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May 16, 2011 / dlw43

Irony Overload

Over the weekend I saw Con Artist, a documentary about artist Mark Kostabi, the Icarus of the 80s NY art world.  (Ovation was running some sort of marathon on crazy artists, and I for one cannot fathom a more fascinating topic.  The Art of Failure was riveting as well.)  Someone in Con Artist (probably an art critic) was being interviewed about Kostabi, and he said something striking about irony.  It went approximately like this: “Kostabi had created a vortex of irony so deep, so dark, and so profound, with so many sets of quotation marks surrounding quotation marks that….” I can’t remember anything after that, except that I felt galvanized with agreement.  The last part of the critic’s statement discussed the not-so-good things caused by said irony vortex. There was a lot of theorizing going on in the documentary, generally about art and in particular about Kostabi’s precipitous and infamous fall from grace.

Dubbed the Andy Warhol of the 80s, Kostabi earned that moniker in no small part due to his adept use of irony in both his artwork and persona. As he began to gain sucess, he expanded on that theme in grander and more outrageous ways.  Kostabi World was created, a studio where hordes of clock-punching, minimum wage-earning painting assistants churned out work that Kostabi would sign and sell.  The art(ist)-as-prostitute metaphor was furthered by installing a peep show window on West 24th Street, where a quarter bought onlookers a chance to watch, for a few moments, assistants creating Kostabis. He was quoted as saying that “modern art is a con and I’m the world’s biggest con artist.”  Critical mass came when the layers of irony embedded into his persona and work schtick became too tedious to deal with.  A small cadre of art world career-makers and breakers threw their hands up in the air and simultaneously declared they were through with him.  And that was it for Kostabi.  Well, sort of.  For a good long while, anyway.

In the film, his personality as outsider-trying-to-get-in was as humble as his  personality prior to exile was obnoxious.  These days, Kostabi insists that his 80s persona was all an act, a social satire on the relationship between art and commerce.  By the latter part of the documentary, Kostabi had managed to wedge one part of one foot through the opening of the almost-closed door of the art world. At the very point when the first gleanings of a comeback first began to appear, Kostabi relapsed.  He burned two 500 euro notes, threw around a couple of his paintings, and rolled around on the ground ranting.  After the debacle was over, he archly inquired of the cameraman if he had gotten some good “crazy artist” footage.  Plus one for irony, again.

I liked the documentary because Kostabi, I mean irony, got its comeuppance (sort of).  But I’ve taken a literature class or two in my time, and I’ve read some art theory.  I get it when critics and theorists say that irony is used by artists to recognize and reconcile incongruities inherent in the modern world, to express historical discontinuity and feelings of alienation.  And that’s all fine and well, but what I’m saying is that it’s been the stock-in-trade of the literary and visual arts worlds for the last one hundred years now.  Since WWI almost everyone who uses a keyboard or paintbrush to make a living has spent boatloads of time and energy pointing out a problem that we are all know about already.  And in the case of Kostabi World, an art theory buzzword was shrewdly used by the artist to justify greed and monetary gain.

Maybe the time has come for post-irony.  Would that be post-postmodernism?  (Is it just me, or does the term post-postmodernism seem to exude irony?)  Apparently, the point has been reached where irony has become hard-wired into my sensibilities.  Although the words post-postmodernism don’t exactly roll trippingly off the tongue, the upside is that it’s a double negative and irony cancels out.

Maybe it isn’t irony that has gotten old, maybe it’s me. It’ll probably be used forevermore as the definitive cleverness gauge for a certain age group.  As for me, aside from the occasional David Sedaris story, I am pretty much over it.

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