A quarter century ago, before fashionable irony had morphed into pointlessly reflexive snark, artist Barbara Schreiber would sometimes play a game with the press releases she organized into a bimonthly calendar of regional art exhibitions.
Calling her fellow editors to attention, she would announce, “I’m going to read a list of exhibition titles, and you have to tell me whether this is an Ironic Postmodern Gesture or a Really Dumb Show.” The physical location of the institution was typically the clue as to whether an exhibition referencing, say, tourist memorabilia was an irony-laden cultural critique or a desperate attempt to put together a crowd-pleaser. (The double irony was that the ironic postmodern gesture was as likely to be a desperate attempt at a crowd-pleaser as the earnest piece of populism; it was just aimed at a different crowd.)
Some exhibitions in that long-gone era managed to be both, or perhaps a third thing. “The Cow Show” was an exhibition at Madison-Morgan Cultural Center that addressed the institution’s physical location in the middle of farm country and the need to present the many ways that even the most unlikely of topics could be addressed by contemporary art, in terms of style, emotional register, and philosophical assumptions. Since the art steered clear of the politics of dairy farming and beef production, everyone who attended the opening was pleased.
And I wore my “Cow Show” T-shirt to gallery openings for the rest of the warm-weather part of the Atlanta art season. I was younger; it was a double-edged postmodern gesture.
Now that “The Pictures Generation” has gotten its earnestly historical museum retrospective, we are more aware than ever of how many spins of the irony wheel have gone down since then.
Back then, Umberto Eco was suggesting that irony was the only way to express sincerity, as in “As a Barbara Cartland novel would put it, I love you.” Several faster-than-usual generations later, irony is the only way to express irony, masked by snark to conceal or reveal sincerity. Fake snark masks real resentment. Real snark also masks real admiration, or at other times is used to imply an admiration that is actually false, with a complexity worthy of the proverbial politics of the Renaissance.
And ironic once-postmodern gestures in art become ironic art-historical quotations. (Or perhaps they do. If you catch my meaning, if you get my drift.)
I once curated / juried “The Pear Show,” based on my observation of the remarkable diversity of the earnest amateur replications of a then-ubiquitous subject for art-association still-life painting. Though the organizer felt the need to spell it all out in the call for entries (titling it "Jerry Cullum's Fantasy Pear Show"), I had the expectation that professional artists would understand the implications. And they did; I got few enough straightforward paintings or photos of pears per se, though I also got no conceptual disquisitions on the economics of pear production or food distribution, or pseudo-psychoanalytic reflections on why pear-shaped objects might be pleasing subjects in standard-issue painting-class assignments.
It gave me an opportunity to quote Wallace Stevens’ manifestly untrue observation “The pears are not seen / As the observer wills” (since everything else in Stevens is exactly about how the final belief must be in a fiction that is a collision of the world and the observer’s will). It also gave me an opportunity to create a soundtrack featuring Erik Satie’s “pieces in the form of a pear.”
All this feeds back into my observation of Maurizio Cattelan’s sausage in the biennale gift bag, and the multiple generations of art objects and gestures to which it alludes and which it simultaneously honors and ridicules. It isn’t a great work of art, but it’ll do as a seasonal hors d’oeuvre.