Why So Serious?

Responsibility in Engaged Practices


Some odd dichotomies remain present in the arts today. Starting from a new approach to the classical autonomy vs. engagement discussion, this essay concludes that a new form of responsibility needs to arise. The hypothetical interlinks the status of being responsible with the responsible act. This idea is confronted with contemporary discussions about another odd opposition in the engaged arts: between humour and seriousness.

Attitudes and Responsibility

For a long time, the discussion about engaged practices did not surpass the either/or distinction between ‘autonomy’ and ‘engagement,’ in which it was thought that either position was mutually exclusive or incompatible. However, this is not true. As Jelle Bouwhuis argues, ‘The old contradictions no longer work,’1 noting that both are mutually dependent—even though they are theoretical abstractions, rather than real positions, which is also why I instead refer to both as ‘attitudes.’ I also call them attitudes because they concern morals, which is essentially what this essay is about. If both attitudes are mutually dependent, we can reasonably say that autonomy and engagement are similarly compatible with one another. We could term it an ‘antinomy,’ a non-contradictory contradiction for the dialectics among us. Within this new approach to the attitudes, we have to rethink the prime premises on which they were essentially built: responsibility.

Why are both attitudes compatible? We could claim that through negation—the autonomous attitude arguing that it is not engaged—it is at least a little engaged; just enough to say it is not. Similarly, from the engaged attitude, one could argue through negation that—pointing out that it is indeed embedded in society—it has to argue for the premise of being embedded just too violently to effortlessly accept its own proposition. It cares just enough about autonomy to build a strong argument that it is autonomous. Adorno notes that ‘the principle that governs autonomous works of art is not the totality of their effects, but their own inherent structure.’2 Rancière directly attacks this assumption, noting that ‘art never gives itself [auto] its own law [nomos] […] Art never exists by itself.’3 If it were autonomous, it could also come to be without the interference of human beings, which it obviously cannot. The point is that art cannot be autonomous; it cannot be ‘an sich [on itself],’4 but the attitude of the artist can occupy premises that we might call autonomous, but only vis-á-vis something, not in itself; not as its own law. Therefore, this old either/or discussion in itself is not of any essential necessity to the discourse of aesthetics, and so precisely does negotiate what kind and to what extent an artist has a responsibility over the effects of their practices. It interlinks that ‘thing’ called art with cause and effect, as Timothy Morton also remarks: ‘To make an artwork is to interfere directly with the realm of causes and effects.’5 As such, the either/or discussion paraphrases an attitude of responsibility towards, or regardless of, reality by centralising the positionality of the artist as either vis-á-vis something or embedded within something, which it is thus necessarily both.

Therefore, it is an essential discussion to our ethical bounds as human beings who do things. And artists have a somewhat special way of doing things that usually escape the quantity-verified batch of activities coded in our cultures through devices such as singularity, because the artwork similarly escapes the utilitarian calculus by which our ethics are so entrenched because one cannot speak of frequency, or apply a statistical denominator to art. This implies that for many arts, there is almost no formula calculable that makes the generalising statements I will make in this essay somewhat ironically futile. However, we do all remain humans, which artists are too (yes, really). And the conclusion that these attitudes are not just compatible but mutually dependent, and therefore coincide with one another, creates a whole new series of networks and intertwinements that all interlink on themselves differently. They thereby evoke renewed considerations about the artist’s responsibility towards their subjects, materials, and approaches as we might have thought about them during more dualistic times.

Through this mutual dependence of autonomy and engagement, the organisation of practices according to a presumed attitude (and thereby its responsibility) is problematised. In order to pursue that thought, we first have to dissect the false presumptions of the two old attitudes that produce the somewhat alienated sense of responsibility in many artists today. In a certain era that has now passed, one could have argued that responsibility does not concern autonomous artists because they were said to have exited out of the social contract called society, as Hans den Hartog Jager attempts to convince us.6 However, this does not count as a legitimate argument any more, and honestly it never did; it is exactly at the symbolic moment of stepping ‘out’ that you take a position vis-à-vis the given reality. It is a very engaging action to reject engagement for the sake of autonomy—not forgetting that this apparent ‘separation’ from society was never a ‘tacit agreement,’7 as Den Hartog Jager reminds us. (Let alone that a ‘tacit’ agreement is not an agreement at all; consent can never be silent.)

