Critical Reflection on Practice.
John Kilburn. MA Authorial Illustration.
My practice attempts to create a balance between expressive, cartoonish tendencies (spontaneous work which involves no planning) and formal structures such as screen printing, typography and theoretical research (which require the application of knowledge). Formal structures help to make my ideas accessible by placing my work in a wider context. For example, here is a picture of a pipefish from my first rough of The Golden Plaice:
Here is a picture of the same character from my latest version. This drawing benefits from improved draughtsmanship and through a wider net of reference material, the result of two years practical research.
I digitally separated this drawing into 3 layers for the process of screen printing. Immediately placing it in the context of other screen printed imagery. The drawing now has much greater cultural resonance. The incongruity between formal practice and spontaneous creativity allow an opportunity for humour. Without using these structures my work may only appeal to a very limited audience (strange and inaccessible). Without spontaneous creativity the work might come across as merely factual. This essay explores theory of humour and how it relates to my practice. I will attempt to explain the process of humour inherent in irony, metaphor and nonsense.
Freud(1940) suggested that the comic arises when we gain pleasure from a repressed source such as hostility or obscenity (tendentious humour) or from economies such as those found in the drawing of a cartoon or a piece of wordplay such as a metaphor or pun (non tendentious humour). It is my opinion that all humour can be considered tendentious as even seemingly benign wordplay works by contrasting one set of values against another.
Alexander Chislenko’s Theory of Humour (2002) discusses Freud’s failure to explain the biological origins of the comic or the role it plays in a social environment. Chislenko also suggests that many people openly express more hostility and sexuality in their lives than they are prepared to use in their jokes, the author states that ‘most references to sex, violence and stupidity are not funny’. He proposes some non-jokes that should be funny if Freud’s theory was correct.
- Hitler died.
- Bill is an idiot.
- Alice and Bob had sex and then Alice killed Bob by mistake.
Although Chislenko used these non-jokes as examples of things that are not funny, I found myself chuckling when I read them. I would agree with Chislenko that these jokes do not elicit any humour through tendentious pleasures regarding sex, stupidity or violence. For me to find humour in these phrases there must be something else happening. Chislenko’s paper explains humour as a biological reward system for recognising surprises.
Alastair Clarke’s pattern – recognition theory(2008) suggests an underlying process to humour involving the cognitive recognition of patterns, this help to facilitate learning and structure our perception. The recognition of patterns allows us to process information quickly, the recognition of new patterns (surprises) is important from a biological viewpoint for assessing new information, possible threats, or opportunities. This echoes Freud’s theory of economy. Pattern recognition allows for economy of time in our cognitive process.
It may be that I found humour in Chislenko’s non-jokes because I recognised a pattern. I often find myself attracted to things that are ‘so bad they’re good’ for example movies, comics or analogies. I am inspired by artists who use sources that are normally considered trashy, kitsch or bad taste. Irony is very important to my work.
Fig 4 Blood, Breasts and Beasts - includes tropes and imagery from bad movies and trash culture.
Fig 5. Legends – This T-shirt design for Slut clothing glamorises debauchery.
Fig. 6 High Score – an obvious visual metaphor treated with hyperbole.
Fig.7 Tuesday - an example of irony, creating a new meaning for humorous intentions.
Q: What is red and smells like blue paint? A: Red paint.
Anti-jokes work by replicating the form of real jokes (such as question/answer, knock knock, did you hear about the two guys..?) then completing them with a logical answer rather than a surprising punch line. By attempting to make jokes that do not work Chislenko has recreated this process and it is possible that I have recognised the pattern and been rewarded with humour. The ‘structure’ I have described also contains the ‘surprise’ of the non-joke, confounding our expectations of what a joke should be. Hurley, Dennet and Adams (2011,preface pg. xi)in their recent work Inside Jokes, Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind state that:
“We experience mirthful delight when we catch ourselves wrong-footed by a concealed inference error. Finding and fixing these time-pressured misleaps would be constantly annoying hard work, if evolution hadn’t arranged for it to be fun. This wired in source of pleasure has then been tickled relentlessly by the supernormal stimuli invented and refined by our comedians and jokesters over the centuries.”
Tom Veatch’s (2012) theory of affective absurdity proposes that humour arises when we perceive a situation as simultaneously being a violation of our moral code (in this case how we think the situation ought to be) and something that does not violate our moral code. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren’s theory of benign-violations (2010) suggest that humour will arise when something violates how the world ‘ought to be’ but the situation itself is benign. Both of these theories suggest that all jokes are ‘tendentious’ as we can gain pleasures from sources that would normally violate our moral code.
