Essays

Why Irony is Healthy

by Kyle Chayka on November 20, 2012

Tatiana Berg, “Birthday” (Image courtesy the artist)

Are you or have you ever considered becoming a hipster? You better become acquainted with the already-outdated moniker’s attendant signifier first: Irony. You have to eat it. You have to breathe it. You have to put a kitschy magnet of it on your fridge and iron it on to a jacket. Irony, or, as the dictionary might have it, using words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of their literal meaning, has become a cultural brushfire, burning down everything in its path and leaving only a strewn landscape of re-appropriated objects and rehashed linguistic trash.

Mark Hensley’s “Anonymous Grief” (nd) is an example of ironic work by a Brooklyn artist from the 2008 Bushwick Open Studios. (photo via flickr.com/hragvartanian)

Or that’s what some would have us think. Christy Wampole, an assistant professor of French at Princeton University attacks hipsterdom and irony in a piece for the New York Times‘s Opinion section. “Irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt,” she argues, and ironic living “bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat.” Brace yourselves:

If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise?

Wampole charges that our inner lives have become occupied by the detritus of past trends and cultural cul-de-sacs that hipsters excavate, “foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream” and bringing it back to the surface. The illustrations that go along with Wampole’s piece show stereotypical hipsters in trucker hats, a once-sincere (I guess) signifier that became adopted by the cool class.

Andy Warhol, “Turquoise Marilyn” (Image courtesy superflygallery.com)

Let’s get one thing straight — irony as an overwhelming ideology, a dominant way of thinking or aesthetic paradigm, isn’t cool. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here at all. Culture, whether that’s visual art, fashion, or writing, has always been about digging up the hidden gems and reference points of the past and bringing them to light in a new way. It’s always been about proudly adapting your influences.

Even if Wampole doesn’t approve of this scavenging, it would still be crazy to think that good art has always driven wholly by sincerity, which the writer seems to pose as the polar opposite of her hated enemy. Irony, far from being a scourge, is a healthy, powerful element of any personality or artistic expression.

Andy Warhol’s Pop, exemplified in his Flower screenprints or his acrid, overexposed Marilyns and celebrity portraits, turned irony into a blood sport. His use of gold paint to surround Monroe, a take-off on Russian icon painting (how’s that for foraging?), was meant to deify and degrade simultaneously. Richard Prince’s Nurse and Joke Paintings use irony as a tool for deconstruction and evasion, perfectly valid artistic strategies that lead to uncomfortable truths: I find those works powerful not because they’re deceitful, but because they confront me with the prevalence of vapidness and the rocky pursuit of originality. They’re difficult.

Irony “allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices,” Wampole writes. That’s not really true — irony is a less direct, more complex method of communication than superficial honesty or transparency might prove to be. But there’s a responsibility and a weight to that complexity and the choice to use it, and that weight, its particular emotional spin, can sometimes prove useful, in life as well as in art.

Richard Artschwager, “Description of a Table” (1964) (Image via Whitney Museum)

Currently on view at the Whitney museum is a retrospective of the artist Richard Artschwager, whose play with materials and exploration of the semiotics and painting and sculpture is nothing if not ironic. That’s certainly not a bad thing. His “Description of a Table” (1964) is a laminate-on-plywood three-dimensional composition that represents that ideal of the object, a rectangular wooden form draped with a white table cloth. But it is also not a table; it’s an artwork. It refers to and away from itself, displaying an ambivalence to boundaries and categories that is a unique capacity of irony, one that Wampole seems either to forget or despise.

Amy Feldman, “Ever After” (2010) (Image courtesy Sharon Butler)

Look also at the abstraction painting of the New Casualists, a group characterized by Sharon Butler as having a “studied, passive-aggressive incompleteness” and a disregard for easy communication that might be covered by the umbrella of “irony.” Amy Feldman’s sloppy, simple, silhouetted shapes split the difference between ironic and sincere, preferring slipperiness to sure statement. Where the Abstract Expressionists had a strict, sincere ideology, Tatiana Berg’s painting has an indiscriminancy among genre and source material, ranging through Modernism, figuration, and the imagery of contemporary cartoons and video games. The detached humor isn’t a bad thing.

Wampole’s piece exhorts us to “determine whether the ashes of irony have settled on you as well,” and if we find them there, to sweep them away. I guess I would rather not.

I guess I no longer understand the line between irony and non-irony, between sincerity and sarcasm. Maybe instead, it’s just an aesthetic continuum, where sincerity can continue to have its lofty perch at one end of the spectrum and the blackest of morbid humor can anchor the other? It would be more fun that way.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • JosephYoung

    i might speculate that prejudice–writing off whole swaths of people, their opinions and ideas, because of their t-shirts–is also a pretty deadening sport.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kyle-Chayka/1710811 Kyle Chayka

      Right, the NYT article in itself is so deadpan and one-sided that it totally fails as a subtle argument. It’s just polemic.

