Pranks Defined

Filed under: Definitions, Sociology and Psychology of Pranks, The Prank as Art


This definition of pranks is from V.Vale’s introduction to his formative book PRANKS, published in 1987 by RE/Search Publications. I’ve always loved this essay. He has graciously allowed us to reprint it here. In 2006, RE/Search Publications released a follow-up book called Pranks! 2 that is equally seminal in its approach to the subject -JS

PRANKS. 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 painting 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.

Unfortunately, pranks are usually identified with””and limited to””pre-adult stages of development. At the point of “adulthood” the multiplication of mischief must cease; youths are supposed to “grow out of” the need to perpetrate pranks as they accept society’s restriction of their spirit through the progressive conventionalization of their behavior. The role model of the adult prankster is a scarce archetype indeed. But””pranks can continue until one’s dying breath: when he died, the great Surrealist Andre Breton was taken to the cemetery in a moving van.

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 “cliches”””those which contribute no new poetic imagery.

The word “prank” is strangely absent from academic psychology, sociology and anthropology texts which presumably exist to document and classify the full range of human behavior in this world. A recent look at the indexes of literally a hundred books in these categories revealed no entries! Yet even a cursory perusal of world myths and written literature will substantiate the prank as a significant, consciousness-raising, and often pivotal event in the ethical and creative development of the individual in society. Examples range from Coyote and Raven in American Indian mythology to the legends of Hermes and Prometheus.

A possible explanation for this mysterious lacuna may lie in the way genuinely poetic/imaginative pranks resist facile categorization, and transcend inflexible (and often questionable) demarcations between legality and illegality, good and bad taste, and right and wrong social conduct. Society imposes a grid of habit-forming pathways on its denizens to “produce results” without lateral detouring. Obviously, a minimum of ritualized language and behavior to facilitate the flow of goods and services for survival is necessary. However, this minimum has been well exceeded long ago. Pranks blast the rigidified politeness and behavior patterns which bespeak sleepwalkers acting on automatic pilot. They attack the fundamental mechanisms of a society in which all social/verbal intercourse functions as a means towards a future consumer exchange, either of goods or experience. It is possible to view every “entertainment” experience marketed today either as an act of consumption, a prelude to an act of consumption, or both.

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 breakthroughs worth preserving, is also that area 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 moment 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 cliche. 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.

© RE/Search Publications