Fig.8 Franz Kafka Playing Peek-a-boo
In my picture we have a normal situation (N –someone playing peekaboo) being realised with a very unusual situation
(V – the person playing peekaboo is Franz Kafka who is normally considered a great and serious author and a not someone playing childish games.)
The game of peek-a-boo gives us some clues as to the process of humour. Children may find amusement in the game of peek-a-boo because a violation (V – the disappearance of a parent or loved one) is realised simultaneously with a normal situation (N – the return of the loved one) – N + V. This situation then happens again and again N + V + N + V and so on.
InHumor: A Phenomenological Sketch (Boeree,C.G 1998) the author states:
“Humor is the discovery of safety within fear, just like laughter, humor’s physical counterpoint, is relaxation within stress”.
The pattern recognition theory asserts that games such as peek-a-boo are stepping stones towards more advanced forms of humour and the recognition of more intricate patterns.
“Peek-a-boo can elicit a humorous response in infants as young as four months, and is, effectively, a simple process of surprise repetition, forming a clear, basic pattern. As the infant develops, the patterns in childish humour become more complex and compounded and attain spatial as well as temporal elements until, finally, the child begins to grapple with the patterns involved in linguistic humour.”(Clarke 2008)
Fig.9 – The Golden Plaice uses a similar pattern of surprise repetition to that of peek-a-boo, each page is a ‘violation’ of our preconceived idea of how a book should be.
As we grow up we gradually construct a more advanced perspective on life, built up from our own experience, passed down, taught and inherited. The same pattern recognition process involved with humour helps us to adapt rapidly and our ego creates a world for us that is human and makes sense. This is our ‘mental framework’ (Heflick 2011) or schema; our schema allows us to process a lot of information quickly without too much effort by relating new information to our perception of ‘how the world should be’. Our schema is constructed by our ego. The ego is the part of the id that has the closest relation to the external world and ‘has taken on the task of representing the external world’ (Freud 1964). The schema is a system put in place by the ego to help it mediate between reality, the id and the super ego. The mind has several egocentric tendencies that help maintain the schematic framework as described in The Human Mind (Elder; Richard 2007)
“Egocentric memory (the natural tendency to “forget” evidence and information which does not support our thinking and to “remember” evidence and information which does)
Egocentric oversimplification (the natural tendency to ignore real and important complexities in the world in favor of simplistic notions when consideration of those complexities would require us to modify our beliefs or values)
Egocentric blindness (the natural tendency not to notice facts or evidence which contradict our favored beliefs or values)
Egocentric absurdity (the natural tendency to fail to notice thinking which has “absurd” consequences, when noticing them would force us to rethink our position) “
Visual and cognitive illusions may be a consequence of the mind taking shortcuts when presented with new stimuli. If something relates to an already recognisable pattern then it will sometimes make connections that are inaccurate. Gestalt theory suggests that we see things as whole before recognising the individual parts. Mark Changizi (Bryner 2008) proposes that visual illusions are caused by the neural lag, the time it takes for images to be processed by our brain from the time they hit our retina. To compensate for this Changizi proposes that our minds simulate a perception of the future and that visual illusions occur when reality does not match those perceptions. Cognitive illusions occur when we perceive something as true that is actually false. On a grand scale cognitive illusions could refer to an egocentric belief in religion, a prevailing belief that capitalism is a sustainable system on a planet of finite resources, or that Science should be seen as the only system capable of explaining life, the universe and everything.
Fig.10 Smart prawn’s beliefs are shattered by the harsh reality of life for small fish in an enormous ocean. The Golden Plaice is not only a pun but also alludes to a chip shop of the same name, simultaneously representing a place of bounty and a place where fish get eaten. To emphasise this the colourful cartoonish imagery hides existential and absurd themes in something that looks like a book for children.
Fig.11 – The Cover for The Golden plaice uses a pattern that alludes to traditional cook covers appears to be a visual metaphor for fish scales. On closer inspection it is revealed to be random.
