The cartoonish owl in Nicole Eisenman’s new sculpture, ‘Love and Generosity’, eyes pointing slightly in different directions, is one of a string of recent characters with the same feature: Heihei, the stowaway chicken in the Disney film, Moana; the pigeon in Spies in Disguise who eats anything and everything; and most recently, the family’s pug in The Mitchells vs. The Machines. Googly eyes were a well-established visual gag even before being formalised as part of the comic repertoire of animated films, but why exactly are they so funny? They seem to work as a kind of shorthand for stupidity, even idiocy, and demark a straightforward butt, or stooge, someone or something that is entirely safe to laugh at. Safe because the character is so dim-witted as to be invulnerable to slights, or offense, and oblivious to setback and humiliation.
But why should wayward pupils represent stupidity? I think there’s something here about eye contact, or at least the potential for eye contact, as the signifier of intelligence through comprehension. Eye contact represents a crucial form of social acknowledgement, and it’s a process that can be perilous; so, there’s a sense in which the characters represent a freedom from those risks – of giving ourselves away, or being seen in ways which, both good or bad, leave us feeling exposed. Eye contact also contains a demand – a requirement that we attend to a fellow consciousness, which, no matter how momentary the encounter, can be intense. In the absence of this complexity, we laugh out of a sense of relief, the sensitivities and care we have summoned in readiness found to be superfluous.