The Question of Humour

Several years ago an incident occurred which left me feeling deeply wounded and upset. It was at that moment that I began to examine what people consider funny, or more precisely, what legitimately qualifies as humour. My analysis yielded answers that were not entirely surprising, and now the recent violence in Paris has me thinking again.

The incident in question happened when I answered the phone one day and was greeted by a sing song, “I’m seeing your son, and you’re not, hahahaha!” It was delivered by a family friend in the familiar school yard tune we all know as, na na na na naaaa. We see this brand of juvenile, so-called humour all the time in the movies, on television, and Youtube, et cetera. People aren’t even aware that they’re doing it because it’s been so thoroughly normalized in our culture, but to me… it felt like a knife in the heart. You see, my son had moved away as a child to another city to be with his father, and I was not able to follow him. Any parent would understand the agony of such a separation, and to this day we are still not able to live closer to one another. Poking fingers into wounds just isn’t funny. Period.

So, what is it about humour? I think we can all agree that there are essentially two types. Let’s call them, positive and negative. First, there is the harmless hilarity of laughing at ourselves… you know, those quirky human traits we all share that, when skillfully described by a comic, have us rolling on the floor in leaky hysterics. We love to laugh at ourselves, and comedians have capitalized on this for decades. The other brand of humour is dark, however, and is not so innocuous. It comes at the expense of others and is about “making fun” of someone else, for example mocking, ridiculing, belittling, humiliating, criticizing, and so on. At its core it is nothing more than a put-down disguised as a joke, and in my view this very closely resembles bullying. There is certainly an element of provocation and thinly veiled cruelty to it.

Sadly, modifying our perceptions and behaviour is a slow and painful process. For millennia we’ve indulged the baser instinct of laughing at each other. We laugh when others get hurt. Popular culture persistently upholds and promotes this type of negative and antagonistic aggression… so really, it isn’t a surprise that bullying is at an all time high in schools and in the work place. And further… it isn’t shocking that newspapers deliberately publish provocative material masquerading as humour while knowing full well that it will upset somebody somewhere.

So… as long as “making fun” of others in the name of humour is vociferously defended as free speech, then there will continue to be conflicts and horror in this world. Fingers don’t just poke existing wounds, sometimes continued poking actually creates the wounds. And then what? We can turn the other cheek like Ghandi did, but most of us would probably snap like the wild animals we all have the potential to be. Isn’t it time that we finally exercised some degree of sensitivity, compassion, and common sense? Isn’t it time we realized that some things just aren’t funny.

 

No Nipping, Tucking, or Airbrushing Here

As I delve deeper into the newly emerging and currently titled, Vintage Nude Project, I am confronted with many questions. Where is this project going? What is the project really about? Why am I doing it? Who is it for? 

On a most basic level, this evolving series of photographs reflects my longstanding interest in hands [as a subject] and merges it with a deliberately subtle approach to the female nude. It seemed a natural evolution – hands are part of our bodies after all. They are an extension of ourselves.

In creating and editing my images, I explore shape and composition while making no attempt to diminish or conceal signs of wear and tear on the aging body. In fact, evidence of age on the hands and skin is accentuated in some of the photos. My motives are clear.

The reality is that natural, physical characteristics such as wrinkles, age spots, veins, and silver hair have been consistently maligned [especially for women] since the advent of corporate advertising. Think Mad Men (Madison Avenue, NYC, 1950s and 1960s advertising) – targeting women with face creams, hair dyes, and other age-defying products. Mainstream popular culture, media, and the entertainment industry quickly followed, nipping, tucking, and airbrushing their way to the fountain of youth that is as elusive today as it ever was. Yet we are deeper in denial, more insecure, and more dysfunctional than ever as a society.

There is no shame in aging, nor in celebrating it, because the experience and wisdom that usually come along with age is a wondrous and beautiful thing. Beauty is not the exclusive domain of the young and outwardly flawless. Our cultural values have been skewed, and it’s high time that everyone stopped promoting and believing the lies. Besides, we are so much more than our outer shells. We are poetry in motion.

A Look Behind the Scenes:

As a reclusive “elder” and new grandmother, I am simply not ready to reject myself as a viable and suitable model for my own work. Au contraire! Aside from the fact that asking family or friends to pose stark naked for photos is rather daunting and awkward (although I’m still hoping for volunteers), I’m the perfect choice at this stage of the project. I am available 24/7, I’m of the requisite vintage, and I know exactly what the photographer is attempting to convey.

The “studio sessions” consist of a darkened bedroom, the SoftBox Pro app on the iPad as a single light source, an articulated LCD screen on the camera, a remote shutter release controller, bifocals, and a lot of stamina. (I initially experimented with SoftBox photographing a mini orchid in the dark several months ago. The results were quite impressive, but I’m done with flowers for now.) In any case, DYI methods can yield superior results with a little determination and perseverance. Stay tuned for updates on this project, and if you have any ideas for the perfect title, I’d love to hear it!

NOTE:  This post was written in September 2014. Click here to view the project in its current state.

Poetry vs. Smut

While I’ve been enjoying taking photos of bugs, flowers, and family with my new DSLR camera, the other night I returned to my Fine Arts roots. This yielded some interesting results and fresh ideas. Having spent six years in “art school” environments, life drawing and anatomy studies with nude models, art history, and feminist discourse surrounding the male gaze, etc., were everyday fare. Whether it be Michaelangelo’s David, or Manet’s brazen, and stark naked Olympia, we studied and wrote about it at length from a critical and academic point of view.

The human form has held fascination for artists for millennia, but the rupture, or disconnect for me occurred the first time that family saw my life drawings. The best way to describe it would be nervous giggles and incomprehension at my apparent obsession with “naked people” – naked women in particular. This inadvertently led to speculation about my sexual orientation, which still lingers to this day. Nevertheless, it became clear that although the nude is standard study in the art world, the average citizen (more cognizant of Playboy and pornography than of art history) has been seriously impacted by the overt sexualization [objectification] of women and girls in popular culture, media, and advertising. You could say that the nude is carrying around a lot of baggage. The territory is fraught with fear, loathing, embarrassment, misunderstanding, and sometimes censorship.

Still, I am drawn to the human form as subject, and despite my own acute awareness and sensitivity to the difficulties some viewers have with the nude in art, I proceed – delicately and attentively. To help clarify, I think it’s helpful to think in terms of poetry versus smut. A poem can evoke imagery that draws out emotion, sometimes even on a spiritual level, while smut is designed and intended to titillate the baser senses. To view a work of fine art as a visual poem, complete with meaningful narrative and symbolism, whatever that may be, can be an intensely personal and soulful experience if one is open to it.

In viewing the body (whatever body) at its barest and most honest, we are given a mirror with which to contemplate our own vulnerabilities, and ultimately the impermanence and mortality that we all share. My approach to the nude is considered and modest. It does not push the boundaries, nor does it demand to be “in your face.” It is quiet and meditative. It transcends the carnal and hints at other things.

Click here to view more images from this new series of work.