“It makes absolutely no sense, to anybody. Not even Alastair. Okay, maybe you can figure it out.” –– Sesame Street’s Monsterpiece Theater, “Waiting for Elmo”
I am tempted to talk about the absurd, which, although it makes no sense, seems to be the only thing that does to me these days.
Inevitably, in discussing the absurd, people refer back to Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), and from there to existentialism, nihilism, despair, irony, satire, and the gamut from Albee to Sesame Street. Since Martin Esslin used Camus’ explanation of the absurd to connect divergent writers in his canonical text, Theater of the Absurd (1961), many presume the absurd must address the irresolvable conflict of being in a meaningless world. Alternatively, people think it means anything ridiculous. Much has been written about the literature of the absurd, but as I flipped through memes — looking for a laugh amidst my despair about the state of the world — I started wondering about absurdist art. A hashtag search indicated that people conflate absurd art with surrealist visions. I won’t get to that later, but surrealism is very different and not at all what I need.
From memes to quantum mechanics, the absurd seems to proliferate these days. Don’t worry. It’s not all nonsense or nihilistic. It’s not necessarily three hour ruminations by a couple of people waiting by a tree for some guy named Godot.
The theater of the absurd moved to television to advertising to music videos to internet culture. When a Dubai gym can use photographs of Nazi concentration camps to advertise their weight loss program…I think the phrase is: I can’t even. Geico is a less offensive example of absurd’s prevalence. The absurd is so normal, that when Kelly Mahon posted Craig’s List ads for help in producing a fashion show for 78 snakes, she got earnest replies, compiled in Race me in a Lobster Suit (2019). Many cartoons depend on an appreciation of the absurd; I am particularly a fan of Glen Baxter whose twists on modern art remind me to take my scholarship less seriously.
But, back to art (though all of those would be art, according to Socrates, and offer brilliant examples of why he was so concerned about its corruption and distraction from understanding the ideals of existence––if those exist, which when searching for the absurd I usually don’t think they do, because it turns out people really would rather be Selfish than concerned citizens).
I digress no more.
So: what is the absurd? The problem with relying too heavily upon the skeptical and existential philosophers as anchors comes from their metaphysical deliberation on the meaning of life. Kierkegaard used the unknowability of life’s meaning, or God’s presence, to claim that Christians should renew faith, not through reason, but “by virtue of the absurd.” For Camus, the absurd arises from a confrontation with existential nihilism; here you are and you will never get what you want, which is to know why on Earth you exist. There is probably no reason, just as there is no reason for disease or disaster. You aren’t absurd and the world isn’t absurd, but when the two meet? Absurd!
If life as you know it is meaningless, then why not commit suicide? Because to do so is to posit your life having meaning, which then undermines the gesture. Life has no meaning, but one is required to go about as if with meaning; Camus’ is a more hopeful philosophy than people realize, if you take the notion that no one cares and nothing matters but you should pretend that they do and act as if it does to be an inspiration poster.
Absurdist art doesn’t need to address the same concerns that the philosophers broached –– though it may, and one might argue that everything eventually comes down to the meaning of existence, but that’s another, longer version of this letter, likely written in the middle of the night.
Instead, let’s consider some of the traits commonly found in the literary arts (thanks partly to Michael Y. Bennett) to determine how those may appear in visual constructions.
The absurdists had a tendency to experiment with the form of their medium, i.e., language. With no exposition, the audience was typically confronted with a given situation, one that was rarely fully revealed or resolved—a conceptual incompleteness. Settings, situations, characters often tip into the uncanny, unnerving the proposed realism, while everything else remains same as it ever was. Keeping within the given parameters of the situation does not allow for resolution, so they are, without fail, tragicomic.
Absurdist art, therefore, likewise plays with formalism, depends on a concept, and constructs a work that extends the accepted norms of a cultural situation until it collapses. Though in language arts the absurd can be meaningless, that is partly because language stems from the assumption of clarity, logic, and reason. Absurd works in language push against their formal constraints. In visual art, there is a similar undermining of the formal constraints of the medium. Beyond formalism, however, the work engages a culturally normalized concept, which the material nature of the work then problematizes and can even dissolve. In this sense, absurdist art is rooted in both formalism and conceptual art. Take, for example, Lucio Fontana’s “cuts.” He takes the normative concept of a painting (paint on a canvas rectangle) and, through the material — through the use of gesso, gauze, and punctures — challenges our presumed understanding of the concept.
In my current work, I am thinking about the absurd in Jennifer Lyn Morone, Inc’s enactment of capitalism, Foreground Design Agency’s sustainable solutions, and Jakob S. Boeskov’s engagement with military power. Just as the absurd arose to address how the post-World War II ‘reality’ could no longer depend upon the presumptions of the past, so do these artists and speculative designers make us think about how the ideas we had about the world no longer apply in the new data-driven, surveillance capitalism brilliantly described in Shoshana Zuboff’s most recent book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), an economy indifferent to two people speaking next to a tree…unless it can quantify them in form and function.
The solutions offered by the current system only perpetuate its all-encompassing vision to organize (and own) the world’s information, including you, your home, your plans, the air you breathe. These art and design works don’t offer alternatives. The absurd doesn’t preach or proselytize. Instead, in the moment when the logic of the system falls apart and we laugh at how or why or when that made sense, we’re also confronted with a choice. You can continue to participate in the system as it is. Or, you can find an alternative. What that alternative might be is entirely up to you. So is the choice.
“Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on,” said Samuel Becket in The Unnameable. The absurd encourages us to break the chains that shackle how we think. Oh, to be free…
— CHARLOTTE KENT, PhD is the Assistant Professor of Visual Culture and Program Director for Art History at Montclair State University. Her work focuses on how various linguistic and visual rhetorical devices constrain what we are capable of seeing; whether examining art criticism, museum wall text, ekphrastic poetry, data visualizations or social media posts, her work questions why some things are so easily ignored. Her current research builds on that foundation to investigate the cultural context contributing to the rise of the absurd in contemporary art. She has published in numerous journals, including Word and Image, Journal of Visual Culture, and Harvard Design Magazine, among others; writes a monthly column on the Business of Art for Artist’s Magazine, and also serves on the Board of Directors of the National Arts Club in New York City.