Let me begin by making one thing clear. I absolutely, 100%, hate absurdist theatre. If you aren’t familiar with it, works under Absurdism (which exist in the novel, short story, film or theatrical form) grew from the Existentialism philosophy emphasising the meaninglessness of life. Existentialism deems a person has complete responsibility to live freely and do as they please, because in the end, nothing really matters anyway. Absurdism expresses these philosophical ideas through obscure creative expression, utilising its own conventions. The agenda of Absurdism is to trick the audience into thinking a story is being told, even though it is pure nonsense. Works also utilise various alienation techniques, some including humour, exaggerated characters, repetition, clichés, stereotypes and so on. They get them caught up in a meaningless plot, which supposedly teaches us about the philosophical ideas I’ve just mentioned.
You see, I understand this. I know this type of art isn’t meant to make sense. Yet, I still can’t help but feel a burning sensation in my brain trying to comprehend the need for ideas to be expressed in such a way.
The burning sensation took a particularly strong affect during an absurdist theatrical production I witnessed the other afternoon.
Prior to viewing this show, my productivity had been lacking, and this weekend was the one where I’d done the most. Perhaps an introvert fused lingering to travel home and eat a bowl of Nutri-Grain in bed after all this activity added to my feeling of being tortured during the 40-minute show. After a few minutes in, the senseless props and script made it apparent that this was an absurdist play. I tried to keep an open mind. Maybe my past interactions with Absurdism would change.
But none of the jokes prompted a chuckle, the characters were irritating, they went on too long about the same things – nothing went anywhere. Which, as we’ve already discussed, is Absurdism’s intention. However, it seemed that the rest of the audience were actually enjoying the play, to my greatest confusion. I felt like I was zoned out in a group conversation and missed the punchline of somebody’s joke, leading to everyone laughing, and me having no clue why.
As someone studying the Fine Arts, there is no doubt that I question the human condition and world dynamics to influence my practice. Thus, having interest in philosophical theories relating to Absurdism. However, my attendance at this production did not prompt me to hectically write down psychoanalytical thoughts in my Notes app, but instead share my disliking for the play to the people beside me at the inappropriate time of intermission. But this piece isn’t a review. So, I’ll just leave you with the simple statement, my Sunday hangover from the prior night’s party didn’t kick in until this show started.
However, it left me with the urge to learn more about this unique practice of creative expression as well as where it sits in the hierarchy of art and literary forms. And why it draws some people in, if it completely rejects all ideas of rationality and sense.
First, let’s discuss Absurdism from an informed standpoint. Absurdism began in Western Europe and America in the 1950s and early 1960s and ignores typical theatrical conventions. Further from just the purposelessness of life, it explores themes of life after death, what it means to be human, complexities of good and evil and many other moral dilemmas. Characters are often nameless and feel pointless or have disillusionment with their lives, religion, or society. So, in actuality, ideas explored in Absurdism are rather dense and sometimes depressing.
I think that’s enough context to get us going. Now, you’re probably just wanting to know how such a multifaceted artform can fit into just one subdivision.
The three literary hierarchies are highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow. The ‘brows are a structure of classes based on prestige of thinking rather than wealth or family, flowing from highbrow as most prestigious, to lowbrow as least prestigious. People’s tastes are judged in accordance with which type of texts they consume, and many people’s lifestyle and backgrounds influenced these texts. Historically, highbrow described works that could educate readers beyond their own intellectuality. Individuals with highbrow taste disregarded creature comforts and modern popular media and essentially didn’t have passions. Highbrows lived a lifestyle dedicated to surrounding themselves with highbrow art and were more concerned with the ideas behind it than how it turned out.
Lowbrow texts were popular, everyday media which was considered spontaneous expression – being almost completely oblivious to highbrow art. Lowbrow consumers knew what they enjoyed, and art they created or interacted with had no deeper significance than likeability. Unlike highbrow art, lowbrow art is interpreted at a surface level. For example, the word ‘beautiful’ is usually only meant to mean ‘beautiful’, whereas to highbrows, it can have many different interpretations.
