Can avant garde art be funny? I don't mean ironic; lots of art is ironic without being in the least bit funny, whether avant garde or mainstream.
But I was at a performance last night by a group of improvising musicians called Centrifuge, and there were aspects of the evening that were funny. Watching a man using his flute as a snooker cue to send marbles across the floor, as part of an otherwise very intense and serious performance, certainly made me smile. It was, frankly, rather absurd, and it did help to break the tension of the evening. Or at least deflate it for awhile.
There is, of course, the old cliched image of the serious avant gardist, intense and brooding, looking not unlike Poe's Raven as he broods over the language. But absurdism, clowning and taking the piss have always been part of the experimental project, and many of the avant garde poets I read make me laugh at their antics. Poets such as Roy Fisher and Peter Finch can certainly be serious, but they can also make the reader smile; and the same is true of poets such as Geraldine Monk.
Geraldine Monk in particular has an times wicked sense of humour, as she shows in parts of Interegnum with its satirical portraits of born again Christians and bikers. Her use of vernacular and dialect speech, and the broken rhythms she uses, are also intended to make the reader smile, as well as having a serious intent.
Mind you, there are times when I've read poems by ever-so-earnest poetic politicos trying to inject their poems with humour and jokes where it's come across as no more than heavy-handed satire. In poets such as Jonty Tiplady, however, an absurdist streak makes for an exhilarating experience.
The spectacle of a serious musician chasing a marble down the aisle of St Anne's Church in Manchester is deeply amusing. Hearing Christian Bok and Jaap Blonk doing a rendition of Schwitter's Sneezing Songs is laugh-out-loud (indeed, anybody who doesn't find Eunoia funny has had a humour bypass.) Jokes are subversive of everything; and if we can't take the piss out of ourselves, someone else will.
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