We have been battling it out ever since.
Twentieth century modern art, obsessed as it was by insanity and criminality, alternately argued for the authenticity of the outsider, the rebellious, or the exotic, and the lionization of the authentic individual. Yet Marcel Duchamp declared that his main aesthetic fight was against "bloody earnestness." Andy Warhol made sculptures of Coke bottles and Brillo boxes while his politically earnest peers—Hans Haacke, for example—tried to fight social injustice through art. Since Warhol and late 1960s, irony has played an increasingly influential role in art-making and cultural production, turning sincerity eventually into "sincerity," resulting in the one-upmanship of coolness that has motivated American culture for the last half-century. It is no mistake that early 1960s Ray-Bans and oversized sunglasses are back, and with vigor. * * *
And so here we still are, caught between irony and sincerity—living in an age of both, depending on where you look. Churches still are not huge fans of irony, but corporations with eyes on capturing the youth market are. Politicians are surely more ironic than they used to be, depending, of course, on what state they represent. I can't help but thinking that our situation might be a Candide-like ideal, considering the extremes of either direction: If you go too far with irony, you get the radically superficial society of late 18th-century France, where ironic remove overshadowed all. Too far in the second direction (the removal of all social masks), you get the bloodshed of revolution, or the soul-bearing of revelation: Oprah, Dr. Phil, Facebook, and awful self-help books like Mike Robbins's Be Yourself! Everyone Else is Already Taken: Using The Power of Authenticity to Transform Your Life and Relationships (2009).
That being said, I agree more with Fitzgerald that ours is an age of increasing sincerity. One need really only look at what counts as inventive new music, film, or art. Much of it is stripped down, bare, devoid of over-production, or aware of its production—that is, an irony that produces sincerity. Sure, pop music and Jeff Koons alike retain huge pull (read: $$$), but lately there has been a return to artistic and musical genres that existed prior to the irony-debunking of 9/11: early punk, disco, rap, New Wave—with an winking nod to sparse Casio keyboard sounds, drum machines, naïve drawing, fake digital-look drawings, and jangly, Clash-like guitars. Bands like Arcade Fire, Metric, Scissor Sisters, CSS, Chairlift, and the Temper Trap all go in for heavy nostalgia and an acknowledgement of a less self-conscious, more D.I.Y. time in music.
There has also been a resurgence of American folk music over the past decade. Indie-folk, freak-folk, psych-folk, and New Weird America; singer-songwriters like Beck, Elliot Smith, Will Oldham, Mark Kozolek, Devandra Banhart, Black Mountain, Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, M. Ward, Bright Eyes, Tiny Vipers, My Morning Jacket, Bon Iver, Scout Niblet, Phosphorescent, and Fleet Foxes, among so many more. With wistful looks to the rustic American past, much of this music revives the sounds of 19th-century Scots-Irish Appalachian outback: acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjos, dobros, falsetto voice, and gospel-like harmonizing. Other works recall the bare-bones music of the 1960s: Simon and Garfunkle, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, Joan Baez. All of it expresses this clear equation: pure voice + instrument = sincerity. This traditional equation, made so famous during the 1960s, communicates emotional escape from the spastic commercialism of top-40 radio and the corporate-christened authenticity of figures like Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.