This is God's house, after all. No easy laughs allowed.

A similar restraint is felt in big museums of Western art. Christian pieties are welcome; think of all those crucifixions. But the comic is suspicious. That's why Andrew Wyeth is very often shown in our grandest art museums while Norman Rockwell isn't. Wyeth's morbid pictures (a crippled woman crawling, a crow nailed to the barn) are regarded as profound. Rockwell's works are better, better loved and better painted, and more historically important, not that these truths matter. It's his humor that undoes him. In most American museums the sob is in, the gag is out.

There is something else at play here. Jokes have to be sudden. And inevitably they're fleeting. By the third time that you hear one it's been drained of its punch. This isn't true of paintings, at least not of great ones. Great pictures keep on keeping on. A Cezanne or a Rembrandt, a Titian or a Manet, pours more into your mind the 10th time you see it than it did at first glimpse.

They make the unseen visible, they point your mind toward lasting truths, they shine with aspiration. That's another reason big museums feel so churchy. There's something prayerful at their core.

Accordingly they edit. Often for propriety. Jokes come bang-bang-bang in the savage English pictures of William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson, but we are not shown a lot of them. Marcel Duchamp thrived on puns. The surrealists, or some of them, were often jokesters, too, as were the 19th-century Japanese and the naughty Romans. But this is seldom stressed.

The sublime and the silly need not be kept apart. Shakespeare understood this; so did Dickens and Saul Bellow. But most big art museums do not yet agree. The pictures they most value -- those dour Thomas Eakins oils, those Blue Period Picassos, those dark clouds by Mark Rothko -- do not encourage laughs. Or even mild smiles. In most American museums our most amusing masters -- the exuberant Red Grooms, the fabulous Saul Steinberg and good old Norman Rockwell -- have yet to get their due. Someday this may change.

But don't hold your breath.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company