… they use irony as a vehicle of heroism …
Jasper Johns, Light Bulb I, 1958
… within the framework of Johns’s stubborn American version of Oriental surrender to contingency, we have a thankless task if we attempt to decide to what degree his art is ironic, or critical, or simply stoic. Is the passivity of these sculptures, in relation to the world of mass advertising they include, a contemplation like that of a monk meditating upon a rock, or a strategic acquiescence, like the judo adept who accepts the oncoming blow only in order to use the power of his adversary as a weapon?
[line break added] Seen from the vantage of the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic, these works seemed deflatingly inert, negative, and destructive: they appeared to be using stuff of commerce to counter art. But from the viewpoint of younger artists in the next decade, they seemed like a liberation, and an incitement to use art as a means of coming to grips with the larger world.
[ … ]
Claes Oldenburg, Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, 1969, reworked 1974
… there is an implicit aesthetic-cum-social argument here — directly against the afflatus of commemorative sculpture, but implicitly against ideals of social and cultural unity being vested in an abstruse, hypocritically lofty symbolic language. To ask whether these proposals are ironic or heroic is to miss the point: they use irony as a vehicle of heroism in the way Philip Guston’s paintings take comedy as a vehicle for tragedy.
[line break added] The radical idea of satire is uppermost here, in the Swiftian sense that by making familiar things alien, we get outside our conventions and achieve a critical objectivity about our society.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.