He thus occupies a false historicisation. A more accurate historical account might have been the economical segregation from commissioning as the prime object of practice during the Reformation, which necessarily made artists in North-Western Europe take a turn towards their own discourse. It wasn’t a ‘struggle’ for this apparent freedom, but a tear from its embeddedness—from the archaic value of art. And such an argument has been made many times, most famously by Walter Benjamin’s disappearance of ‘aura’8 through reproducibility. But Benjamin was also lured into the premise of following the discourse to make such an argument, thereby negating the attitude of the artists as deviant from their artistic production.

In this realm of speculations Den Hartog Jager draws us into, we could well argue that the autonomous attitude was a (pathological) response to the risen precarity of being rejected, and, worse, being rejected on ideological grounds. The reformation reframed artists in North-West Europe as facilitators of sinning. This negative relationship could be put in genealogy with a rich tradition speculatively traceable to Plato’s thoughts on imitations of imitations withdrawing us from the ‘truth,’ reaching far into the contemporary revulsions towards the arts today. However, all these arguments remain speculations—a historical fishing net thrown out from the present, and through which it always aims at what it wants to catch.

If we nevertheless follow Den Hartog Jager’s fiction regardless of any counterarguments given, we find ourselves trapped in the irony that this argument even enlarges art’s political significance on the level of responsibility, as Adorno oddly points out. Through the autonomous attitude, the artwork becomes ‘the social antithesis of society.’9 Moreover, ‘[i]nsofar as a social function may be predicated of works of art, it is the function of having no function.’10 In that manner, Adorno aligns his argument with Kant, who argues that art’s purpose is purposelessness,11 which does indeed remain a purpose. Regardless of this political potential of the autonomous attitude so many thinkers speak of, the attitude produces a detached sense of responsibility. Above all, this double negation is the worst kind of responsibility: you cannot be responsible for your own responsibility, which is therefore out of reach. It is a moral deadlock; a pseudo-responsibility.

Turning towards arguments made for the engaged attitude instead of the autonomous one, we similarly have to note that the person who occupies the engaged attitude cannot fully draw on the idea of embeddedness to contextualise their own responsibilities. A sense of otherness, of dissonance, is imperative to pursue anything but the status quo. As both Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno have argued, a virtual sense of disconnectedness is deemed necessary to be able to indict reality as such: a beyond to the status quo has to be imaginable if engaged arts are not to regress into societal maintenance art, such as help desking.12 In other words, an official art that serves ‘the demagogic interests.’13 It somehow has to detach itself through embedment. Marcuse adds that ‘in its autonomy art both protests these relations, and at the same time transcends them. Thereby art subverts the dominant consciousness, the ordinary experience.’14 He continues: ‘The world of art is that of another Reality Principle, of estrangement—and only as estrangement does art fulfil a cognitive function: it communicates truths not communicable in any other language; in contradicts.’15

And to be honest, who has ever felt truly ‘embedded’ within society? I believe it is very healthy, if not necessary, to feel withdrawal from it or antagonistic towards it. As Rancière points out, ‘The embodiment of freedom occurs in the tension of the experience of standing in front of an object that is, in a way, out of reach.’16 And also, what is that apparent society in which this engaged practice is embedded? It is not a balanced totality, nor a monad, nor is it a secluded whole of which you are part or not, dependent on your contingent choice. It is true that through fictitious discussions such as these, society is precisely produced as such. It is somewhat a discussion of privilege; we produce society as an exclusive resort, while the discussion should actually produce the opposite.

Therefore, for a vibrant engaged practice, the imagined always needs to break from the known. The problem is to not lose responsibility within this break, and this break is between the status of being responsible and the responsible act, as I shall later discuss further. If the opposite takes place and a responsibility is lost, it gives rise to the troubles that writers such as Albert Camus and Alain Badiou could have with the engaged attitude. That is to say, that art is not about truth, although it could be a truth process: it (co-)produces or facilitates the emergence of truth; of ‘reality.’ It cannot coincide with it, simply because of its singularity. Any art always thereby functions on the level of incongruity: ‘The fact that things go awry, slide out of place, spin out of synch.’17

Now that we have discussed the false presumptions in the traditional attitudes, a few elements are necessarily worth investigating within this new network of responsibilities that arises if we realise the classic false opposition between autonomy and engagement are opposite sides of the same coin. Most importantly: our renewed and somewhat ambivalent attitude towards responsibility. To be more precise, the manner and amount by which we are accreditable to responsibility and are agents to take responsibility. It is thought that the engaged attitude engulfs itself in responsibility, thereby losing its liveliness; it becomes ‘serious’; it carries the weight of the world on its shoulders, immobilising the feet from walking and the arms from acting. It is thought that the autonomous attitude rejects responsibility per se, thereby reaching a high sense of vitality in forms, among which humour and jesting confront reality, but by which it loses the object of its interaction, the muse of any practice. If we focus on the idea that both positions are basically mutually dependent, we reach an odd relationship to responsibility that can be best dissected by the convulsions around humour within the discourse of engaged practices, as opposed to being serious—whatever that may mean. The point is that humour is regarded as an irresponsible, or even a morally culpable, approach.

