THE FUN POLICE:
The Politics and Problems of Fun and What Art Can Do About It
‘There is no such thing as fun for the whole family.’
From theme parks to birthday parties, festivals to board games, the figure of fun dances through our lives, but what is fun for? And furthermore, what can the art world do with it?
Fun is for kids and for blowing off steam. Fun is temporal, transient and frivolous. Fun exists in a delicious bubble gum sphere floating somewhere above the real world where serious shit happens. Children are the royalty in the floating kingdom of fun, encouraged to frolic in frivolity as proper to their ontogenesis. We believe that little Timmy chasing Sally with a cardboard dagger is important to the development of their little lives. For us grown-ups however, the frivolity associated with fun becomes valorized as a kind of holiday from real life; a distraction from the weight of ‘reality’. Fun in the serious world of adult life takes on a therapeutic function, where we can ignore the trappings of our adulthood. As Mark Blythe and Marc Hassenzahl assert, “Its ability to distract with short-livedness and superficiality satisfies an important underlying psychological need.” Fun as defined by distraction, encourages indulgence in the inconsequential as the antidote to our burdens, let go and have a little fun. Because we all know that No beer and no TV makes Homer go crazy.
Fun is parceled up as a necessary part of life, complementing it but remaining distinct. The distraction offered by fun seems extraneous and autonomous to the connections that bind us to our productivity, which are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in the negotiation away from the structure of Fordist work hours. The idea that fun is just for itself is powerful in the sense that it seems to deny productivity as fun’s aim and proffers it instead purely as experience. It seems to escape the doctrines of efficiency. Fun is. Fun is for You. Nothing else. It’s useful to us because it’s not useful. It is divorced from the important parts of our serious life. “Fun cannot be serious and if it is then it ceases, in this sense, to be fun.” Fun thus becomes defined through negation. It becomes an empty space made in the world. At the same time inconsequential, yet necessary. Revealing a paradox in the purported therapeutic psychological importance of fun and its opposition to the serious real world.
By saying that fun is good for us because it’s good for nothing, shows a reluctance to engage the potential for fun to have an effect on our lives beyond giving us a break from them. Is fun just a band-aid we put on the boo-boos that life inflicts on us? Do we just rip it off and throw it away? Furthermore, can art reveal to us ways in which fun can be freed from the prison of inconsequence?
The art world can be a treacherous place for fun to venture, especially in the areas of discourse that seek to legitimate art’s transformative social capacity. Fun doesn’t have to be for anything, but art does. While it is impossible to say that there is an accepted purpose for art (except for making mad cash, right?), it is safe to say there is a belief in the art world that art is important. Not only is it important to art darlings but also to Joe Average, because art affects cultural, social and political life. In other words, art can be serious business. To prove this the art world has put on its telephone voice. Championing the intellectual pursuit of art, discourse can frequently wander off into obscurantism, and expounded sometimes-impenetrable texts that read more like Heidegger than Dr. Seuss. For a select few, Heidegger’s overloaded continental roll is satisfying, but for the vast majority, Green Eggs and Ham is much more appetizing, and, in a system where art is fighting to be taken seriously, Sam-I-am won’t win any votes (sorry Ted Cruz).
The danger of the academic model is that if an artwork does not express certain seriousness, it can be cast off to the populist world of tricksters and phoneys, which is severely thorny for art that flaunts the figure of fun. Large government sanctioned public works which often embrace fun under the telos of inclusivity and community engagement are often dismissed by the art world as superfluous to the serious critical world of contemplation.
Now, we all know a loveable Belgian who likes to shake his fun stick around. Carsten Höller has probably caused some of the spiciest debates on the function of fun within art spaces. A slide in an art gallery seems to spit on the furrowed brow of serious art.
In response to Carsten Holler’s recent exhibition, Decision, Telegraph art critic Rupert Hawksley calls him out, asking whether his exhibition is trying to be “[…] a theme park with some art thrown in for credibility or a serious exhibition?” Which surely begs the question, porque non los dos? ¯_(ツ)_/¯ This line in the sand puts fun on one side and serious contemplation on the other, and because Holler’s work does not land easily on either side, it is doomed to be hit back and forth like a shuttlecock.
Must this line remain unbroken? On the other side of upside down funworld, the work of Australian artist Brook Andrew, Jumping Castle War Memorial (2010), presents a potential for the active engagement of fun in the negotiation of political aims. Harboring serious intentions, this artwork takes the quintessential form of fun; a bouncy castle.
Bouncy castles manifest so many aspects commonly used to describe fun: softness, weightlessness, separation from the ground, activity, movement, superficiality and not-quite realness. However Jumping Castle War Memorial is far from a frivolous affair; it is a monument to the genocide of displaced people. Each part of the work is chosen carefully to reflect the dark history it aims to negotiate. The incorporation of a traditional pattern used by the artist’s own Wiradjuri people is paired with a portentous central black figure reminiscent of Soviet statuary.