So, one might suggest that Absurdism equally belongs in the highbrow and lowbrow category. At first, it comes across as lowbrow; being easy to swallow. This makes people believe that there is no didactic, so they just sit back and enjoy it with ease. On the other hand, some may dig for some sort of sense and elaborate meaning, as did I during the play I witnessed, which could perhaps appeal to highbrow tastes. In fact, absurdist art places great emphasis on exploring sophisticated, morally inclined themes. Alike to highbrow texts, the outcome of the piece doesn’t really matter (so long as it doesn’t make sense) because it’s the ideas behind it that are important.
Yet this is the very thing that baffles me. I’m an analytically inclined creative person. I make sense of the world through organisation. I plan my grocery lists in sequential order of where each item is kept in the store. I write ‘take a nap’ on my to-do list. And ultimately, my daily observation that the dress shop near me changes its window display at approximately lunch time and that they keep to the same white, red, and pink pallet, inspires a poem about how I can’t live in the moment. My brain naturally observes the world in a structured way and that is how I explore it within my craft. Hence, I try to find sense and order in craft I consume. Maybe I detest Absurdism because it makes me question everything I thought art was. How can something have meaning, but express it so abstractly that audiences can no longer see it?
People being unable to interpret sophisticated meanings makes them only able to view Absurdism at a surface level. It’s almost as if these works combine highbrow and lowbrow ideas to take a unique perspective on the world. While it’s the senselessness that exhausts me during an absurdist performance, even I’ll admit that combining the two is a smart tactic, whether it’s the intention of writers or not. I mean, for works that follow such complex and sometimes dark themes, it’s good that they’re presented in such a light-hearted way. Who’d want to watch a show where all the characters are crying about their life being meaningless without a few gags thrown in there too?
All this also makes it possible that Absurdism is more well suited to the middlebrow group. Middlebrow texts are made up of both popular and unpopular press. First appearing in England in the early 1920s, they describe the battle for cultural authority after the affects of the rise of middle-class citizens and democratisation of culture.
Middlebrows are against the intervention of highbrows, and highbrows blame whatever they dislike about lowbrow taste on middlebrows. Yet highbrows respect lowbrow art, and tension only exists between themselves and middlebrows. To give a more everyday explanation, I’ll compare the ‘brows to the Dunphy kids form Modern Family. Highbrow is the oldest sister (Hayley), who is popular at school and gets all the boys, middlebrow is the middle sister (Alex), who is nerdy and in constant competition with her sister, and lowbrow is the youngest brother (Luke) who lives free of the drama because he’s too dotty to understand.
What makes our study difficult is that the ‘bows are not straightforward. While highbrow and lowbrow have the benefit of being the extremes, middlebrow is a type of literature, film, radio, press and music that appeal to a broad public. Middlebrow works stand apart because it was first catered for and by cultural entrepreneurs. It is seen to have no fixed destination and is a category where texts move at certain moments in their social history.
This makes it appear that middlebrow is the perfect home for Absurdism. Alike to it, Absurdism explores new, culturally relevant ideas; it often being satire that makes fun of governments, types of people and corporations. However, it is generally agreed that middlebrow art prefers realist, representational and immersive strategies over abstract, formally demanding techniques. And since you probably can’t get more abstract than Absurdism, this puts us back at square one.
These groups of works awkwardly fitting into the hierarchy has made me suspicious of the relevance of cataloguing contemporary art and literature at all. Since Absurdism rejects normal dramatic conventions, it surely also rejects being placed into a classification imbed with guidelines to match each ranking. Does this categorisation prevent us from exploring the countless types of creative expression in a truly refined way? It’s certainly impossible that every single piece of art ever created fits perfectly into one. And is it moral to place people’s tastes and enjoyments into levels of superiority?
The way the general public experiences art now is quite different to the early 1900s. A big reason for this being technology. When the ‘brows were first popularised, wealth and class likely played a much larger part in who had access to what type of text. Whereas, now we are rapidly experiencing more art digitally, meaning we have access to wider types of it; and class, wealth or intellectual prestige doesn’t play as much of a role. Accessing art and literature freely using websites, e-books, virtual gallery viewings or even digital portfolios of creative’s also means we don’t put as much thought into how we are viewing it. We observe everything quickly – our eyes darting from app to app, social platform to social platform. This means that most art is consumed in colossal amounts and the status of it no longer matters as much.
Investigating art more widely, visual artists have developed to create alongside these societal changes. The most popular art today is contemporary art, and technology makes it easier for creatives to think outside of the box. Contemporary artists employ various styles, methods, materials and concepts – no single concept or ideology completely encapsulates this style. Interestingly, contemporary art and literature is often a political critique. From my perspective I’ve gained of highbrow and lowbrow, and to a lesser degree, middlebrow texts, they don’t necessarily critique politics and class but instead create a class out of taste. This idea seems unimaginable in today’s creative sphere, where artists have more freedom than ever before. Literature is also breaking away from the traditional page. Writers are now using gaming elements to create interactive stories, some magazines and journals are only accessible online, audiobooks make works open to individuals with reading difficulties. This is just naming a few. The entry point and gatekeeping of art is becoming less apparent, and hence are such strict classifications.
Cambridge Dictionary states that ‘contemporary’ means existing or happening now. With this in mind, it’s impossible to place this hierarchy ideology onto texts that are rapidly changing so often. We witness new voices and challenging ideas every day (at a faster pace due to technological advances), and I believe that no matter how much the ‘brows develop alongside society, it just won’t be quick enough to align with current day texts and consumers.
Perhaps the internet-supervised way we experience art also informs why so many people enjoy Absurdism. Our comfortability in engaging with obscure contemporary expressions, paired with viewing works quicker, means that audiences enjoy the ambiguity of Absurdism. We’ve become satifised with art that doesn’t fit the ‘norm’, because we don’t know what the ‘norm’ is. This has made me consider that maybe having a norm, or a structure, doesn’t really matter in the end.
If we explored the changes to how we experience and enjoy every form of art, we’d be here all day. But I think it’s fair to say that all art has developed alongside technology and our fast-paced societies, particularly in Western locations. I can now confidently say that Absurdism is so absurd that it cannot be placed into a fenced-up group of alike texts. That is because, these categories simply don’t need to exist for us to enjoy texts in contemporary culture. But the thing that I am most clear on, is that, while I still get a headache at the mention of Absurdism, it has taught me a valuable message about what art truly is. And that is, that it can be anything… or seemingly nothing at all.
Cambridge Dictionary. (n-d). Contemporary. Cambridge Dictionary. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/contemporary.
Encyclopedia. (n-d). Absurdism. Encyclopedia. https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/absurdism.
Holmes, D. (2017). Introduction: European Middlebrow. Belphegor, 15(2). https://journals.openedition.org/belphegor/942.
Lynes, R. (1949). Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow. (2nd ed.). The Wilson Quarterly. http://archive.wilsonquarterly.com/sites/default/files/articles/WQ_VOL1_A_1976_Article_04.pdf.
Mallon, T. 2014). Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow – Do These Kinds of Cultural Categories Mean Anything Anymore?. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/books/review/highbrow-lowbrow-middlebrow-do-these-kinds-of-cultural-categories-mean-anything-anymore.html.
MasterClass. (2022). Absurdist Fiction: 5 Characteristics of Absurdist Literature. MasterClass. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/absurdist-fiction-guide.
Mullennix, B. (n-d). What Kind of Art is Popular Today? (Styles & Mediums). Artistry Found. https://artistryfound.com/what-kind-of-art-is-popular-today-styles-mediums/.