After Irony… Or, fun in an age of stupidity

“Ernst ist das Leben, heiter ist die Kunst” wrote Schiller. And right after he wrote it the Romantics started to dissolve the distinction between life and art: both categories have the same goals, means, drives; beauty, irony, love (in a new, wider sense than before). Pretty much up until the mid-1990´s irony was present as a way of living both intelligently and happily. It was possible to be both smart and funny.  Nietzsche’s “Gay Science” was also an ideal that pointed in that direction. Other philosophers seemed quite against it; Western Philosophy´s two main protagonists, Hegel and Kierkegaard, condemned irony because it potentially vouchered for fixed identity. According to Kierkegaard, irony was the weakest form of subjectivity, and according to Hegel it was the strongest. For both, it was an inapt form of subjectivity since it was either too little or too much. We don’t know. But it is striking to note how prominent irony became in an unusually theoretically driven artistic movement (they wrote more critique than poems according to Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy). This also happens at exactly the same moment in time as philosophy becomes academic and thereby finds a new pathos, an abyssal, yet bureaucratic seriousness: a systematic, systemic seriousness. Perhaps Romanticism, and more generally irony up until the time around 1995, was seen as the possibility to live and think intelligently without becoming lifelessly serious, i.e. the opposite association of what Schiller divided as the joy of art vs. the gravity of life, the synthesis of an entirely administered life and art, a hyper-commercialised everything – the academized life and art, the good art and life, the professional existence. Art and life synthesized in a human being that had become a brand: the artist. And perhaps, we don´t know, this has been a problem that some parts of contemporary art has attempted to solve in new ways, without returning to irony. The problem is not only the blurring of boundaries between life and art, between intelligence and fun, intelligent life and intelligent art, which nevertheless are fun, and free. Themes such as art and entertainment, high- and low culture, were perhaps nothing more than side tracks. One of the threads in the email-correspondence between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark titled Love’s executioner concerns the prospect of community, or possibly of love. What mainly seems to stand in the way of this prospect is a fetischisation of definitions and classification – straight/gay, man/woman, top/bottom and so on – and not least the “communities” which are created around these categories. The problem is not finding the correct term to depict a given identity. On the contrary, in one of Acker´s emails she quotes quite extensively from Battaille’s writing on Blanchot: ”A being does not want to be recognized, it (notice the ”it”) wants to be contested”. There is in other words no point in mutual love or contemplating a sense of community only to find oneself even more entrapped by a set identity. Acker and Wark seem to be looking for what one calls difference and the other calls radical difference – and irrespective of whichever word one uses, a desire to avoid fixed identities based on gender or sexuality or whatever. We have been thinking about gender in the wrong way Acker says: ”That is, the whole way of thinking has to change. We’re not going about thinking correctly. So we’re finding ourselves in this mess – like wanting to die.  To be fucked over. Not loving the joy and power of being alive.” That was the thought of the time. Similar thoughts crop up in Donna Haraway’s ’A Cyborg Manifesto’ in the early 1990´s: she propagated for community instead of identity, and saw irony as a means of getting there, a means of achieving what Acker and Wark called radical difference, which here takes the figure of the cyborg: “Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humour and serious play. It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method, one I would like to see more honoured within socialist-feminism. At the centre of my ironic faith, my blasphemy, is the image of the cyborg.” Reading this some twenty years later, it is remarkable to find how the idea of the avant-garde still persevered: The notion of a place where art and philosophy exist as genuine modes of grasping and influencing life. Furthermore, life is understood as something fluid, somewhat indefinable, something one would like to be a part of, absorbed by and delve into as anonymity – becoming singular, or difference, or a flow – but definitely not develop a fixed identity! That was the kind of thing that the Ku Klux Klan cared about. In the 1990´s quoting Deleuze and Heidegger at the bar could be a valid pickup line: “…yeah, totally agree, MAN IS DEAD. Though I don’t agree about Dionysus.” Why didn’t a line like that come across as over-pretentious some two decades ago? Well, naturally, in some circumstances it did… But why don’t we have their problems?

