Many successful creative people don’t start with grand visions of world domination but with a joke. When Mark Zuckerberg helped to create Facebook, he wasn’t trying to build a global company; he was indulging in subversive humour. Facebook was developed to allow fellow students at Harvard to select the best-looking person from a choice of photos. It caused outrage and was banned by the college, but was so popular it crashed the university’s servers. Many of Andy Warhol’s paintings started out as a joke. He produced a series of silkscreen paintings of dollar bills in rows and columns: a wry joke about the value of art.
Collectors paid millions of dollars for a few dollars. A joke that launched an artistic revolution was Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. It became one of the most influential works of the twentieth century. For a six-dollar fee, any artist could submit work to an exhibition held by the Society of Independent Artists. For a joke, Duchamp submitted a porcelain urinal that he’d bought from a New York plumbing supplier, signed it ‘R. MUTT 1917’ (the maker’s name) and titled it Fountain. The piece was never exhibited; the curators refused to display it — but its submission caused uproar. Was it art or not? Fountain was thrown away and Forgotten.
On April 9th, 1917, just over 100 years ago, Marcel Duchamp achieved what was perhaps the most brilliant and absurd art event of the 20th century.
A photograph was the only record of the original object. The key to its success was that the photo was reproduced in an avant-garde art magazine with an accompanying article that eloquently explained the concept of the ‘ready-made’. It started the ball rolling.The reputation of Fountain grew. It was repeatedly reproduced in art magazines and books. Collectors clamoured to buy it because of its fame, so Duchamp decided to remake it. There was a problem though; the manufacturer had stopped producing them. Duchamp had to hire craftsmen to make an exact replica from the photograph ‘by hand’ — a delicious irony.
Humour is a pattern-switching process. A joke is funny because it causes ‘insight switchover’ from a familiar pattern to a new, unexpected one. It is this moment of surprise and realisation that triggers laughter. Duchamp didn’t intend Fountain to become the centrepiece for a history of modern art. He was poking fun at the Society of Independent Artists’ reverence for traditional artistic skills. At that time the public had expectations that an artwork might be a bronze sculpture of female nudes or whatever, not a urinal. If Duchamp had thought Fountain was a masterpiece he wouldn’t have thrown it away. It was only when the art world started taking the joke seriously that he too started taking it seriously.
Spurred on by the unexpected success of Fountain, Duchamp started an art form known as the ‘ready-made’, an ordinary manufactured object that the artist selected and sometimes modified. Duchamp saw them as an antidote to traditional, handmade art. Simply by choosing the object, it became art. The format of a conventional joke is that the listener is led down a familiar, ‘reasonable’ pathway. While they are travelling down this familiar road, the punchline suddenly shifts them onto a different, unexpected sidetrack. Creativity is about producing the unexpected and seeing things from a new perspective. Humour can be instrumental in shifting that expectation. We often find ourselves feeling anxious, busy, harassed and trying to look productive at work. It’s almost impossible to be inventive in that frame of mind. It hardly helps that our society believes that if you’re having fun then you can’t be getting the job done. Rather than being weighed down by a serious mindset, what we really need is humour. Humour is a key that opens the door to counter-intuitive and subversive thinking. If you have reached an impasse and are stuck with a problem, it can lead you to a fresh perspective and instigate insight or enlightenment.
The author of this article is Dr. Vinita Mathur (vinita @dezyneecole.com),she is an esteemed educationist, and the visionary owner of a prestigious college ,Dezyne École College . Her intellectual prowess, dedication to education, and innovative leadership have made her a prominent figure in academia and a source of inspiration for countless students and educators alike.