My generation is more ironic than any that has came before it. Maybe we’re just coping with the difficulties and confusions of transitioning into a newly digitized social space. On the subject of British life in the wake of the industrial revolution, Clay Shirkey says, “The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing – there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.” This ubiquitous stupor feels familiar to me, as I surf from one faux-naïve website to the next or read my daily onslaught of jokey and intentionally misspelled Facebook commentary it becomes very apparent that I live in an environment of constant irony on the internet. As a regular user of irony myself, I don’t want to quit it cold turkey. There are tons of great applications for irony– but the problem is when it becomes constant, when all dialogue is filtered through a single rhetorical device and when other expressive options– namely, the sincerity required by idealism– become demonized to the point of extinction. How did we, as a generation of artists and non-artists, get ourselves in to this mess and how can we climb out of the ironic hole we’ve fallen into? This writing is one attempt to formulate answers to these questions, to promote the benefits of ideal convictions for artists and to explain how to be an idealist without reverting back to modernist ways of thinking.
Irony is a contradiction. What is ironic betrays itself to reveal its true nature. Irony can be manifested through a signifier displayed in a way that reflects oppositely of what is signified (a Red Sox logo turned blue), the signified contradicting its context (the unabashed kitsch of a dog made of flowers sitting in front of the Guggenheim Bilbao), or a plot where the audience is made aware of more about the narrative than the actors in it (classical theater). Irony can also be used as a way a for a speaker to appear as though she knows less than the viewer so to secretly guide her viewer down a path towards meaning (Socrates).
Irony has long been part of bohemian (read: hipster) cultures since the days when 19th century flaneurs would stroll through the streets of Paris with pet turtles on leashes. Of course the flaneur knew what he was doing, recognizing the absurdity of his actions and carried forth anyway as a self-aware spectacle. The joke was not on the man walking a turtle down a single block for an hour, but on the naïve person who thought the flaneur was mad. The square who conformed to normal walking speeds with her conventional pets was the butt of the joke. Irony always requires some extra information to be understood, making it at odds with the supposedly self-evident nature of modern art, as championed by Abstract Expressionist painting and the similarly arch-modernist genre of Minimalism. When in 1961 Frank Stella described his works as “a flat surface with paint on it – nothing more”, the nothingness to which he refers may be a negating acknowledgement of either figural representation or the incoming conceptualist notion that art act as a system for the creation of itself in the mind of its viewer. In this way conceptualism shares some basic similarities with irony– both are meant to enact awarenesses that transcend their signifiers alone.
It should be made clear that my generation did not inherit irony from Socrates, Sol Lewitt, or the flaneurs, and that our popular understanding of irony comes from the three figures that raised us– our parents, television and the internet. Novelist Douglas Copeland used the term Generation X to describe people born between 1961 and 1981 and who were the first to be fully born into the Post Modern era– a generation my own parents are a part of. Unlike the uniformity and resolve of Baby Boomers to perpetually offer a group of late 1960’s performing bands as the undisputed ‘best ever’, Gen X’ers had a harder time coming to a musical consensus, nit-picking at each other’s taste in popular music across a variety of counter-slogans from “Disco Sucks” to “Punk is Dead” to the “death of hair metal” at the hands of grunge. In his writing The Hipness Unto Death: Soren Kierkagaard and David Lettermen–Ironic Apologists to Generation X,Mark C. Miller echoes this sentiment, saying about Gen X’ers
A trillion dollar debt is theirs to inherit, and Social Security is theirs to give but never to receive. They feel alienated and disillusioned, and are disparaged by the baby boomers with whom they so often feel at war … With more than half of them coming from divorced families, and with innumerable advertisements targeting their massive market demographic, they are cynical, wary, and apathetic … Generation X, suspicious and indifferent, needs nothing.
The one thing it turned out Generation X did want was MTV– a gift they passed on to us. Perhaps MTV was an easier pill for Gen X’ers to swallow because it was, at the time, one of the most sophisticated advertising mechanisms to have ever existed. In the documentary Merchants of Cool, Robert McChesney says
All of MTV is a commercial. That’s all that MTV is. Sometimes it’s an explicit advertisement paid for by a company to sell a product. Sometimes it’s going to be a video by a music company there to sell music. Sometimes it’s going to be the set that’s filled with trendy clothes and stuff there to sell a look that will include products on that set. Sometimes it will be a show about an upcoming movie paid for by the studio (but you don’t know it) to hype a movie coming out from Hollywood. There is no non-commercial part of MTV.
Banking on the first wholly Post Modern generation’s belief in the death of isolationist originality in favor of multiple and fluid identities, companies like MTV were more than happy to take advantage of Gen X’ers unwillingness to commit to a single style or belief, actively accelerating the exposure and subsequent turn over rate of commercialized sub cultures at a pace more rapid than ever before all through televised media. The goal of this acceleration was to create a consumer environment so fast moving that even a momentary commitment to a shirt or band would be ridden with the self-doubt that another product would not only replace it, but demean all those who formerly associated with its predecessor. In a pop culture where the assumption of planned obsolescence has been engrained in every product mass marketed, irony serves as a way to associate and distance one’s self from all things in the same way companies promote both the success and failure of what they offer. The result of this in and out, yes and no, love and hate generational affair is the onset of porous identities. A porousidentity is just that– a person riddled with many holes of doubt and consumptive anxiousness waiting for admittedly temporary fixes to sooth the emptiness of a life without any firm conviction.
