Permission to Laugh
Humor and Politics in Contemporary German Art
Permission to Laugh explores the work of three generations of German artists who, beginning in the 1960s, turned to jokes and wit in an effort to confront complex questions regarding German politics and history. Gregory H. Williams highlights six of them—Martin Kippenberger, Isa Genzken, Rosemarie Trockel, Albert Oehlen, Georg Herold, and Werner Büttner—who came of age in the mid-1970s in the art scenes of West Berlin, Cologne, and Hamburg. Williams argues that each employed a distinctive brand of humor that responded to the period of political apathy that followed a decade of intense political ferment in West Germany.
“Permission to Laugh bubbles with originality. No one has managed to even begin to tackle this cluster of German artists in the 1970s and 1980s, and humor is understudied as a mode of reception and creativity within art history at large. Here, artists, critics, works, and issues fall into place, both conceptually and historically, and Gregory H. Williams’s introductions to people such as Hans Platschek and to places such as the Hamburg art world and the Welt bookstore will make this book a go-to guide to the period.”
“At once cogent, exciting, and readable. Gregory H. Williams reveals the extent to which jokes were used by the third (and final) generation of West German artists (which came into prominence in the 1980s) to articulate that which could not be introduced into public speech, bringing to the surface that which was normally hidden. Permission to Laugh will be an essential guide to at least one important strand of contemporary thinking about late twentieth-century art.”
“Gregory H. Williams’s Permission to Laugh is an impressive achievement. Don’t be fooled by the title, and don't expect a lot of laughs—this is a serious, rigorous, and richly nuanced examination of a generation of German artists who, in a time of deflated expectations about the social agency of their own practice, turned to humor as a critical tactic. We are not speaking here of satire, but of jokes—often seemingly stupid jokes, as in the case of Martin Kippenberger—and more subtly subversive, deconstructive forms of humor, as in the work of Georg Herold and Rosemarie Trockel. While clearly sympathetic to these efforts, Williams is first and foremost a historian, and the critical sobriety and analytical acuity with which he tells this tale make this book one of the best things I have read on the interrelation between art and politics in postwar Germany.”