Andrew Eaton-Lewis: Humour and seriousness in art

Just because Cutler was serious about comedy didn't mean he was sinister. Picture: Graham Jepson
Just because Cutler was serious about comedy didn't mean he was sinister. Picture: Graham Jepson
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WHEN thinking of Ivor Cutler, I think of my favourite quote from the artist David Shrigley, another famous Glaswegian eccentric: “I’ve come to realise that the opposite of seriousness is not humour. The opposite of seriousness is incompetence. It’s someone who isn’t really engaged in what they’re doing.”

Shrigley and Cutler have a lot in common. Their work, on the surface, has a throwaway quality. Cutler wrote hundreds of very short comic songs in which he often sounded as if he was making up the lyrics as he went along. Shrigley’s comic drawings all appear to have been dashed off in seconds. (The two also share a similar sense of humour – bone dry, with a fondness for the ridiculous.)

Shrigley’s point is you should never assume that trading in comic sketches rather than something more “finished” indicates a lack of seriousness, or engagement. A very obvious quality Shrigley and Cutler share, it seems to me, is the commitment and seriousness of purpose behind their work – individual pieces may seem like throwaway sketches, but put them all together and what you have is a single artwork that has profound things to say about the absurdity, and also the sadness and cruelty, of much of life. But it’s equally important that they are both consistently funny.

This year David Shrigley was nominated for the Turner Prize. Last week, it was announced that the National Theatre of Scotland will pay tribute to Ivor Cutler next year with a new show created by Vanishing Point. I have mixed feelings about this. Vanishing Point’s last show, Wonderland, was an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories that suggested its creators thought Carroll’s nonsensical humour was somehow surplus to requirements, and that the most important thing to retain were the darkest, most nightmarish elements. The show was about online pornography and violent sexual fantasies. It was sombre, self-important and gratuitously unpleasant. These are not people I would readily trust to pay fitting tribute to Ivor Cutler, but who knows? Maybe they’ll surprise me.

I first encountered Ivor Cutler as a teenager. What struck me then was that while it sounded a lot like the comedy I loved – Monty Python, in particular – it seemed to inhabit a different world, where being funny wasn’t necessarily the point. The unexpected violence of Go And Sit Upon The Grass (“While we talk I’ll hit your head with a nail to make you understand me”) is funny, certainly, but hints – enough to intrigue, but not quite enough to disturb – at something not funny at all. Songs like I Had A Little Boat use childlike language to communicate a very grown-up sense of sadness and loss. What I loved – and still love – about his work is the way humour and seriousness, simplicity and complexity, coexisted so comfortably that you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. That’s a rare skill. Shrigley has it too.

When thinking about funny people in a “serious” way, there is a tendency to look for the darkness – as if jokes can only be taken seriously if they touch upon difficult, painful subjects. Recent TV biopics of famous comedians have tended to do this, dwelling voyeuristically on their darker sides, as if this gives their life stories more depth and profundity.

I hope Vanishing Point don’t do this with Cutler. There is darkness there
if you want to look for it, but to 
dwell on it would diminish what he did just as much as treating it as a 
big joke.