Pathologies, Punchlines and Power: The Medicalized Body, Humour and Art

Reflecting on their recent Confabulations event, researchers Laura Cowley, Christine Slobogin and Katie Snow question the relationship between humour and art within the critical medical humanities.

What does art bring to, and how does it complicate, experiences that are both humorous and medical? How can humorous images within medicalized contexts raise questions about power and degradation, about empowerment or shame? What different emotions can visual humour in medicalized contexts provoke, and how might this differ from a written or spoken joke? Where does humour fit within the critical medical humanities?

Thomas Rowlandson, The Persevering Surgeon, date unknown. Made available by the Hunterian Museum, London.

These were just a few of the questions discussed in the Confabulations event held on 10 August 2022, titled ‘Pathologies, Punchlines, Power: The Medicalized Body, Humour, and Art.’ The Confabulations seminar series marries art history and art practice with the critical medical humanities. Tying together all three papers on this panel is one theme that has been consistent throughout the series as a whole: the power of professional artists, within a medical or pathologized setting, to raise and address – even if they don’t fully articulate or answer – questions around the phenomenological and emotional experience of illness, disability, injury, and healing.

We started with Katie Snow’s paper titled ‘“haha boobies”: art, medicine, and humorous breasts’. Featuring a colourful carousel of breast caricatures from the eighteenth century, this was perhaps the talk most likely to elicit full-bodied laughter from the audience (difficult to determine with attendees on mute!). The paper’s title, ‘haha boobies,’ was inspired by an Instagram comment posted in response to Thomas Rowlandson’s above visual satire on the perverted anatomical practice of male dissectors.

Exploring the cultural iconography of breasts alongside their social significances, Katie argued that contemporary caricaturists turned to female anatomy to capture, interpret and shape key medical discourses. Making connections between the graphic body, anatomy, and embodied experience, caricatures of breasts pathologized an eclectic mix of figures ranging from desperate addicts to unnatural mothers. In addition to spotlighting breasts as a humorous and titillating visual motif, this paper emphasized the critical value of working with caricature as a source. As fast, frequently unpolished, and purposefully comical reactions to topical events, circumstances and people, caricature offers a unique perspective on key medical crises, debates and revolutions.

Ronald Niebour (NEB), ‘DON’T YOU THINK THAT’S A LITTLE TOO GOOD?’, The Guinea Pig, August 1948, 6. LYB E.81/320.1, Imperial War Museum Archive, and The East Grinstead Town Museum Archive.

Christine Slobogin spoke about Second World War humour, art, and medicine. She described how, in this period, soldiers and civilians alike were affected by facial wounds and bodily burns as the result of enemy fire, downed planes and aerial bombardment on Britain’s cities. Visual humour proved a valuable coping mechanism used by patients, surgical artists and surgeons within the context of reconstructive plastic surgery. This is evident in patient magazines (such as those from The Guinea Pig Club), cartoons by surgical artists (such as quick sketches by Dickie Orpen) and even textbooks by eminent surgeons (like Harold Gillies’s 1957 The Principles and Art of Plastic Surgery).

But the laughter, or bodily or emotional discomfort, prompted by images produced or published by these three groups depended on the position of power of the person being joked about, and of the person making and viewing the joke (including us as viewers in present-day historical mode). These considerations of power are even more fraught when the imbalances of authority in the jokes are navigated at vulnerable points of a patient’s body. This approach to visual humour produced by disparate groups echoes and tries to answer to Temi Odumosu’s statement that ‘actual laughter’ is ‘difficult to qualify in a research context … because it … depends on who was (and is) doing the looking.’[1]

Christine argued that visual humour allowed these three groups to take power for themselves. By masking the trauma of surgery with glossy cartoon styles, patients were able to dictate what parts of their bodies were made fun of. Surgical artists could punch both up and down at surgeons and at patients, using the body parts that they were recording to make more involved and physical jokes. And surgeons utilized patient bodies to make the most visceral and morbid jokes, often through photography, that could be read as a type of genial coercion to encourage wartime stoicism in their patients.

