Culture Watch: 'The Pun Also Rises' by John Pollack
(Gotham Books, $22.50)
Visual puns have been important to Modern art ever since Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque smuggled pieces of actual wallpaper, printed oil cloth and newspapers into still-life collages a hundred years ago, commingling real and illusionistic objects. The newsprint's bits of language then inspired Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miro and others, whose Dada and Surrealist wordplay upped the ante.
Far from being just low and disposable humor (although puns can also be that), they contain sometimes richly layered multiple meanings. John Pollack, a former speechwriter for President Clinton and surprise winner of the 1995 O. Henry Pun-off World Championship, lays out the history of puns in a variety of disciplines, including Shakespeare's knock-knock jokes and Thomas Jefferson's Enlightenment gamesmanship.
Although it sports a Jasper Johns-style "bright idea" light bulb on the cover, only one section of the book deals specifically with art. But ever since Johns' Neo-Dada 1950s, visual and linguistic puns have been an artistic staple. "The Pun Also Rises" is a brief but compelling exegesis on what puns are and why they matter.
-- Christopher Knight