Certainly it is because culture, since Romanticism, had been shaped by and around irony. Ever since Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde, through Duchamp and up until Laurie Anderson it would seem that irony was at the core of an attitude that made possible temporary identities, intellectual and vital mobility, tentative projects and a certain intellectual distance, and yet circumvents the appearance of statements coming von Oben.  As Acker and McKenzie Wark continue to correspond, they realise that the age of irony has passed, ”My only resort is irony, but that’s kinda’ played itself…” ”Irony doubled on itself, lost in itself, imploding in on itself […] What can come after irony if not deliberate stupidity?” And this is the agency of their problem: how to avoid living and socialise through stereotypes and ungrounded limitations, how to keep life fluid and variable, when irony is dead. The choice seems to stand between stable categories of identity and the freedom of irony, either one or the other, in a stupid way – but when irony is dead? Panic?  Acker senses that there might be something else there, something that allows movement without being dumb or ironic, but then starts to speak of “stupidity” as a specific part of American culture which she likes, such as American wrestling – “the best performance art”. However, this also has other aspects:  ”Stupidity is/was definitely one movement after punk. I understand that.” There´s something, understood by Acker, something neither ironic nor entirely off-the-rocker stupid – but it´s not humour (which is to jovial in this context). Perhaps she senses the dawn of fun, foresees the life spoof. The last email in the conversation approaches politics and its new forms of stupidity – and “why now?” It is no longer a Bush-senior-stupid or a Nixon-style-stupid. She writes: “This is something else. I don’t understand.” The final words in the thread are an insight into a new social condition that one simply does not understand. This conversation is from the time when contemporary art essentially was juxtaposed to postmodern smartness and irony, placed in an atmosphere where one could expect irony rather than encompassed fun, in all shapes and sizes from smart entertainment to pure jokes. We imagine that the conversation takes place during a breaking point, and that soon thereafter it was suddenly acceptable and OK to make fun art. It didn’t have to be fun and critical or important in some other way. Just fun. We´ll get back to the meaning of this, of why “just for the hell of it” shows up now and why it could be sufficient. But first we have to mention another tradition, and then something else that should be obvious even though it might not be. There was another, parallel development, with another, more theatrical, relationship to identity: Camp: “Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration ” as Susan Sontag wrote. Just as irony wasn´t a style, Camp was there; it was ”a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous”. If the basis for irony was subjectivity, already possible within a Cogito, then Camp was based on sensibility. And this is where we to a great degree find the question of seriousness: how should one feel emotionally, how should one be affected by important things? With seriousness, respond both the academic and the administrator (even if one might discern two different versions of seriousness there) and the businessman in their common reverence of rules: Having and showing your sportsmanship. But what if, as Gavin Butt, and Sontag, have suggested, there is lots of important stuff in life that cannot be treated seriously; phenomena that disappear if you take them seriously. Many important aspects of life can perhaps only be accessed through exaggeration, dissimulation, or by simply grazing the subject before kidding it away. Should these things be wiped out of discourse just because certain individuals overestimate the mood and relational mode of seriousness? Camp was a means of capturing important things with humour, laughter and intelligence. But according to Bruce Labruce – and he seems to know what he´s talking about when it comes to Camp – this no longer works because the entire world has become Camp. Camp is not longer a sensibility, but a demagogical style, a way to claim to speak the truth, even if one doesn´t know what one is talking about, because it feels good, Camp has become the illusion that if you have the right to say what you want this means that what you say is right. It is a perversion of the in itself perverse administrative sensibility where the most important thing is not only to try to do the right thing but to avoid doing the wrong thing, i.e. to create and follow rules and be ruled by the letter of the rule. Contemporary politics isn´t the first time this is taken to task, but the fact that this in-depth neoliberal version Camp has reached White House is more than enough to make Camp a very difficult path to take in order to unite intelligence and fun in art and life. Let us state something that one seldom thinks about even though it should be pretty obvious by now: our relationship to fun in art has changed and appears in a different way today. Today it is self-evident that there is stuff in art that entirely relies on its funniness, with no support from criticality or without even a lesson to be learnt presented as supplementary information next to the work. It´s simply fun and that´s fine. This was not the case at the turn of the millennium. After laughing, people were still looking for the moral of the