The Human Condition:

Art and Irony – November 17, 2013

Rodin sculpture

Auguste Rodin’s
She Who Was the Helmet Maker’s
Once-Beautiful Wife

(courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

I once heard Alexander Calder’s large, rounded, liquid mobiles criticized as “lacking in irony.” Presumably, the critic felt that Calder wasn’t making enough of a point about large, rounded, liquid shapes and their relationship to society, social justice, political awareness, green conservation, or something else de rigueur. Simply being graceful, serene, and soothing to the soul apparently wasn’t sufficient to qualify as art.

Occasionally, I find what I call “cleavage issues” or “cleavage questions”: notions that, like a diamond cutter finding the fracture plane in a stone, shed important light on facets of the human condition.1 I believe the question of irony as a basis for art may be one of these.

Art used to be representational. When our earliest ancestors painted bison and horses on the cave walls at Lascaux, they were depicting what they saw. Presumably, they liked and admired these animals and wanted the people looking at the paintings to feel the same way. They may also have been making a propitiatory gesture with the paintings: sending a message in red ochre to some deity somewhere, “These are the things your people need. Please make more of them. Please fill the plains with these animals.”

The representational and propitiatory natures of art came down to us through Classical times to the Renaissance. When the sculptor Phidias made a gigantic statue of Athena for the Parthenon, the message was, “Our city is named for a great and wise goddess who watches over us,” as well as, “Goddess, please remember and protect your people!” When he carved the frieze of the battle between the stone-age Lapiths and the Centaurs, he was portraying a myth known to the viewers. Similarly, when Michelangelo and the rest of the Renaissance sculptors and painters depicted a madonna and child, they were celebrating motherhood and telling a story of the Christ’s humanity that was familiar to the viewers. It was both representational—“Isn’t this a lovely mother?”—as well a propitiatory—“Madonna, watch over us as you watched over your child.”

Even before the Renaissance, western art in the form of illuminated manuscripts and stained glass windows told the story of religion. That was about the only story people had time to hear, and the work was funded by a church with the excess cash with which to pay artists and artisans to tell it. Yes, there were occasional grim warnings—those images of demons tormenting the sinners in the aftermath of Judgment Day or the agonies of saints which proved their blessed nature—but these were meant to be instructive.

Sometime after the Protestant Reformation, a sense of edginess and wise-guy humor came into religious painting. Pieter Brueghel the Elder painted village scenes and landscapes, but he also painted and drew comic allegories such as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent and Fight of the Money Bags and Strong Boxes. He was using satire to comment on social values. After that, you might still get artists whose work was sincerely representational—many of the French Impressionists come to mind here—but the art world would start to call them “naïve.”

Satire is an old literary device, going back at least to the Greeks and Romans. The playwright or poet will focus on some vice or supposed virtue or other human tendency and expose it to ridicule, often with a sense of suggesting how to avoid or correct it. Satire uses laughter to bring home the point. Irony is a closely related device, again drawn from literature. In Plato’s Dialogues, Socrates would feign ignorance of some question or proposition—using “Socratic irony”—in order to get his conversational foils to commit to a position and then examine it through questioning. In literature, irony means “the thing not being what it seems.” When Oliver Hardy tells Stan Laurel, “Isn’t this a nice kettle of fish,” he means the exact opposite. The juxtaposition of words saying one thing and meaning another invokes the suddenly perceived incongruity, the dissonance, the unexpected lurch which is the basis of all jokes and most humor.

As I said above, this is a literary device, played out in words. As applied to the visual art forms, irony becomes trickier. Think of Rodin’s She Who Was the Helmet Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife. The sculpture shows an old woman borne down with age, tired, and presumably near death. Rodin is making a comment on the transitoriness of beauty by showing the viewer something ugly. Through her we confront the passage of time and our own mortality. He does something similar with The Fallen Caryatid, showing a strong young woman crushed by her burdens. These are superficially ugly images that, underneath and with reflection, show something noble and enduring in the human spirit. That’s the work of a master.

Somewhere along the road from Pieter Brueghel to modern art, the gentle, sober, and astounding irony of Auguste Rodin subsided into rude satire and ugly mocking. I remember seeing an exhibition of student artwork when I was an undergraduate at Penn State. To me, one of the most memorable pictures—and not for its beauty—showed a life-size, seated nude wearing a surgical mask and a look of pure agony in her eyes because she was stuck all over with pins. What stayed with me about the painting was that I had no idea what the artist was trying to represent or even comment on. “Does that hurt?” comes to mind as possible meaning. “Isn’t this just awful?” is a close second. But the difference between this image and, say, the martyrdom of an early saint is that the agony being portrayed had no justification, related to no historical precedent, was not the result of any kind of social injustice, war, or overt malevolence—other than the artist’s own hatred of the subject—and was not apparently meant to be instructive. What did the artist want me to do? I turned away in confusion.

Much of modern art—not all, but a depressingly large amount—has this same vague or intentional bitterness. It’s not meant ironically but is simply mean-spirited. “Doesn’t life suck?” It doesn’t seem to mean anything except, “I dare you to look away. You’re a coward, a bourgeois, a naïf, a child if you look away.” If there’s an underlying message, it’s not ironic but simply rude. Think of the Andres Serrano photograph Piss Christ, showing a crucifix dipped in urine. The artist may be making a statement about Christianity—in which case he’s resorting to infantile gestures. The deepest meaning of the work seems to be “I can offend you—and you’re a fool who’s not in on my joke if you get offended.”

Too much of the kind of art that’s meant to be ironic seems to me just belittling, snide, intentionally offensive, and cruel, with no deeper meaning than “I can laugh at you, and you out there can’t do a thing about it.”

I’d like to be charitable and see this kind of artwork as a psychological cry for help on the artist’s part. I’m afraid, however, that the artist who could conceive of these works would find my pity offensive. And who am I to impose my values on another who is so sure of him- or herself as to commit such atrocities to film, canvas, or clay?

I’m content to see artistic “irony” as simply a fracture plane. On the one side is the artist who photographs, paints, or sculpts because he or she has found something beautiful, interesting, strikingly instructive, transcendent, or even merely whimsical and, like the voice in The Book of Revelation, calls to us, “Come and see!” On the other side are people with an artistic bent but not much vision, who don’t much like their life or the world they were born into, and who can only comment, “Doesn’t life suck?”

I’ll spend my money on the former kind of artwork. More importantly, I’ll spend my time trying to understand the underlying revelation. But for the latter, not one penny!

1. For other cleavage issues, see Freedom or Security? from February 19, 2012; What is Strength? from November 20, 2011; and Is Human Nature Perfectible? from October 21, 2010.