There is a censorship on humour in engaged practices, even though quite often ‘prohibition of laughter serves simply to provoke it.’18 Humour, ridicule or satire can traditionally be seen as an accident of the autonomous attitude, a device of the historic avant-gardes, such as in Fluxus, Dadaism, Surrealism, and body performance. It uproots old dogmas, taboos and structures, all of which are allegedly ‘not funny because it is designed to disconcert,’19 even though they are, in the end, indeed quite funny in retrospect (laughter always follows the joke). The second, the attitude of seriousness, can be seen as an accident endorsed by the classical engaged attitude. Being serious means that one is responsible (i.e., morally addressable) and acts responsibly. We can find multiple instances of the joke being righteously problematised for being unethical, and as such it does not break open the subject it ridicules, but instead affirms it. Above all, the joke functions in many directions, as we shall discuss further on. The danger felt in the discourse of engaged practices seems to point out that the joke simultaneously normalises through laughter what it jokes about, and, on the contrary, it shows through the laughter the absurdities of the subject itself.

I believe the crux to the unpopularity of humour as a device in engaged practices is the social condition of not being taken seriously, which can be an effect of the humorous approach, but only if it is executed as superiority. In this manner, the controversy of the joke illustrates very well the failing of the either/or distinction that we find within the false dichotomy of autonomy/engagement because it similarly problematises the ambiguous responsibility that the artist has now. This ambiguous responsibility manoeuvres within a renewed hypothetical. In other times, one might have said that the autonomous attitude does not make a claim on reality—whereas the engaged attitude does—but now the mutual dependence of these attitudes seems to produce a conflict that is the hypothetical quality of any art.

Harmen de Hoop, Grow Your Own Vegetables, Rotterdam, 2004.

Reclaiming the Hypothetical

The network of responsibilities we find underlining the issue of humour as sketched above is that of the loss of the hypothetical if we compulsively keep referring to the old attitudes. The dissonance we experience in life as artists regarding the consequences of the things we do and make is a central and urgent topic to our era. We term those works we appreciate ‘good,’ rather than the now outdated qualifier ‘beautiful.’ The distinction here is that of a semantic shift from the earlier aesthetic appreciation based on the subject to the moral appreciation within a system of ethics. Good being the opposite of bad, which concerns the effect of our actions in respect to others as a generalising rule; and beautiful the opposite of ugly, which concerns the qualification of an action in respect to an individual as a contingent interpretation. I can always describe something to myself as beautiful, but once I draw others into this description, I make generalising and thereby normalising claims about them. It creates an ought, which is why ethics steps in with denominators such as good and bad.

However, it is true that for some practices questions about responsibility can thrive in the domain of the hypothetical, just and only because they can remain there: it is a limp hypothetical because it doesn’t want to be tested. Most practices do not argue to intervene in the reproduction of reality and even argue to not want to do so in order to ridicule it. These practices do not attempt to valorise responsibility, or, put differently, to reify responsibility. This conscious withdrawal is exactly the political potential of autonomous attitude that Marcuse speaks of, which I already referred to earlier. Marcuse argues that the opposite side of the coin—when the hypothetical is forced to be affirmed; to be made true—is that of ‘utility.’ In other words, if the artwork does not distance itself from what is regarded as reality—for example, through the devices of absurdification, singularity, speculation, and, yes, humour, all of which are so familiar to the arts—and that which it therefore accepts responsibility over, it is locked into an expectancy of contributing to reality as it is. It is chained to exactly that system of morals that engaged practices so often attempt to disturb. Art, then, is expected to be useful to the given reality, and so does not break its reality principle. The question then becomes: useful to what, because it is often that reality that needs confrontation?

