Laughter and Bullshit

By Pritha Mahanti

Surrender, oil on canvas, Yue Minjun (2009)

The ultimate measure of despair is perhaps in humour. Despair is chronic when the body involuntarily convulses with laughter at the sight of the slain at the witness box while the butcher heads the jury of a trial that commences after the verdict is delivered. One should not, however, confuse sadness with despair. You see, sadness can be made sense of, can be moulded and can be embellished with other sensory artefacts. Despair is bare and primal and hence the only means of coming to terms with it is humour, the unsophisticated, blatant and subversive of all emotions.

Once upon a time in China when the dragon was let loose on liberty, an artist laughed his way through the absurd. Growing up through a cultural catastrophe (famously known as the Cultural Revolution) brought about by Mao Zedong, he ultimately unlocked the immitigable helplessness of the human condition by taking recourse to laughter. He split himself up in frames creating a multitude of the self with a wide grin. As I browsed through his paintings I couldn’t help feeling a nudge of pain in my jaws after a while. The grins frozen in time were painful and pathetic to look at. It hurt to see a man laughing all over space and time. Yue Minjun had unlocked for me a very handy ‘toolkit’ for survival. It was laughter at and against a world riddled with bullshit. Bullshit generally means nonsense or ridiculous. It is ubiquitous in everyday parlance, from tea stall benches to diplomatic tables. However, bullshit is not simply nonsense, it is dangerous. You might think I am unnecessarily theorizing but hold on. Professor Harry Gordon Frankfurt in his 1986 essay “On Bullshit” spun the profane on the philosophical plane claiming that bullshitting is worse than lying because unlike the latter, bullshit has no concern for truth and the pervasiveness of bullshit everywhere makes us strangely tolerant of it. Safe to say then, that over time, if allowed to fester, it builds an almost impenetrable dystopia. In a world of post-truth politics combating bullshit and profound ignorance and holding one’s own then requires something more than an adherence to truth and reason. The ultimate resistance, therefore, lies in laughter. Why so, you would ask.

Execution, oil on canvas, Yue Minjun (1995)

Take a look at Execution for example. In this 1995 oil painting, a group of emaciated bare bodied lookalikes of the artist can barely control themselves in laughter as they stand in front of a firing squad of another group of lookalikes sans guns. For those familiar with the historical context, the shadow of the Tiananmen massacre of peaceful young protestors is unmistakable. Humour has a tenacious relationship with the horrid. Though naturally born out of tragedy, the former tends to be apologetic and inane when faced with absolute horror.  A frame depicting a regime’s brutal repression that has grinning faces may seem like a callous commemoration of history if not for the fact that at the edge of pain there is just humour to plunge into. “To laugh is an expression of pain”, Minjun says [⇗]. No wonder that Sigmund Freud, papa of psychoanalysis, could not leave humour alone. He saw it as a formidable defence of the self against reality. Therefore, the solitary artist infinitely multiplies himself in the face of the incomprehensible and unspeakable. Age after age, as the firing squad image recurs in different parts of the world it encounters an irreverent laughter. After all, what is more disarming than uncontrollable spasms of the diaphragm before a killing machine?  

Yue Minjun was part of the New Wave art movement that swept through China during the 1980s when the country was slowly opening up to the world. Mao was dead and so was his experiment. Conceptually and experimentally rich, installations, impromptu performance art, paintings and sculptures of this period were creative breakaways from a hitherto propaganda driven artistic practice. The highly framed Chairman towering over a beaming population was the icon that Minjun replaced himself with.

Mao Inspects Wushun Opencut Coal Mine, oil on canvas, WU Yunhua (1972)
Salute, oil on canvas, Yue Minjun (2005)

While the smile in Mao’s portraits was a smokescreen for mayhem, Minjun’s laughter was at the same time a remedy for reality’s cruel indifference towards the ideals of life and a constant parody of the self. Humour, hence, is a devil’s bargain. It is the only liberation where there is none. This does not simply mean laughing heartily at the jogger’s park to cast aside routine worries and a heavy heart, but also assert that one shall only be “living comedy” after having been incarcerated for over a month for an unsaid joke. As an individual, whether unjustly damned at the altar of the personal or political, humour is the ready weapon because, at the end, it is only life affirming. 

Indian stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui’s first post on Instagram a month after being granted bail by the Supreme Court on Feb 9, 2021. He was heckled and assaulted by right-wing goons and later arrested by the police in Indore where he was about to perform at a show. Arrested with him were four other comedians: Edwin Anthony, Prakhar Vyas, Priyam Vyas and Nalin Yadav.

“If you are faced with a situation you cannot change, then laughter may be the only possible reaction. But if many people start laughing, it can be a proactive force for change.” –Yue Minjun [⇗]

One thought

  1. Excellent analysis, Pritha Di! And brilliantly connected with the absurdities of our contemporary society which is riddled with a deadly cocktail of bullshit, unjustifiable callousness and heartrending misery and despair.


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