Between Irony & Sincerity






In this essay I shall be discussing whether or not it is possible for a contemporary artist to be sincere. Post-modernism has taken irony for its own, meaning it has become unstable in an artistic culture of anti-sincerity and meta-ironies. This text will also articulate that it is not solely a certain style(s) one can consider sincere. The irony that post-modernism uses has become the opposite of sincerity, a place in which it does not belong. This text shall also briefly touch upon post-modernism as a free-floating signifier and why this is toxic.


In this essay I shall be covering what it means to be sincere within the contemporary art world, and whether or not it is still possible for an artist to be sincere, without that sincerity being irony through sincerity. I shall also make it clear that there is no correlation between style, zeitgeist and irony. Alongside discussing how post-modernism as a free floating signifier has turned irony and sincerity into opposites.

Chapter 1: Defining Irony & Sincerity

The purpose of this chapter is to articulate to you, the reader what I mean when I say irony and sincerity, to find clear definitions of each before praising or possibly denouncing either. Alongside ironies original definition this chapter will explain the specifics of stable and unstable ironies and what effect they can have on a work of art, or more importantly a work’s meaning.

Chapter 2: Is Sincerity Within the Contemporary Art World Dead?

Within this chapter I shall cover why I believe sincerity within the fine arts has not only disappeared, but is dead, or more specifically has been killed. I shall discuss which art movements I believe unwillingly helped in its death and which movements willingly watched as it passed away.

Chapter 3: The Toxicity of Post-Modernism as a Floating Signifier.

This chapter will explain why I believe the ambiguity of post-modernism has become a toxic force within the arts, especially where irony is concerned. Discussing how post-modernism has skewed original definitions which in turn create instabilities within meaning. Though post-modernism, as contained within everything is up for criticism, I shall explain how its internal-elitism protected by pretentious and pompous language almost creates a non-criticisable movement.

Chapter 4: There is no Correlation between Zeitgeist, Sincerity and Style.

This chapter shall touch upon the presumptions the reader could make from the previous chapter’s ideas on style and sincerity, and will use examples to prove that neither zeitgeist, artistic style nor sincerity have any correlation, and that more specifically no ‘certain’ style is always in-keeping with sincerity.

Chapter 5: Is it no Longer Possible for an Artist to be Sincere?

This chapter, with the foundation of the previous chapters shall now discuss in confidence, why it is I believe it’s no longer possible, or at the very least extremely unfavourable for a contemporary artist to be sincere, that is, without treading into the realms of meta-irony and being ironically sincere, thus proving post-modernism’s ambiguity has caused a troublesome Catch-22 for irony and sincerity.


Irony is the song of a bird that has come to love its cage – Lewis Hyde, 1987

They say the opening sentence of any text is the most important, this being that sentence; an aggravatingly-erudite attempt at very quickly articulating to you, the reader, as to what irony is. This of course being one of two things: a sincere attempt at showing what irony is, or irony in its purest form, not just the first two sentences but this entire paragraph may be an attempt at pure-ironic-articulation of what irony is. Thus we enter into irony’s intricate workings. There is no real concise definition of what irony is, in fact if there was to be such a thing it in itself would be ironic. However this gratuitous rhetoric is of no help, so first we must deconstruct.

In that first paragraph I made it very clear to the reader that not only are they reading a text, but they are also reading the opening sentence, which is declaring that it must be the most important sentence. Now of course, this could be seen as post-modern self-awareness, the line between said awareness and irony is thinner than any metaphorical line should be. The dictionary definition of irony is:

“1. The use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning:

2. Literature.

1. A technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.

2. (especially in contemporary writing) a manner of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., especially as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion.”” – (Irony, 2014)

This is what irony is, at its most basic. A definition shall never be agreed upon. This is a fact the reader must take on board, as something upon which there is no established definition can become toxic. So one must find a modus vivendi for such a situation, enter stable and unstable ironies. Named aptly for their stability and instability when addressed by more than two parties, to paraphrase from Wayne C. Booth’s A Rhetoric of Irony the four marks of a stable irony:

1. They are all intended…they are not mere openings provided unconsciously, or accidental statements.

2. They are all covert, intended to be reconstructed with meanings different from those on the surface.

3. They are all nevertheless stable, once a reconstruction has been made the reader in not then invited to undermine it with further reconstructions…unless they choose to do so on their own.

4. They are all, in some sense, local or limited. – (Booth, 1974)

From these four marks we gather that a stable irony is just that, stable, intended to be there, not intended to be found unless one is sensitive in detecting such a thing and its subject’s scope is limited. For instance: “as pleasant as a root canal” if someone was to say this to you, you would at once recognize two things, the word pleasant, and root canal, and that both are opposites, as in a root canal is not pleasant, thus…irony, a very stable irony.

For an artistic example of irony one has to look no further than Marcel Duchamp, in particular his magnum opus Fountain . There is the irony of course that a urinal is art, which has long since been discussed in intricate detail and thus I shall not bore the reader here, that however is one of the stable ironies at play here, the pre-conceived notion of what art is vs. the vulgarity of a porcelain urinal. Fountain was one of Duchamp’s ready-mades, a collection of objects he found…readymade. This is not where the irony lies however, if one is to look at the table of illustrations, more specifically Fountain, one will realise that the image of the readymade below is actually an image of a replica. In fact all the currently existing Fountains are anything but readymade, they are all replicas. This is a clear example of an irony that is stable, yet not so obvious that it erodes the soul with its banality.

