choreography and explaining jokes

My friend Rosemary Lee is a remarkable choreographer. Her artistic work captures so much of the spirit of being human: of being together, our fallibilities, and the bonds we create with the people around us.

Some weeks ago Rosemary sent me a cartoon that she was given in New York in the mid 1980s. With her permission here it is:

Choreography cartoon by Lynda Barr

The cartoon feels like an in-joke; that is unless you’ve spent time as a dancer then what is funny and true about the cartoon might escape you. I’m tempted to explain the cartoon but I can hear that truism about never explaining jokes in the back of my mind.

The philosopher Alva Noë refutes the perspective that art should or can not be explained; that if you do so (or attempt to do so) somehow that art work is reduced or spoiled, or its spell is broken. He uses jokes as an analogy for the problem — that there is a distinction between getting a joke, and a conversation about that joke:

The question Why is this funny? is always appropriate, even if it can be difficult to answer adequately. And even if comprehending such an explanation is no substitute for the spontaneous achievement of the understanding in which getting a joke consists. The point is, the explaining, the talking, the laying out of the logic of the joke is not in direct competition with getting it and laughing. You don’t make someone laugh through explanation. And so, for these reasons, you can’t ruin a joke by talking about it. (Noë 2015, Chapter 8, n.pag.)

Even with Noë’s thinking in mind, I still don’t really want to explain the cartoon. If it doesn’t make any sense to you then let me know and I’ll do my best to describe something of what Rosemary described as the embarrassment and humiliation” that resonates throughout the cartoon.

Reference: Noë, A., 2015. Strange Tools, Art and Human Nature. Hill and Wang, New York.

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