So, in the classical engaged attitude, it seems that the hypothetical would disappear if we were to put it into a dichotomy with the autonomous attitude. This would be exactly the element that would make it so powerful—that it can distance itself from the status quo, while necessarily having to return to it. In order to break this deadlock, engaged practices have to rebound with the hypothetical, and thereby merge both attitudes. But what exactly is this hypothetical? A hypothetical is a proposition that makes a claim on truth—not as an essential element (i.e., something is or is not true) but as an accidental quality. In other words, something both can and cannot be true. A hypothetical pertains to the truth. That is to say, it is conjectural, a proposition with a claim to would-be truth. It is to formulate something as a proposition that makes a claim on what we regard as reality, the practice that follows the hypothetical attempts at making that claim real: it is to test it.

Therefore, the hypothetical has the speculative power of potential by allowing degradation on the essence of the actual: the actual becomes an accident needing to be realised. The hypothetical can thereby be the intermediary between that which is and that which is not. The activity of actualising the potential of a hypothetical is the core of an engaged practice, but it cannot exist without the potential; it cannot exist without the possibility of its own premise being false. In order to be true, it must potentially be false.20 The status of the hypothetical can be well illustrated with famous deadlock interregnum of Gramsci that ‘the old is dying but the new cannot be born.’21 By choosing for the potential in the hypothetical, we occupy the autonomous attitude and are completely rifted from the realm of the actual: the new can never be born here. By choosing the actual, we lose all the ability of the potential and the real becomes an absolute: the old can never die here. Occupying this attitude between the potential and the actual—where, I believe, the engaged practice today should take place—also means that a very odd relation to responsibility arises. Simultaneously, one is and one is not ‘responsible’ as a moral agent. Thus, the oscillation between potential and actual is what engaged practices are.

Willem de Haan, Malieveldgras®., 2020.
The Malieveld is the most famous lawn in the Netherlands. With about 70,000 m2, the green plain in The Hague normally offers ample space for large numbers of demonstrators. The field is a stone’s throw from ‘The Binnenhof’ – the home of the Dutch government – and is therefore the go-to protest location in the Netherlands, and is also recognised as such. Unfortunately, thanks to the 2020 Corona crisis, protesting on the Malieveld was rendered nearly impossible. MalieveldGras® offers a solution with seeds cultivated from the real Malieveld. You can now grow your own piece of Malieveld at home. This way you can protest in your garden, balcony or even in your local park.

The Odd Case of Responsibility

Within the engaged attitude, responsibility is already one of the key points of discussion in the discourse, but with the old attitudes of autonomy and engagement, this responsibility starts oscillating between being responsible and not being responsible. I have argued that this issue can be thought through by investigating humour. It might have occurred to you that I have already employed a false, though socially entrenched, binary, which is between funny and serious. It follows the idea of the superiority theory, stated well by the father of a negative view of humanity, Thomas Hobbes. He notes of humour that it stems from a sense of eminency in oneself, whereby the laugh ‘by apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.’22 As Henri Bergson also points out, ‘All humour […] is really intended to humiliate,’23 and through that humiliation leash the subject into a social corrective: it appears as disciplining and normalising. What does unveil itself in the scheme of this, though, is that humour has a utility, albeit a negative one if we follow these thinkers. It remains true that ‘a word can destroy a career, a reputation or even an individual more easily than a blow.’24 As Terry Eagleton notes: ‘Like art, humour can estrange and relativise the norms by which we live, but it can also reinforce them. In fact, it can do so precisely by estranging them […] it is both bond and weapon.’25 It is both potential and actual; it is both funny and serious.

However, a cognitive disposition arises through the structure of the joke in which we cannot take seriously what is said, which is exactly one of the joke’s strong political functions. Not because we cannot really, but because we do not want to do so. Reality might be too confronting, whereby we can only engage with it through the structures of laughing about it, which is, therefore, an apparatus of approaching the withdrawal we experience from reality, an act of engagement. However, this argument of coping actually risks normalising what one copes with—disengaging from the harsh reality. As Eagleton reminds us: ‘He who laughs cannot bite.’26 It allows as much for sublimation and catharsis, taking some pressure off. It is often true, at least for comedians, that they joke about those subjects that are the most precarious within society at that moment: think of sexism, misogyny, populism, racism, politics in general, and the whole range of phobias.