So it becomes clear what a stable irony is, stable ironies however are easier to discuss due to their stability, fact is fact and fiction is messy. Unstable ironies are a more ambiguous matter, for with a stable irony ‘if you and I elect an ironic reading, we shall prove either both right or both wrong (Booth, 1974)’. With a stable irony one has a clear stopping point, I mean to say it is ironic that Duchamp’s existing ready-mades are in fact all replicas, that is a clear stable irony and thus we can either both be wrong or right about it, but to continue down the path or ironic reading would only lead to instability ‘…irony dramatizes each moment by heightening the consequences of going astray (Booth, 1974)’ e.g. the further one ventures into a separate ironic reading the further one may be from the author’s original intention, thus the irony becomes unstable. Anti-art as a whole could, arguably, be called consistently ironically-unstable due to its proclamation that it is not art; therefore it is only in their attack one can begin to consider their work

And so we move towards the calmer seas of sincerity:

1. Freedom from deceit, hypocrisy, or duplicity; probity in intention or in communicating; earnestness. (Sincerity, 2014)

The ease that is sincerity, to be sincere is to whole-heartedly mean what you say, do and present, without tricky-erudition, covert-meaning and a stable ‘image’ that is what it says it is. As simple as if a friend was to open your front door (from the inside) and tell you that it is in fact raining, thus meaning your plans are altered etc. Your friend is being sincere; whereas an ironic or post-modern friend may say something quirky like: “Boy, it sure is looking lovely outside!” (That is, this would be said ironically if it was raining.) To articulate sincerity artistically, John Constable in 1821 painted The Hay Wain a picturesque oil painting of the River Stour between Suffolk and Essex, there is within this painting no furtive brushstrokes, or elitist-clandestinity, no. This is genuinely just a painting of a scene. The image therefore becomes sincere, within its own paradigm it is the truth, and there is no hidden agenda.


The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching…Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. – David Foster Wallace, 1993

One would be lying if they were to say that contemporary galleries today were sincere, when I speak of contemporary art I speak of artists who are currently working and have exhibitions in at least nationally recognized galleries, for some this may seem rather specific, however if one was to include all ‘contemporary’ artists one has to include local watercolour painters and the like, whose efforts are sincere (bless them), they are not however studied at an academic level or renowned for any further advancement of art.

Pre-1960’s the art-world was to a certain degree, still very sincere, yes there were occasionally pieces of significant merit which went on to become aesthetic-martyrs such as Duchamp’s Fountain or the DADA movement as a whole. Before this point the reason for a picture or a work was to sincerely articulate an idea, though sincerity and realism do not go hand in hand, one can be sincere about creating a work with an aesthetically-emotional view in mind (Monet, Van Gogh etc.). Artists such as Monet or Van Gogh however lived in entirely different times to ours, this is unarguable, the times we live in have become fractured and information has become insincere, that’s not to say the times Van Gogh lived in didn’t have their own troubles it only seems that art as a whole is at a loose end, or at least redefinition is becoming more difficult to achieve. There is no more original only refinement. Though to say ‘it’s been done before’ is just a banal platitude.

Let’s take an exhibition pre-1917; one may ask why 1917 and not 1960 as I previously stated, I would argue 1960 was when a more mainstream change to sincerity and artistic values happened, whereas 1917 is when the value changes first started happening. The exhibition in question is Lex Fauves Exhibition at Salon d’Automne (1905), one of the most famous Fauvist exhibitions, if not the Fauvist exhibition including Henri Matisse and Andre Derain to name a couple of artists, I am no expert in Fauvism, this is simply an exercise in taking a random exhibition pre-1917 and assessing its ironic or sincere merit.

The exhibition contained images alike Woman With a Hat of a Fauvist style: painterly qualities and strong colour over realism and representation, though a certain (large, in comparison to post-modernism) amount of realism remains. This, a randomly selected exhibition pre-1917 has no attachment to irony; there is no erudite reason as to why the colours are vibrant, or ironic-deconstruction of representation. One could however argue that pre-1917 there are still leaps to be made within the idea of realism and painting, and that pre-abstract art irony would not have been used gratuitously (if at all) due to basic barriers that were still yet to be crossed within the realms of taboo and aesthetics. One could say these images were some ironic rebuttal against realism, this would be rather pedantic. I would argue that the images were a sincere attempt at something other than realism, the artists are sincere in their semi-impressionist aesthetics; this of course carries across many art movements.

This chapter clearly a vague exercise in proof of the matter that post-1960’s the art world was to a certain degree still sincere, or at least sincere about its insincerity. That last sentence to some may seem rather hypocritical, sincerity however does not have to come in its purest form, only to be sincere, and that the artist is being sincere about something, this is where the new-fangled-unstable irony of post-modernism becomes entirely insincere, they are neither sincere about their insincerity or their irony, as in, they are not sincere about being ironic. Let us take another exhibition example, in this case an exhibition I feel a medium between sincerity and irony:

MOMA’s 1965 exhibition Recent Acquisitions: Assemblage (1965), the exhibition in question a collection of assemblage artworks including Pablo Picasso’s Guitar and Hannah Hӧch’s Indian Dancer, a couple of key names in art history. It is not however the art that interests me, it is what has come from the art, the theory, and one quote especially caught my eye “The question interests me, not the answer. The question is infinity; the answer, too definite…Art for me is the possibility of plurality.” (Bauermeister, 1963) With sincerity you find the definite, with irony you only work with a question, with ambiguity. There still is some sense of sincerity here however, for Bauermeister is being sincere about the plurality she is seeking. One should note that such an example begins the sway of the stability pendulum; there is no mention of irony thus-far, only a certain sincerity of being insincere, a search for the plurality, or duality of meaning. I once gain shall return to E Unibus Pluram for a quote I find favourable, yet antagonistic towards this kind of artistically favourable eruditeness: “the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny” (Foster Wallace, 1993) what I find interesting and relevant about this quote is that Foster Wallace talks of the ability to interdict the question, not actually to deconstruct a pre-existing question. Whereas Foster Wallace talks of the future where questions are created and not answered, Bauermeister is taking a question that may have once had a ‘definite’ and deconstructing to pluralize that definite, however she is acting this out with sincerity, there is no pluralism is her attempts to pluralize. 40 years later in 2005, the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea, New York exhibits the works of Rudolf Stingel, the self-titled exhibition (2005) in near enough an empty [white] space, with the addition of a hyper-realistic portrait of Paula Cooper herself, who was Stingel’s dealer for more than 10 years (at that point in 2005).