Porous identities were no match for the commercial internet, the fastest and latest in a long line of media projects designed to link the desires of consumers and the products of sellers in the most direct way possible. The internet too is constant in many ways. It is constant in that its information is constantly moving and available, for one, but it is also constant in the way it attunes each of its users to their status as a consumptive agent from the moment you pay for wireless access, to the moment you log in to your data-mined e-mail account, to the never ending side bars and introductions full of advertising a viewer must endure to watch a single video. There is no escape from what is constant and it is here we arrive at a perfect storm for the constantly ironic person. At the intersecting lines of three things that all prize ‘the new’ at the cost of quickly moving trends planned for obsolescence (youth culture, the internet and contemporary art) internet art is a prime location for people of constantly ironic dispositions.
Used as a coping mechanism for the anxiety caused by rapid cultural turn over, constant irony is the reclamation of hopelessness or lack of idealistic creativity spoken through the voice of detached coolness. Being constantly ironic is an effective deflection of one’s own porosity because it provides the illusion you were too cunning to have ever wanted anything more solidified. At the peak of the artistic internet’s speed is the image aggregating blog, a place where thousands of images can be circulated in a single week without any textual explanation. The irony here is an archival one; immense networks of divergent signifiers compete for attention and contradict one another in a process whereby the blog’s poster is revealed to have an ever-increasing awareness of sub cultures and access to rare or unseen material. The turn over rate of subcultural awareness made public harkens back to MTV but is completed on an individual basis at light speed. While the digital liberation of images from traditional modes of authorship, context and property marks a seismic shift in visual culture, the full potential of this change remains unfulfilled. Willingness to politically or conceptually use images is stunted by a constantly ironic generation’s aversion to anything even remotely resembling the monumentality of having a specified conviction. ‘Meaning’ is culled not on the basis of content’s re-purposing but on the level of establishing personal brands for the all-aware bloggers. The constantly ironic digital populace outwardly believes in nothing more firm than their last blog post, despite an addiction to proving they are aware of everything and everyone.
While the rise of a visually superficial internet art world is the result of constant irony, there is a more grave consequence concealed by how difficult it has come to be found on the internet. I am speaking of the disappearance of idealism, the most deep-rooted and alarming of developments to take place. The constant irony I speak of does not conceal idealism, but is a reactionary response to the compounding belief that political change of any kind is unfeasible. In place of idealism’s motivation for social change is inserted an infatuation with the self, a compulsion to maintain individual brands and invigorate one’s own status in the attention economy of art online. The emptiness of an artistic life staked as a personal popularity campaign alone (occasionally interrupted by personal accolades or institutional recognition) is resounding, and leaves the constantly ironic individual in the doubled down position to embrace her own emptiness in an ironic fashion. Enter Andy Warhol’s “I’m in it for the money.” Empty because of irony, ironic because of emptiness. The cycle of addiction is self-perpetuating.
Artistic idealism is worth re-examining. The notion that ideals are never fully realized is absolutely true, so why have them at all? The answer to this question shares some aspects with the answer to the question, “Why make art?”. Both art and ideals are impossible things; in the case of art it means to make the world seen, if only momentarily, in a way more critically accurate or beautiful than what we are accustom to seeing. Art is impossible because we may never see the entire world with perfect clarity forever due to a single project– art has a temporary affect. Ideals –the articulation of a utopic reality– also serve as a means to expand our continuum of the possible, if only to nudge us the furthest toward a utopic reality or to re-orient our expectations of what is possible. Only the most belligerent idealists seek to impose their utopic reality on all– a reality that would inevitably be hellish for many. Idealism can be contingent, limited to single causes or the creation of specific things– a more open system for the validation and dispersion of art, for example. Take for instance the most successful idealists of American politics in the last 30 years: Christian Fundamentalists and Neo Liberals. These idealist factions have forced politicians to slide increasingly towards the respective religious and corporatist extremes every election cycle despite never fully achieving a Christian or free marketed nation. When idealism is ardently and openly believed by a critical mass it is wildly successful– for better or worse. The momentary idealism of the 2003 American Anti-War movement was bulldozed by the long-running and pre-assembled idealism of Christian Fundementalist xenophobia, American exceptionalism and the Neo Liberal-aided Military Industrial Complex. Bigger ideals trump smaller ideals, just as active beliefs trump ironically reactionary ones.
Perhaps constant irony is the tail end of Post Modernism’s relentless deconstruction of all things Modern and prior. In the dust of deconstruction there must be some room made for reasoned faith, convictions beyond the non-stop intellectual negations of Post Modernism and the blind spiritual loyalty of Modernism. Soren Kierkegaard frequently wrote about faith, and believed there to be no other way to gain practical wisdom than to step forward and take risks that would lead to experiencing both success and failure. What if more were willing to believe in something so monumental as progress beyond deconstruction– to enter a world of belief, as Bruno Latour describes, “that retain[s] Modernism’s feeling of clarity and order, but freed from its ancient connection to hierarchy and verticality”? In a creative environment that prizes articulated ideals instead of the ability to evade criticism, even failure is an honor for those who were willing to have tried to nudge us closer to their utopia.