The context, humor and absurdity in non-conformist art. Essay by Vasily Krouglov
Written for Bard College, 2023
Nonconformism only exists if conformism exists. As in every plot in human history, according to Propp’s classification, the hero needs something or someone to fight against, a villain. It could be an idea, a person, a social group, old rituals, new rituals, everyday life, or even life itself - i.e. if the hero in this case is a trickster. Non-conformism is shaped by its context, just as non-conformists shape the context in their work. That is why I pay so much attention to it.
Usually nonconformism is formed in environments that are oppressive in one way or another. This oppression is very broad. While some nonconformist artists risk their reputations - like the Impressionists or members of the avant-garde, or contemporary Western artists - others, like Soviet or Nazi Germany contemporaries, risk their lives. Regardless of the level of risk, non-conformists face oppression from status quo masters, the public, art institutions, a totalitarian or authoritarian state, or patriarchy, and so on. This oppression creates a need for artists to subvert control and express themselves in ways that are not officially sanctioned. Like the Soviet non conformists, who often opposed themselves to the dominant socialist realism style and created provocative, abstract and experimental works. Or, on the other hand, some artists chose to undermine the officially sanctioned way while also subverting control. By writing highly popular historical novels, for example, “non-conformist writers within the Third Reich sought through varied techniques of camouflage and deliberate ambiguity to circumvent censors, whilst at the same time conveying their subversive Christian and humanist message to an esoteric sensitised readership”, says researcher John Klapper .
Oppression creates social traumas that artists either simply express or try to undermine and cope with. There’s a shiny example of the former: in 1971, a group of Lithuanian amateurs staged a play, The Siege, about a seized city and the struggle to survive within it. The allusion of the drama was to their own city of Kaunas, seized at the moment by the totalitarian state . Whichever way an artist chooses - to express trauma as a silent observer or to fight it like a revolutionist with a paintbrush instead of a gun - in both cases his art tries to create a space for dissent and resistance. So, shortly after the play (I’m not speculating that these events had a strong connection, they didn’t. I’m just trying to give a helicopter view of such a process), there was an uprising in Kaunas in 1972, after the young student Romas Kalanta set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet regime.
Meanwhile, the state (like other oppressors) always tries to suppress non-conformist art. Strangely, its attempts only serve to legitimize the status of non conformism as an oppositional and subversive force. Like when the state (or patriarchy, or institutions, or whatever) sees something as a threat, it becomes a threat (at least on a narrative level) even if it’s never been a real threat. Smashing the exhibition with an excavator makes society believe that exhibitionists could somehow really destroy those in charge. So, bit by bit non conformist art subtly pumps power away from the oppressors.
Another aspect of the context is that non-conformists are not really unified or even monolithic. They are divided into groups and individuals with their own agendas, methods and beliefs. However, they rely heavily on informal networks and alternative spaces. Of course they do: if they are not trying to lightly undermine official channels, like the aforementioned German writers, they have little choice but to visit underground clubs and galleries, print samizdat, meet in apartments.
When we talk about the Soviet Union, the context also includes:
- An ideology that was more like a religion with a strong reliance on faith, all its dogmas and rituals and the promise of a happy afterlife (“communism”). And in late Soviet times faith was already dead, while rituals still existed.
- Many obligatory acts (“obyazalovka” or “dobrovolno-prinouditelnoe”) on a daily basis and the will of the state to control every aspect of this life.
- Elements of the state-created repression/terror machine, which developed on blood for decades and were feared in everyday life. Along with the Chekists there were also bloated military personnel.
- Vegetative socio-cultural life: press, radio, TV, movies, books, “fine arts” (I really have a hard time calling social realism fine arts). The dominant discourse that must follow statements like “all is well here”, “we are the best”, “to a bright future our wise leaders lead us” [The word order is intensional to resonate with official Soviet propaganda slogans that sounded much like this to a native speaker].
- Outright lies in official statements; silencing inconvenient truths by not releasing official statements and hiding all evidence.
- Inability to live a comfortable life due to low standards and lack of mass market goods (even food).
- Aggressive rhetoric against the West (= the modern world).
The humor and the absurdity
Since the violation of taboos is part of its function, nonconformist art often used humor as a way to criticize political and social systems and to challenge the authority of those in power. Sometimes this was dictated by the need to evade prosecution and censorship: critical works and those dealing with sensitive topics or subjects could be disguised in satire. Other times, humor and absurdity were used to reinforce the message and create a bombshell effect.
First of all, absurdity made it possible to highlight the irrationality of official state narratives and to undermine the ideology. The world of this context, dominated by coercive, oppressive, meaningless rituals, is extremely wild and unnatural to any outsider. But those who lived in the USSR for decades from birth usually didn’t see the full extent of the abnormality even if they understood the silliness of that world. Deliberately nonsensical or paradoxical works took abnormality to even higher levels of absurdity. They served as a shake-up to refresh feelings and reboot the coordinate system. The same mechanism is used by contemporary nonconformist artists in non-authoritarian environments to demonstrate the abnormality of the status quo on various issues such as gender inequality, climate crisis, capitalism’s flaws and so on. The main goal in all these cases is to disrupt traditional modes of interpretation and create a sense of disorientation - giving the viewer a chance to re-evaluate her previous interpretations and beliefs.