The question of joking about these subjects is to which side the coin falls: does it indeed hold up our blind tendencies and privileges to us, thereby confronting the norm? And is it in that way a confrontation or indictment of reality, or does it actually allow us to disregard responsibility over our privileges and biases because we have now laughed about it and placed ourselves above it (superiority theory)? And because we have laughed about them, can we continue with them afterwards (the philanthropy principle)? This catharsis sublimates negativities, so we might go further and note that ‘comedy and fatalism are thus in collusion.’27 One cannot be serious any more about what is laughed at, so it seems. Using humour as a device in engaged practices thus seems to work against its own premise: it disengages from the real. But as I’ve said, this new attitude of compatibility might actually be one of the most important terrains gained: it pulls our engaged embeddedness out of the waterboarding process of reality, which allows us to breathe and look beyond the bucket we might know we will be flushed into once more.

We could make a distinction between two aspects of responsibility, the first being the status of being responsible, which violently seems to oscillate between the aforementioned attitudes, and the second being responsible action, which always positions itself in the periphery of the status of being responsible, sometimes within and sometimes outside of reach. What’s obvious here, as with these attitudes, is that we cannot regard the status of responsibility without the act of responsibility. The act of needing to move one’s responsible status towards the act of being responsible is perhaps one of the most pressing issues of our era. Think of climate change: ‘I can’t see it. I can’t touch it. But I know it exists, and I know I’m part of it. I should care about it.’28 We so often appear in the structure of disavowal, ‘I know very well but I act as if I don’t know,’29

and are often produced into that state of being through economies of debt and shame like consumer activism. The first, the status of being responsible, concerns the presupposition that one takes oneself as a moral agent. That is, someone who has the position of being responsible: someone who is addressable on one’s actions, and someone who has the ability to pursue the question towards what is and what is not good (to do).

Ironically, according to Friedrich Hegel, the responsible status arises precisely within the ‘self-consciousness comprehending itself as free,’30 thus within the former autonomous attitude. The second, the responsible action, is where the case becomes tremendously more complex, which is also where we might localise the engaged attitude. The responsible action concerns the responsible subjects taking responsibility and acting upon it. The point is that there are many things where we occupy a responsible status—we are addressable as responsible subjects—but where we do not or cannot act as responsible actors. The issue is literally somewhat out of reach; we are withdrawn from it, or withdraw ourselves from responsible action. Think, for example, of ecological issues, in which the question of ‘reach’ is essential, at least on an individual level but also on a societal level. I believe many of the engaged practices we know actually try to uproot this issue, working towards a position where the status of being responsible can be actualised by acting upon it—for example, by collectivising otherwise atomised individuals, thus enlarging reach, or utilising new forms of practice, producing different ways to ‘do,’ or generally put through the artistic devices. The act of moving towards responsible action is what I call engagement, especially when what is reached to first appears to be out of reach.

This dissonance between being responsible and taking responsibility only ‘[…] occurs in a world where a wrong is still right.’31 This is also why Hegel adds that ‘the Idea of freedom is truly present only as the state [of freedom].’32 Put in other words: when the status of being responsible valorises acting responsibly, even if that responsibility has to act against a world where a wrong is still right. Ironically, this means that the most responsible thing to do might be to be ‘irresponsible’ and vice versa. In order to be able to engage in such a manner, one needs an attitude of autonomy, but to consciously move away from it: it is why we need the hypothetical as an indispensable element of any practice, because it allows us to move from potential to the actual, from the status to the act, and vice versa. Rancière puts it well when he attempts to position his thought within the classical dichotomy of attitudes. He notes that his thoughts ‘don’t relate to the idea of an autos, but refer to the idea of a move—from a situation, from a place, from an identity, from an autos.’33 The movement from a responsible status to a responsible action might be exactly what the engaged practice pursues.

However, when the responsible action becomes solely the centrepiece of engagement, we lose the responsible status: we lose sight of what might be regarded as good or bad. Many authors, such as Claire Bishop, have argued that the antagonism is taken out of our socialisation,34 out of our democracies, where the artist fills a gap of scarcity produced by a lack of a service economy. In other words, the artist acts responsible there where they don’t have responsible status. This is also why Maxim Februari rhetorically argues for bad art because ‘the good […] nowadays seems so hopeless fixated.’35 He notes that the person who ‘no longer questions what is good [or bad] […] has abolished the moral conversation, and with it, morality itself.’36 He adds that, ‘In fact, I am not concerned with the “bad,” but with the problematisation of the “good”.’37 To be precise, these questions concern the status of responsibility that defines what is good and bad, not the act, which is the thing we measure it by.

