This is the presentation on The Absurd that I gave on Tuesday 21st Feb .. This is the version I prepared before realising it was far too long having to remove a great deal. The actual presentation may have been better for it but it’s nice to show all the info here. Quotes in bold. The portrait illustrations were all done initially without looking at the page – just to create a little more absurdity.

1.What is the absurd?

Read definitions. Adjective.

For something to be senseless, you first have to have an opinion as to what makes sense. This depends completely on whom you are, where you were born how you were brought up, your moral standards. And it is this counterpoint between one ideal and another that I think is really at the crux of the absurd. The absurd is when two opposing things come together and are realised at the same time.


Albert Camus 7 November 1913 – 4 January 1960

Albert Camus talks of the human condition and in this case the conflict is between the human desire for knowledge and meaning and the fact that it is completely beyond our means to find out because of the sheer enormity of the unknown. The absurdity happens when we consciously realise that this is the case.

2.Humour is affective absurdity.

People will react differently to the absurd depending on how much they are attached to the ideal that is being challenged. I don’t want to suggest that what is absurd will always be funny, it can be grotesque and even very frightening but To explain this further it is helpful to look at Tom Veatch’s N & V theory that Humour is affective absurdity.

3. Caleb warren & Peter McGraw

Violations can take a variety of forms (Veatch, 1998). From an evolutionary perspective, humorous violations likely originated as apparent physical threats, similar to those present in play fighting and tickling (Gervais & Wilson, 2005). As humans evolved, the situations that elicited humour likely expanded from apparent physical threats to a wider range of violations, including violations of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bed pan, strange behaviours), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviours). The benign-violation hypothesis suggests that anything that is threatening to one’s sense of how the world “ought to be” will be humorous, as long as the threatening situation also seems benign.

This is Franz Kafka playing peekaboo; this theory can suggest why children laugh at peekaboo. Their carer is the most important person in the world to them, if he/she is taken away – violation and then returned – benign situation. I like the way this works both ways when an unknown visitor attempts it the child may be laughing whenever he disappears. This theory suggests shows why absurdity is at the heart of humour

4. Freud.

Freud calls jokes with a purpose tendentious. The purpose of tendentious jokes is to allow us to take pleasure from sources that we have repressed. The pleasure that tendentious jokes illicit comes from an economy in the effort of repression. Tendentious jokes may be hostile, sexual, morbid, blasphemous or any other ‘pleasure’ that we may have repressed.

The N and V theory really suggests that all jokes are tendentious because they allow you to get pleasure from a violation of an ideal, which therefore does not necessarily have to be offensive.

David Shrigley.

5. This is a definition of irony from the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

If we just look at the line ‘EXPRESSION OF ONE’S MEANING BY LANGUAGE OF OPPOSITE TENDENCY’, ESP, SIMULATED ADOPTION OF ANOTHER’S POINT OF VIEW OR LAUDATORY TONE FOR THE PURPOSE OF RIDICULE’ Then we realise how ironic it is that we appear to take pleasure from the things which violate us.

By making a violation benign in the form of a joke we create irony by creating another meaning for a privileged audience, in this case the jokes recipient.

The absurd condition, which Camus talks about, is absolutely ironic, as demonstrated by this quote by Douglas Meucke.


I made this timeline to help me show how and why the absurd has become so integral to my practice. Starting from the great Nonsense writers Carroll and Lear I’ve tried to roughly place the movements, works of art and literature that have had a direct influence on my appreciation of the absurd today.

7.The cultural development of the absurd is often traced back to two 19C authors Lewis Carol and Edward Lear who really created the literary genre known as Nonsense. But why did both these writers start writing nonsense at approximately the same time?

7. The reason Nonsense literature is thought of as closely connected to the Victorian era, and why it suddenly came about as a significant literary genre in its own right, may be because the Victorian era brought about so many advances in science and knowledge. The Victorian Era is seen as a time of scientific and cultural momentum. The Webster’s dictionary (1828) and the Oxford Dictionary (1884) saw words increasingly organised and their roles defined. Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of the species’ was published in 1859, and the scientific mood of the time was to catalogue, contain and make sense of. Perhaps people found a great need for humour that allowed them to find pleasure in the liberation of nonsense in a society rapidly trying to make sense of everything. Nonsense laughs at the madness of trying to make sense of everything.

8. Dada is a cultural movement that started in Zurich in during World war One, it was a direct reaction to war and the ‘reason and logic of the bourgeois capitalist society that its members believed had caused this terrible conflict. Dada was a kind of anti art, everything that the art world stood for was challenged. Duchamp’s fountain, actually a signed urinal is one of the most easily recognised pieces from this time and has been described as one of the most important and influential pieces of modern art. Dadaism spread around the world and was used to different effect in different countries. The Dada group in Berlin was more political and social whereas the New York Dadaists were less disillusioned and instead became concerned with humour and irony.

