I was realizing the other day that when I see something like the artwork above, I often just automatically ascribe some sort of self-awareness and ironic sophistication to the artist. That someone simply wanted to draw a penis on a wall hardly even occurs to me as a possibility. In general I tend to poo-poo the idea that authorial intent has any particular importance to our appreciation of a work, but when I imagine myself laughing along with an absurdist joke that is in fact not even the slightest absurdist—just plain absurd—it does make me a bit uncomfortable. Or how about this one:
My very first reaction is a kind of shock (I mean, in the context of whatever comic this was, it might make perfect narrative sense, but taken out of context it's pretty clearly supposed to be something you appreciate on its own) followed by amusement, and the amusement is the amusement of someone amused by, again, a certain kind of irony. I assume, right out of the gate, that whoever drew or at least "quoted" this image is not in fact in favor of violence against women; I assume that this is some kind of commentary—or at least a kind of reveling in inappropriateness. But is it? Is this image really just about getting a kick out some man punching some woman in the back of the head? Period?
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, so to speak.
I do have a tendency to come up with elaborate apologies for things without hardly even realizing I'm doing it (see "9/11/01 ha ha ha" and the Star Wars prequels)—I know that. And I have a friend who for years I thought had this sort of complicated, self-referential, super-ironic running joke about laughing at fat people before I realized that, although he certainly has a sophisticated mind and a well-developed sense of the absurd, at the bottom he really does think obesity itself is hilarious. But so then, turning back to authorial intent, the question sort of maybe becomes—does it matter what the joker thinks the joke is about?
In fiction, in a comedy, the people saying the hilarious things usually don't realize they're being hilarious. (The characters Woody Allen and Groucho Marx play in their movies are important exceptions.) The reason why I insisted back in high school that it was stupid to think Beavis & Butt-head was stupid is that the characters are supposed to be stupid; if Beavis & Butt-head made a cartoon show it wouldn't be like that: it would be a bunch of explosions, basically, and maybe boobs and butts. (Or crude drawings of penises—see above, bringing us sort of full circle.)
Maybe the "answer" to this "question" is that I'm trying to wrestle out an "objective" perspective that just doesn't exist (another thing I have a tendency to do). Maybe the answer is: the person who drew that penis meant God knows what by it, and I get whatever the hell I get out of it out of it. A big part of my wanting to nail it down is not wanting to do anything wrong—like, I don't want to put up a picture of a dick being like, "Ha, ha, everybody, right?" and have everyone else be like, "Uh...that's a picture of a dick." Even more so with the violence-against-women issue, or 9/11. But maybe in the end avoiding misunderstanding and disagreement is a fool's errand. I think this tube-top song jokingly references immaturity, you think it's just immature..."and so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes."*
* "But [yes] where it's going no one knows."