I saw some experimental music recently, and it made me chuckle a few times. I was the only person in the room laughing. A couple of years ago, this would not have happened. In fact, I'm not sure that the idea of laughter was even compatible with the idea of seeing experimental preformative art in person. It seems that somewhere along the way, I have developed the notion that experimental art must be met with a certain reverence mixed with academic rigour; that humour didn't really have a place in viewership.
I think there is a certain sort of signalling that happens when we encounter alternative and experimental art; specifically, when you’re in public. My brain/ego is often trying to conform and say, "I am intellectual enough and capable of comprehending of this thing that’s happening in my direction."
When I’m seeing something weird, I often note my co-audience and I find versions of myself. I feel that I can tell for whom the experience is equally new. I can spot a bewildered expression that is likely mirroring mine. Or perhaps, I will see the stony academic thinker, reflecting back a seriousness of the topics infused into the performance.
I will seldom hear people laugh.
And while I'm quite sure there is an entire movement of art that is somewhat self-reflective or self-aware such that it pokes fun at serious art, I just don’t know enough about art history yet to comment on that. Yet still, you don't typically hear laughter bouncing off the walls of museums. Instead, you're in a constant hushed atmosphere of seriousness, of history, of the intensity of talent.
I have a vague memory of watching a movie with someone where after watching it she said that the film had no levity, and something to the effect of, the film took itself too seriously. I asked her to expand. She said that even in the heavy moments in life we often find laughter or a reason to smile and that, in this case, the film was less relatable for it.
A museum exhibition is perfectly valid in cultivating a certain density surrounding important and grave topics. I am in no way suggesting that we do away with that. A piece does not owe to the world an encompassing of all the facets of life, broadly speaking. I am suggesting that if you see something so new, absurd, difficult, demanding, straining, or uncomfortable that you laugh in response, at least don’t bother to beat yourself up for it.
We fear to be considered rude, and that our laughter is pejorative. As a child, I was told that I should not laugh at someone but with someone. I see this fear of laughing and this pressure to respond seriously ("respectfully") to whatever weirdness I just experienced, as incompatible. We want to be polite, and so there has historically been little room to think of laughter as an appropriate response to a new stimulus.
And that’s what so much alternative and avant-garde art is; a wholly new stimulus that cuts through the mundane, it short-circuits the well-trodden ruts and grooves between neurons. For me, most of the time, it makes me mutter under my breath: what the fuck is going on?. And if I laugh, I’ll laugh. And if I do, dirty looks be damned, at least I’ll get to ask myself why? and see where it takes me.