Last week the blogosphere saw a profusion of posts about irony, art, nostalgia and sentimentality. It started with a post on The American Scholar by William Deresiewicz entitled “Upper Middle Brow.” Deresiewicz describes a new category of cultural production (Upper Middle Brow) that is distinguished by being “post-ironic.” It is, he says, “sentimentality hidden under a veil of cool.” This kind of art “possesses excellence” but is problematic because it flatters its audience instead of challenging them, serving as congratulatory echo chamber that reinforces all the “educated bromides we trade on Facebook.”
What the upper middle class needs, says Deresiewicz, is an art that “disturbs its self-delight.” Reactions were swift. The American Conservative published three blog posts in quick succession that largely favored Deresiewicz’s analysis (the third of those posts taking a swipe at so-called upper middle brow music that I—I might as well admit it—quite like, including Mumford and Sons and the Head and the Heart).
Others raised a voice of protest. Jonathan Fitzgerald takes issue with the aim Deresiewicz imputes to art. Art sometimes should disturb us, acting transgressively, but other times it should affirm sincerity and goodness and virtue, even if the audience agrees with the artist about the content of those terms. He writes, “I just watched Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom again and was struck by just how sweet and sincere it is. And it’s a great movie. It didn’t disturb me or force me to reconsider my life’s priorities; on the contrary, it affirmed them. And I don’t feel the least bit guilty about that.” Fitzgerald feels we are in the Age of “New Sincerity” and we should celebrate it.
The Fitzgeralds and the Deresiewiczs are, I think, talking at cross-purposes. On the one hand, Fitzgerald is right to take Deresiewicz’s aesthetic aims to task. It is a very good thing for art to disturb us in ways that stretch our worldview or destroy our complacency. But that cannot be the sole aim of art. It is also a very good thing for art to hold up a mirror to beauty and goodness. The Mona Lisa disturbs (or at least puzzles). Chartes Cathedral does not. Both are good art.
But Fitzgerald’s critique has its own problems. Is upper middle brow art truly sincere? Granted a failure to transgress is not necessarily a sign of artistic failure. But what is a sign of artistic failure—and moral failure too—is irony. By “irony” I mean the main cultural sense in which we now use it: irony as a foil to commitment. And it is for being non-committal that we should fear upper middle class art, as Matthew Schmitz pointed out some time ago at First Things. Art can affirm or disturb, but in either case it should come from commitment. At bottom, the case we should make against upper middle class art is that this art is not committed.
At first, the opposite might seem true. The examples offered by the above authors are instructive. Instagram, Tree of Life, The Head and the Heart. These seem to offer a counter-commitment to the crass materialism that dominate other aspects of our culture. The Head and the Heart’s song “Down in the Valley” starts off with the lyric “I wish I was a slave to an age old trade,/Like riding around on railcars and working long days./Lord, have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways.” This is typical. You have the religious reference, the yearning for life not dominated by 21st-century technological consumerism.
But the problem is that this art is not actually committed to these values: it does not demand that we change our lives in any concrete way. It delights in these values like pretty toys, but it does not stand for an alternative way of living. As such, it is not opposed to consumerism, but a facilitator of it. It gives us the illusion of breaking free from materialist paradigms without actually leading us, prodding us, asking us to do so. It abets rather than challenges our captivity.
This is dangerous because there actually is a lot of art in our culture that is committed. What Deresiewicz calls masscult, popular culture, is filled with committed art, art committed to materialism and respectable bourgeois existence. The Houston-based rapper Riff Raff is typical. He got his start on youtube, and then ended up in the mainstream, collaborating with famous artists at large recording students. As Benjamin Schwartz put it, “Riff makes art that is nearly indistinguishable from advertisements — for Motorola, Apple, Louis Vuitton, various car companies — that embody that promise, and he demolishes the boundary between his work and his life, between his person and his persona. His lyrics are a catalogue of brand names; on his body are tattooed the NBA, BET, MTV and WorldStarHipHop logos.” That’s something that actually needs to be challenged, but a shadowy nostalgic art that actually mirrors its values instead of subverting them is not going to do the trick. We need art that springs from actual commitment to alternative values, born from a renunciation of the attractive materialist values of our committed masscult.
In saying all this, I am not original. Matthew Schmitz, whose article I linked to above, makes this point better than I could. But I wanted to write this post to explain why, given the essential correctness of the case Schmitz and others make, I have felt so resistant to this line of argument. The reason for my resistance was, I think, that art that challenges materialism actually exists and is popular among some upper middle class people. Wendell Berry is, for me, the primary example, because his life exemplifies to an almost unimaginable degree commitment to the agricultural values he champions. The difficultly here is that there is much formal similarity, as well as similarity of audience, between Berry and his uncommitted, ironic imitators. So it can be difficult to distinguish between the real and the fake, and I think in some of their specific judgments the Deresiewicz supporters make might be guilty of that. But it’s an important task of discernment that we should devote ourselves to.
The solution is not just artistic, it would also have to be personal. The New York Times published an article this past Saturday by Christy Wampole entitled “How to Live Without Irony.” Wampole rejects Fitzgerald’s belief that we are in the age of “New Sincerity.” That movement “failed to stick, as evidenced by the new age of Deep Irony.” We are surrounded by irony, and we are the worse for it. She writes: “The ironic clique appears simply too comfortable, too brainlessly compliant. Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.”
It’s no surprise that, when Wampole lists groups of people who model non-ironic living for us, she mentions religious communities high up in the list. We have an important service to perform for our culture, not only in encouraging art that embodies committed non-materialism, but in choosing to live a more committed life, taking our beliefs seriously and earnestly.