Oh Sincerity! So Maligned. (Some Notes on Doubt and Certainty)

This essay was first published as an introduction for the MFA Goldsmiths Fine Art catalogue in 2013.


“I, too, wondered whether I could not sell something and succeed in life. For some time I had been no good at anything. I am forty years old… Finally the idea of inventing something insincere finally crossed my mind and I set to work straightaway. At the end of three months I showed what I have produced to Philippe Edouard Toussaint, the owner of the Galerie St Laurant. ‘But it is art,’ he said, ‘and I will willingly exhibit all of it.’ ‘Agreed,’ I replied. If I sell something, he takes 30%. It seems these are the usual conditions, some galleries take 75%. What is it? In fact it is objects.”

Marcel Broodthaers (1964)

Insincerity has a bad reputation – but sincerity has an even worse one; to be insincere is to deceive, to be sincere is to be naïve. On the one hand we want the truth and on the other we need to acknowledge that there are only positions and opinions. Sincerity only became a moral and artistic virtue during the Romantic period of the seventeenth century. First discussed by Aristotle as a “desirable state between the deficiency of irony and the excess of boastfulness” we can begin to see Marcel Broodthaers perceived modesty ( I had been no good at anything) as a trait of sincerity. Broodthaers adds further complications by his pointed use of its antonym in his text – he makes the equation that to be an artist is to be insincere. Can we believe a word he is saying? Can you really trust a word I’m saying?
Broodthaers’ statement was originally issued as a press release for an exhibition at Galerie St Laurant in 1964 and heralds the moment where he became an artist after ‘a number of unsuccessful years as a poet’. It is a complicated gesture and one that caught a paradigmatic shift within the art world in a number of ways. He openly acknowledges the world of commerce (aligning himself to emergent pop sensibilities) and preempts much Conceptual Art through his interest in language and cryptology. He also embraces a pluralistic relationship to identity and a more fluid sense of subjectivity typical of Postmodernism. If historically, the artist occupied a stable position of the authentic self then Broodthaers’ invocation of insincerity points towards a figure that is tactical rather than intuitive. Insincerity suggests that subjectivity is provisional, and open to negotiation.

Are you doing art or being art?

Broodthaers’ text encapsulates the contemporary malaise of attempting be both sincere and insincere – to take up a position while not wanting to be pinned down. We can see in these complex games with language the production of conditional subjectivities – today I’m an artist who makes paintings, tomorrow I’m an artist who makes performances. Art becomes a conscious decision framed by intellect and distance rather than embodied through the authentic self – an artist is not driven by compulsion but rather decides to do art, and to perform the role of the ‘artist’.

Self Depreciating Lone Wolfs

Broodthaers’ declarative intent is qualified by his previous failure (‘I had been no good at anything’ ). He plays down expectations and re-positions creativity as a pragmatic vocation – well now what? Broodthaers’ admits to the limitations of the lone wolf, art (like poetry) is only active in conversation and debate. The root of the word sincerity comes from Latin for a pure and clean sound. Insincerity much like irony is the deliberate production of divergent and competing communicative approaches. To keep artwork active and circulating it needs to be kept in a form of theoretical purgatory – a perpetual intellectual crisis.

Good change is always good, but bad change is no good

“It is disastrous to name ourselves”

-William De Kooning (mid-Fifties)

On the Wikipedia page for art movements I counted 136 terms, and many more missing. Most of these date from the start of Modernism, around the middle of the 19th century through to the end of the 1960’s – which, for the sake of argument we will state is the end point of the Modernist narrative. During the subsequent decades we see most of these terms pre-fixed with a neo, geo, or meta and re-packaged. What is art? Nobody really knows, but as Michael Chow once said, “art is big, round and good” – that sounds like a good place to start. We are prisoners of words, and naming something enables us to fix it, to group sensibilities and embalm them. An art movement fixes agendas and establishes hierarchies and omissions, are you on the guest list or not?

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Self designation…

The late Sixties saw an explosion of new art terms as critics struggled to keep up with artistic production. It was a golden age of radical art criticism with figures such as Lucy Lippard, Brian O’Doherty and Charles Harrison attempting to create a new vocabulary to provide the coordinates for new activities and strategies. It was a moment, to para-phase Nicholas Cullinan of ‘semantic schizophrenia’. It was also a time of doubt and uncertainity that sought refuge in classification and designation.

Lets start an art movement

Micro-emotiveness is a great term from the early Seventies that has been lost to the ravages of time, it was applied to the work of Bas Jan Ader, Gilbert and George amongst others to describe what we would now call Romantic Conceptualism. It seems applicable (and catchy) enough to be applied to the work of diverse figures such as Heather Phillipson, Ed Atkins, and Helen Marten – you’ve heard it first here!

Wierd figurines from some forgotten art movement (An ode to marginalia!)

“The term avant-garde should be returned to the ranks of the french army”

Jasia Reichhardt

Anti-Form, Serial – Art, Idea-Based, Analytic Art, Laboratory Art, Neo-Geo, Figuration Libre, Heftige Malerei, Figurative Lettrisme, Meulheimer Freiheit, New Neurotic Realism, Sea Punk, Intimisme, Trans – Avantgardia, Systematic Abstraction, Post-Baroque, Neoism. Definitions make bad art, worse philosophy and good copy.


What does it mean to become an artist?

Anything that you wanna do, any place that you wanna go
Don’t need permission for everything that you want…
‘cos this is a new art school

The Jam ‘Art School’ (1977)

Paul Weller never went to art school, yet he understood art college’s allure to a disenfranchised working class kid. Art school offers an assumed space of utopian permissiveness. It is a place where you can rehearse what you want to say before you really know how to say it.
Like any other industry, art has its own complex jargon and endless acronyms that require many years of education to learn. Art school equips you with the ability to ask the wrong questions in the right way.

Taking Issue…

Modernist Art had a problem with history, Post-Modernism had issues with the future – do we have a problem with both? We are caught in a kind of theoretical pirouette, like Natalie Portman’s character in the Black Swan – unable to focus on the horizon.

Artistic Anecdotes

I used to work in a gallery bookshop and I would often receive portfolios from artists intended for the curator. Once a portfolio came in prefaced by a small note telling the curator that they had created a new type of art. The portfolio was full of badly photographed images of Pollock pastiches painted in day-glo acrylic that went straight in the bin.
Bad art often prefaces itself with hype, jargon and grand claims. Good artists often seem happy to change themselves through the process of making their work. To change history to start with the self.

A Drum Roll, Please……..

What is it? Who is it for? Is it art? Is it different? Is it good or bad? What is at stake? Why do I do this? What is true? Why should I care? Art is only as good as the questions it asks itself. An essay should always end with a question or an anecdote, shouldn’t it?

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