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 You better become acquainted with the already-outdated moniker’s attendant signifier first: Irony.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.