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How do we reclaim irony from extremists? 

Anyone who sees anything other than irony in the work of the painter Rein Dool, completely unknown to me until now (as the painter also described it in an item on TV), has not been paying close attention in literature and art history lectures. Rein Dool painted a portrait of the then Executive Board of Leiden University in 1974. We see a series of surly white men, cigar-smoking and smugly clustered around a table. Typical of the way a leftist student of the time viewed the top bosses: more of a caricature than a Night Watch of the 20th century, and sporting of the College to have let this cartoon hang all this time.

Until someone got fed up last week, and under the guise of 'being against smoking and old, possibly white men', asked for the removal of the painting from the meeting room where she so often had to face it. The curtain was removed, put against the wall and the riot was there. Everyone angry, and Meanwhile, the canvas is back in place waiting for further developments in this rather hilarious soap opera.

'Ironic message'

What is tantalising about this whole thing is that the first complainant to tweet about the painting, a PhD student, asked if there couldn't be a sign next to the painting with an "ironic or somewhat self-critical" message on it. In other words: could someone put an ironic message next to an obviously ironic painting? Or: could someone decapitate the irony of the painting with an ironic comment? Because that's what you do in such a case: by hanging an ironic message next to it, you deny the irony of the canvas itself.

Now, irony has been around a bit, ever since the extremists among gamers gathered on 4Chan and quacked all kinds of racist and violence-glorifying nonsense on the message board, only to report, if someone said it wasn't nice, that it was 'meant to be ironic'. This was the infamous 'gamergate', to which some have even attributed the rise of Trump.

Dog whistle

In the Netherlands, the Leiden 'PhD' Thierry Baudet has introduced that fact of the extreme right into the political mainstream. Shouting something, for example about the Holocaust, and then saying during the resulting popular outrage that it was meant to be ironic. That way you can get away with anything and meanwhile let your initiated followers know that their evil message has been heard and passed on (dog whistle).

This has put irony, the brilliant stylistic device of people like William Shakespeare, in the dock. Because irony has now become something to be named. An image, in the world defined by extremes, is always just what it is. Layering is absent in a time when memes on social media have to do their job in a split second. Then you cannot take a closer look and have a considered opinion on it, because you have to quickly hit a like or retweet button to avoid missing another highlight.

Image is truth

With that, a generation of twenty-somethings now seems to have emerged, with every image at 'face value' judge, and who, even if they have to look at something for many days, no longer wonder about the why of the creator's brushstrokes. The picture could not be more ironic, so it is the truth, and the smoke bothers you, because we also agreed in advertising that smoking should not be shown. The latter is absolutely right, but that has nothing to do with the ironic message of the painting.

Should there then be a sign next to it explaining that the canvas is meant to be ironic, but in the historical sense of the word, or: with great respect for the subject there a slightly mocking, possibly self-deprecating key to it? Is it apparently impossible to see in the world depicted no longer a realistic depiction of present reality, but a contemporary's commentary on something from the past?

Reader's question

Whether you like or dislike the canvas, and whether you haven't slowly but surely grown bored of it after 60 years: all legitimate reasons to replace it once with something more to your taste. By denying its irony, the plaintiff indicates that he no longer possesses the wide vision and visual imagination that we have accumulated over centuries of human development.

Unfortunately, the extremists have now hijacked the word and permanently flipped the meaning to something very nasty. How can we reclaim it? I'd love to hear you talk about that.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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