Second, as we can see from Nicolino Applauso’s work on comic poetry in medieval Italy, humor balanced with aggression has been used since at least the Middle Ages to “create dialogue within conflict” . This is closely related to the function of political humor, which in some cases serves as a substitute for physical confrontation . In a world where secret services and policemen are everywhere, and physical confrontation with the state is almost impossible (and has overwhelming costs for the subject), humor helps to sublimate the need to confront oppression face to face. In my opinion, this is also true for contemporary Russia (with its revived siloviki dominance) and for contemporary Western nonconformists - in their case, the impossibility (or, to be more precise, the extremely high undesirability) of physical conflict is dictated by the morals and social rules of the civilized world, while the need for such a confrontation also persists.
Some non-conformist artists use absurdity and humor to challenge traditional artistic practices and find their own way of expressing themselves. They intensionally defy artistic conventions to challenge both the viewer (thus, society and its norms) and the art community. This includes incorporating everyday materials or found objects, ready-made, non-standard painting tools and techniques, repurposing of the most immutable subjects (such as ikons or crucifixion).
Not infrequently, nonconformists who used humor and absurdity drew on a range of sources, including like pop culture (in the case of Soviet Union, both Soviet and Western popular culture), traditional practices, folklore, current events, and news. On the one hand, this made it possible to create richly layered, multifaceted works. On the other hand, combining these themes with humor and the absurd made the works more entertaining and accessible to a general audience by challenging the boundaries between high and low culture. It provided a way to connect with viewers who might not otherwise be interested in, able to access, or understand contemporary art.
Another use of humor and absurdity that I really like and use as an artist is playing with the names of paintings. It is yet another medium that allows you to communicate with the viewer and add extra layers of meaning, jokes, and absurdity. One of the favorite examples is Damir Muratov’s painting with the giant inscription “Oil on canvas” as the only object, and the painting named “Oil on canvas”, and the nameplate describing the medium under the title as “Acrylic on canvas”. It’s a classic example of double bind communication that’s used to create both the setup and the punchline of a joke by creating confusion that is both hard to respond to and hard to resist.
In sum, the use of humor and absurdity in non conformist art is driven by two realms: internal and external. Internal, as the artist’s need to express himself in a unique way, to challenge the status quo and oppression, to replace physical conflict with artistic action, to regain control over his life, and to reflect on reality. External, as a tool to make the artist’s message more catchy and sharp, to add entertainment and additional layers of depth to a work of art, to evade censorship, to publicly challenge oppressive authority, to reclaim power, and to reflect context in a work of art.
The non-conformist experience
I’d also like to add to the research some thoughts reflecting on my own experience as nonconformist artist in authoritarian Russia. Humor and absurdity are really powerful tools, both for the artist himself and for his audience. When you’re up against an overwhelming force that is much bigger than any one person, and it feels like it can’t be defeated in a day and by conventional methods, you need a potent weapon for a long fight.
Oppression regularly creates situations and contexts that already feel highly abnormal, and you struggle to ignore them. When abnormality permeates everything around, it feels like an absurd parallel universe. So you take that setup and start exploring boundaries.
On the one hand, you’re working like a therapist, maintaining a sense of normalcy by exaggerating abnormalitiy. You draw attention to things that are already usual because they happen on a regular basis, but you show that this routinization of oppression doesn’t make it any more normal or acceptable. Your absurdity and humor tell the viewer (and yourself), “Yes, this is commonly known to everyone, but it’s still wild and horrible” or “Sure, you’re not alone in your feeling that these crazy things are really crazy and not something normal”. Humorous and absurd works bring relief to the oppressed, keeping them sane and helping move forward.
On the other hand, you target your oppressive enemies and highlight their incompetence and backwardness. You have to show how pathetic they are in order to shatter their own myth of invulnerability and infallibility. Despite the oppressors’ dominance in the outside world, you have full power over them in the artworks. When these artworks communicate with the audience, the balance of power in the outer world also changes slightly. The oppressors loose a little bit of power, and a lacuna appears, so you rush into it and regain the objective reality, that was corrupted by the oppressors’ narrative.
Other times you just explore peculiarities and experiment with them. You try different angles on something that feels normal, imagine alternative futures, or reinterpret things. It serves as a think tank, uncontrolled and disobedient to the dominant discourse.
You reflect. You act. You resist conformism. You change the matter of the broken reality. You repair it.
That’s what it feels like.
 Klapper, J. (2014), CATEGORIES OF THE NON-CONFORMIST: THE HISTORICAL FICTION OF INNER EMIGRATION. German Life and Letters, 67: 159-182.
 Truskauskaitė, V. (2013), Social trauma and the theatre: a study of the formation of a non-conformist identity. Studia Ecologiae et Bioethicae, 4: 9-18
 Applauso, N. (2010), Curses and Laughter in Medieval Italian Comic Poetry: The Ethics of Humor in Rustico Filippi’s Invectives. University of Oregon Graduate School
 Nilsen, D. (1990), The Social Functions of Political Humor. Journal of Popular Culture, 24:3, 35-47