  • Emily_Colucci

    I actually found Wampole’s article to be really on point. She’s certainly made a few people uncomfortable which makes me think she really hit on something. While I am also guilty of some ironic hipster-ness, I think the overabundance and normalization of irony and re-appropriation has made it oh-so-boring. With irony being how we approach everything from ads to art to clothes, sincerity seems to be the ultimate transgression. I always look to John Waters as the best example of sincerity as subversion-he generally does love all the trashy, godawful things and people in his movies and books. Just read Why I Love Christmas.

    I’d also argue that Warhol is not being ironic with the Marilyn paintings or actually most if any of his work. He, like John Waters, reveled in American and celebrity culture and celebrated it in all its vacuous glory.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      My biggest concern is if Wampole is wearing this dress non-ironically then there are obviously bigger issues she should explore in her own life: http://www.princeton.edu/fit/people/display_person.xml?netid=cwampole&display=All#justsayin

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kyle-Chayka/1710811 Kyle Chayka

      If you define irony by “saying one thing but meaning another or multiple things” then Warhol is certainly using irony in his work. Sure, he celebrates vacuity sincerely, but there’s a darker undercurrent that I think suggests other meanings. I also don’t really see how re-appropriation is confused with irony in Wampole’s article — not all appropriation is ironic, as you pointed out.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Yes, but see, John Waters is a great example and exactly the reason why Wampole’s piece is, to me, so wrong. To write off everyone who dresses a certain way as insincere is ridiculous to the point of being offensive. I know people who dress “costume-like” (her words) because that’s how they want to dress, because they like it. People who home brew because they want to home brew. People who listen to records because they love the sound of records. I know so many people who are sincere and passionate about things in their lives, whether those things are fixed-gear bikes or not! We’ve had the hipster argument so many times, and Wampole is just reviving and regurgitating all the old cliches.

  • C.J. Stahl

    Irony can be a useful tool as you have stated, such is the case in Andrea Fraser’s contribution to the upcoming group show at Leo Koenig, Inc, a single channel video where she delivers a drunken speak from Martin Kippenberger citing “the wisdom of the Shakespearean jester, or fool.”

    Wampole tends to overlook the fact that Hipsterdom, “or whatever”, is just as version of popular culture and not really reflective of substantial cultural production that people like artists take incredibly seriously, even when using the tactic of irony. Although it makes use of the aesthetic of subculture, Hipsterdom could be likened to Kierkegaard’s concept of Christiandom, completely devoid of self reflexivity in a true sense, that would obviously expose its temporal condition.

    Its just pop culture. Sure it should be mocked in our hearts and obviously not internalized.

  • alan semerdjian

    I haven’t read Wampole’s article…but I certainy will. I was drawn to Kyle’s piece because of its title (and the fact that it exists here on Hyperallergic, a space that, I’m realizing, is more than just a collection of reviews about art). Irony has always both bothered and enticed me. Let me explain.

    In private circles and among my bestest friends and closest co-makers of art, irony was always (especially when we were younger) part of the communication. It infiltrated our narratives, made us laugh and dig and reflect. It existed as a small part of the family dialogue as well, which was, for me, mostly in (western) Armenian. But there was a distance between me and irony. Perhaps the fact that the ironic statements a relative would make were in Armenian and English was my “go to” language created a certain rift between the delivery and the reception of the sentiment…I’m not sure. And with regard to my closest circle of friends and co-makers, yes, the distance was there too as I got older and more engaged with my work as an educator and my responsibilities as a poet and essayist and songwriter and occasional visual and performance art maker. It seemed not to suffice anymore. Irony was play and not work. The lover or the affair and not the true partner or spouse. I still loved its sinewy shoulders and dark tresses though. And how it makes us feel alive and other. I will always love those things.

    Here’s the thing. I get the power of the sword, how it cuts and creates. I study Voltaire with my students. It’s splendid. Amazing. But it was born out of necessity. Of the time. I keep asking myself what is urgent now? What needs to be said today? What’s the innovation/where’s the risk that will make us reflect in the kind of ways in which we need to reflect? And with so much dialectic conversation, we may lose sight of what is actually important in the universe, which is, of course, different for everyone. But what’s the thread that runs through these things?

    So I guess I’m still trying to say something so serious and so real that even the most authentic purveyors of hipster idealogy (and its “warmths,” its true merits) will feel is impossible to deny. Paint the truest picture, however abstract or manipulated. Digging in the private and intimate to produce something public, political even…someone told me that’s what Adrienne Rich did as a poet, what, perhaps David Bazan does as a songwriter, and what resonates for all of us when the din dies down.

    Thanks for writing/posting/sharing.

    Alan Semerdjian

    NYC

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kim-Matthews/586667086 Kim Matthews

    Ah, youth. In my day, we were just as kitschy and insecure and painfully self-aware and used irony as a shield. The only difference is that MTV was brand-new and there was no internet, so the memes were a lot slower.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rlauderdale Ryan Lauderdale

    This irony/sincerity oscillation has been going on for a decade it seems now, and I think it defines the younger generation of makers …..”the new sincerity”. These guys have posited a new paradigm-shift they’re calling “metamodernism” that speaks to the in-between state of things like irony/sincerity.
    Worth a read:
    http://www.metamodernism.com/2010/10/24/notes-on-metamodernism/

Previous post:

Next post: