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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.

Situating these artists between the politically motivated art of 1960s West Germany and the trends that followed German unification in 1990, Williams describes how they no longer heeded calls for a brighter future, turning to jokes, anecdotes, and linguistic play in their work instead of overt political messages. He reveals that behind these practices is a profound loss of faith in the belief that art has the force to promulgate political change, and humor enabled artists to register this changed perspective while still supporting isolated instances of critical social commentary. Providing a much-needed examination of the development of postmodernism in Germany, Permission to Laugh will appeal to scholars, curators, and critics invested in modern and contemporary German art, as well as fans of these internationally renowned artists.

248 pages | 12 color plates, 76 halftones | 8-1/2 x 10 | © 2012

Art: Art Criticism, European Art


 “Comparatively few books about contemporary German art are available in English, and Williams interprets many works here.”


“Looking from the outside, Williams often sees more than we do from the inside. The American art historian analyzes the German art scene from the seventies and eighties—how it found its language of images and signs, its irony, its sarcasm, in repression and confrontation. Illuminating.”


“Piecing together the artists’ networks of interconnection, their collaborative arrangements, their sites of production and exchange, and their negotiation of humorous tropes in the service of potentially political statements, Williams has achieved quite a feat. . . . He has produced a lively, high-stakes study.”

Art Bulletin

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.”

Christine Mehring, University of Chicago

“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.”

Alexander Alberro, author of Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity

“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.”

Charles W. Haxthausen, Williams College

Table of Contents


Chapter 1
Introduction: The “Cultural Turn” in 1970s West Germany

Chapter 2
Laughter in Spite of History

Chapter 3
The Public Arrival of Witz

Chapter 4
Rapid-Fire Jokes: Werner Büttner, Martin Kippenberger, and Albert Oehlen

Chapter 5
Protracted Wit: Isa Genzken, Georg Herold, and Rosemarie Trockel

Chapter 6
In-Jokes and Out-Jokes: Constructing Audiences

Chapter 7
Conclusion: Humor in Germany after the Wall


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