Dan Brooks, Banksy and the Problem With Sarcastic Art

The defining feature of kitsch is that it preys on our desire to feel art succeed. It follows the formula of meaningful expression and exploits our willingness to manufacture the sensation of meaning. How wonderful, after all, to see a painting and be moved. As a species of contemporary kitsch, sarcasm takes advantage of our readiness to respond to actual wit. It, too, is mechanical and proceeds by formula. And online sarcasm is now industrially produced, thanks to the mass quantities of content that digital media must churn out each day.

The style of Internet writing often called snark participates in sarcasm, typically by adopting the derisive tone of satire without the complex irony. You can find this sort of writing anywhere, on almost any topic. Picking more or less at random, I found this sentence from a Wonkette story about the Oath Keepers, a constitutionalist group that recently interceded in a mining dispute in Montana: “George Kornec and Phil Nappo have a mining claim on federal land; they’ve put up a garage and a fence, and the dastardly government is pushing its weight around and being a big bully and being really terrible and stuff by telling Kornec and Nappo to take them down.”

That’s technically irony, because the literal meaning (the government is abusing its power) is the opposite of the meaning implied (the Oath Keepers are overreacting). But the inversion is applied mechanically, artlessly, in a way that does not encourage the reader toward a deeper truth. There’s no insight here to raise this irony to the level of satire. There is only mockery, backed by certainty that the reader shares the author’s contempt. Sarcasm is a natural fit for partisan news aggregators, because it relies on a calculated appeal to shared attitudes.

Kitsch banks heavily on these shared attitudes. It substitutes them for artistic insights, and it relies on its audience’s agreement with them to produce a feeling similar to profundity. Sarcasm works best when people already know what you mean. By the same token, you don’t have to think society has become crass and venal to enjoy Banksy, but it helps.

Like other forms of kitsch, Banksy’s work presents conventional wisdom as insights: It’s true we have treated our princesses ghoulishly, particularly when their carriages crash. As with memes, Banksy asks us to substitute the sensation of recognizing a reference for the frisson of wit. And he sometimes seems to operate by formula, as the Twitter account @BanksyIdeas points out. “Stencil of a child assembling the toy from a Kinder Egg, yeah?” goes one such parody idea. “The parts fit together to make a handgun.”

This open indulgence in kitsch may be why the aspirational Internet – the knowing Internet that defines itself in opposition to a perceived, less savvy mainstream — seems to hate him. It is the narcissism of small differences. Like Banksy, the highbrow, left-leaning Internet frequently indulges in sarcasm; how else could it produce so much ostensibly clever content every day? But such attitude-based aggregators distinguish themselves from the kitschy Internet by embracing the premise that cultural production can improve an unjust society, whereas Banksy’s premise seems to be that cultural production can point out how awful everything is.

…If you love art, you must be glad that thousands of people are supporting it by going to “Dismaland.” If you love cultural expression generally, you must be glad millions of people are participating in it on the Internet. But when you see bad expression praised as good – when your Facebook friends share a sarcastic news report, or a millionaire street artist puts mouse ears on an actress and tells her to frown – you must also feel some injustice has been done. Kitsch should not get away with exploiting people’s desire to feel the art. How wonderful it must feel to go to “Dismaland” and see through society! But how awful to see society embrace art that makes you feel nothing, that makes you think only about the vast chasm between you and everyone else.

Full text: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/10/magazine/banksy-and-the-problem-with-sarcastic-art.html

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