Art and architecture critic

Francisco de Goya. "Asta su abuelo (And So Was His Grandfather)" in "Los Caprichos" (Madrid, 1799). (National Gallery of Art)

Goya’s "Ya van desplumados (There They Go Plucked)," 1797/1798 etching, burnished aquatint and drypoint. (National Gallery of Art)

The only time I laughed out loud while viewing the National Gallery of Art’s “Sense of Humor” exhibition was at one of Goya’s biting satirical broadsides, known as “Los caprichos.” The artist’s aquatint from the late 18th-century is among the most familiar images in this museum survey of comic drawings, prints and works on paper. Goya’s caprichos mocked the foibles of Spanish society, especially the pretension of its upper classes and the superstition and ignorance that cut across all social strata. The etching shows an ass with long ears, dressed in fine clothes, sitting on a chair, flashing a smug, self-satisfied smile, while perusing a book filled with images of other asses. The title is: “And so was his grandfather.”

The fun of the joke dissipates upon explanation: Aristocrats who slaver over their own pedigree are more ridiculous than barnyard animals. But what remains, more than two centuries later, is the comic look of utter stupidity on the ass’s face. At a moment when we have become terribly self-conscious about humor, especially how it often smuggles into polite discourse the most odious forms of bigotry and exclusion, this image remains funny in a mostly innocent way. It transfers human folly onto animals, thus distancing it slightly, and it aims its barb at something that is still commonly felt to be a vice; that is, a moral failing that is within our capacity to remedy.

That distinguishes it from much of the rest of what is on view in this small but satisfying exhibition, which surveys visual humor, from a small drawing by Leonardo’s studio to the work of the Guerrilla Girls, feminist artists who cogently skewer the reflexively male-centric art establishment. Most of the older images aren’t particularly funny anymore, not just because the social context has been lost, but because the humor now seems cruel. Artists regularly mocked people they deemed ugly, bodies they considered deformed, and vices, such as drunkenness or gluttony, that we understand as physiological afflictions, not moral failings. If you don’t you think big noses or hunched backs or fat men lying inebriated on the ground are funny, then most of this show isn’t funny at all.

Guerrilla Girls. "The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist," 1988. (National Gallery of Art)

That’s only to be expected. A museum of humor, if it were comprehensive and unflinching in its catalogue of all the things that once made us giggle, would be no laughing matter. In his 1900 “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” the French philosopher Henri Bergson pointed to three fundamental characteristics of humor: It is limited to the realm of the human; it is intellectual, meaning things are funny without reference to feelings; and it is fundamentally social and requires an audience. The second of these, that it is primarily intellectual, is perhaps the most important of his insights. Bergson says of laughter, “Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.”

There is an important distinction in this, and one that has ramifications for contemporary debates about humor. Bergson isn’t saying that laughter is by definition cruel, only that it operates outside the realm of things like pity, sympathy and fellow feeling. We laugh with the thinking part of our brain, not the feeling part. Memories of Christmas morning, for example, might warm our hearts; but seen dispassionately from the outside, the whole frenzied spectacle is bizarre and absurd and delightfully funny. “Highly emotional souls, in tune and unison with life, in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter.”

Roger Brown. "The Jim and Tammy Show," 1987. (National Gallery of Art)

Bergson’s insight adds nuance to Baudelaire’s view of the comic as essential to our fallen condition: In paradise, there is no need or occasion for laughter. When applied to contemporary cultural politics, Bergson confirms what is sometimes seen as a fatal indictment of liberalism, that it is humorless. Of course it tends to be humorless, or at least very self-conscious about humor, because underlying the liberal impulse is a desire to expand ideas of inclusion, sympathy and human understanding. The liberal impulse not to laugh, even to scold others for laughing, is a natural extension of what the liberal mind feels to be an enlightened understanding of a welcoming social order.

The cultural divide in America today cuts across old ideas about humor in complex ways. Late-night talk show comics have a monopoly on one kind of humor, generally from the center-left side of the discourse, while the outer reaches of the academic left often seem to go well past an aversion to cruel humor and into the gray realms of the sour and saturnine. Meanwhile, the far right has developed a fascinating and deeply subversive form of satire, based on embracing its own caricature, often unconsciously. When two men were photographed wearing “I’d Rather be a Russian than a Democrat” T-shirts at a rally for President Trump, the reaction from much of the country was one of disgust.

Richard Hamilton. "The critic laughs," 1968. (National Gallery of Art)

If you think that satire is fundamentally a form of social critique, that it must have a purpose or an idea behind it, then these T-shirts don’t seem much like satire. But satire is also used as a social tool, to divide those who get the joke from the those who don’t — and make the latter look ridiculous. These T-shirts are that kind of satire. They are a provocation, meant to unmask those who disagree as dull and humorless, even if that comes at the cost of two men endorsing a message that they might not believe, or are too stupid to understand.

That word, stupid, is important, and it is the best hope for humor in an age that seems increasingly humorless. Goya’s ass is still funny because stupidity is still funny, and it must always remain funny. Mere ignorance, a vice that some people can’t help because they lack access to education, is excusable. But people who are willfully ignorant, or who embrace unreason because it serves their immediate advantage, are stupid in a way worth deploring with all the available tools of discourse, including humor.

The ass in Goya’s image is one of several that appear in the published volume of “Los caprichos,” including in five consecutive plates that mock the arts, teaching and medicine. These are followed by perhaps the most famous image of all, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” an iconic representation of an Enlightenment fear. Perhaps the contiguity isn’t an accident: Vigilance against stupidity is essential in all aspects of life, even among those who may be convinced that what they do is entirely in the service of humanity. Hypocrisy is everywhere.

Walking through this exhibition might leave you, at first, with a feeling familiar from the everyday world: What if we run out of things to laugh at? So much humor truly is cruel, based on tribal feelings and the ugly need to differentiate the self from a social mass that feels overwhelming. But this anxiety is easily exploited by those who resist the idea of a truly inclusive society. If we can’t laugh at misogynist jokes, or racist jokes, or homophobic jokes, or jokes about people with disabilities, than perhaps we can’t laugh at all. But Goya’s ass allays that fear.

Indeed, although humor is subject to an ongoing process of obsolescence — jokes become unfunny as we advance as a society — it is also a realm of perpetual renewal. We can laugh at ourselves, and productively. And we can laugh at stupidity, which is cunning and powerful and reborn everyday in devious new guises.

Just consider all of the folly today that is fresh, vital, culpable and needs to be mocked off the stage. There are those who lie when the truth is neither hidden nor ambiguous; those who prefer lavish praise to constructive criticism; those who indulge spite to the point of self-destruction; those who think a truthful quibble compensates for a grand falsehood; those who would sink the whole ship rather than submit to temporary inconvenience; those who think the enemy of your enemy is your friend; and certain asses who really believe they have the best genes. Sometimes it seems the supply is inexhaustible.