[ Last summer my MFA class was tasked with predicting what in five years we would describe as the quintessential art of 2014. What, with the benefit of hindsight, will today’s art world look like? It’s an interesting, albeit quixotic, mind game. Here were my thoughts. ]
Identifying trends in your field is simply part of being a professional. Assessing whether your work is relevant to society at large or whether it relates only to special interest groups is a key part of marketing your work. It is also a tall order for individuals whose vocation encourages sustained periods of studio hibernation. I am, however, certain that our struggle for sincerity will eventually be seen as one of this decade’s key concerns. Our preoccupation with irony as a paradoxical path to honesty permeates both pop culture and high art.
To be fair, this irony could be defined as a mere subset of a larger postmodern paradigm. Hal Foster argues in his essay “Postmodernism in Parallax” that “our consciousness of a period not only comes after the fact; it is also always in parallax” (6). This statement does not just remind us hindsight’s usefulness when summarizing a time period. Foster’s reference to parallax suggests that, as with the parallax that accompanies looking through a camera’s viewfinder, any distance from historical events inevitably distorts how we see them. Every description of the past is a caricature, because our understanding of the past is filtered through our own paradigms. What we investigate, emphasize, or omit about history reveals as much about us as it does about the past.
As Arthur C. Danto declared in After the End of Art nearly a decade ago, “It is part of what defines contemporary art that the art of the past is available for such use as artists care to give it….The paradigm of the contemporary is that of the collage” (5). Employing historical references is a natural outgrowth of this point of view, but Danto stopped short of saying how artists would care to collage history. What happens when many artists rely upon what they consider flawed signifiers? One inevitable effect of reusing faulty symbols is that the results range from sarcastic to vitriolic.
Contemporary artists display Danto’s subversive collage aesthetic to varying degrees. Kehinde Wiley is known for merging visual iconography from different eras. Since the early 2000s, his figurative paintings have forced viewers to trace layers of similarity and dissonance between the past and present, black and white, aristocracy and hip hop, and machismo and floridity. The poses and backgrounds in Wiley’s figurative paintings derive from a canon of portraits calculated to emphasize the sitter’s financial, political, or spiritual power. Since that tradition was applied almost exclusively to rich white men, Wiley’s use of this visual vocabulary in portraits of black men wearing street clothes is deeply ironic. What elevates his art beyond throwaway jokes is the fact that this anachronistic formula emphasizes a network of similarities in how male power has been signified within these two groups. True resemblance and pointed invention form a wry, postcolonial whole.
Whereas Wiley’s paintings merge the contemporary and the historical, Kara Walker uses visual norms from the past to tell faux-historical narratives. Her cutouts refer directly to silhouette book illustration and racism in the mid-nineteenth century. If viewed uncritically, these artworks and her acclaimed 2014 show at Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory reinforce racism by repeating stereotypes. That literal view would be a profound misunderstanding of her work. As Walker said during a 2003 interview, “The illusion is that it’s about past events, the illusion is that it’s simply about a particular point in history and nothing else” (Art21). This double-take is an essential aspect of her work.
The irony in Walker’s and Wiley’s artwork is embedded in art objects and their interpretation, but a related theme in contemporary art is that of the pseudonymous artist in her many permutations. Artists such as Nikki S. Lee, Cindy Sherman, and Yasumasa Morimura create identity art for a plethora of fictional selves.
At first glance, all three seem to present the same game of self-transformation. Each artist’s oeuvre relies upon the artist illustrating the fluid nature of identity. Sherman’s photographs are by far the best known within the United States, but Morimura’s transformations into Hollywood starlets are significant for their ironic references to race and gender. Unlike Sherman and Morimura, Lee’s photographs eschew one-time transformations for sustained performances in each persona. She observes that “I make a kind of art that seems very simple at first, but once you peel off the layers you find many stories inside it” (Lee). Her photographs as a group demonstrate the oddly social aspect of defining individuality. Each artist’s sustained output comprises a sincere pretense.
Wiley and Walker create fictional histories to comment on the present day. Lee, Sherman, and Morimura make their personas into art. A third and final category of sincerely ironic artists are those who create fictional selves to whom they attribute entire bodies of work. In music, Janelle Monáe creates concept albums from her futuristic, android alter-ego of Cindi Mayweather. Her albums’ primary theme is the experience of being the Other. Discussing the experience of alienation by means of an invented minority makes that experience equally intersectional with all of today’s marginalized groups. It is also an example of this phenomenon of sincerity through irony that so characterizes contemporary art.