This work uses fun ostensibly to promote participation and inclusivity, drawing viewers in to interact with the very ominous inflatable. While skulls might shake in the turrets, we are still lured in by its soft form and the promise of a bounce. Andrew suggests the seductive figure of levity draws in hostile parties to a political discussion. The subject matter is so uncomfortable that the artist seeks to ease the pain. The sweet nothing softens up the viewer, giving them a dose of laughing gas before it tries to pull the tooth. Drawing on the history of the circus and sideshows to investigate the displacement of communities, fun becomes the theme of the work, acting as a metaphor for the separation from the ‘real’ suffered by marginalized people.
Jumping Castle War Memorial, after drawing us in, interrogates what is covered up when we enter into the realm of floaty-fun-land. We become aware that fun is part of larger negotiations of power, bringing into discussion fun’s relationship to the politics of exclusion. The effect is a tension between the inclusivity the work seems to offer and the historical narrative of marginalization. We are not sure if by bouncing we are part of the solution or if we are being used as an aesthetic example of the forgetting the work seeks to critique. The initial enjoyment offered leads to a kind of entrapment. The contrivance of fun in this artwork comes off as almost deceptive and reminds me of a rigged sideshow game.
The modus of Jumping Castle War Memorial proposes the experience of fun as distraction, an icebreaker, relying on the assumption that political issues are defined by seriousness, and that fun can be useful insofar as it a way to lure people into an uncomfortable dialogue. While it is important to understand how fun has been employed to manipulate visibility of political subjects and to distribute power, this work seems to constrain fun as a purely thematic. We are not engaging the political nature of the work as we jump; we are only engaging it when we think about those who jump. The political nature of the fun in itself and of beings experiencing fun is absent in the designation of fun as a means of diversion.
Why must the enjoyment of fun be held hostage as distraction? What the insistence on the frivolity of fun denotes is a deep underestimation of its ontologically political nature.
In his poem A Sane Revolution, D.H. Lawrence laments the unbearable seriousness of politics. What he saw as the blaring atrocity of socialism was its dogmatic vision, which was so ideological that it squeezed out all joy from life. The poem, while by no means a masterpiece of form, is brilliantly revolutionary, calling to arms not ideology but possibility.
Don’t do it (revolution) for equality,
do it because we’ve got too much equality
and it would be fun to upset the apple-cart
and see which way the apples would go a-rolling.
do it because we’ve got too much equality
and it would be fun to upset the apple-cart
and see which way the apples would go a-rolling.
When he ends the poem with “Let’s make a revolution for fun!”, Lawrence is acknowledging the huge potential that is ignored by the assumption that politics must be engaged with a serious face.
Historically fun has been used again and again in the pursuit of political aims. The politics of the sixties was tuned in to the mobilizing power of fun. Charismatic trickster messiahs moved thousands of young people into joyous political presence. The Youth International Party, Yippies, under their leader Pigasus the Immortal, a pig, sought to radically redefine the manner in which political life could be engaged. Instead of frustrated communists and lethargic hippies, the Yippies motto was “Energy – fun – fierceness – exclamation point!” Move over Marxists, here come the Groucho Marxists. Who were breaking the glass, picking up the Ming vase of politics and playing hot potato with it.
While they might of failed at overturning the government they rallied against, what these manifestations succeeded at was the constitution of new political subjectivities through visibility. Politics for the Yippies was enabled and acted through liveliness and joy, radically divorcing political activity from seriousness.
This subversion of expected forms of political engagement calls to mind Jacques Ranciere’s third thesis on politics, in which he asserts that not only does politics require the disruption of normal distributions of power but:
“It also requires a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions ‘proper’ to such classifications.”
In this way, the Yippies formed a new way of being political, upsetting the idea that politics ought to be serious and that ‘proper’ political engagement had to be played out by the rules of the institution. They created an aesthetic moment of politics where the potential for joyous revolt was visualized by large-scale festival-like occupation of public space. They hijacked the distribution of the sensible, which Ranciere asserts is “It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience.” The people became visible by dancing, shouting, and playing in the park. The sheer scale and undeniable vivacity of the movements banged down the doors of the political institution, not only demanding a seat at the adult’s table, but dragging the table out into the park. Politics became an experience enacted aesthetically through fun. Ultimately what I think these movements succeeded most at was recognizing that the essence of fun itself was brilliantly suited to the exercise of politics.