In the Ontic-Epistemic Theory of the Comic(Marteinson 2006)Peter Marteinsonproposes that the comic arises when we momentarily see the truth: that social being and material fact are not the same. Our perception separates into different ontic meanings without any cultural/social meanings attached and we perceive a ‘falsehood’, ‘the physical world in its cultural poverty is all that is left standing in perception. .(Laughter).. serves to restore normal socio-cognitive perception and to facilitate the forgetting of the comic stimulus.  This argument is similar to the theme of C.G Boeree’s essay Nihilistic Tendencies in Psychology and the Phenomenology of Off-Color Jokes (Boeree 1998), Boeree points out the fear that lurks behind the social constructs we make for ourselves and describes terror management theory, ‘a quasi-existentialist mini-theory in social psychology..(which).. suggests that society essentially exists to protect us from awareness of our own nothingness.’ He goes on to say that there is a sensuous, real reality that catches us when jokes momentarily break apart our constructed, social reality and although we joke about what scares us they directly, explicitly remind us that we have nothing to fear.
Something that is absurd makes no sense, is irrational or is false. Humans are biologically programmed to try and make sense of the world. When we take a detached look at ourselves the very systems we construct to do this can be shown to be false, and we are presented with the terror of a cold, dark, alien universe. Once the mirage of our reality has been broken we are left with some serious choices. Albert Camus (Camus 1975) suggests we have three options. We can choose to believe in a higher power or meaning (Camus describes this as philosophical suicide). We can commit suicide (which Camus asserts is in itself absurd) or we can accept the absurd. To accept the absurd we must suspend our disbelief.Thomas Nagel (Nagel 1979 pg.23) writes that we must return to our lives with a ‘certain sense of irony and resignation’.
The absurd is a simultaneous appreciation of two things that are in opposition, I see it as the common thread running through all of the humour theories I have mentioned and it shows why the absurd always has the potential for creating the comic. However the absurd is also terrifying and this gives humour, where the absurd is most visible, a strange and uneasy quality.
“Culture is distinguished by its codes of propriety and ritual, and these, as we have seen, may provide a basis for the ridicule that occurs in nonsense: human beings are irrational and absurd, and literary nonsense has a knack for pinning down social nonsensicality “
– Pendlebury, K Reading Nonsense: a Journey Through the Life of Edward Lear(Pendlebury 2007)
Nonsense literature became a literary genre of note during the Victorian era with the emergence of Louis Carroll and Edward Lear. As people sought to classify, define and make sense of everything, nonsense provided the perfect humorous response. The Golden Plaice uses imagery and verse inspired by nonsense literature and traditional natural history illustration.
Fig.12 – Samuel Fallour produced one of the earliest natural history books. He also had a tendency to make things up! (Pietsch)
Fig.13 Fish ‘n’ Chips – Similar to the poster in a take-away near you?
The Authorial Illustratorpublished in 2012 by Atlantic Press suggests that there is a fine line between nonsense and absurdity and that ‘absurdity is often hidden within rather serious or widely trusted thought.’ The potential humour in absurdity is much greater when it involves a source that we previously trusted. Nonsense, in my opinion, involves the intentional creation of absurdity by playing with established rules and structures, possibly with an agenda to confuse, mislead or entertain. If someone cries ‘nonsense!’ when presented with some dubious information it has a very different ring to it than a cry of ‘that’s absurd!’ Whereas nonsense really makes no sense but tries to fool us that it might, absurd recognises a kind of honesty. It is a spotlight on the nonsense latent within an accepted truth.
John Vernon Lord suggests that illustrating nonsense requires the use of formal structures to provide stability analogous to the formal structures used in nonsense, such as the principles of rhyme and rhythm. E.Cammaerts suggests a need for a ‘primitive and almost aggressive simplicity’. When illustrating the absurd perhaps we need to suggest that something is not just what it initially appears to be, by alluding to another meaning we can create absurd irony.
Fig.14The Absurd Bird Fig.15 Cock ‘n’ Bull - My posters for the 2012 Illustration Forum drew on cultural references concerned with the absurd and also the irony of metaphor. ‘The absurd bird’ is a direct reference to Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch. The bird in the sketch is called a ‘Norwegian Blue’ (pining for the fjords!) and is referred to by John Cleese as an ‘X’ parrot. As ‘X’ stands for ten in Roman numerals an ‘X’ parrot seemed the perfect image for the tenth illustration forum – The Absurd Event.
Shortly after making these posters Damien Hirst unveiled a sculpture called Cock and Bull. As I wrote in my presentation on the Absurd – the big irony of postmodern art is that even when trying to make something new, it will always relate to something that exists.
