Why So Sarcastic?

Bobby sent me a slightly older story about “sarcastic” art. The story pokes fingers into your head, suggesting you reflect on what the world is like right now. Are we all super fucking jaded sarcastic bitches or are we actually saying and producing things that are worthy of attention? Things to think about.

The article is an essay reflecting on Banksy’s Dismaland as it relates to the artist’s aesthetic of the ironic. The writer—Dan Brooks—posits that the artist is a product of a culture entirely over it, exhausted by being. Much of this relates to kitsch and the idea of art giving a feeling. This is problematic because the “feeling” our culture is obsessed with is sarcasm. Why? Because of the Internet’s obsession with sarcasm.

“Ah, sarcasm,” Brooks writes. “The very highest form of wit.” You can feel everything built by a person who has grown up online crashing off the desk.

In the dictionary, “sarcasm” is still defined as the use of irony to convey contempt. But what we call sarcasm, especially on the Internet, has become less a technique than an attitude: a contempt so settled that it doesn’t bother constructing ironies. I submit that this sarcastic attitude, which presents itself as the perspective of a knowing few, is actually one of the dominant aesthetics of our age. Sarcasm is our kitsch.

That doesn’t sound that bad until you go to websites like Buzzfeed and see their top headlines are “I Baked Every Technical Challenge From The Great British Bake Off And It Was A Fucking Disaster” and “I Did A Two-Month Sugar Detox And Nothing Really Happened.” You realize it’s popular to have a crossed arm, bratty, “Well, whatever.” attitude. That is the attitude of the internet. It’s annoyed, it’s underwhelmed, it’s pleasured by pain, it’s disaster porn: it’s sarcasm. Like Banksy, we’re steeped in our own shit and we’re half-smiling about it because we love and hate it so much and want to endure it for the sake of a joke.

This way of thinking is nothing new for Banksy. What is new is that he made an entire amusement park for us to realize that his way of funny-terrible thinking is now how we all think. Nothing was that shocking about Dismaland yet people flocked to it because they wanted to go, take photos, and relay “Meh.” to the world. Everyone wants to jokingly hate! That is who we are now.

Can we fix this? Hopefully. It won’t be fast but it is possible. Brooks even highlights a potential solution.

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.

That’s true. Some of these corners of culture—online or offline, in galleries and out of galleries—are seeking to better the world through their work. No, Buzzfeed isn’t really doing that nor are any other listicle websites but some are truly trying to use the comedy of life’s worst moments to help us fix the world. I see that in the work of artist Christine Wang and musician Molly Nilsson. There is a delicateness and extreme seriousness to these works that, while funny, are extremely sobering. They’re about life and death without a laugh. But for Banksy and much of Internet culture? It’s about laughing at life and death without processing why we laugh.

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