Katherine Araniello, Not Dead Yet Placard, 2015. Photograph of protest placard, National Disability Arts Collection and Archive

The Q&A opened with a question about the tension between the upsetting and the humorous aspects of our three bodies of material. Nowhere was this tension more tensile, and more fraught, than in Assisted Passage, 2007, the piece that was the focus of Laura Cowley’s talk. In Assisted Passage, a typically satirical piece of live art by Katherine Araniello and Aaron Williamson, the artists disguised themselves as ‘medical model cripples’ and staged a public protest to gain support for Araniello’s fictitious desire to fly overseas and access physician assisted suicide.[2] In documentation made available to us through Williamson’s book and their YouTube channel, the artists play with conventions from disability protest, sharing absurd posters and shouting through a broken megaphone, but still convincing passers-by to sign their petition.[3]

While acknowledging that Assisted Passage might appear an unlikely case study for a paper on jokes and disability, Laura explored anger as a productive emotion of humour, and humour as a way to ‘express anger without direct confrontation’ in twenty-first-century disability arts contexts.[4] Laura argued that Assisted Passage makes merry with the exclusionary nature of highly contextual in-group humour. By demonstrating the failure of their ironic communication, the piece highlighted the chasm between Araniello and Williamson’s own experiences of disability and their audience’s assumptions about disabled lives. In this way, it provokes confusion and uncertainty about metanarratives of disability and quality of life, without offering new positions of authority in their place. Laura concluded that there is a complicated potential in humour to explore the murky spaces between perceptions and experiences of medicalized bodies, and as both the subject and method in research that operates between disability studies and the medical humanities.

One commonality among these three papers is the idea that humour is space-dependent and space-creating. All three of these historical contexts were formed by the place in which the visual humour was presented. For Katie’s caricatures of breasts, the eighteenth-century print shop window was a sanctioned space for guffawing at well-known aristocrats or actresses, or queens whose breasts were too fat, too droopy or too masculine. In Christine’s paper, the operating theatre becomes a place for stifled giggles at the patient’s expense, and the hospital hallways a space for hearty chuckles at the expense of a surgeon. The Assisted Passage piece was performed in a square between Birkbeck and SOAS, a place of protest that allowed for passers-by to frame (incorrectly) the performance within a context of student protest, setting up the ‘trick’ of the satire that Antinello and Williamson were looking to play.

And all three of these visual joke groups actively encouraged an in-group and an out-group, creating spaces for the involvement of individuals and collectives. By constructing in- and out-groups, all three sources of material discussed conform to the ‘superiority’ theory of humour, where the ‘object of amusement’ is ‘inferior,’ and the jokester is ‘superior.’[5]

Beyond the work of a handful of scholars, such as Temi Odumosu, Vic Gatrell and Tanya Sheehan, not much has been written on the intersection of humour and art.[6] Even less has been written at the triangulation of medicine, art, and humour—which is where our current work, and our future work, comes in. In the introduction to this Confabulations event, we launched a call for chapters for an edited volume that engages with the questions listed at the beginning of this piece.

This CFP, for a volume preliminarily titled “Laughter is the Best Medicine? Visual Histories of Humour and Health,” can be found here. We would like to draw together a group of interdisciplinary scholars, artists, and comedians who are interested in engaging with historical and contemporary visual humor of medicine and the body. All three of us are working within the British context, but we hope to expand our inquiry out globally; questions about the effectiveness of visual communications of humor within medicine must be investigated across geographical and cultural contexts.

We are interested in considering not only scholarly chapters for this volume, but also comedic essays that engage with our themes, and artistic responses to our research questions. If you have any questions about the volume, about our Confabulations event, or about creative responses to the themes, do get in touch with us at cslobog1@jh.edu, ks596@exeter.ac.uk, and lauracowleyworks@gmail.com.

[1] Temi Odumosu, Africans in English Caricature 1769-1819: Black Jokes White Humour (London: Harvey Miller, 2018), 32.

[2] Williamson, A. 2008 Performance, Video/ Collaboration. Live Art Development Agency

[3] Katherine Araniello and Aaron Williamson. “Assisted Passage” YouTube, uploaded by disabledavantgarde. 28 Nov. 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvgVv-nEEIs

[4] C. Cameron, “Tragic but brave or just crips with chips? Songs and their lyrics in the Disability Arts Movement in Britain‟. Popular Music. 28 no.3. (October 2009): 381-396

[5] Adrian Bardon, ‘The Philosophy of Humor,’ in Comedy: A Geographic and Historical Guide, ed. Maurice Charney (Westport, CT: Praeget, 2005), 462-476.

[6] Odumosu, Africans in English Caricature. Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (Walker, 2007). Tanya Sheehan, Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2018).

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