Some Thoughts on Sarcasm

by William Skink

I’ve been thinking a lot about sarcasm, and not just because Pete Talbot felt obligated to butt into a comment thread to inform me of my hypocrisy for using sarcasm. It is a good place to start, though.

First, let’s define what we’re talking about. Sarcasm:

the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny

I will readily admit that my use of sarcasm is rarely to be funny. Usually it’s because I’m irritated at an opinion I find to be dangerously misguided. If criticizing someone else’s use of sarcasm means any subsequent use of it yourself equates to hypocrisy, then when I respond to something sarcastically I’ll just be a hypocrite.

As I was thinking about this yesterday I stumbled across a post by Dan Brooks, and man, has he taken criticizing the use of sarcasm to the next level by jumping on the bashing Banksy bandwagon.

Brooks should be congratulated for getting his Banksy and the Problem With Sarcastic Art printed in New York Times Magazine. That certainly is a big deal (humbly down played by Brooks burying it in his post criticizing the Sheriff’s department but omitting any reference to the newspaper that can’t even figure out which cop fired his gun at the Cadillac).

Here is Brooks warming up his critique:

“Dismaland” is spectacular, but its ideas are not everything you want a candidate for history’s largest work of conceptual art to be. For example, one of its most remarked-upon installations is a wreck of Cinderella’s carriage: Her body dangles luridly from the window, lit by the flashes of a paparazzi scrum.

That’s a reference. It’s not exactly ironic, nor is it funny. But it’s built like a joke: Like Cinderella, Diana became a princess by marriage. Also like Cinderella, Diana took a famous ride, but her fairy tale turned gruesome — what if Cinderella’s had ended the same way? That’s not exactly an insight, but it has a certain quality. Darren Cullen, a contributing artist for “Dismaland,” may have put it best: “This place is brilliant,” he told The Guardian. “It is just amazing having this much sarcasm in one place.”

Ah, sarcasm: the very highest form of wit. 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.

Later in the article, Brooks expounds on how sarcasm as kitsch undermines Dismaland and also relates this attitude to “the high brow, left-leaning Internet”:

Like other forms of kitsch, Banksy’s work presents conventional wisdom as insights: It’s true we have treated our princesses ghoulishly, particularly when their carriages crash. As with memes, Banksy asks us to substitute the sensation of recognizing a reference for the frisson of wit. And he sometimes seems to operate by formula, as the Twitter account @BanksyIdeas points out. “Stencil of a child assembling the toy from a Kinder Egg, yeah?” goes one such parody idea. “The parts fit together to make a handgun.”

This open indulgence in kitsch may be why the aspirational Internet — the knowing Internet that defines itself in opposition to a perceived, less savvy mainstream — seems to hate him. It is the narcissism of small differences. Like Banksy, the highbrow, left-leaning Internet frequently indulges in sarcasm; how else could it produce so much ostensibly clever content every day? 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.

I recommend reading the whole article for context. It’s pretty good.

Dan has already gotten some flak for his piece because apparently some people think you should actually, physically experience the vast art installation you are criticizing for being kitschy. From the link:

One of Banksy’s many talents is getting people in the public sphere to reveal themselves at their most self-serving. Like turning over a rock, his Dismaland has brought to light a gaggle of journalists (and/or editors, who goad them into it) willing to put their scruples aside and gain exposure by taking advantage of Banksy’s notoriety. I mean, really, you’d think that the first requirement of having an opinion on any experience would be to actually have the experience. But nooooo….first to tip me off to this phenom was a commenter who asked if the author of the negative Dismaland critique in the LA Times had actually attended it. Then in today’s New York Times Magazine, one Dan Brooks waxes at length on “Banksy and the Problem with Sarcastic Art.” citing negative reviews from Business Insider (“bad and boring”), HuffPo (“Dismaland is not interesting and neither is Banksy”) and others to bolster his point—while there’s no evidence that he, or any of the other writers, found occasion to visit the event. This conundrum is especially interesting when one considers that Brooks fancies himself a specialist in “ethical dilemmas” who, in his blog, has taken issue with those having an opinion about a book they haven’t read.

