In the past few years, there has been a move towards art and writing that abandons irony completely in favor of sincerity. “New sincerity” has been a buzzword for the art and literary world since the mid-1990s. It was the name of a literary movement sparked by David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” where he cited “new literary rebels” following the age of irony and passivity. These rebels “risk sentimentality and melodrama” as well as the accusation of banality, and “treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in US life with reverence and conviction” 1. It’s an honorable, yet completely utopian, goal.
This interest surfaces in the Feature Inc show “I AM NOT MONOGAMOUS, I HEART POETRY” (2011). Hudson, the curator, is embarrassingly open about his choices for the exhibition, even patting himself on the back; there’s something confident about his tone: “from fall 05 to fall 06 i went to a shrink to help figure my way thru some anxiety i was experiencing … while we move even further into this age of information, poetry becomes an increasingly important way to help create balance.” He vaguely identifies “intuition” and “feelings” as avant-garde strategies. He sets up a dichotomy between “feelings” and the “information age,” roughly equating poetry to “feeling.” He argues that poetry might create a “balance” in the coldness of our technology-driven times. He seems to suggest that poetry is the way to fight slick, ironic artistic tendencies.
Similarly, in the press release for “New Sincerity” (2011) at Future Gallery, Jaakko Pallasvuo tentatively suggests that his works is “honesty at last; a hot knife through postironic butter. (But) perhaps just another borrowed pose, quickly returned.” Pallasvuo suggests that “sincerity” is what will finally slay the old and cold, bitter and dry net art, as well as what might be the “new casualist” aesthetic in painting. Yet, obviously, nothing is 100% “sincere” or “authentic,” and the creation of these categories is problematic. What is sincere is not opposite to what is ironic: many of Pallasvuo’s pieces, like much of today’s net art, leans heavily on a nostalgic affection for early-1990s internet and “folk” aesthetics (the title of his blog is DawsonsCreek.info). To me, constantly referring to a sort of overall objective nostalgia for the early internet is yet another layer of distance placed between the artist and his intention. As viewers, we get in on the joke—a trademark move for ironists.
Some net art uses poetry and emotional content, opposed to what I consider to be the predominant ironic, distanced, slick, and surface-based aesthetic of the (art of the) information age. Perhaps, as we continue to suffer from the internet’s commoditizing, alienating, and distancing power, we are finding the positive parts of it—the parts that allow us to meet other people and be honest online about ourselves, or not. There is an extremely varied way of codifying our emotions online, and these artists emphasize how we can defer our emotions through technologies, or at least face them.
The forms that internet poems take are many, some with no manipulation at all (a screencap to “prove” things aren’t mediated, such as a Gchat window) or casual stylization (drop shadows or scribbles in Photoshop, perhaps an attempt to include the hand of the artist) and some with elaborately rendered images. These artists create images that convey usually short, pseudo-ironic, embarrassingly poetic, and/or “sincere” short poems that, at their most successful, function like little monuments to feelings. How it feels to be in a relationship online. How the internet arrests and limits our forms of expression. How we must distill our emotions to emoticons. Some of this art creates subversive image macros by placing anachronistic images with text. Text-based digital image creation runs the gamut, but one end mostly groups around irony, humor, and cliché, and the other statements that feel more or less distanced, sincere, poetic, and creative. Often, vexingly, artists produce both kinds of images. Digitally rendering feelings is one way to experiment with how our emotions are filtered through technology, whether those emotions are sincere or not, and whether the artist chooses to make them so.
In the September 2010 issue of Bookforum, in a “review” of Richard Yates by author Tao Lin, Joshua Cohen argues that one aspect of what it means to be a sincere or genuine person is to expose yourself online. “To Lin’s generation, which is to say to mine as well, transparency is the new sincerity; many of our peers maintain that it’s psychologically healthy, and artistic, to expose oneself entirely online. Anonymity was so 1990s—the Age of Fake Screen Names. Today, only utter exposure can set one free, while the only thing prescribed is regret” (2). Some artists believe that it is important for one’s online identity to not only be very close to reality, but even to be a more liberated version of yourself. Maybe, then, the internet is not a place for hiding, for irony, coldness, and nostalgia, but a place that makes sincere, open, warm, and human gestures in art.
*Originally published in POOL, August 23, 2011.
- Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13:2 (Summer, 1993), P. 192-193.
- Cohen, Joshua. “Camera Obscura,” Bookforum, September/ October/ November 2010.