As suggested by earlier references to Danto and Foster, academics have been writing about this increasingly ironic attitude towards history for some time. In the early eighties, Jean Baudrillard described a world in which “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” (Simulacra and Simulation 2). He describes a world in which sincere directness is less meaningful than what he terms simulation. As he opines, “the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation” (Baudrillard 16). His observations have only become more poignant in the succeeding years.
This ties in neatly to Foster’s “Postmodernism in Parallax.” His 1993 examples of “dis/connection” now read as quaint harbingers of today’s complicated addiction to technology (Foster 19). Whereas Danto characterizes the contemporary aesthetic as one of collage, Foster states that “To me the postmodern subject is constructed by…splittings” (20). Each of the artists’ work presented thus far fulfills Foster’s prediction that “These are moments of traumatic division, to be sure, but as such they are also moments when impossible identifications become possible” (20). Irony became the ambiguous means by which to bridge these schisms.
Several years after Foster’s essay and many years after Baudrillard’s book, Nicolas Bourriaud’s “Relational Aesthetics” picked up this idea once more. Bourriaud states that “the imaginary of our period is concerned with negotiations, links and coexistence” (166). As he claimed in the late nineties, “the central themes are being-together…, the ‘encounter’ between viewer and painting, and the collective elaboration of meaning” (Bourriaud 161). In this way, he emphasizes the ideal of art as a collaboration between artist and viewer. Claire Bishop summarizes his view of the matter as that “relational art works seek to establish intersubjective encounters (be those literal or potential) in which meaning is elaborated collectively” (54). Viewers are empowered in this process to bring their own systems of association and judgment to the artwork (rather than meekly working to decipher what the artist deigns to tell them). The work Bourriaud describes is significantly different than that of Wiley, Walker, or Sherman, but the ambiguity of meaning in their art does encourage viewers to participate in its interpretation.
This collective creation of meaning is not always as desirable as Bourriaud’s essay implies. Baudrillard’s text warns of the pitfalls of ironic performances when they are interpreted literally. As he explains, “Parody renders submission and transgression equivalent, and that is the most serious crime, because it cancels out the difference upon which the law is based” (Baudrillard 21). Walker’s creation of an enormous sugar sphinx is not racist because it was designed by a black woman knowingly employing flawed signifiers. When white viewers leeringly point to and pose with the hypersexualized aspects of this sphinx, they fail to strike the same balance. For all its promise, ironic art is not foolproof.
Sincere irony is the contemporary artistic mode. Academics have been predicting this phenomenon for decades. Why is this oxymoron of irony and sincerity so poignant at this moment in the United States? Walker, Sherman, and Monáe are famous for artwork created in this vein, but the sheer demand for their work stems from this postmodern zeitgeist. Nor is this version of irony limited to the arts. Hipster culture is an equally valid example. Middle class twenty-somethings ironically wear blue-collar fashions like plaid flannel. The DIY revolution shows no signs of abating. In a particularly surreal twist, music lovers compete to become fans of the most obscure bands.
Hipster culture is strongly linked to the Occupy movement. Amorphous as the Occupy movement is, one of its recurring themes is outrage at the increasing economic stratification in our ostensibly egalitarian nation. Part of irony is, after all, a sharp contrast between expectations and outcomes. A cultural hunger for ironic sincerity is a natural outgrowth of this concatenation of socioeconomic divides, economic downturns, and an idealistic generation. Only time will show whether or not this generation will be successful. Until and unless we are, expect art to be ironic.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.
Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October. Vol. 110. Fall 2004: 51-80. Print.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. “Relational Aesthetics.” Participation. Ed. Claire Bishop. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. Print.
Danto, Arthur C. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.
Foster, Hal. “Postmodernism in Parallax.” October. Vol. 63.Winter 1993: 3-20. Print.
“Nikki S. Lee.” The Creators Project. Online video clip. Intel and Vice, n.d. Web. 7 August 2014.
Walker, Kara. Interview. “Stories.” Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 2. Online video clip. PBS, 9 Sept. 2003. Web. 2 August 2014.