story, or for the critique, probably hidden from the general audience but decipherable for the smart art-insider who would understand what a certain wink meant in a given context. We recall when we, a few years ago, a bit later than the correspondence above, came across Björn Kjelltoft who among other things made copies of Ulrica Hydman-Vallien´s KostaBoda vases out of PET bottles and pissed in Duchamp´s Fountain at Moderna Museet. Sure, it´s cheeky. But what´s the idea behind it, the position, judgement? Where´s the critique? What´s the content? Coco Chanel, come back! Even a decade ago it was difficult for us to understand the concept of the spoof, or a kind of parody without parody, i.e. without disparagement and ridicule. Not making fun of, but doing something fun with, someone else´s work and using it as source material. Today, that seems like quiet a common custom in contemporary art. Take Dafna Maimon´s Like Seitlax. The film portrays four Finnish/Swedish teenagers in countryside village Seitlax in Finland speaking only in direct quotations of existentialist philosophers Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre while roaming around, having a Sauna, drinking beer or rowing a boat in the Finnish archipelago. Speaking about her own exhibition Lina Bjerneld says: “Everything is done with mortal dread, but if I was to do anything at all I wanted at least to do something fun.” The paintings can be perceived twice: in anguish, and as fun. But our point here is that artists are, and probably always have been, driven by fun. This is a meta-image of her exhibition, anguished passivity underneath something fun (a pair of red trousers, kind-of fun). It is also an image of the pointlessness of the World (where nothing ever leads to anything, nothing remains, nothing is real – angst and pointlessness, passivity, etc.) and a way of saying that fun at least can get you out of bed in the morning. This is perhaps a classic existential Grundstimmung, a “fundamental attunement”, which motivates an artist to make art at all even if the topic isn´t fun at all. If you´re going do it, fun needs to be involved, even when dealing with anxiety of death. This is s kind of destiny for all the existentialist themes in art: They´re important, the existentialist perspective is important, and today fun seems to be a Grundstimmung, or at least a kind of essential tendency – the thing that can lift a theme from being a private problem to a common predicament.  Another aspect, beyond fun for the artist, allowing a perspective on material and motivating the work itself, is that fun also can work as condition for communication or reception. People would simply not be receptive to an anguished exhibition about angst. Not because it´s too heavy or profound – but because it would be interpreted as too private, not something to share – simply tragic and nothing to joke about, perhaps even immoral and nothing for “us”; we the contemporary. Angst says nothing of our time unless it is presented through fun. Both the audience and artist want to have fun. And the spoof has become a kind of overarching treatment of material, the angle to look for, it would seem that reception has transformed into a search for the fun in the work. Localise “fun” and you will access the work. This doesn’t apply to art alone, but is indeed a new condition for reception in society. Ten years after Wark declares the death of irony and Acker predicts fun two psychologists wrote: “The United States is a society that has become almost pathologically obsessed with fun. Fun is a source of enjoyment, pleasure, amusement, and even excitement. … Today the pursuit of happiness (and fun) is, in effect, the national quest, and this goal permeates our lives. … The pursuit of fun has a place of dominant centrality in our daily lives, but fun seeking is not a compartmentalized area of our cultural fabric. Rather, it is constituent to almost every aspect of our daily lives. Fun seeking is very much integrated into our entire culture and in our daily cycle of life – home, work, rest, maintenance, and even sleep. ” This decomparmentalisation of fun is of course a major behavioural change. It is indeed exhaustive. Let us just mention a few areas where we have encountered the emergence of fun. Pedagogy of course – anyone can verify this from memory. But even in an area like political activism. Jeremy Hammond is currently serving a long sentence based on his political activities. He recently wrote a letter to other activists about a revolutionary strategy: “Your movement needs to be fun… or no one will want to participate”. Okay, the revolution is important, but if it isn´t fun to execute the uncertain campaign of societal upheaval, then you have too much to lose and it won’t be worth trying. One could also mention Anonymous, where fun (at least earlier) had a value in itself: their actions could have political content or not, but they would always be fun. Fun was expressed as the key to scientific progress by one of this year´s Nobel Prize laureates in Physics, and in the field of design Volkswagen have now taken the initiative of establishing “The Fun Theory” – a project shaped on the idea that ”something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better”. Can we get people to wear a safety belt, stop at a red light and so on simply by making it fun? We´ve even come across the phenomena in our limited experience of sport coaching.  