If we lose the status which is thus dependent on a sense of autonomy, therefore only focusing on the act (on the embeddedness), practice becomes a friendly affirmation that cheerfully steps in where politics fails. Hal Foster notes that ‘there is a further suspicion that, for all this discursivity, “relation aesthetics” [a form of engaged practice] might be sucked up in the general movement for a “post-critical” culture.’38 Or as Jeroen Boomgaard puts it, this emphasis on interplay with the social ‘is part of a general tendency that pushes art to function along the lines of a more explicit economic model […] this demand for utility [means] that art may lose its ability to widen the field of expectations by offering something that is not in demand.’39 He goes further to say that ‘artworks lend themselves too easily for this agenda [neo-liberalisation, participation society, help], without realising that they are conforming the system instead of changing it.’40 This change can only occur when the status links with the act, when the potential relates to the actual, when the autonomous attitude and the engaged attitude are two sides of the same coin.

Miranda Blaak, Wipkip, 2019.

Serious Humour: Incongruity

‘To laugh is to be engaged with reality,’41 Eagleton notes, but this laugh can only exist ‘in a world where a wrong is still right.’42 The wrong first has to be made a wrong, which is especially essential if that wrong is regarded as a right. The pain, and sometimes even tears, we experience when we laugh about a joke is a device of this attempt: we realise that it is the way things are, but not how they ought to be. The joke breaks the code within which things are as they are, and we experience them as ‘reality’ (i.e. reality principle.) To put it philosophically, it deconstructs the ‘is’ appearance of ‘oughts.’ Although jokes aim at convulsions of the present, they pursue the otherwise: nothing is funny which isn’t a sensitive matter—not because the joke is not funny, but because its object is not something we feel deeply guilty, sensitive, or unhappy about.

This can be well illustrated by the ‘when’ of humour. Jokes are only funny in memory, not when you repeat them. A joke does not lose humour if you examine it, as has often been argued. The point is that the joke is only funny when the joke has already been passed. Therefore, the joke—in order to be funny—must always contain a proposition that surpasses the joke itself, that goes beyond it, whereby we can think that we have surpassed that which is joked about. The first time we are reminded of our biases through the joke we laugh to cope; the second time we do not because we are now pressingly aware of our biases. So, pointing to a comedian for making an ‘unethical’ joke might be pointing in the wrong direction, even though the point of departure for any joke must never be unethical, as it simultaneously affirms positions as discussed earlier.

We need to point to ourselves because we need to laugh about the joke in order to realise how wrong we are. That’s why repeating jokes is always so unpleasant. The only nice thing about the joke is the memory that the joke was once funny: after that moment, it mainly hurts because what is joked about is actually horrific. This might be the issue with engaged practices: there seems no beyond to the joke because all too often there is no joke, nothing that uproots the actual; no device that places it vis-à-vis the reality in which it occurs. Too often there is no hypothetical, no proposition, no sense of an autonomous attitude so essential to the status of being responsible. And if jokes are to be aimed at that which we should consider a problem, there seems no beyond to the problem itself. The irony of this is that it proposes the idea that engaged practices only exist to examine problems, not propositions, which would not make them engaged but reactionary.

When humour is utilised in engaged practices, it is met with an experience of disrespect. It is seen from the withdrawing reach over responsible actions, whereby humour declares the object of the joke unimportant. It might appear to declare the attempted reach otiose. Boomgaard remarks that the art which he appreciates is ‘an art that does not function as a lubricant for society but rather as a moment of friction and misunderstanding […] it means the work speaks in its own voice.’43 Humour, designated by the laugh, is the experience of understanding the misunderstanding called reality. ‘It also has the abrasive truthfulness of great art.’44 Engagement is the act of re-establishing reality as such, thus the process of the terrain unveiled by the joke. In theory, this element which we find in humour (among other artistic devices) is called ‘incongruity—the fact that things go awry, slide out of place, spin out of synch […] a momentary defamiliarising of the familiar and so on.’45

It thereby helps as ‘a “derailment of sense”; it involves the disruption of orderly thought processes or the violation of laws of convention.’46 You first have to derail normality before it can be changed, or at least before it is seen that the apparent normal is not that ‘normal’ at all. The important thing to note here is that humour springs from incongruity, which means that humour cannot be the goal but can be an important, if not necessary, element to engaged practice. Eagleton states that ‘Alenka Zupançiç finds a prime source of comedy in the way different versions of the world refuse to slot together.’47 The laugh is thus a note of general inability produced by ‘this small rupture of logic that laughter can well up.’48 And Henri Bergson notes that ‘we smile at the oddball and eccentric because it disrupts our stereotypical expectations.’49 Here, it must be those expectations that are at stake and not the apparent ‘oddball,’ even though this oddball appears to be the object of the joke. The object is the stereotype.

