Yesterday I posted an article about Art Young, faith, and humor. As I mentioned, the article was originally commissioned for Ryan Standfest’s upcoming anthology on black humor.

Unfortunately, Ryan decided he couldn’t use my essay in his book. I found his reasons, and his responses, interesting and thoughtful. I asked Ryan if he’d let me reprint his email discussion of the essay, of humor, and of Art Young, and he very gracefully agreed. Below are his most substantial emails to me on the subject. (I have not included my responses, which are unwieldy since they include revised versions of the essay. Instead I figured I could talk about our differences a little in comments if there seems to be an interest.)
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Hello Noah–

Yes, I’ve read your article, and I’ve actually been wrestling with the direction it took. I must confess that as an atheist I am struggling with the connection you propose between faith and humor. The confusion for me lay primarily in the use of language, I think, that makes use of the concept of “faith” or “belief” in relation to theological matters, rather than finding a more secular use of such concepts in power structures– not necessarily in religion (or the concept of “god,” “evil” or “heaven.”)

At the start of the piece, you had me hooked with regard to the containment or reproach of power and power structures through the use of humor. I think the article is VERY STRONG up until the paragraph that begins with “Yet it wouldn’t be correct to say that Young eschewed faith.” It was with your juxtaposition of the words of the apostle Paul with an image of Young’s, where the piece heads into a territory that I find unconvincing. The juxtaposition feels a bit like an imposition to me, in order to arrive at a final paragraph that states positions that I am not sure I entirely agree with, nor see any evidence to support.

I think it is fair to say that humor may not prevent or deter tyranny (I am intentionally avoiding an abstract and far-ranging concept such as “evil” here), but it certainly puts it and abusive power structures into a context that weakens their position by means of the altering of perceptions. The statement “Humor is not anarchic liberation,” is of course a subjective and highly individualistic reading of humor that is contrary to what many others believe humor to be (see: Dada, Surrealism, the Marx Brothers). Alas, I am not convinced by the notion that you cannot have mockery without believing in something that is not mocked. I think a humorist or a satirist is perfectly capable of mocking something that he or she does not believe in and may in fact not have anything in mind to put in its place. The essence of Black Humor certainly brushes against the nihilistic concept that almost all power structures cannot be believed-in, or accepted. This is what makes it so black.

I THINK you are saying, and this is not entirely clear, that the only way to engage in ridicule or mockery is to have faith in the opposite of the structure being mocked or ridiculed? Mockery or ridicule as a positive force that builds rather than only tears down, because while it is tearing down it is simultaneously building another belief in its place? This of course is possible, but not as a general concept of humor– perhaps as a specific stratagem for some.

Was Young a Marxist? If so, what were his views on Christianity or religion in general. I am not sure how I feel about the closing sentiment in your final paragraph that he “believed that Earth could be made into Heaven.” Certainly as a Socialist, he had a vision of a society that should be pursued for the betterment of civilization. Therefore, his Inferno is about identifying the failed power structures of the present in order to arrive at that better future. Your statement “Young made Hell on Earth not to upend order,” but in fact, he IS upending one order, in order to hold up and promote another order– that which he does believe in. Hence the concept of “despair is hope,” a wonderful paradox which could provide an interesting nexus of ideas. It defines the approach of Art Young as not being nihilistic or Black Humored, but more in line with absurdist humor– not unlike Beckett, identifying the absurdity of life on earth, while believing in a better day. However, unlike Beckett, as a dyed-in-the wool Socialist with certain political affiliations/positions, Young is promoting an anti-Capitalist agenda in line with Marxist belief that will make the day better. One cannot ignore the political rather than the religious implications of Young’s Inferno.

I think this is what you are saying. If this is so, then it would be good to include such thoughts with a more secular language in addition to providing some supporting points that strongly demonstrate why Young is not taking the approach of say a Luis Bunuel, in using religious symbolism to expose the hypocrisy of power structures.

As I said, your article had me up to a certain point, and then I started to question how and why it was heading into the terrain it was. Perhaps you could help clarify some of these points for me.
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Hello Noah,

A parade of hopefully focused thoughts:

My view is that Young was using The Inferno for its structural conceits– that it provides a handy method for a cartoonist to catalog human foibles, to address the state of the human condition here on earth. Beyond that, he did believe in a better way of life to build in place of the folly he saw which fueled his desire to mock and ridicule as a satirist. However to conflate his use of religious symbolism with his belief in a new and better future by bringing these two things under the term “faith,” places everything within a purely religious framework. Therefore, my real problem here is in how you make use of the word “faith.”

I do not believe you are incorrect in stating that artists, humorists, whomever, may be driven by ideological concerns and the belief in something. Obviously this is crucial to the creative impulse, period. It is even crucial to the destructive impulse– bombs destroy to make way for something else; terrorism is fought on the grounds of an ideological struggle. Nor do I disagree that transcendence is the basis of humor– I have long believed that humor is in fact a survival mechanism, as Freud did, that allows the self to transcend whatever the dire circumstances by constructing an alternate self.