The nature of fun is deeply political, because it is those actions, provocations and movements, which desire no discrete result. Without struggle politics ceases to exist and at the point of unipolar consensus crumbles into utopian totalitarianism, and equally so fun dies in resolution. The fun is in the game not on the winner’s podium. Fun exists in activities that do not seek resolution; fun does not have an end game. The notion that fun is something that is had over and over again without the hope of a final satisfaction reveals radically democratic possibilities.
A different bouncy castle artwork, which shares so many characteristics of Jumping Castle War Memorial, starts to investigate these potentials. Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege (2012), the huge bouncy rendition of Stonehenge, while much less contentious, offers a Felix the Cat bag of possibilities. Deller hijacks the ubiquitous and unnegotiable image of Stonehenge and gives it back to the people, not as an object of reverence but instead as a space of action. The play space created flaunts the solid unmoving realness of the world and allows us to imagine new ways of being in it. It allows us to interact with the silent stones in a manner probing whether the people have the right to engage with history in a lively way. Rather than being excluded from our lives and held up as an image of veneration, we are encouraged to jump all over history. The work constitutes a demos of jumping active bodies, who are given a voice to interact with the solidity of history.
While the two works might seem very difficult to distinguish, what I see as a fundamental aspect of their difference is the necessity of the bouncing demos to the conception of the artwork. Jumping Castle War Memorial engages its ideas purely through its being as an object; imagining jumping on the monument is substantial to the discussion of it’s aims. This logic is proved by the fact that three days into its exhibition bouncing on the work was banned, due to the damage being caused by the activity, but the work remained on display. On the other hand, Sacrilege comes into being as an artwork only when there are bouncing bodies interacting with it, without interaction it would be meaningless. In Sacrilege fun goes beyond being a theme of the work and instead becomes the work. Fun is not a metaphor for forgetting: fun is living. Bouncing on the imposing form of Britain’s ancient and overwhelmingly static monument asks questions about how can we play with history, and how can it serve us. Frivolity becomes a radical act of defiance.
Another distinction between Deller’s bouncy castle and Andrew’s, is that Sacrilege doesn’t pursue a discrete end. Jumping Castle War Memorial uses fun as an entry point to find a solution to the negotiation of a painful past. It seeks a consensus, between the dominant histories and the untold ones. In seeking this consensus it fails in both its engagement with the experience of fun as an action proper to politics and in embodying a truly democratic approach. As Chantal Mouffe prescribes, in order to truly engage society’s democratic potential the “…search for a consensus without exclusion and the hope for a perfectly reconciled and harmonious society have to be abandoned.” Sacrilege, on the other hand, invites us to play and play and play and bounce endlessly on the image of sacred history, and as such becomes an aesthetic representation of the political power of the people. It also encourages a system of constant action and negotiation through fun, mimicking the methodology of radical democratic action, which denies consensus as its aim.
Fun avoids a consensus, and insists instead on possibility. This is also present in the word itself, which has an infinite and unquantifiable nature. We can’t have ‘one fun please’, or ‘six funs’ but we are constantly considering our ‘pleasures in life’, constraining them to a calculable existence. Unquantifiable things, which are by extension uncontrollable, are thoroughly threatening to systems that function through the code of checks and balances. And this is exactly how fun can be wrangled by art to create dynamic political work.
Blythe, Mark. Hassenzahl, Marc. 2003. “The Semantics of Fun: Differentiating Enjoyable Experiences.” In Funology, edited by Mark Blythe, Kees Overbeeke, Andrew Monk & Peter Wright, 277-291. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Hoffman, Abbie. 1968. Revolution For the Hell of It, page 81. Dial Press
Lawrence, D. H. 1929. A Sane Revolution.
Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics.
Neville, R. Play Power, 1971. London: Paladin
Ranciere, Jacques. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics.
Ranciere, Jacques. 2001. Ten Theses on Politics.
 Blythe, Mark. Hassenzahl, Marc. 2003. “The Semantics of Fun: Differentiating Enjoyable Experiences.” In Funology, edited by Mark Blythe, Kees Overbeeke, Andrew Monk & Peter Wright, 277-291. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
 Blythe, Mark. Hassenzahl, Marc. 2003.
 “…I find that when you talk about issues that are a bit too political, I find that there is no freedom of discourse..” Andrews as quoted in transcribed artist talk,
 Hoffman, Abbie. 1968. Revolution For the Hell of It, page 81. Dial Press
 Ranciere, Jacques. 2001. Ten Theses on Politics.
 Ranciere, Jacques. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics. page 13
 “The one who speaks when s/he is not to speak, the one who part-takes in what s/he has no part in — that person belongs to the demos.” Jacques Ranciere, 2001. Ten Theses on Politics.
 Mouffe, Chantal. 2013. Agonistics. Page 12