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According to the Merriam-Webster New Collegiate Dictionary, a prank is a "trick . . . a mildly mischievous act . . . a practical joke . . . a ludicrous act." The best pranks invoke the imagination, poetic imagery, the unexpected and a deep level of irony or social criticism-such as Boyd Rice's presentation of a skinned sheep's head on a silver platter to Betty Ford, First Lady of the United States. Great pranks create synaesthetic experiences which are unmistakably exciting, original, and reverberating, as well as creative, metaphoric, poetic and artistic. If these criteria be deemed sufficient, then pranks can be considered as constituting an art form and genre in themselves.
However slighted by Academia, pranks are not without cultural and historical precedent. A casual survey of art of the twentieth century reveals a neglected galaxy of shining star prank-events which forever altered the path of future creative activity, such as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (a painting of prostitutes), Duchamp's Fountain (a urinal which he labeled "sculpture"), and Warhol's successful marketing of paintings depicting gory car crashes as six-figure "high art."
A prank connotes fun, laughter, jest, satire, lampooning, making a fool of someone-all light-hearted activities. Thus do pranks camouflage the sting of deeper, more critical denotations, such as their direct challenge to all verbal and behavioral routines, and their undermining of the sovereign authority of words, language, visual images, and social conventions in general. Regardless of specific manifestation, a prank is always an evasion of reality. Pranks are the deadly enemy of reality. And "reality"-its description and limitation-has always been the supreme control trick used by a society to subdue the lust for freedom latent in its citizens.
From the very onset of social interactions pranks play their part, instructing and enlightening the child toward the realization that things are never what they seem. Calling into question inherently dubious concepts such as "reality," "trust," "belief," "obedience," and "the social contract," pranks occasionally succeed in implanting a profound and lasting distrust of all social conventions and institutions.
What makes a prank "bad"? In America the outstanding socially-sanctioned prank is the college fraternity hazing, which means "to harass by exacting unnecessary or disagreeable work, to harass by banter, ridicule, or criticism." Usually characterized not only by unoriginality but by conventionalized cruelty, these pointless humiliations do nothing to raise consciousness or alter existing power relationships. They are deeds which only further the status-quo; they only perpetuate the acceptance of and submission to arbitrary authority, or abet existing hierarchical inequities. Basically these include all pranks readily recognizable as "clich�s"-those which contribute no new poetic imagery.
Pranks challenge all aspects of "the social contract" which have ossified. Their power derives from exploration and elucidation of the inarticulate, confused areas surrounding society. They probe the territory of the taboo, which has always been concerned with sex and death. This shadow area, which has spawned most of the creative breakthrough worth preserving, is also that are which society-striving above all to preserve its status quo-neglects, rejects and ignores, principally through the process of cultural censorship. Yet "true art is always there-where no one is waiting for it . . . Art does not come and lie in the beds we make for it. It slips away as soon as its name is uttered; it likes to preserve its incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets its very name." (Jean Dubuffet)
Pranks are most admirable when they evoke a liberation of expression . . . and challenge the authority of appearances. While almost all pranks mock or undermine kneel-to-authority conditioning, some do more, by virtue of disclosing more levels of black humor and metaphor, or expanding our notions of reality by gifting us with a bizarre image or metamorphosis. At a single stroke a prank can dissect an intricate tissue of artifice, exposing a rigid behavioral structure underneath.
By unhinging the context for expectation, pranks explode the patterning which narrows and shrinks down our imaginative potential. What distinguishes a painting from wallpaper, or literature from stock market reports, is the tearing and ripping apart of old forms and structures to create new perceptions which renew and refresh life itself. All art attempts to rid life of banality, to expunge the habituation effect whose cause is "daily living."
Obedience to language and image must continually be challenged, if we are to stay "alive." The best pranks research and probe the boundaries of the occupied territory known as "society" in an attempt to redirect that society toward a vision of life grounded not in dreadful necessity, but rather, continual poetic renewal. (A society whose exchange value consisted in poetic images and humor rather than dollars can barely be imagined at this stage of world evolution.) Pranks function to evoke the parallel Land of Make Believe, that realm of perpetual surprise and delight where endless possibilities for fun and pleasure depend upon circumvention of habit and clich�. From their Shadow-world, pranks cast their Funhouse Mirror reflection of our workaday world. Ultimately, the territory signposted by pranks may represent our single supremely tangible freedom.