Rats! I should have written a critique of the Jeff Koons retrospective, which I missed, based on my certain assumption that I would have hated it.

Is this happening relative only to Banksy or does it portend a trend? If so, it’s bad news for readers, good news for writers who will no longer have to leave their chairs to cover music, art, theatre, restaurants, etc. Think of the gas money they can save! And no need to get a baby-sitter. As for hard news, staying home is not only a lot safer than going into a war zone, the food is much better.

In Brooks’ defense, he does write about tough ethical dilemmas that arise from his actual experiences, like homelessness in Missoula.

This piece opens with a personal vignette about a homeless woman Brooks refers to as “Poop Lady” because he claims this woman poops in his yard regularly, or maybe seasonally, since he interprets her presence to be a harbinger of spring. From the link:

Last Sunday, as I was loading cardboard to take to the recycling center—something I totally do every week and not just since my girlfriend moved in—a woman interrupted me to ask for money. I was vexed, partly because I had spent the afternoon cutting myself with a box knife, and partly because I recognized her as the lady who keeps pooping in my yard.

I was most vexed, though, because she did not recognize me. Although I identified the return of Poop Lady as a sign of spring, and although I have seen and even spoken to her under conditions more intimate than I have shared with anyone except once my college roommate, evidently I am no one to her. She saw me only as a source of spare change. And so I became angry at Poop Lady, and considered myself mistreated by her, right before I remembered that I am the biggest jerk in the world.

Further into this exploration of the ethical dilemma of homelessness, Brooks explains the challenge of moving from ignoring homeless people in New York to kind of getting to know homeless people in Montana:

When I lived in New York, I experienced the homeless as an environmental feature not unlike Starbucks. I wished there were fewer Starbucks around and eventually resolved to stop giving money to them, but I was never mad at Starbucks. When I saw Starbucks on the train or passed out in, um, Starbucks, I accepted it as a sad but unavoidable consequence of modern society. I was in the city, after all.

In this mountain valley, on the other hand, homeless people feel disconcertingly less like a social consequence and more like human beings. I recognize many of them, and the ones I don’t recognize seem like newcomers to an already crowded party. And even though I am a totally cool guy who contributes all sorts of fun stuff to this party, including my willingness to defecate only in specified locations, these homeless people treat me as if I am no one at all. They just keep asking me for money, reminding me that my professed ethics have pretty much nothing to do with how I live my daily life.

I wish they would go away. They make me feel bad, even though—but also because—I am unwilling to do anything about them. I feel like Missoula should be somehow exempt from homeless problems. Evidently, I am not alone.

Banksy may not be saving the world with his latest artistic project, but at least he’s looking at the horror capitalism produces and responding in a way that gets people talking (and thinking) instead of wishing the evidence of capitalism’s misery, like homelessness, would just go away.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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6 Responses to Some Thoughts on Sarcasm

  1. steve kelly says:

    Excellent post today. Thank you. It is an artist’s duty to “speak the unspeakable.” Others may contemplate or not. It often takes decades for a proper exchange to happen between viewers and the work.
    You might like Mark Bryan’s paintings too.
    #41 of new works: “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” is one hard to dismiss….

  2. artvent says:

    Thanks for this!! Beautifully done.

  3. Skylar says:

    So Banksy’s “looking,” “responding” and “talking” are better than Brooks’s “wishing”? As someone who spent most of today cleaning up a public park, I hope you’ll permit me to share my doubts about that.

  4. Stubble says:

    Dude, did you intentionally trim the quotes of Brooks’s homelessness essay in order to make him look like an unfeeling asshole, or did you just not finish reading it? Right after his confessional “I wish they would go away” paragraph, he spends the remainder of the essay criticizing the city government for also merely wishing the problem away.

    Brooks may be at fault for criticizing a work of art he didn’t travel across the Atlantic to see, but all you had to do was read six more paragraphs.

    • yes, I read the piece, and yes, I intentionally selected the quotes. while the rest of the column may absolve Brooks’ jarring description of Poop Lady and comparing New York homeless to Starbucks, I’d say it’s a bit frustrating how columnists get to just glide on to the next hot topic while those in the trenches keep plugging away as nothing changes and in fact worsens.

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