Hence, something is always sacrificed in a joke; its morals hinge on the question of whether it is the oddball or the stereotype that created the oddball in the first place. Through ‘defamiliarisation’50 of the reality principle as we experience when confronted with our stereotypes, an element of transgression is produced; boundaries of how we think the world is ordered are overstepped. Here, we are able to ‘relax our rigorous taxonomising impulse,’51 which ‘throws it off its guard,’52 allowing us to ‘disconnect one idea from another.’53 Thus, the reality principle is overturned, which I believe we must regard as any first step—always—in engaged practices. That is to say, relativising what ‘is’ by disconnecting it from an ‘ought.’

Eef Veldkamp

Eef Veldkamp (1993) is an artist, researcher and teacher for Fine Art and Design in Education at ArtEZ University of the Arts, the Netherlands. At ArtEZ, he researches questions around engaged practices. By intermingling artistic and philosophical research methods, he brings about subversive textual interventions that function as the point of departure for his artistic practice, in which he develops what he calls ‘counter-systems’. These are organisations erected to engage with a specific bottleneck in society, which they do through a multiplicity of forms that he terms ‘art on batteries’. He is currently investigating our mnemonic structures for dealing with societal crises, for which he is developing a new sort of souvenir.






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  • Hegel, George W., Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Translated by H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason. Translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Manderson, Desmond, ‘Here and Now: From “Aestheticizing Politics” to “Politicizing Art”.’ In Sensing the Nation’s Law, no. 18-5 (2018).
  • Marcuse, Herbert, The Aesthetic Dimension: Towards a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1979.
  • Morton, Timothy, ‘Charisma and Causality.’ In ArtReview, December 10, 2015. https://artreview.com/november-2015-feature-timothy-morton-charisma-causality/.
  • –––––––, ‘Introducing the Idea of “Hyperobjects”.’ In High Country News, January 19, 2015, https://www.hcn.org/issues/47.1/introducing-the-idea-of-hyperobjects.
  • Rancière, Jacques, ‘Assemblies in Art and Politics: An interview with Jacques Rancière.’ Theory, Culture & Society 3, no. 7-8 (2014).
  • Žižek, Slavoj, Examined Life. Directed by Astra Taylor. Zeitgeist Films, 2008. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9C6J2Bqj8Q.
↑ 1

Jelle Bouwhuis, ‘De Wereld Verandert de Kunstenaar,’ NRC, October 16, 2014, https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2014/10/16/de-wereld-verandert-de-kunstenaars-1428650-a1055275. Translated from the Dutch by the author.

↑ 2

Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Commitment,’ in Aesthetics and Politics, trans. Francis McDonagh (London: Verso, 2007 [1962]), p. 11.

↑ 3

Jacques Rancière, ‘Assemblies in Art and Politics: An interview with Jacques Rancière,’ Theory, Culture & Society 3, no. 7-8 (2014), conducted by Charles Esche and Nikons Papastergiadis: p. 29.

↑ 4

Graham Harman, ‘For a Thought of Objects,’ PCA-Stream, https://www.pca-stream.com/en/articles/graham-harman-for-a-thought-of-objects-89.

↑ 5

Timothy Morton, ‘Charisma and Causality,’ in ArtReview, December 10, 2015, https://artreview.com/november-2015-feature-timothy-morton-charisma-causality/.

↑ 6

Hans Den Hartog Jager, ‘Geëngageerde Kunstenaars: De Wereld Luistert Niet,’ NRC, September 18, 2014, https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2014/09/18/geengageerde-kunstenaars-de-wereld-luistert-niet-1419986-a29079. NL: ‘Maar ondertussen kon die vrijheid alleen maar bestaan omdat er ook een stilzwijgende afspraak met de maatschappij was gemaakt: om tot die nieuwe ideeën te kunnen komen, mochten kunstenaars meer dan ‘gewone’ mensen: ‘artistieke vrijheid’. Daarvoor moesten ze alleen wel hun maatschappelijke invloed inleveren.’ EN: ‘But in the meantime, that freedom could only exist because a tacit agreement had also been made with society: in order to arrive at those new ideas, artists were allowed to do more than “ordinary” people: they had “artistic freedom.” In order to achieve this, they just had to give up their social influence.’

