Snap Judgments

Joe turns his penetrating vision on a wall of silliness to see what’s behind it.

To date, photographers have no been very silly in their work. This is true because (1) photography has not been art, (2) photography tends to attract only serious people, and (3) silliness has not, until recently, been noble emotion.
A surge of photographic silliness is developing is developing, however. Reports from Sodaville, Oregon; Nome, Alaska; and Bird City, Kansas, barometers of silliness, have indicated spectacular bursts of foolishness. The underfeathers of ducks are turning blue. And we are again at the auspicious point in the thirty-year cycle of silliness which brought us the 1920s and 1950s. The impending round of silliness promises to be the most profound, however, and can be expected to affect photographers.

A precocious few photographers are silly already. Kevin Clark’s Red Couch has cushioned token Americans with ridiculous frequency. William Wegman exhibits his often-cross-dressed dog, and has twoggled its genitalia via video. Dianne Blell’s plastic cupids in fake-o classic atmospherics represent the High Silly, with Peter McClennan’s watertowers, while David POrtz’s painted fish undoubtedly represent the Low. The persons in Nic Nicosia’s Modern Disasters react to cardboard problems, while Bernard Faucon’s real situations plague plaster-of-paris boys. Paul Hester’s muscular nudes, dressed only in our President’s latex face, are an adulterated silliness, also erotic and rude. In fact, most of the seminally silly photographers fortify their foolishness with beauty, design, culture, or trauma.
So purely silly work is yet to emerge. Classifications of silliness will be worked out, separating the absurd silly-incomprehensible from silly-funny and silly-dumb. The most successful achievers of the purely silly have been the postcard artists, who must nevertheless be discounted because they lack the traditional motivations of persons who produce Fine Art: fame and sales. Among the later sort of photographer, why is silliness so conspicuously lacking?
Part of the problem has been that photographers have always made such serious efforts to produce art. Photography only became art with Cindy Sherman. Before Cindy Sherman, photographers thought the had to be seventeenth century Dutch painters, behaving realistically and celebrating this or that. Meanwhile the current century’s painters grew silly: Pollock, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Klee, Dubuffet, Ernst, Warhol, to name a few of the masters. The Abstracts, Beats, Pops, and Waves all saw the potential in doing ridiculous work, and then providing their projects with serious-sounding rationales.
Silly work with a serious explanation is now the best Fine Art. Consider it this way. Fine Art is purchased to make its owners feel fine. Our society’s favorite way of feeling fine is feeling smarter than anyone else. Purely silly art is too embarrassing for anyone to enjoy except the ones who know its official explanation. Silly art makes a person feel enlightened. Photographers were very slow to pick up on this. If they had modeled their art on the theatre instead of painting they would have started out silly and perhaps been artists all along. In sixteenth-century Europe, dramas from funny faces, foolish names, and infantile behavior were all the rage.
Even with its celebration in theatre and later opera, silliness has waited a long time to be acknowledged as part of daily life. Historians have suppressed the silly outbursts. It was not known until recently that Rome fell because its subjects were worried silly over the invading hordes. The English rarely mention hat the British naval hero Viscount Nelson was singing “I’m a Little Teapot” in the battle of Trafalgar, when he caught a French musketball in his spine. Likewise American historians neglect to note that Edison was seeking to invent the electric eggplant when he invented the incandescent bulb, and was utterly disappointed that the light wasn’t purple. Such silly notions would not be neglected today. The novelty of bringing silliness out in the open makes it the ripest subject for art.
Even though photographers have now become artists and success of silly art seems assured, photographers will nevertheless have a hard time obtaining the giddiness that marks a serious fool. Photographers are matter-of-fact people. They don’t dress strangely. They believe what other persons tell them, and particularly what they see. To succeed in becoming silly, photographers will need to practice: making faces in their mirrors, doing little songs and dances, eating spaghetti by sucking up the strands. They will have to fall in love with adolescents, and fight with sailors over nothing. By getting on the goofy bandwagon, photographers assure themselves success. They will be exploring a deep-sounding modern trait. The importance of silliness to mental health has now been recognized. Silly persons are now loveable: their personalities are not suppressed. Perhaps the respectability of being silly is nowhere shown more clearly than in the large number of Fortune 500 CEOs who admit to being called ‘Huggy Bear’ by their wives. Whereas traditional virtues (heroics and lovers’ constancy, the desires for justice and truth) have been disparaged, silliness, by default, has gained exalted status. It takes its place with other modern standards of behavior, with smug complacency a morbid fascination. Photographers will soon feel silliness deep in their hearts, and then be daffy in droves.