However, to take the position that it all comes down to faith in a religious sense, which is what your article seems to be saying with its loaded use of the word “faith” and the frequent references to transcendence with a spiritual/religious connotation, tilts this away from a meaningful and more universal discourse of humor being rooted in faith in other things besides “god,” “heaven,” and the destruction of “evil”– which itself is a religious construction. In the end it isn’t so much that I disagree with your theory as to humor relating to a belief in something– it is simply that I disagree that it has to do with a belief in religious concepts. The word “faith” is a term laden with specific associations.

I think in the end, it is important for me to recognize that Young, most probably an atheist, used a text, The Inferno, itself based on Catholic/Christian conceits, to address humanist concerns first and foremost rather than looking for a theological debate on faith in the religious sense. It is the faith in those humanist concerns that I would be more interested in having a conversation about, the human survival impulse to use humor to transcend misery, than to link the practice of ridicule, satire or mockery to belief in a god figure. Satire at the end of the day is, after all, about taking the piss out of heavy-handed father figures and systems of belief (such as religion) that like to oppress. The British tradition of satire (Cruikshank, Gillray, Hogarth, Rowlandson and Swift) is the greatest example we have of a clear definition of the uses of mockery and ridicule, which in itself influenced generations of American cartoonists such as Art Young. The British in effect created the mold for the future of visual satire with a humanist bent and a deep suspicion of power structures.

Therefore, if your piece is ultimately about linking the engine of humor to the notion of religious faith, rather than a more universal application of faith in humanist concerns, then I will have to disagree and cut the piece. The religious use of faith here is simply not something I can put myself behind as I feel it is at odds with what I believe humor to be, and more importantly what the aims and concerns of Art Young himself were. I am alas not an anarchist nor a nihilist, nor do I believe that humor is even about serving the ends of nihilism or anarchy, but I do not agree with it being linked to a religious reading of the concept of faith. Can it serve ideological ends? Of course. Must all roads lead back to religion and the belief in a god or concepts such as good and evil? No.

If, however, this is not what you are saying, then perhaps the closing paragraph of your piece could provide some clarification on this point by stripping away the purely religious context to address the larger concept of ideology rather than that which is “faith-based.” I think universality is crucial to the notion of humor in this sense, rather than specificity.

Best,
Ryan
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I discovered in Young’s autobiography a cartoon he drew of FDR as Orpheus, in a “Capitalist Hell” of war, poverty, etc (p 426 if you view in Google Books). Again, I think he’s simply using the image as a tool.

I also found this quote by Young which I thought was interesting, regarding Socialism: “I think we have the true religion. If only the crusade would take on more converts. But faith, like the faith they talk about in the churches, is ours and the goal is not unlike theirs, in that we want the same objectives but want it here on earth and not in the sky when we die.”

Rs

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Hello Noah,

I’m afraid I cannot include your piece in Black Eye. There are too many questions that remain unanswered for me.

In the end, I feel that you are imposing an idea of faith and humor on Young’s work, rather than finding it in the work itself. Nowhere in Young’s autobiography does he indicate an “obsessiveness with faith, ” in a religious sense. I also cannot support juxtaposing a caption as culled from the Bible, onto a cartoonist’s work in order to arrive at a new meaning. The juxtaposition feels more an imposition or mis-appropriation, rather than an organic outgrowth of the material. If your piece concerned itself with the concept of humor rooted in ideological belief systems, and the notion that you cannot mock without believing in something that you do not mock, then this would make more sense to me, rather than using Young’s work as a springboard to discuss the issue of humor as it relates to religion and only religion. I feel that it moves the focus away from the work itself and its true concerns, in order to prove a very personal point of view. The inclusion of the Zizek material is simply digging-in to support your idea that humor and black humor is definitely connected to religious belief.

I am ultimately not interested in an article that identifies humor in such a narrow fashion using the work of an artist whose intentions are to address socialist concerns first and foremost. In the end, I am unconvinced with the need to connect humor directly to religion and I find it veers too far away from the core subject of Art Young and his reason for doing what he did. The article seems to circle around and even avoid, by not delving deeper, into the notion of a Marxist Socialist Atheist using Christian iconography to address Socialist concerns. Surely it may be about something other than being obsessed with faith. It is entirely probable, based upon evidence, that rather than being obsessed with faith, Young used a Christian vernacular to connect with the audience of his day and wire them directly into his socialist concerns. It may very simply be a useful narrative structure, an appropriate vessel for communication, which makes sense for someone who is in fact concerned with “the masses.”

I am not opposed to initiating a discussion/examination using religious/Christian belief as a starting point to enter into a larger exploration of belief systems as they support humor, but I do not see a reason to draw all lines solely back to religion. Although you write in your email that humor or black humor is not dependent on religious faith, the thrust of the article and the language you use, seems to suggest this, which is of course an idea I cannot support or promote in a book dedicated to a more open-ended idea of humor.

Thank you for attempting such an ambitious approach. I am sorry that this did not work out. I think I was initially attracted to your very well-written and thorough original piece on Young and his work, because I found the subject to be highly relevant and worthy of discussion as it relates to today’s social concerns. Focusing on Young’s voice is a very timely endeavor– not because of his use of Christian imagery, but because of his tackling the subject of socio-economic struggle; the working-class against the ruling class, and the absurd hell that results– man against himself. I will echo Young’s own sentiments by stating that the concerns are “here on earth, not in the sky when we die.”

Regards,
Ryan

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