Brett Murray and Mikhail Bakhtin: On cancelation and laughter

As the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote, and Brett Murray discovered during The Spear incident, “power, repression and authority never speak in the language of laughter.” Bakhtin went further stating that the single exclusionary language of a ‘world view’ goes hand-in-hand with the laughterless political forces of all official cultures. And it is precisely this idea that Murray’s work in ‘Hide’, having moved on from that mid-Zuma moment, is engaged with.

It is not difficult to understand that one of the things Bakhtin meant by ‘world view’ was communism – the belief that all the people of the earth could exist under one ideological imperative. Of course, Bakhtin, in his philosophy of the carnival, would not have said as much directly. For by the time he wrote his work on Rabelais and the history of laughter, Stalin’s regime had already exiled him to USSR-era Kazakhstan for his ‘thought crimes’ and ‘heretical texts’.

But what Bakhtin was doing, by writing about Rabelais and talking of a ‘world view’, was ‘hiding’ under a thinly disguised veil. Bakhtin lived in a time and place where perhaps one of the most violent attempts occurred to force diverse cultures, races and classes into speaking and believing as one. (Perhaps it should be noted that colonialism and apartheid have run similar projects of instruction with dominant official cultures). For many living in the USSR the only source of protection was, as Murray puts it in his text piece, to Make Me One With Everything.

Communists had after the Russian Revolution enforced a whole new austere singular language system on its citizens, imposing certain words on them to align with its political beliefs. The most obvious change was that from Mr and Mrs to the citizen greeting of ‘Comrade’. The forces of our new Woke Woker Wokerer culture may be different but the imperative that we must all use a uniformly new lexicon is not. (Here one can’t help but remember the students of Soweto rose in 1976 because they were forced to learn in the official language of Afrikaans.) Woke’s punishment if you slip up or refuse to speak woke’s words – rather than that of the Gulag or exile or bullets and teargas – is to suffer ‘cancelation’. The force used may be (very) different but the motive of removing and exiling the heretic from the Echo Chamber is the same.

I have tried in the above passages to breathe life into the similarities between Bakhtin and Murray with the use of the titles of Murray’s works. But there are numerous other likenesses. Their belief in laughter and satire as a voice of engagement is one, a second, as Bakhtin put it, is a love of the body’s “wonderful orifices and protrusions”. Murray’s work is synonymous with protruding pudenda and corpulent bodies. The official culture, Bakhtin once wrote, demands that the representation of the body be an “unresponsive surface, a flat plane.” This Murray, since his graduation work of 1988, has never produced.

Murray has always confronted official systems from apartheid, to white puritan ‘leftyism’ of the 90s and naughties, to Zuma’s corruptions, to our current period of wokeness, in a very Bakhtinain way; with, irreverence and the ‘responsive’ line and forms of the carnival’s laughter. Of course another commonalty between Bakhtin and Murray that should already be apparent is the two also shared a desire to hide from comrades (although a difference in their comrades methods should be noted). Murray too knows something of being socially exiled and threatened by the powers that be – what is now of course called being ‘cancelled’.

The idea of cancelation culture is the centre of Murray’s body of work in ‘Hide’. Here he, almost counterintuitively, is attempting to engage with the notion of cancelation. Counterintuitive because the very idea is to silence and to stop the other from engaging. Murray seemingly wishes to ‘hide’ by placing large, almost immovable, bronze and stone objects and memorialising plaques into the public sphere, objects that jest and tease at the culture that wishes to exclude them. For Bakhtin the only way to negate ‘cancellation’ and exile, is to continue to place objects in the way, the objects of speech and laughter. Laughter Bakhtin argued was the bulwark against the oppression of the dryness and dullness of an official culture. The laughter of the carnival he suggested is a method of hiding in open sight.

But this is not the whole story. For Bakhtin, an inherent aspect of laughter is what he calls its ‘double voice’. The jokes, satires and word plays that Murray has produced for over three decades have a plurality of meanings and multiple internalised voices. They can be both silly and serious, both officially compliant (in Hide he knows he needs to cover up that toxic white masculinity!) while at the same time mocking. This plurality in satire’s meanings has troubled all authoritarian regimes and official systems. And it is exactly this, the second voice in the Echo Chamber, that internet-based official culture shrieks at. Shrieks, because it wishes to negate the voice that is not theirs, the other’s voice that corrupts, poisons and infiltrates the safe space – or what Bakhtin called the ‘monologic’ space.

But the laughter of the carnival, of satire, Bahktin suggested is not a shrieking back nor a simple mocking of authority. Laughter he argues does not speak with a single ‘monologic’ voice. Satire is, he wrote, also a “representation of oneself and one’s life” as much as it is a depiction of others. Nowhere in Bahktin’s theories does ‘the self’ operate without the presence of ‘the other’. Where the singular authoritarian voice of the nation state, the artist, the author, exists, he argued, there is only corruption, meaninglessness and death. Meaning and truth exist for Bakhtin in the inconclusive spaces between voices, between the self and the other. In ‘Hide’, perhaps more obviously than in his other bodies of work, Murray has included pieces of the self, pieces of autobiographical reference in works like Solace, White Elephant and Self Portrait. (As he admitted in his studio the influence of his children’s toys and interests are slowly making a bigger impact on his visual and imaginative world).

Self Portrait reveals the above connection most openly and expressly. The large wide open eyes and pursed lips display a sense of the fear, surprise and helplessness at the world in front of him, but also in the animal figure there is a playful mocking of these responses. Of course in Murray’s work there has always been a sense of self-parody. As he has admitted many of his figures in his sculptures have also referenced his own short stocky body. This is precisely what Bakhtin would refer to as the ‘double voice’. That both the self and the other are present and operating within the artwork.

But where there has been a shift in Murray’s work in ‘Hide’, is that there are fewer obviously carnivalesque forms. The cock and rounded overindulged bodies are shrinking. But these have been replaced by those other forms of the carnival’s laughter: the clown and the fool. These tropes, which have been the embodiment of the ‘double voice’ in art and literature for thousands of years, are now, in Murray, forced to enter the single-voiced world of wokeness. And their response in the Disney Suicides series seems to be a desire to leave this ‘world view’ with the aid of a bullet to the brain. The ‘double voice’ of the fool that has spoken for centuries from ancient Greek and Islamic cultures, to Cervantes’ Sancho, to Lear’s fool, to Disney’s versions seemingly have no place in the puritan and austere world of the populist, identity politics and the ‘twitter nostras’.

And with this one wonders just quite where art and laughter will fit in to a progressively more intolerant and cancelling world. That older forms of inclusion and expression are under threat seems evident. And we may have to soften our voices to be heard. Something that Murray in some ways is doing with his use of the softer tones of marble that are replacing his more usual blackened bronzes. But whether this is an effective method against cancelation is not clear. What it has produced in Murray is a gentler voice. One, which like in Solace, reminds us of those softer kinder interactions between humans, beyond the rantings of social media. It is a reminder, as Bakhtin suggested, to all those who live in the depths of misunderstanding, those exiled, cancelled and excluded voices, who have lived in the “tyranny of the present” that they can find an “addressee”. A human they do not need to hide from. They will find that “significant other” and there will be no need to ventriloquize.