By Lauren Smart
By Jane R. LeBlanc
By Lauren Smart
By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
It's that subtle wrinkle of a more serious meaning on top of a deceptively trite one that sticks in your head and is the most indicative of Romantic irony, and it's not merely trying to find humor in a serious subject. There's an entirely more sophisticated process at play. Warhol pushed the idea of the artist as machine as a way of forcing contemporary viewers into realizing how much consumer culture and highbrow culture have become intertwined. That idea is even more pronounced now. It's almost as if Clement Greenberg's hard-lined argument in "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" has come full circle. In his context, kitsch was that element of commodity culture, the ersatz world of the mundane. High art--modernism in his case--was art about art, the intellectually heavy stuff.
Since then, however, the rift that separates the life of the mind from the life of the commodity has dwindled dramatically. The age of intellectual property has made "product" and "idea" almost interchangeable in a court of law. And when human thought can seemingly be patented as though it were just another newfangled widget, what does that leave for the individual? Does he or she conceive of him or herself as just an idea machine spitting out product?
The resounding no to that question was delivered by America's greatest practitioner of Romantic irony, Wallace Stevens, when he wrote of the duty to give life the "supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it." Writing in the New York Times book review in 1947, the ardent American critic F.O. Matthiessen recognized Stevens' preoccupation with the "differences between the observed thing and what the imagination can make of it" when he noticed:
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"All of Stevens' later work has been written against the realization that we live in a time of violent disorder. The most profound challenge in his poems is his confidence that even in such a time, even on the verge of ruin, a man can re-create afresh his world out of the unfailing utilization of his inner resources. The value of the creative imagination, of 'supreme fictions' in their fullest abundance, lies in the extension, even to the point of grandeur, that they add to our common lives."
Quite simply, Stevens gave equal consideration to the serious and the silly in order to endear life's tumultuous turns. And it's something that many of us, consciously or not, do on a daily basis. Sure, we laughed when the weekly satire paper The Onion winningly opined, "A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again" recently, obviously poking fun at what President Bush's call to "return to normal" implies. Back to the self-absorbed obsessions with various pop-cult effluvia. But lurking right behind that chuckle is the grave realization that the luxurious, comfortable freedom of even having "stupid bullshit" to care or not to care about is something that America, rightly and wrongly, has always regarded as an inalienable right.