How Improbable is Sincerity Really?
This New Sincerity is a tricky thing, shedding the skin of hard irony yet retaining a vestigial wink and nod. It finds today earnestness and cleverness, belief and incredulity, pastiche and parody all messily bound up together. Think John Currin. Or, taking a trip back into the already-forgoten cultural memory banks of 2003, think The Darkness.Back when I had more time for independent projects, before we opened the gallery, I was researching that exact process in artmaking, shedding the hard irony, but leaving an escape hatch of sorts (I came up with a few metaphors that seemed to work, but none were air-tight). Today, I'm beginning to think that approach is itself cynical. You can't inch your way back into sincerity. Sincerity's an all or nothing proposition. You either dive into the deep end or you never quite accomplish it.
Contrary to what Sloterdijk suggests, I'm convinced sincerity is possible in this age of reportedly all-prevailing cynicism. Moreover if sincerity is possible, it would surface first in "art." Why? Because of what art attempts: to reveal truth. If honesty is the root of sincerity, it would stand to reason that an artist who reveals the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (a tall order, admittedly), would by defintion present sincere work. Seems simple enough. But what stops that from happening?
Well I used to believe it was the harshness of the critique. That's why artists left themselves some wiggle room (read: threw in a handful of irony), creating for themselves, as I noted, an escape hatch. The critique's overall jadedness would seek out and squash any weakness (read: sentimentality), and artists' egos prohibited them from opening themselves up to that, so they inserted insurance: "Oh, yes, but I'm doing that with tongue planted firmly in cheek, don't you know." But I don't think that gives artists enough credit. So what is it?
I think a definition would be in order here. What are we talking about really when we look for sincerity in art? It's not just a lack of obvious irony or cynicism. There are plenty of artists offering up what they claim is an honest expression of how they feel: "I honestly feel the world is a charming post-impressionistic cottage in the woods with a warm glow emanating from the open-shuddered windows." (Who's to say that's wrong [besides the starving homeless child in India, I mean]?) Perhaps what we're looking for is a worldview that rings true without being myopic or without squashing hope. Perhaps what we're really talking about here is optimism. We expect sincerity to convey believable optimism. Anything short of that we want to consider cynical.
How do artists then make sincere work when such optimism seems to require willful blinders?
Personally, I'd like to think it's as simple as editing out all the noise and presenting what one concludes is "the truth" (i.e., the human condition includes inherent optimism, so that will take care of itself). Of course, honesty doesn't make sincerity valuable in and of itself: until educated, one could honestly believe the world is flat, for example. And, undoubtedly, the more one is educated (i.e., the more one knows about the world), the harder it becomes to be honest (the essence of Sloterdijk's argument): for example, one could assert an honest view of the war in Iraq but it would have to account for so many contingencies, such as Democracy might actually make the Middle East a better place in 20 years' time, but how many innocent civilians should lose their lives to reach that point, but if you don't force Democracy on those nations, what do you do about the threat of terrorism in the mean while, just bunker down and hope for the best? etc. etc. Any work about Iraq that doesn't account for all those issues (and more) isn't the whole truth, so how could it be sincere?
Shakespeare suggests one simple guiding principle here:
This would suggest that rather than throwing in a handful of irony as protection against the critique, an artist must expose him/herself fully to be sincere. An artist must be true to his/herself first and foremost, and then their audience would not see any falseness. In other words, it requires courage. Perhaps we lack sincerity because we lack courage. No one is willing to risk a devastating critique, so they build an escape hatch into their work.
OK, so really, I'm not smoking crack. I offer these thoughts for consideration only, not as manefesto.