Fig.16 – Cock and Bull Damien Hirst (2012)
In Hummingbirds I created a story using only ‘bad’ analogies from the Washington Post Style Invitational. Whereas metaphor aims to convey one idea by the use of another, irony seeks to create humour, expressing something by using language that is different or opposite. The reason that we do not find humour in all analogy may be that the irony has become hidden (as in a cliché), or that the different language used is similar enough so that the perceived normality of the situation outweighs the violation. Likewise, analogy that is offensive, such as name calling may only seem humorous if the situation it occurs in is seen as safe, for instance if the name calling is directed at someone else. In Metaphor and Metonymy: The Cognitive Trump-Cards of Linguistic Humour(Veale 2003) Tony Veale suggests that ‘metaphors do not really die, but simply lose their ability to surprise and evoke tension as they fade into the woodwork of language’. Humour in metaphor may rely on the ‘trumping’ of the salient view of one expression by the intended meaning and the tension between the two.
The phenomenon of self trumping is perhaps most apparent in utterances made by second-language users who do not fully appreciate the role of linguistic context in making the lesser reading of a figure more salient than the intended one. (Veale 2003)
‘Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the centre’ is an example of non-humour within an analogy. It plays on the many clichés we associate with ‘her eyes were like’ then ‘trumps’ our expectations with descriptive metaphors that are cliché. The tension between what we expect the analogy to be, and how it actually is creates the surprise or violation necessary for the comic. Visual and literary games that use constraints have allowed me to generate new associations that can surprise and amuse. In Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World he cuts and pastes an entire novel using old-fashioned women’s magazines and this results in some delightful use of metaphor.
Rawle has an especially adept way with similes: a metaphor is “as plain as a hard boiled egg”; Roy’s face looks” white and strained like sauerkraut”; a skirt Norma tosses in the fireplace grate blazes intensely out of control for a moment like a holiday romance with a girl from Hartlepool.” -From a review of Woman’s World by Rick Poyner in Eye Magazine. (Rawle)
Fig.18 Far Fetched Russians – Oulipian constraints lead to unusual and unexpected delights. 
Through the application of practical and theoretical research my work has evolved over two years to become ‘self-aware’. I understand my work and recognise how it relates to contemporary practice. By developing strong technical skills in graphic design, typography, printing and drawing I have improved my chances of employment. It is the absurdity inherent in the incongruity of humour that has formed the basis of my MA exploration. It may be that our biological programming rewards us for recognising things that violate our moral code or understanding and through this process we learn to adapt to our environment. Our mental framework is so important that when it is challenged or proven false we feel great fear. However when violated in situations that we can control or consider safe, that fit within our schemas we are rewarded with humour. Even the smallest humorous slip of the tongue may quietly, ever so subtly, invoke an existential angst.
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My Research Journal’s URL is jonskibeat.wordpress.com.
- Peter the Pipefish. From The Golden Plaice. Research Journal March 27th 2011.
- Peter the Pipefish. From The Golden Plaice. Research Journal April 13th 2012
- Peter the Pipefish. From The Golden Plaice. Research Journal May 13th 2012
- Blood, Breasts and Beasts. Research Journal August 14th 2012.
- Legends. T-shirt design for Slut clothing as part of an MA placement. Research Journal March 23rd 2012.
- High Score. ‘Ways to hide a Rag Fief’ collaborative project. Research Journal November 10th 2011 and maap2012.wordpress.com November 23rd 2010.
- Tuesday. Research Journal October 13th 2011.
- Franz Kafka Playing Peek-a-boo. Research Journal – The Absurd.
- Photograph of final rough. Page 1. From The Golden Plaice. Research Journal August 13th 2012.
- Page 0 screen print. From The Golden Plaice. Research Journal May 13th 2012.
- Cover design. From The Golden Plaice. Research Journal August 13th 2012.
- Samuel Fallours Fish. Tropical Fishes of the East Indies, Pietsch, T.W. 2010, Taschen.
- Fish ‘n’ Chips. From The Golden Plaice. Research Journal August 16th 2012
- The Absurd Bird. Research Journal January 16th 2012.
- Cock ‘n’ Bull. Research Journal January 27th 2012.
- Cock and Bull. Damien Hirst (2012) www.damienhirst.com
- Hummingbirds screen print. Research Journal June 12th 2012.
- Far Fetched Russians. Research Journal September 15th 2011.