Sebastian Jung’s skeptical activism

Wolfgang Ullrich

The concept behind Sebastian Jung’s drawings, and their most striking feature, consists in pushing contrasts to the extreme. His drawings, which have been a large part of his artistic activities for some years now, generally take the form of series, each one dealing with tough subjects: political conflicts, social dislocations, economic distress. To create his works, Jung goes to places or events where things are especially problematic and draws “live” there. Unlike most people, who take pictures and videos using a camera or smartphone, Jung steers clear of iconographies of scandalization. Instead, he creates distance between the viewer and the rough and tumble – indeed, often the brutality – of reality by depicting it in his drawings as something whimsical, sometimes even a bit comical or even downright cute. His stripped-down lines pare away the rest to reveal the aggression present in many demonstrations, the greed, loneliness, or fear of people in a shopping frenzy, or the misery of homeless people. This creates a stark contrast between the subjects and the ways in which they are depicted, and viewing the drawings evokes very different feelings all at once: triggered by the intensity of the specific subject, impressed by the courage of the artist, who often places himself in dangerous situations when drawing, amused by curling lines and skewed proportions, by a fundamentally comical impression given by the people in the drawings.

But what is the meaning of this contradiction? In a conversation with art and media scholar Annekathrin Kohout, Jung complained in February 2020 that today’s society is “evidently not very tolerant of ambiguity.” He aimed to fight that, he said. Jung thinks it is cool to be able to “put up with contradictions” and “entertain opposites” to be able to free oneself in the end, experiencing a kind of autonomy.1

These kinds of beliefs are reminiscent of some strains in classical philosophy. In Pyrrhonism, for example, a school of philosophical skepticism, the goal was to set things with pronounced effects on each other in opposition in order to create a kind of impasse and thereby reach greater independence. Sextus Empiricus, a philosopher writing in the second century AD, the author of the best-known works on the philosophy of Pyrrhonist skepticism, defines skepticism as “the art of setting things that appear and things that are thought in any possible way against each other, from where we arrive first, due to the equivalence between the contrasting things and arguments, at restraint and then at equanimity.”2

Jung is not interested in equanimity, but he is interested in creating paradox between a serious subject and the distorted way it is depicted to spark a kind of consideration that goes beyond ideological bias.

The process of drawing should be viewed for Jung himself as first and foremost an exercise in skepticism. Since he is by no means politically neutral, it is always a challenge for him to go to a demonstration where he may feel that individual – or even all – groups are his opponents, or even to visit a department store or a trade fair although he is repulsed by the cynicism of what is on offer there. Through drawing, though, he can transcend his own reluctance, pushing beyond purely negative, paralyzing emotions. The rapid sequence of his drawings allows him to find a rhythm, carving out an independence from what he is observing.

Viewing Jung’s drawings, one is immediately struck by the fact that there are many pages devoted to each place or event, creating a sense of the immediacy of the artist’s observances. But because the drawings are not bound to any sense of realism – in that Jung does not even intend them as accusations, protests, or caricatures of his own – they open up the opportunity for greater awareness of one’s own ideological fixations. In fact, Jung tests the audience, seeing whether we can let go of our fixed opinions, finally leaving behind the often knee-jerk overreactions they engender and perceiving things clearly.

A moment of surprise and alienation like this can be enough to cool down a societal “hotspot” a bit and unlock new possibilities of action. There are other factors that contribute to this. Not only does Jung depict different players and groups within a single series, but he also chooses a broad range of environments as his subjects, especially when we look at multiple series. He might draw a COVID denier protest once, and then another time turn his eye to those blockading the protest in turn. His drawings feature “concerned citizens” from both the left and right, people from the Black Lives Matter movement, and antifa activists alike. The result is that groups that are sympathetic to the audience, or to which the viewer might even belong, are all portrayed equally as a collection of slightly bizarre figures with exaggerated facial expressions and clumsy extremities, just like those advocating completely different views. And can’t we just laugh at that, for once? In fact, laughing is healthy. It loosens things up. It’s the best way to fight rigidity and a tendency to circle the wagons. It lays the foundations of ideological criticism.

That makes Jung’s drawings anti-populist, but above all, they contrast with the activist imagery that dominates the scene today. Instead of simply reaffirming existing beliefs and targeting those who already share them in a bid to reinforce their feelings of solidarity, Jung’s drawings are a variation on the centuries-old tradition of harnessing art for diplomatic purposes. Peter Paul Rubens, for example, notably created works used during peace negotiations, in which allegorical and ambiguous depictions opened up wide latitude for interpretation so the opposing sides could use them as a way to achieve a tentative, noncommital rapprochement in their talks.3

Since Jung’s drawings serve as the point of departure for texts and statements within the think tanks he has initiated, in which he gathers together people from all different walks of life in terms of profession and worldview, they can have a similar effect of loosening rigid structures, providing impetus and paving the way to greater understanding. Instead of ambiguity, however, Jung uses distancing effects to create a sense of relief and release. Thus there is hope that when we look beyond all the ideological and emotional conflicts around us, we can gain a clearer view of the social and economic imbalances Jung highlights in his drawings. And that gives those imbalances a political or activist dimension in their own right. The more they help to change people’s perceptions – and ultimately also their actions – the more they will come to embody a kind of skeptical activism that is new in this form.

1 Kohout, Annekathrin (2020). “Kunst und Empathie: Interview mit Sebastian Jung über Einkaufen, Traurigkeit, Rechtspopulismus, Ostdeutschland, Kunstfreiheit.” Accessed on March 19, 2021, at

2 Empiricus, Sextus (1985). Grundriss der pyrrhonischen Skepsis, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, p. 94.

3 Heinen, Ulrich (2016). “Der Stil des Politischen. Das zivile Leben als sein Grund, sein Merkmal und seine Norm um 1600.” In: Dietrich Erben & Christine Tauber (Ed.), Politikstile und die Sichtbarkeit des Politischen in der Frühen Neuzeit. Passau: Klinger, pp. 129–156.