“The white floor turns the gallery space into a vast immaculate expanse, which will progressively become stained and mottled under the footsteps of gallery visitors. Stingel’s floor installation transforms our perception of space and the well-known “purity” of the white cube, so ubiquitous in critical discourse on contemporary art in the last 30 years. Overlooking this blank, pristine landscape will be one photorealist painting of Paula Cooper, who has been Stingel’s dealer for more than ten years” (2005 [internet] ) An interesting combination of post-modern meta-theory and the self-awareness of the foundations which helped in the creation of that theory. There are multiple factors of interest at work within Stingel’s installation: Firstly there is the clear absence of art, bar two pieces, firstly: the space, as is said in the gallery statement will noticeably be walked on, thus the space becomes self-aware, the space that usually houses the artwork becomes the art work, a kind of meta-art wherein the foundations housing the ideology or aesthetic become their own. This very quickly causes an instability, for one without knowledge of the gallery statement the viewer may come to believe that there is just the painting and that the artist only intended for it to simply have space, and that the ‘white-space’ (Further reading: Inside the White Cube) as an idea is not part of the work, this though a possibility is pedantic and unlikely. However, once the viewer figures that the white-space is part of the work questions begin to arise which are left unanswered, are their footprints part of the work? Are they, as in the audience, as they are within the ‘space’ part of the work? (This is never a question when the gallery is simply used as means of housing and showing and not articulating the art.) Though these questions may seem interesting, there’s a definite instability here as multiple ironies exist. One could argue the artist is being sincere in their attempts to allow the space to become the work; however a counter-argument would be that Stingel is being insincere, or even ironic about that abstract-sincerity. The second piece within this installation: the painting, also implies another level of self-awareness, though not as ‘meta’ as using the actual foundations of the physical artwork as the art, it does imply the artist is using the non-physical aspects of the artworks existence and placement as the art, as in using an image of the person who in a certain way will have funded his i.e. the artist’s career and created the ability for him to exhibit within this space (i.e. Stingel’s art dealer Paula Cooper). These multiple levels of cognizant process and articulation create an instability between intentional and unintentional irony, which, if an audience member also became aware of could add another layer of confusion, Wayne C Booth once again clears up these seemingly unattached aesthetic and ideological ambiguities: “…brought to profitable terms if critics made clear which kind of contribution they are attempting…redefinition of terms…illumination of meaning…exploration of significance…the final significance of any work might be thought of as the accumulation of what all “private sensibilities” could make of it.” (Booth, 1974) One, again, could argue that post-modernism from the off cast aside ideological underpinnings and thus this exhibition is purely iconoclastic, post-modernism’s escape from the utopian-esque answers of Modernism can only be articulated and perhaps to go as far as to say proven by the manipulation of Modernist ideas, again creating an instability.


A ‘floating signifier’ is word that doesn’t point to any object, or actual agreed upon meaning, I cannot think of anything more apt than post-modernism to fit into this category; a movement which almost prides itself of not having an ideological foundation, and of its iconoclastic values, addressing the fact that its main qualms are with modernism’s ideas of a total or utopian view of the world. The only problem here is that post-modernism can only move forward by referring to those who they are ‘post’ thus, they are creating a new foundation, which is the idea of no foundation, there can never be a ‘non-foundation’ in the same way that a blank manifesto is still a manifesto. Post-modernism as a floating-signifier very quickly becomes toxic, as the term is a constant, especially within the contemporary art world, the term ‘post-modernism’ is in constant use, yet has no clear definition. Of course, no art movement worth its weight within art history could be explained within a page, however most can be explained within 1 book, post-modernism simply cannot be explained due to its lack of inherent explanation; at least the primary objectives of post-modernism cannot be explained in their relation to external movements or theories (often those that they are against). One could argue that nothing can be explained without any relation to past or adjacent ideas, this is true, however once such movements have been articulated they come into their own and are released from their burden of comparison, something which post-modernism has yet to achieve. Art without any footing begins to be interpreted in unstable ways, the lack of post-modernism’s inherent footing is due to the fact that for them to take on any foundation or ideological footing would be entirely hypocritical, thus they become stuck in a catch-22 wherein as soon as they allow a clear interpretation of their work a foundation can be constructed. Thus to call yourself a post-modernist, is only to say that you a ‘creative’ that works after-modernism.

When however the floating signifier that post-modernism is takes something for its own, such as irony, it becomes disjointed such as post-modernism is; so an irony that would have once had a footing; previously discussed by Wayne C. Booth as “…redefinition of terms…illumination of meaning…exploration of significance… the accumulation of what all “private sensibilities” could make of it” (Booth, 1974). One can almost conclude here that post-modernism creates a fragmented idea of irony in that due to its loose ideological foundations the viewer has nothing to grab onto as a reason to interpret the present irony into a stable interpretation of the whatever the pluralism is the artist is trying to address, meaning that not only is the work itself unstable, but post-modernism as a whole becomes unstable.


Thus far in this essay, one would get the impression that there is a certain correlation between sincerity and style, wherein dated (that is dated in terms of post-modern duality of thought) romantic styles and methods e.g. realism, romanticism and expressionism to name just a few are always being sincere about their overarching idea. Pre-1930’s the use of irony or being not-sincere was scarce and un-favoured, at least in the mainstream art world. One could argue that if I was to reference this chapter, there, then the duality of meaning and self-reference of this chapter would in itself become a certain style, which is definitely not of the romantics or realists, yet this chapter is attempting to be sincere, this, just one example of how there is no correlation between sincerity and style, this is however linguistically, to look at the art world:

Within “Kosuth’s work there is not one hint of humour, or that Kosuph might be looking at the relation between aesthetics and semantics in a way which seems nonsensical, this work is working with the instability of semantics, however it is stable and sincere about that its dialogue is about that instability within semantics; the instability being that the meanings are congruent in certain semantic fields and incongruent in others, therefor this is a clear example wherein the style is unlike the previous sincere-style examples (expressionism, realism etc.) yet is still sincere.

Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler is actually a complex example of how style, zeitgeist and sincerity can cause confusion and instability. Vettriano is a ‘best-selling’ contemporary painter, his works can be found on calendars and cheap-mall-canvas’ alike, however what one; at least post-1930, could find intriguing about Vettriano’s work is that there is not one hint of irony, and that he isn’t even being ironic about not being ironic. Which leads one to believe that Vettriano is entirely sincere in his soft-core romanticist stencils of humans, this causes instability, because work such as Vettriano’s seem entirely out-of-place in the contemporary art ‘scene’. Many would find Vettriano’s style retrograde, a type of now-irrelevant kitsch, with a certain amount of egotistical-misogyny thrown in for good measure. Wherein Kosuth’s conceptual-style in actually being entirely sincere, it is doing so alongside an out-of-place style, that of Jack Vettriano, this is a quick exercise in mirroring two pieces of art attempting to be sincere, however their styles are worlds apart.


This question has many problems attached to it, firstly if an artist wants to be sincere and is working and wants to be known as working within post-modernism, they would either have to grin and bear the cringes of their friends, and the statements that no likely would be along the lines of banality, or asking if said artist was doing so ironically? Either that or they would have to make it clear they are not a post-modernist, which seems to have failed thus far. Take for instance the Stuckist movement, founded in 1999 by Billy Childish, a movement which is very opposed to conceptualism and believes only in painting, though has been known to venture to other mediums as long as they’re not conceptual. The Stuckists themselves seem stuck, it’s been made clear that what they are doing is not furthering art and is simply stuck in its place, arguably they have gained world recognition, though ironically its more for their thought and concept on the matter of conceptualism rather than their aesthetic rebuttal against it, thus their attempts at sincerity were faltered at their first hurdle, their idea has and always will be before the work, for if you weren’t creating the work knowingly sincerely then you would not be a Stuckist. Another attempt at sincerity within contemporary art comes from Andy Holden’s manifesto Maximum Irony! Maximum Sincerity (Holden, 2003) in which Holden and his peers agree we are “in an age of irony mourning for sincerity…the ironic whale that swims in the sea of post-modernism.” I find it quite apt that Holden says that the sea is not ironic but it is only a small thing swimming about within it, there is however far too many sightings of this rare whale, to the point where whale-sightings within post-modernism are getting gratuitous and just as ‘dull’ as the sincerity that remains without it.

“Let us not be ironic about our sincerity, let us be sincere about our irony. (Holden, 2003)” I do believe many artists are sincere about their irony and about the fact they are being sincere, however there are some that are ironic about their sincerity, if this is the case, at least for contemporary art does it not then become impossible for an artist to be sincere? To what it is you are trying to prove. For a statement about your sincerity would only make people question it further. Sincerity then, at least where the art world is concerned has simply become a counter-part of irony, an opposite, which is not where it belongs. If one was once again to travel down the routes of post-modernism and become self-aware and referential, once could as an audience member wonder if what it is I have written is sincere, or ironic. I have not mentioned if I want to redefine terms, or illuminate meaning or even question significance. For if I am writing this ironically it then becomes a work, if I am writing this sincerely then it is but research, what is there here to connote whether it is ironic or sincere?


In conclusion we find that if a contemporary artist wants be sincere they either find a way outside of post-modernism to say that they are being sincere. Or they become ironic about their sincerity, which to any artist genuinely wanting to creating impressionist or modernist works would be rather upsetting, wherein if an artist is to paint in an old or ‘dated’ style, such as previously mentioned contemporary romanticist Jack Vettriano, they are going to be thought of doing so ironically, thus entering themselves into a catch-22.

The one thing that it becomes impossible to do is be sincere about your sincerity, at least within the contemporary art world. Post-modernism’s scorn at retrograde styles creates a problem, wherein it is the un-idea of those works that becomes scorned at, as in, those working in a retro style are more often than not being entirely sincere, therefor it’s sincerity that becomes frowned upon and not the aesthetic step backwards. The post-modernist belief that those who are being sincere are automatically considered to be unaware and ignorant to contemporary shifts within the art-world.


Booth, W.C. (1974). A Rhetoric of Irony. 2 edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. P5-6. P16. P23.

Foster Wallace, D (1993). E Unibus Pluram. The Review of Contemporary Fiction reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (2010) p81. P68. New York: Little Brown & Co.

Holden, A (2003) Maximum Irony! Maximum Sincerity, [Internet], Accessed November 2014.

Hyde, L (1987). Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking. American Poetry Review reprinted in the Pushcart Prize anthology for 1987, Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

Irony (2014) Definition of Irony [Internet] available at Accessed November 2014

Paula Cooper Gallery, (2005) Statement on Rudolf Stingel exhibition [Internet], , Accessed November 2014.

Picabia, F (Author) Lowenthal, M (Translator) (2012), I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose and Provocation. Massachusetts: The MIT Press

Sincerity (2014) Definition of Sincerity [Internet] available at Accessed November 2014


Postmodernism: A catch-22


Postmodernism: A Catch-22
The Ambiguity of a Movement’s Existence.

“There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a good understanding of what a science we prefer to call ‘prior’ rather than ‘primitive’, could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called ‘bricolage’ in French. In its old sense the verb ‘bricoler’ applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal.”i (Levi Strauss, C, 1969)

To begin an essay with such a vast quote is quite a strident move, however, to begin an essay with a self-reference to one’s attitude towards what is being read is perhaps, excessively postmodern. The first quote by Claude Levi-Strauss in reference to bricolage, using what one has at their disposal to create, this quote not only reflects why postmodernism cannot be, but it also reflects the efforts of this text in terms of its own postmodern efforts.

