Saturday, January 7, 2023

Radical Sincerity

Something John Berger simply won't shut up about is some generalized notion of sincerity, of honesty, of genuineness. Art, as near as I can tell, he evaluates almost entirely on whether or not it can persuade him that it is sincere, in some hard-to-grasp way. He sounds like an inversion of Holden Caulfield: instead of railing against the phonies, Berger praises only the non-phonies.

This is certainly something I find as I muck around, struggling to do art-like things that have gravitas and meaning.

On the one hand, the point isn't actually to be sincere, but to persuade the viewer that one is sincere. On the other hand, it seems as if actually doing the thing might be the simplest way to persuade viewers that one is doing it. Also, of course, I am the first and most engaged member of my own audience, and I am rather more difficult to fool about my own intentions. I wish to be sincere, to be genuine, to be honest, whatever squishy weird thing that might mean.

This is something that showed up in my time at Antidote last fall. I think it's possible that every single person said something about it, possibly prompted by me. I arrived, after all, with the goal of wrestling with this exact, specific, thing, however nebulous it is. It's not that I need to be humorless, or to discard cynicism, or whatever, but I don't want to be superficial about it.

Whatever sincerity is, I am pretty sure it includes caring what people think about your art-like work. It should hurt if they don't like it, I think. Is it because whatever this nebulous "sincerity" thing is includes a commitment to getting through to people, so when that fails, it feels personal? Not sure. This doesn't seem to be quite what Berger is on about, although it might be a consequence. It all kind of comes down to "Millet was awesome at peasants because Millet was a peasant."

This shows up in anything we might consider conceptual art, and I think there it boils down to little more than a belief in your concept. If you don't believe in whatever it is you're trying to communicate, believe it truly, deeply, madly, than your work is going to struggle to be good. There was a lot of anti-Trump art made which struck me as in a sense insincere — not because I think the artist secretly loved Trump, but rather because the point was to say the "right things" rather than to say what they actually believed, even though these were often pretty much the same.

This, I suppose, is why contrarian art is in some sense easier. It's obvious that you're not numbly following a trend, you must believe something, surely? Also, there is a sense that, in defying the common trends, you open yourself to criticism and suffering, so, surely you must be truly committed to whatever the idea is? Of course, by the same tokens, contrarianism can become another cheap road to false gravitas.

Anyway. You gotta believe. You gotta be honest and true, and it's got to show.

I think..


  1. Most 'outsider' art suffers from a surfeit of sincerity. It is oozing sincerity. This quality, in itself, doesn't make art any more interesting -- and it is why most overtly political art fails, or is thereby diminished. Art encompasses a whole lot of stuff, and any efforts to define and delimit what that is or can be are doomed to fail. But there are precedents.

    Consider two, overtly political works of art by the same painter, Picasso's "Guernica," and "Massacre in Korea." The first is a powerful masterpiece, the second more closely resembles a wannabe's pastiche, as did the great bulk of his later, non-political oeuvre. Picasso veered from ultra-sincere, heart-on-his-sleeve stuff (notably his "blue" and "rose" periods), to analytical cubism.

    I sincerely don't care if most people like my work, I'd rather they did not, because it means I'm doing the wrong thing. I do care how particular people react to my work, but I'm ambivalent about whether I want them to like it. I kind of do, but on the whole, I'd rather they didn't -- and said why. For me, art is a kind of dialog. Talking around it is like a bad translation; an indecipherable mess that occasionally yields some cryptic clues.

    The art I like speaks to me with crystal clarity, and I want to answer back with something new I made of it, in my own voice. In the possibly vain hope that eventually, another pair of eyes will recognize something in it. Art from other cultures, and other epochs can only be imperfectly understood, if at all. That is part of its charm. I want that charm.

    1. I may have misspoken, or been thinking with a critic-voice, or something.

      It's possible to "like" something critically, to "get it", to "believe it" or whatever, without "liking" it in quite another sense, right? One can actually hate a painting, in the sense that you actively want to not own it, and perhaps even leave the room, but still perceive some power, some greatness maybe, in it.

      I'm ok with people hating my work! I just want it to speak to them with some good semblance of sincerity and power. If they hate what it says, that's fine! I just don't want it to be "phony" in Caulfield's sense. And, to be honest, I reach for the "phony" sometimes, as a way out, as a safety play.

  2. Funnily enough, the newsletter I sent out today touches, obliquely, on the things you are pondering here.

    And, if I may . . . I believe you have the sincerity-includes-caring-what-people-think thing exactly wrong.

    Seems to me that if your work comes from your bones, you know it and you know it's right, no matter what. (Of course, there are always some who believe they are being true to themselves, but aren't, and that's a whole other thing). 

    If, on the other hand, you are imitating sincerity you’ll really, really want folks to like it, to buy in to the lie, because that’ll make you feel your manufactured sincerity is actually righteous.

Here’s a link to my newsletter, if you have the time and inclination:

    1. I treat "caring what people think" as a diagnostic, rather than a goal. Rather like "good works" in the Christian faith - it's not that good works get you into heaven, they explicitly won't, it's that if you've got Faith (which *will* get you into heaven) then you just naturally do good works. Good works are a diagnostic, not a mechanism.

      There could be other diagnostics!

      Also, I include myself in my audience. I am capable of making myself feel better about bad work by muttering "eh, it was just a test, or a game, or a joke" which is a Bad Sign.

    2. Well I messed up the link to my newsletter. Typical. The original link was to my website. You wanna read the newsletter? Here:

    3. Tony's newsletter is highly recommended. I don't always punch the air and yell "YES! YES! THAT!!!!" but I always feel like someone, somewhere, is.

    4. Tony, I really enjoyed reading about your background! It filled in a lot of the blanks.