↑ 7

Den Hartog Jager 2014.

↑ 8

Cf. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969).

↑ 9

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. R. Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 8.

↑ 10

Adorno 1997, p. 227.

↑ 11

As Kant puts it: ‘A mode of representation which is purposive for itself, and which, although devoid of a purpose, has the effect of advancing the culture of the mental powers in the interests of social communication.’ Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 306.

↑ 12

See: Eef Veldkamp, ‘Help! Help! Help!: The Interpellation of Help and What It Means to Engaged Practices,’ in Towards Engaged Arts (Arnhem: APRIA, 2021), https://apria.artez.nl/help-help-help/; and Eef Veldkamp, ‘Engaged Arts Incorporated: Front Desks and Legal Entities (About the “Business” Called Engaged Arts),’ in Towards Engaged Arts (Arnhem: APRIA, 2021), https://apria.artez.nl/engaged-art-incorporated/.

↑ 13

Desmond Manderson, ‘Here and Now: From “Aestheticizing Politics” to “Politicizing Art”,’ in Sensing the Nation’s Law, no. 18-5 (2018): p. 5.

↑ 14

Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (London: MacMillan Press, 1979), p. IX.

↑ 15

Marcuse 1979, p. 10

↑ 16

Rancière 2014, p. 30.

↑ 17

Terry Eagleton, Humour (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2019), p. 55.

↑ 18

Eagleton 2019, p. 92.

↑ 19

Eagleton 2019, p. 73.

↑ 20

In order to be potentially true, the hypothetical also needs to be potentially false. This is the structure of the famous ‘falsification theory’ of philosopher Karl Popper.

↑ 21

Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Times of interregnum,’ Ethics & Global Politics 5, no. 1 (2012), DOI: 10.3402/egp.v5i1.17200, p. 49.

↑ 22

Eagleton 2019, pp. 37-38.

↑ 23

Eagleton 2019, p. 41.

↑ 24

Eagleton 2019, p. 65.

↑ 25

Eagleton 2019, p 137; p. 139.

↑ 26

Eagleton 2019, p. 136.

↑ 27

Eagleton 2019, p. 50.

↑ 28

Timoty Morton, ‘Introducing the Idea of “Hyperobjects”,’ in High Country News, January 19, 2015, https://www.hcn.org/issues/47.1/introducing-the-idea-of-hyperobjects.

↑ 29

Slavoj Žižek, Examined Life, dir. Astra Taylor (Zeitgeist Films, 2008), YouTube. 00:33:00, 00:07:00, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9C6J2Bqj8Q.

↑ 30

George W. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 86.

↑ 31

Hegel 1991, p. 88.

↑ 32


↑ 33

Rancière 2014, p. 29.

↑ 34

Cf. Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,’ October Magazine 110, fall (2004): pp. 51-79.

↑ 35

Maxim Februari, ‘Slechte Kunst,’ in Huizingalezing Universiteit Leiden, December 11, 2020, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqAXrsMEVP4&feature=emb_logo. Translated from the Dutch by the author.

↑ 36

Februari 2020.

↑ 37

Februari 2020.

↑ 38

Hal Foster, ‘(Dis)Engaged Arts,’ in Right About Now: Art Theory Since the 1990s, eds. Margriet Schavemaker and Mischa Rakier (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2007), p. 78.

↑ 39

Jeroen Boomgaard, ‘Talk to the Hand,’ in Right About Now: Art Theory Since the 1990s, eds. Margriet Schavemaker and Mischa Rakier (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2007), p. 88.

↑ 40

Boomgaard 2007, p. 89.

↑ 41

Eagleton 2019, p. 43.

↑ 42

Hegel 1991, p. 88.

↑ 43

Boomgaard 2007, p. 90.

↑ 44

Eagleton 2019, p. 143. Emphasis added.

↑ 45

Eagleton 2019, p. 55; p. 67.

↑ 46

Eagleton 2019, p. 67.

↑ 47

Eagleton 2019, p. 72.

↑ 48

Eagleton 2019, p. 80.

↑ 49

Eagleton 2019, p. 81.

↑ 50

Eagleton 2019, p. 84.

↑ 51

Eagleton 2019, p. 88.

↑ 52

Eagleton 2019, p. 91.

↑ 53