“Hell hath no fury like a coolly received postmodernist.”1 (Foster Wallace, D, 1989)

The mundane, the everyday and the quietly trendy, a few words one could throw into the realm of describing the postmodern, at least within the arts. Ever since modernism drew its last supposedly smoke free breaths in the late 80’s, the contemporary art and literary scenes have become gratuitously ambiguous. Art and writing have become quiet and grey, where the two worlds used to throw punches, there remains a soggy-eyed puppy willingly accepting his fate of self-congratulatory beatings.

“The Postmodernists’ tyranny wears people down by boredom and semi-literate prose.”2(Hitchens, C, s2002)

Now you, that is, the reader, may call me a hypocrite. As I shall take on-board some postmodern style and refer directly to this essay, within this essay (I will add, this newly-found self-awareness is often falsely erudite). The two quotes, the first a quip from the American novelist David Foster Wallace. The second, a concise criticism from the English-born journalist Christopher Hitchens. The irony here taking on itself, so much so that you might even call this essay postmodern. But I believe the two quotes articulate the unnecessary post-modern struggle rather well. Foster Wallace, some would say, was a postmodernist, his magnum-opus Infinite Jest is often cited in Top 10 Post-Modern Novels etc.345. With this knowledge one can create a neat overview of the postmodern artist as work, several levels of self-awareness that amount to sincerity through irony. Hitchens, on the other hand, I would personally state was a romantic militant, preaching Wodehouse over Pynchon, Otto Dix over Jackson Pollock and Johnny Walker Black Label over a chai-latte. The battle between Hitchens and Foster Wallace for me is the battle between pre & postmodernity.

What does it mean to be a postmodernist? It means a lack of totality, deconstruction and directing one’s attention to the crowd in front of the Mona Lisa, rather than at the object (spectacle) itself. Postmodern architecture is the dismissal of the utopia, the acceptance of reality, avant-garde-realists that are disgusted by anything ornamental. In postmodern literature irony is the king, or the pale king. The ability to say something and mean something entirely different. This can be achieved in either as many words as possible (maximalism) or, as few words as possible (minimalism). The inclusion of humor, especially black, dark or gallows humour is favoured. References within references, self-awareness and breaking the fourth wall are all aspects of postmodern literature. In film, key figures such as David Lynch or Spike Jonze dictate the viewer’s concentration through askew sound production, or experimental camera angles. The focus turns to objects, scenes and characters rather than to a narrative of ‘beginning-middle-end’. Finally, we move to the flippant area of postmodern art. Contemporary art has become a little whorish where postmodernity is concerned, borrowing from each and every medium. Using irony and self-awareness, inclusion of the audience as the art, de-construction, black humour, lack of narrative and the questioning of everything-that-ever-was-ever. I present these characteristics to you neither as a good, nor bad light, they simply are. I for one believe the ‘postmodernists’ have created some respectable and interesting works, which constantly push boundaries and ideas to their utmost limits. From the above one could create a good idea of what postmodernism is. But what it is, is a lot of things, there’s no manifesto, nor is there any general consensus of what post-modernism can or cannot be. This is where my argument lies, in whether or not postmodernism actually ever was. And if it…was, is it dead?

So where did all this conjecture, ambiguity and beating-around-the-bush come from? Postmodernism’s roots are firmly attached to the act of rebellion. Rebellion against archaic and dated ideals, postmodernists attempted to free themselves from the shackles of those who believed in totality and utopia, e.g. the modernists. There is however no doubt that postmodernism was born in the west, born from the ashes of failed ideologies and movement’s. Ideologies that were finally starting to show cracks after years of ‘booms’ and ‘rushes’, especially capitalism, which, to their dismay, Modernists will never be able to shrug off. The ideology that found its way alongside modernism was 20th century western capitalism, and what came with it was an unquestioned masculinity and arrogance, never before were things looking in to, only looked at. Things were only constructed and created, never de-constructed, not even psychologically. For at least 50 years, the only time one could see was that of the future, we never looked back, not until we absolutely had to. Until, finally, democracy stood, at least in part, true to itself, allowing us to, or so we think, genuinely question the foundations of what is. Through this examination, we found that we are living within regime whose birth parents are capitalism and totalitarianism, but as all children do, the regime went on its own for a while, then eventually, also as all children do, became a physically different reproduction of its parents. For artists, creatives and intellectuals this became a dilemma. For to create works as they were previously, masculine, with a clear accepted narrative and buying into the idea of the grandeur-gesture, would be to buy back into modernism, which if one is to look around oneself, one can see has failed. However, to create works pre-modernism, would only be to either fuel a new form of modernism, or to simply buy into another failed ideology.

So, postmodernism is ideological, artistic and intellectual purgatory, where one cannot create without questioning the what, why, where and when of why they are creating. Leading to a mass of complicated, arrogantly erudite, rhetorically correct information, whose roots could neither live in the desert where no trees can grow, nor could they live next to trees without themselves becoming one. This, however isn’t the only reason post-modernism, as a whole, is a catch-22 (A situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.). In this case the rules which are stopping postmodernism from coming into its own, are those abided by modernists. Narrative, structure, illusion of a reality that isn’t, escapism without reference to the escape, totality, the ‘epic’, ordered structure, chronology and ideology all have to be voided for postmodernism to be pure. However, it cannot be pure, because pure is an idea set forth in modernity, in relation to utopia’s and perfection, which to the postmodernists do not exist.

I am going to argue that postmodernism cannot exist. Before I argue this, I have to clarify my stance on modernism. I understand where modernism derives from, that it is not an enemy of post-modernism, nor is it a friend; it is something that did not want to be aligned with, alongside something for it to react against. Though, arguably, to react against something is to include that thing as a ‘born-from’, e.g. without modernism post-modernism wouldn’t be. In arguing that post-modernism does not exist, I am not arguing that modernism is the only other alternative. I shall, join my ‘post-modernist’ friends in being self-ware just one second, I am from a capitalist [so-called]democracy. A regime in which I am comfortable and extremely content with the freedoms and safety that I have. I have yet to decide personally whether or not I would, or would not change it. Many would argue that capitalism has given me a false comfort of economy over emotion, this I would in part agree with. Capitalism, where art is concerned at least, has the arrogance of a casino’s architecture, its efforts go towards convincing you there is no other way, and there is no outside….”So why not just stay, have a few games and enjoy yourself?” it’s all rather hucksterish.

