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The Return of Absurdism

I’m writing this on the toilet. Maybe you’re reading this somewhere like that, too. Maybe we’re connected somehow by our Catholic-imbued terror of an idle mind. 

Absurdism characterizes our time. I don’t just mean 2022, or the pandemic, or even anything after 2016. I think if we really dig in, absurdism predates all of that—it corresponds directly with the Information Age. It’s an expression of our inevitable mental and emotional turmoil as we fumble through a rapid-fire stretch of time, battered with information faster than we can comprehend it. It’s the terrible, wonderfully hopeless and soul-sucking acid rain of late-stage capitalism falling on the people. It’s a failed infostructure (no offense, Grand Rapids), a failed democracy, supreme wealth inequality and workers’ rights abuses. We know instantly when someone dies, when groups of people die, and sometimes we see it over and over again online ad infinitum until the next tragedy or war or whatever it is now gets broadcasted over it. How is anybody supposed to rationalize that? How does someone make peace with themselves while still being exposed to so much misery, all the time?  

You can’t. You can’t! It feels like we’re locked in this doomsday course and none of us can close our eyes, turn away. We’re Clockwork Orange’d by the nature of the world we live in—the Information Age. It’s pretty hard to not know. Even if you aren’t online, just about everyone you know is. Our technology, our ability to send and receive information, is evolving faster than our minds and bodies can deal with it. Everybody feels like they’re losing their marbles, simultaneously, all at once, all the time. Don’t you? Don’t you always feel like you’re falling apart, like you’re just barely staying afloat?

There’s another thing adjacent to the Information Age that makes me think absurdism is creeping up on us—the era of sincerity. The Contemporary art world now is dominated by honest, intensely serious personal retellings of experiences wrought with material symbolism and complexity. It all tackles real and pertinent issues like misogyny, racism, and disability and class studies—but paradoxically manages to be notorious in the layman’s sphere for its inaccessibility, convoluted messaging, and turtleneck-wearing trust-fund kids photographing the homeless. Maybe it’s some kind of longstanding misconception leftover from the Conceptual or Avant-Garde movement, chained to artists like Yoko Ono and Joseph Kosuth. It doesn’t matter if those misconceptions are true or not: perception of the world becomes our lived reality, and if everyone outside our art communities thinks like that, the verdict doesn’t look good.  

This isn’t all to say that profound and serious things aren’t important. They are. I make work about it too, but sometimes it does feel dishonest—rarely ever do I feel like my peers and I set out burdened with this heavy, profound message that forced us to become artists. I make art because it’s fun, and I love the feeling of making. Everything starts there. Concept, what it means, is nothing more than an excuse to make stuff, to connect with others, and every now and then, something that gently shapes my aesthetic avenues. I’m just trying to be taken seriously by the Contemporary world I’m trying to step into, and if it means weaponizing my love for philosophy, history, and literature, that’s okay. It just isn’t the driving reason for why I make art. Contemporary art harnesses some wonderful properties, helped me discover my place in the world, to some extent. It can give control and representation to voices otherwise quieted by the art-historical canon. The thoughtfulness and simplicity of my peers’ work is regularly astounding.

It’s only human nature, though, to want everything you’ve been deprived of—the complete opposite of what dominates your world. We’re fated forever and always to want what we can’t have. I want discord. I want confusion. It’s simultaneously cognitive relief from and a reflection of the onslaught of definitive, crushing terror thrust on us daily. I want every relic of society rejected, born again, new and fresh, shaped like a different beast entirely.

I hope I’m not speaking out of turn when I say the youth is desperate for the insincere, the inane, full-on stupidity and empty skeins of irony. What about David Lynch, and the massive success of the surrealist series Twin Peaks, and Rabbits? What about Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian (colloquially “the duck-tape banana”)? Bojack Horseman, a massively successful Netflix series about a manic-depressive alcoholic horse? Rick and Morty? Youtube Poops, Vine, and the subsequent onslaught of nonsensical image-vomit curated by millennials and Gen-Zers? Every silly thought, every impulsive moment and blurry picture, is broadcasted across the Internet by our unparalleled ability to communicate. It’s an infinite feedback loop, getting bigger exponentially, out across the echo chamber of the collective human consciousness. Isn’t that absurd?

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