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Sincerity Now!

Maus, Tom and Jerry, and the dawning of a new age

Robin Cembalest
March 09, 2006

“It’s really terrible to be a Jew,” said Alex Melamid, the artist formerly of the Sotsart duo Komar & Melamid. “Irving, are you Jewish or not?”

From the first row of chairs packed tightly into the apexart gallery, art historian Irving Sandler genially assented. Evoking Warhol’s famous portfolio of Jews of the 20th century, Melamid suggested a new portfolio: The Jew who invented the gulag, the Jew who invented fascism, the head of the KGB. “We’ll sell it to every anti-Semite,” he remarked.

“I carry this burden,” he went on. “It’s not only I crucified Jesus. It’s a shame to be a Jew.”

“But it got you out of Russia,” said Art Spiegelman, his respondent on the panel.

“If we were at the 92nd Street Y, you’d be lynched,” said the moderator, art critic Amei Wallach.

But we were in a Tribeca alternative space where some audience members were appalled by the panelists’ chain smoking but no one seemed particularly bothered by Melamid’s comments. They took them for what they were, a combination of irony and shtick. Which are, in a sense, the components of Neosincerity, the theme of the evening and the title of an exhibition curated by Wallach on view through April 8. Its subtitle is “The Difference Between the Comic and the Cosmic is a Single Letter.”

Both Spiegelman and Melamid take credit for coining the term “Neosincerity,” but everyone agreed that it could also be called post-irony, if it didn’t sound so highfalutin. They also agreed that irony has lost its sting. “We got immunized against irony,” Spiegelman said. “It makes you shrug. It’s a new way of making you passive.”

“Irony, schmirony,” said Melamid.

* * *

In the exhibition’s brochure, Wallach defines Neosincerity as an approach grounded in irony but allowing for the expression of sentiment and emotion, thanks to black humor, pratfalls, buffoonery, and other comic devices. Literary examples, she says, include Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon, and Zadie Smith. For the purposes of this art show, it is the thread linking In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman’s graphic novel chronicling his response to September 11; a cartoonish painting by William Anthony called “Feminist Andrea Dworkin Thinks Rape Victims Should Be Able to Execute Their Attackers Personally”; and works by Ida Applebroog, Nancy Spero, David Hammons, among many others.

In “Custom Rim Job,” German artist Olav Westphalen rides a bike whose spokes are swastikas. Westphalen previously showed this slapstick video at New York’s Goethe-Institut. He told me he expected Holocaust survivors to sound the alarm, but the only complaints in the guestbook came from his fellow Germans.

Meanwhile, in the video “Girls Beware,” a Russian prostitute who is really the incredible, shape-shifting Israeli artist Tamy Ben-Tor recites every stereotype she can think of about Arabs. In her other hilarious video, “Women Talk About Adolf Hitler,” she appears as an American gender-studies expert who analyzes the Führer, a French tart who fetishises him, and a host of characters so outlandish, offensive, and dead-on that critics have taken to describing her as Cindy Sherman meets someone else—Lily Tomlin and Ali G, to name two.

While Wallach’s point about the Y was well-taken—context has a lot do to with what’s considered transgressive—it is also true that in this country Holocaust shtick, as the strategies of these Israeli and German artists might be called, is firmly ensconced in the mainstream: the Schindler’s List makeout session on Seinfeld; the “Survivor” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. In a recent promo for ABC’s new comedy Sons & Daughters, children draw a Hitler moustache on the face of a sleeping aunt, suggesting that the network considered the scenario particularly funny— and, I would imagine, negligibly offensive.

These days, of course, what’s funny, what’s offensive, and what absolutely should not be said is on everyone’s mind. David Irving has been sentenced to three years in jail. The Internet is flooded with anti-Semitic cartoons, a logical response to the Danish cartoon controversy, if you call the competition for Holocaust cartoons launched by the Tehran paper Hamshahri a logical response, and the Israeli Anti-Semitic Cartoons Contest a logical response to that. “We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!” said Amitai Sandy, a graphic artist who launched the contest. “No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!” Clearly an example of irony, not Neosincerity.

The Israeli contest seemed funny at first to Emory professor Deborah Lipstadt, who had agreed to serve as a judge. However, as she explained on her blog, it occurred to her that Arab and Muslim news outlets might run the cartoons, a concept that is not too far-fetched when you check out the submissions on the Israeli Web site. She rescinded her services and urged the contest be cancelled.

Lipstadt did, however, support the right of European papers to publish the Danish cartoons, which raises more interesting questions about how, when, and where we can make fun of ourselves—and others. If the Iranian media seeks anti-Semitic programming, not that it needs any help, couldn’t it bootleg Curb Your Enthusiasm?

Did I mention they didn’t need any help? Last month, according to a report, Iranian TV broadcast a lecture by a professor named Hasan Bolkhari, who argued that Tom and Jerry was a propaganda effort by the Jewish Walt Disney Company to rehabilitate the image of the Jew as a dirty mouse. “The mouse is very clever and smart,” Bolkhari said. “Everything he does is so cute. He kicks the poor cat’s ass. Yet this cruelty does not make you despise the mouse. He looks so nice, and he is so clever.”

I am not sure exactly what Bolkhari means, probably because I am a cat person.

* * *

During the panel at apexart, Melamid promoted a new movement called Neo-Senility, an excuse to joke about late de Kooning. Spiegelman, meanwhile, showed the Danish cartoons. He showed an Israeli cartoon. He showed his own “Three Submissions for Iran’s Anti-Semitic Cartoon Contest,” which was published in the February 27 New Yorker. Compared to some of Spiegelman’s past contributions to the magazine, these cartoons did not seem particularly likely to offend, nor was that the intention, he said. But they did have statements to make. “If Palestinian blood is a metaphor,” he said of an image of a man in a restaurant telling a waitress that Palestinian blood is bad for his cholesterol, “then one might be able to say it isn’t good for Israel.”

The New Yorker‘s deadline had passed when Spiegelman came up with what he called his “final solution” to the contest. He showed a cartoon depicting inmates at a death camp on the way to the gas chamber. One is doubled over in laughter. “Ha ha ha,” the caption said. “What’s really hilarious is that none of this is actually happening.” I liked the cartoon. There was something very manic about it, absurdist. Definitely an example of Neosincerity. He understands that producing a disgusting cartoon in this genre would be too easy, and not too interesting. Any idiot can make a cartoon about the blood libel, as the Israeli cartoon contest quickly showed.

Later, at home, I wondered if the panelists were right. “Is irony over?” Typing it into my computer, I felt like Carrie Bradshaw. I continued. “Is it possible to develop antibodies? And if we are finally resistant to irony, is Neosincerity the new zeitgeist?” I thought about the success of Jon Stewart, who has become hugely popular by making a comic show the most honest news broadcast on TV—and even managed to make a Munich joke at the Oscars. Maybe we’re on the cusp of a new age of shtick.

There might be something to this Neosincerity after all.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

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