My argument against postmodernism is postmodernism as it is. Postmodernists cannot have a totality, a system, a hierarchy, a structure. A narrative, a common voice which explains the over & underlying efforts of the group. This absence of totality leaves only one thing to hold together post-modernism, the name…post-modernism. What does this name mean exactly? Post, as in, post-game, post-McCarthy or post-impressionism. Post as-in after. After the game, after the McCarthy era or after impressionism. Postmodernism, is what came after modernism. Scepticism & reluctance to join an actual ‘ism’ or movement, due to the sudden realisation of repetitive failures. And so, art came into its own again. But since within a capitalist system everything needs to be, or to have a name, or structured or engineered or categorized, postmodernism became the name of a movement that never intended to be. The problem with the movement’s name is its vagueness, postmodernism is literally everything that’s come after modernism that hasn’t assigned itself another current movement (yellowism, meta-modernism etc.) It’s inescapable as it’s a period in time that the artist finds themselves within. So when someone asks you “What’s postmodernism?” reply, “You mean, after-modernism, or after modernism.”

Postmodernism is a movement, or non-movement to have sympathy for. It’s a movement that’s been left out in the rain and instead of plucking the courage to knock on a door, simply makes art about feeling sorry for itself. But who can blame it? It’s stuck between not being able to make concise work that buys into a specfic failed framework, yet still wants to make a point. And so, has to make the viewer aware of all of this, whilst simultaneously creating something that holds attention. The problem being, most post-modern art falls flat by this point. Either there’s a certain skill & talent involved which coincides with modernism’s grandeur statements. Or, all is conceptual and to be second-guessed, irony over flavour. Not being able to Create, with a capital C because to do that would mean to ‘sell-out’ to the system that created the whole notion of ‘selling-out’. Yet, to create to simply let people know you are creating is to whisper the words “I am whispering.”

Postmodernism is caught between ideology and non-existence.

And so you see for postmodernism to exist it has to use, borrow and take from its utopian predecessor Modernism. For this essay to work is has to borrow from the thing it is attempting to question and disprove, much like postmodernism cannot be without its semantic latter Modernism. An essay arguing postmodernism’s ambiguity will/was/is its downfall, or evidence of its absence, cannot work without didactic, ironic usage of postmodernism’s own devices. A postmodern bricolage.



How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Concept


“The year’s 1917, I just been ‘anded the second edition of The Blind Man right, I come across an article called “The Richard Mutt Case” right, it’s about some Urinal being accepted as art, a Urinal as art! I mean come on, you ‘gotta be kidding. A urinal as art, never. A beautiful landscape, a lovely picture of a river or a portrait, that’s art mate, these are beautiful. Well I guess it all depends on what you define beauty as, but still a urinal is something of practical use, not art. Oh hang on…well it says ‘ere:

“He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”

So what he’s like tryin’ to do is say that anything can be art, I dunno though you know? Like, well, I guess it all depends on how you define art, but I mean I’ve always defined art as like, a nice picture something that takes skill ‘n talent you know? What’s that? It’s more aesthetics, I’m not really sure what aesthetics are…how a picture looks, oh, right. Well yeah like, I mean, yeah I want pictures to look nice. So yeah, like, I think pictures that look nice are art.”

Though usually the general public often stop their thinking after the first paragraph, I was lucky enough to record a human braving the entire thought process, though after the above interview Barry did have to take a lie down for several hours, he did in fact come to a certain conclusion. That, for his whole life, he had simply connoted the word and idea of art with simple aesthetics. Aesthetics being the creation and appreciation of beauty, something which he had yet to realise was created by the social and political zeitgeist that surrounded him. I proceeded to discuss with Barry his view of aesthetics, he had previously mentioned his interest in art which includes naturally beautiful and awe-inspiring landscapes and realist paintings, I asked him when was the last time he had actually seen a river, or landscape like those in Turner and Constable’s work, Barry said not recently at all. This is the issue I wish to address; perhaps you could call it a Justification for Duchamp’s Urinal for those who are not Art-literate. I do not believe Duchamp’s urinal needs to be justified; I myself am part of the elite.

The main argument for Duchamp’s Urinal not being art is that it is a urinal, this is a difficult logical problem to get one’s head around, but I believe I am right in thinking that the problem lies within the public’s idea of art being in direct relation to talent, skill and labour, which is a pro-utilitarian statement in itself. What I am trying to say is that: the general public, those who are only aware of mainstream art due to mainstream publications or media, classify art as a two or three dimensional object in-keeping with their subjective opinion of what beauty is, whilst also retaining the physical aspect of something that only a certain amount of talent could create, or the very least a certain amount of time, patience and meticulous attention could create. Therefore, the problem does not actually lie within the Urinal not being art, but those who have viewed its idea of art being uninformed and conjectural i.e. the public’s view of art comes from a crowd-based ignorance, or ignorance of the many, which in time becomes so known it becomes subjective fact. Another problem being the black and white logic of the public (False Dilemma), either something is, or is not Art. There is no middle ground where the public is involved, there is no: “could be”, or, “can be if”. The difficulty here being that black and white logic such as this means once a definition of art is reached which fulfils enough meaning within a member of the general public’s head, nothing else is needed. E.g. If art is a 2D or 3D object in-keeping with their subjective idea of beauty, then a urinal, by a matter of personal fact cannot be art.

