The Gravity of Levity: Humour as Conceptual Critique

Heather Diack


Among the many antinomies that characterize the writing on and of conceptual art, one of the most significant and yet least explored in art historical discourse is the tension between destabilizing humour and the notion of a constrained and analytic approach. Though these categories are not aesthetically or philosophically exclusive, they have nevertheless been branded as antithetical. This paper discusses this history as a key to understanding conceptual art while also marking the profound influence this debate has had on the work of contemporary artists.  It draws on the legacies of Marcel Duchamp—including Joseph Kosuth’s interpretation of Duchamp as doctrine, contrary to John Baldessari’s appropriation of Duchampian subversion— in order to take seriously the role of humour in conceptual art and its extensive presence in contemporary artistic practices internationally. Using the concepts of gravity and levity as a means to bring the connection between opposing forces into clearer view, this text charts the rift between humour and hermeticism and shows that they are intimately related, though inimical, forces, thus allowing for a better understanding of their critical conjunction.


Conceptual Art; Humour; Gravity; Levity; Marcel Duchamp; philosophy

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