Surrealism developed out of Dada. The surrealists were concerned by pure psychic automatism, expressing the real functioning of thought. They believed in the omnipotence of dream and Freud’s work with dream analysis, free association and the unconscious was of the utmost importance.

9.Existentialism.  Siren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are usually regarded as the forefathers of Existential philosophy. Existentialism places the emphasis on the individual and the struggle, or sense of disorientation when confronted by an apparently meaningless world. It argues that there is more to the human condition than the laws of science or the teachings of the ancient philosophers.

All the themes popularly associated with existentialism—dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, nothingness, and so on—find their philosophical significance in the context of the search for a new categorical framework, together with its governing norm.

(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/)

Existentialism is now seen as a cultural movement in the 1940/50s especially a literary one. Camus is often classified as an existentialist but he argued against it.

In the 20th century social, political and economic events such as the world wars, the rise of fascism and the holocaust really challenged people’s faith in a benevolent higher power and led them to question the significance on an individual’s existence. To quote E.L.Bolick in her essay on absurdism in post-modern art.

The use of the atomic bomb showed human beings solely as statistical casualties to whose lives no grandiose purpose or meaning could be attributed.

(E.L Bolick, Absurdism in Post-Modern Art: Examining the Interplay between “Waiting for Godot” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”)

Whereas Existentialism is searching for answers the Camus tells us that the absurd really only leaves us with 3 choices. Believe in a higher power (philosophical suicide), commit suicide (which is in itself absurd) or accept the absurd As Thomas Nagel suggested go back to your life with a kind of knowing irony.


“          Some people call me cocky and brash, but actually I am just self-assured. I’m nonchalant, imperturbable, contemplative. I play it cool, but I can get hot under the collar. And above all I’m a very ‘aware’ character. I’m well aware that I am appearing in an animated cartoon…. And sometimes I chomp on my carrot for the same reason that a stand-up comic chomps on his cigar. It saves me from rushing from the last joke to the next one too fast. And I sometimes don’t act, I react. And I always treat the contest with my pursuers as ‘fun and games.’ When momentarily I appear to be cornered or in dire danger and I scream, don’t be consoined [sic] – it’s actually a big put-on. Let’s face it Doc. I’ve read the script and I already know how it turns out.”

—Bob Clampett on Bugs Bunny, written in first person.

(“Chapter 11: What’s Up Doc?”. Draw the Looney Tunes: The Warner Bros. Character Design Manual.)


“may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety.” – Warning at Sensation exhibition NY.

The nineties I see as a defining era for my own personal artistic development. The big irony of postmodern art is that even when trying to make something new it will always relate to something that has already been made. In the 90’s everyone seemed to be trying to do something new and to do this they had to shock. Violence in cinema, the young British artists. David Carson’s often illegible but revolutionary use of typography. Absurd comedians such as Eddie Izzard and Vic Reeves. Everywhere our ideas of what is acceptable, what makes sense was being challenged. It’s amazing how quickly this absurdity goes from offensive to acceptable to humorous – to everyday. 

(From www.alaindebotton.com/blog)


So where are we now. I think Alain de Bottom hits on a vital point. The information revolution, ipads, iphones, social networking. All this information and its only making us more absurd, the unknown is just as large. Taking us further from our ‘telos’ or our natural purpose in life.


. Camus tells us that we have 3 options in the face of the absurd. Believe in a higher power, commit suicide or accept the absurd. As Thomas Nagel wrote – go back to our lives with a knowing irony. Here are 3 illustrated rabbits that I think represent these solutions.


How else can we approach the absurd within illustration, the theatre of the absurd used many techniques that you will often find in modern illustration

broad use of comedy, often similar to Vaudeville, mixed with horrific or tragic images; characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive; either a parody or dismissal of realism or the concept of the “well made piece of art”

Here are a couple of examples.

 Tom Gauld.

Paul Slater.

Johnny Ryan.

25. I see the absurd everywhere and highlighting or demonstrating it has become a huge part of my practice. History shows us how important it can become and how many artists have forged serious careers around it.

Some examples of my own work. Describe how I have used the absurd.






5 thoughts on “Absurd

    1. jonskibeat Post author

      My recent post ‘Critical Relection on my Practice, Humour and the Absurd.’ is a kind of follow on ‘Absurd’ , it’s a bit more centred on my illustration but it develops my thoughts on the absurd and it’s role in humour. So if you enjoy this one maybe read that too 🙂


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