The above covers why the general public think Duchamp’s Urinal or any other conceptual art piece which does not fit in with their subjective idea of beauty is not art. I will continue to explain why it is, Duchamp’s Urinal that is, and any other conceptual art, in fact I shall intend to cover all conceptual art and justify to the cries of the general public why it is art. As I have already covered the general public have created a very comfortable idea of what they think art is, now I cannot contest one’s opinion, there is art I do not like, however I’m not sure there is anything I couldn’t call art in the correct circumstances. Art is widely categorized and defined as something which reflects life in a visual way; some say it is the communication of emotion. One thing it definitely is is a form of communication; art communicates something to the audience. More often than not art will reflect the society it has been created within, though not always factually correct to the political and social discourse of the time. If one was to look at one of John Constable’s paintings, perhaps his most famous The Hay Wain, one would question whether or not everything was as lovely as Constable makes it out to be, especially in a rural farming community in the 1800’s, I for one believe that what Constable had depicted, three horses pulling a hay wain through a river, would have been excessively hard work, and most likely a dirty and exhausting life style. This however is Romanticism, to romanticise about the past as if they didn’t have the everyday troubles we have, they most definitely did, they were just not depicted. E.g. people shat, fucked and vomited before 1917. I will continue to use The Hay Wain reference throughout the rest of this essay, so if you be so kind as to tittle to your front room and look at the tired print hanging from your wall.

“There is no reason to suppose, however, that the conceptual artist is out to bore the viewer. It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to an expressionist art is accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this art.” – Sol Lewitt

Here Lewitt sums up what I said at the beginning of the essay, the general public has become accustomed to an emotional kick, though I would extend this to also a certain higher level of subjective beauty, skill and talent from the artist and the piece. However, as I have discussed with The Hay Wain, this is purely romanticism to a larger extent, not just with an image of the past, but the romanticism of the entirety of aesthetics and human history. The general public enjoys pictures which depict events from history in a realistic way, or exercises in pure talent . However, Art, with a capital A is not just that, as the definition goes it reflects society and emits human emotion. The question one needs to ask themselves is not only why do I find this beautiful? But what is my societal and political backdrop, what is there to reflect from?

“My opinion is that new needs new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements. It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.”

The rivers are gone, Stubb’s horses are close to fossilizing, Turner’s ships have long since been anchored to port, the American Dream Hopper illustrated has collapsed, the Mona Lisa has become spectacle…the Greek’s are at mercy to the acidity of rain. We no longer live in the age of marble, online forums are our gladiator battles, our epic Viking-esc destruction is no longer carried out with gunpowder but the push of a wired button. Duchamp’s Urinal may have marked the start of conceptual art, but it also marked the start of a new, industrial period of human history, filled with more technological advancements, political discourse and social upheaval than ever before. The work that was to be created because of this piece would have been created anyway, the artists were given no alternative, they were given this society, this period of human history, they have no quaint rural scenes to work with, no Austen-esc lords and ladies or existential hermits lives to articulate. They were given heroin, middle-eastern oil wars, suicide bombings, industrialization on an unhuman level, humans landing on another planet, firearms, digital obituaries, factories for the smallest of jobs, faster speeds, higher highs and almost everything humans were never evolutionary programmed to do. They were given an extract of human history that shall be looked upon as chaotic, unnatural and greedy. Set aside your ideas of what art should be, what art should be articulating for what is to be articulated cannot be done so in that manner, it no longer fits. The Mona Lisa is no longer of any importance; the audience viewing it however is of the upmost.

If, after all this you still cling to your view, your archaic, ignorant view of what Art is. Then perhaps you shouldn’t enter yourself into the debate. Art, it seems is one of the few subjects with such a clear connection to human endeavour, via the senses, that is has gained a comment-free social licence, that it should be for all, seen by all and thus understood by all. I cannot for the life of me think of one other example throughout the entirety of human history where the matter at hand is to be utopian. Utopias do not work, art is not a utopia, art is the articulation of why a utopia is a

Malevich – Pure Art

The Emancipated Struggle for the Freedom of Objects from the Obligation of Art or: Is Malevich’s Idea of Pure Art still relevant in 2014.

It’s been almost 100 years since Malevich’s magnum-opus Black Square was first exhibited at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, but is it still relevant in today’s art world? Is there still a place for something considered by many as a ‘truth’ amongst such ambiguity? Is Malevich’s battle against utilitarianism on-going or lost within the modern-Western masses?

When Malevich spoke of his Black Square he often characterized it as a non-objective artwork, he elaborates on the non-objective ideal in length within his writing: Non-objective Art and Suprematism:

“In referring to non-objectivity, I merely wished to make it plain that Suprematism is not concerned with things, objects etc., and more: non-objectivity in general has nothing to do with it.” – Kazimir Malevich

Malevich writing between 1910 and 1920 did not live within a society as consumerist and materialist as the one I inhabit, understandably Malevich primarily wrote and worked within Russia, but when I speak of consumerism I am speaking of Western society as a whole, whose general objectivity applies to most aspects and subjects within life, not just Art. The society the majority of the West inhabit is writhe with imagery, I have heard it described as a bombardment of imagery to the extent of desensitization, posters, billboards, shop-fronts, adverts etc. all collecting into an indecipherable mass of sense manipulation. I believe Malevich’s struggle against objectivity within art is not only relevant, but perhaps a tougher nut-to-crack due to the sure acceptance and practicality of the situation we are within.

Though Malevich’s struggle wasn’t just against the aesthetics, but also against the politics, Malevich argued that imagery which mimicked, imagery which replicated something, or imagery created by an artist whose sole purpose was to reproduce what they were viewing as efficiently as possible onto canvas, Malevich argued that these kinds of works were Utilitarian:

“Creation by utilitarian reason has a specific purpose…But intuitive creation has no utilitarian purpose.”

To step back, let me define utilitarianism.

“The doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority. the doctrine that an action is right in so far as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.” – John Stuart Mill

Alongside promoting the proper course of action being to maximize utility, a utilitarian society has a clear-cut idea of everything as purpose and benefit.

One could from this, argue, or at least debate that Malevich’s struggle is not necessarily to free art from the objectivity of the society it is kept within, but to argue that a utilitarian society demands an unjust outcome or justification towards utility for everything, something of which Malevich thought art should not adhere to. E.g. Art should be non-objective and its imagery to have no roots in mimicry or replication.