In all of these areas it seems as if the future goal is not motivating enough in order to engage in what you want to do. Regardless if it concerns training, science, traffic safety or revolution. Perhaps this is what Acker talked about with the analogy to punk. A new step, after the full stop; turn it into an exclamation mark. From No Future. to Fun! Fun as the only value when the future no longer offers anything beyond itself.  This societal change in behaviour and perception can also be found in the exhibition visitor. You go there to find something fun. In turn, this shift transforms the apparatus of perception itself. Where Walter Benjamin in one technological shift once saw a passage from aruatic perception that tried to locate the unique and permanent in the perceived, toward a form of perception in tune with a certain technology oriented towards the reproducible and fleeting in the perceived. Now we find ourselves with a perception that primarily seeks to have fun, possibly even a perception that can be modified, where things that can be changed by the receiver (if these two criteria are necessary for steering perception). Certainly digital technology has developed as a response to the transformation of the apparatus of perception. And if we would stay true to Benjamin we would ask what changes in our collective forms of existence have caused the other two transformations. But we won´t. At least for the moment we find it sufficient to point out that the conditions of reception feasibly can be favourable for the arts, since fun, as we will see, is a central tool in contemporary art at the moment.  As both contemporary art and our everyday behaviour is oriented towards fun nowadays, it would seem that art should have an audience that feels pretty much at home with this change. Oddly enough, this is not always the case. In so far as people don’t “understand” art today, it mainly derives from visiting exhibitions with a different attitude than that of other situations in life. They want something from art – which in itself is nice and worth taking seriously. But in the meantime art is busy utilising contemporary forms of perception. Artists want to bring art closer to everyday life, while the masses that seek out art hope to distance themselves from all the functions of daily life, also with regard to perception. The artists who really bring an everyday, fun-seeking perception into their artworks are then steered into what Olav Westphalen and Livia Paldi called “crypto comedy”; something that is not meant to entertain through what it does, that is not funny in itself. A bad joke is not funny. Neither are two bad jokes in a row. But the fact that someone is telling bad jokes in an attempt to make good art, is comical, it might even be funny. Crypto-comical art diverts fun-seeking perception from the work and for instance towards the entire situation that the viewer finds herself in, which then appears to be absurd. If one returns to Acker´s and Wark´s opposition between irony and “stupidity” one might summarize crypto-comedy as follows: first as stupid, then as art.  A first point that we have wanted to make here is that fun, in a certain sense, is a new phenomenon. Fun as ends in itself. Fun as value or minor and momentary blessing. It has become a ”pervasive” societal phenomenon. It derives from the death of irony. Humour, jokes and puns have of course always been part of visual art. But it has not been an unproblematic part, not in the way it is today. Not even in the avant-garde movements, which among others Toke Lykkeberg has described as art world jokes, did fun seem to be enough. Rather there always seemed to be a requirement to package or back up the movement with a political or intellectual purpose. Duchamp (or Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven) had other purposes than fun with the fountain. For Kjelltoft, pissing in it perhaps only had one purpose, fun. The action is more of a prank than it is ironic, more social than political, and more commonplace, bordering on stupid, close to life than looking for a place within the institution of art.  Whether one speaks of art or life, one can always think of it as a spoof: how can I create something fun with this? It is an attitude emblematic of our times. It is a given, a necessity in order to survive under the work-first principle, warfare society, anti-social-and-self-promoting media, a ground- and bottomless boredom, toil and monotony. If the reader wonders what that means, if the reader for instance is very rich, or possibly an aspiring art student, we simply answer with a long quote from David Foster Wallace´s apt description of hell:  ”The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ”day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about. By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college. But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to ”Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death.”

BIO - Jonatan Habib Engqvist

Jonatan Habib Engqvist is a Swedish curator and writer runs the curatorial residency in Stockholm (CRIS) and is the editor of an online magazine in 2019, he curated the VR Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Jonathan is currently the artistic Director of the project Nya Småland.

BIO - Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen

Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen is a critic and philosopher. They taught together at the Royal Institute in Stockholm and recently published the book BIG DIG [CL(P) Works, Stockholm 2018]. Together with the artist Annika von Hausswolff they run the on-line journal where this text originally was published. The text is part of a longer forthcoming body of work.