“Only with the disappearance of a habit of mind which sees in pictures little corners of nature, madonnas and shameless Venuses, shall we witness a work of pure, living art.” iv – Kazimir Malevich

In the 21st century this quote can quite easily be tweaked to fit in with the current zeitgeist, instead of Malevich’s battle with the romanticism of his age (Venuses), we are currently dealing with romanticism for a time before conceptualism and for art to regain its pure aesthetic roots, though this romanticism is conditioned by a utilitarian system, a system which promotes, respects and wants its outcome to maximize utility. Of course this kind of system also respects and adores imagery promoting an idea or use, unknowingly however the image that promotes a utilitarian-ideal no longer promotes, but becomes the ideal itself.

The true dilemma being the artists supposed need to justify their non-utilitarian acts, in a society that respects labour, utility and practicality. For someone who belongs to the economy more than their human instincts, the purchase and discussion about art is purely to feed the ego. Therefor to remove the ego from the art detracts any form of connection to the economic & consumerist state we live in, thus creating the need for justification within the artist’s mind. The problem, of course lying in the fact that within a utilitarian society such as ours, art is as I have said, a non-utilitarian act, though it is almost impossible to decide whether or not the outcome of art promotes utility, it is however impossible to pinpoint the outcome and display it as a justification, e.g. a factory can show its output at the end of the working day, when an audience views a piece the outcome is personal and has little or no direct relation to any utilitarian ideal. Though I would continue to argue that not only does society believe artists need to justify their practice, that in fact there is a subtle hostility towards artists, at least I can say this for where I come from . As an example I offer up the BBC4 program: What Do Artists Do All Day? – Intimate, observational portraits of leading artist, revealing unique insight into their working lives and creative process. Though open to be read many ways, the title, for me, comes across in a rather condescending manner, it resonates as a nonchalant chat between those whose work has a specific utilitarian outcome. ‘….I mean, what do they do all day…I mean really?’ Through research I have come to conclude that this is the only program of its nature, there is no: What do builders or dentists or Designers or electricians do all day? Because these jobs, or, practices have a clear utilitarian outcome they do not need to be justified. This justification-termite has crawled its way into the realms of art itself.

As I have discussed a utilitarian society promotes an outcome that maximizes utility, art has no such outcome, or at least no such outcome which is presentable or evident. This utilitarian ideal has crept its way into the publics and many artists mind’s and lives, these people believe even their work needs to have some kind of connection or connotation of utility for it to be relevant, this is only apparent because of the nature of our society. This also is the reason for the hostility towards the conceptualization of art, e.g. not only is the outcome not available, but there isn’t even evidence of labour or utility during its making. Another proof, perhaps, for the justification of art with a utilitarian society, is how much love there is for public art, which has evidence within in physicality that it has taken time, effort and labour to produce. This is where Malevich’s work, within the general population’s eyes fall flats, there is no justification either within its physicality or within its non-existent outcome, therefor this kind of art simply cannot be. If the society only needs utility and only wants utility, then there’s not only no need for non-utility, but simply it shouldn’t and cannot be. Pure-art, then, is art which has no physical or idealistic connection to utilitarianism, it is, as Malevich once put it, pure-intuitive art. The canvas should not be a mirror, for if the canvas is a mirror then all that can come of it is a work connected and not simply created. So not only am I saying that Malevich’s battle is on-going, I am in fact saying that it is even more relevant in today’s society, and I would also argue that the battle is being lost, because the society is self-congratulatory, if the society lost non-utilitarian art, it understands it wouldn’t lose anything of value, and something if which lost causes no problems, then why continue to hold it up in the first place. If nothing of value is lost, then that that was lost had no value in the first place. Herein lies a problem, that with the society needing utility, it cannot simply have something that simply is. Something simply cannot be, society needs things to do, or say, or move, or work or utilize itself. I am not saying however that society needs to change entirely, this is most definitely not what I am saying, the main purpose of utilitarianism is good, at its heart e.g. to continue on with whatever makes the most happy, and strive for entire populated happiness. What needs to happen is for artists to understand the political and social cage they are attempting to justify themselves for, has and never will need them, what they do does not fit into their ethic, they do not necessarily hate or love art, they simply do not need it, it would be excess, what I would suggest artists to do would be to not feel any need for justification but simply just to create without this idea in their way,

In conclusion: Is Malevich’s Black Square still relevant today, yes, in fact more so than it ever has been before, of course when I speak of the Black Square I am speaking metaphorically of all pure-intuitive-art with no utilitarian connotations. Is Malevich’s battle lost against the utilitarian masses? I would not say that it is either won or lost; I would comment that it needn’t be, at least, it needn’t be until there is either an iconoclastic uprising is which utilitarianism is replaced, this however is beyond my understanding to predict. Though not much of a conclusion, one cannot give a conclusion where there has never and will never be one, pure-art is non-conclusive, it simply is, this essay as with pure-art, can only comment on what is, and does not justify itself to utilitarianist aims. As far as I can carry any form of academic conclusion I could say one should look at the main ‘players’ in contemporary art display to decide for themselves whether utility is winning over art. For instance one could look at the Tate and what it is displaying, whether or not what it’s displaying has any utilitarian connection, if so, why? Even to look at works which are pure abstracts and still displayed, the work will hold a certain amount of utility, for instance, perhaps the most famous pure-abstract main stay at the Tate would be Rothko, there is in fact a whole room dedicated to art, which aesthetically could be considered ‘pure’. I would however disagree with this classification as Rothko is often cited to contain a certain utility of transcendence for the viewer, when one look upon a Rothko one is taken elsewhere, it does something, it’s work that has a ‘do’. Whereas pure-intuitive art simply is on the wall, it simply hangs. Within a culture where every-single-thing has a reason to why it is, to accept something as it is, without reason, this, is the true test of the modern-art-audience.