Tropes Exemplified in Works of Art 7: Irony

by Mark Staff Brandl

This week, I am continuing my short series of fine artworks exemplifying major tropes. This is the seventh entry.

The list of major tropes, to which I am referring, I published on this website a while ago, “A List of the Most Important Tropes and Their Definitions”; here is the link:

As I said in the first six parts, over the next several weeks, I will take each trope from the list and link it to a major work of art. This will include artworks from a large variety of time periods and in many different media, if I am successful. Generally, I will be looking for artworks that embody the trope under consideration within their formal elements, clearly showing the trope in visual use. This week, Number 7:


The use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. A statement or situation where the meaning is contradicted by the appearance or presentation of the idea. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room,” (Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, 1964).

In many ways, I am not even certain I need to “reveal” this trope in fine art. It is THE most overused and over-referred-to figure in Postmodern art. The term irony is nowadays even frequently misused, due to people finding it simply such a de rigueur word — e.g., I have cringed to hear people use irony when they meant coincidence.

Even more pernicious, the concept itself is often abused as justification for formal or conceptual weakness. In the style of art I have labeled “Feeble Art” (Link), its practitioners, when quizzed about a work’s obvious ineptness, frequently answer “I painted it badly on purpose; that is ironic,” or the like. That is not truly irony, it is lazy self-justification: imaginary irony as a cover for incompetence and rootless plagiarism. Irony has much to do with the human gap between expectation and fulfillment. However, as I wrote in my dissertation,

“The human gap between expectation and fulfillment, the basic problem of the mediated nature of our experience, has been a perennial point of trouble which began as a philosophical problem long before “new media” entered the scene. We know nothing but what reaches us through our senses or from information supplied by others. There is no “direct” contact with any concrete reality as such. The epistemological anxiety over this state of affairs, as well as its exploitation in the form of ironic reiteration, is a mainstay of contemporary literary critical theories and the works of art inspired by them. This is Postmodernism’s pride and its folly.” 1

Literary critic Harold Bloom, discussing Poststructuralism, one of the chief theory systems behind Postmodernist art, has asserted that modern deconstructive critics “truly dispute only degrees of irony.”2 It would appear that this is also true of most Postmodernist fine art. Self-irony that is not cynical can indeed be a leavening element of highly intellectual and/or difficult art, but largely it now appears to be requisite ingredient in the academicist recipes for consensus-correct art.

Bad irony can be found in the largest percentage of Neo-Conceptualist artworks — or even better “irony,” in scare-quotes, ironic irony. (Writing it thus pleasantly reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s statement that reality is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes.”3

To drop a few names: there are Caro Niederer (Link), David Chieppo (Link), and Raoul De Keyser (Link), from the Feeble Art continuum.

There are Haim Steinbach (Link), Sherrie Levine (Link), and Richard Prince (Link) from Neo-Conceptualism. As can be seen in all of these artists’ works, irony can easily become merely clever and smug.

What about a positive use of irony in visual art? (This author asks rhetorically yet not ironically.) Yes, there are some, although generally the best at the moment are those that verge on sarcasm, such as many of Banksy’s best works.

I will chose only one artist: Kara Walker (Link). Walker is often able to unite irony, self-irony, sarcasm, social criticism, and sophisticated allusion. One recent work where I feel she succeeds greatly is A Subtlety, a 75 foot long x 35 foot wide mammy/sphinx combination of bleached white sugar at the old Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Walker’s overlaying of multiple references, all tinged with a knowing disdain, is fiercely and creatively ironic, sarcastic and significant. A list of a few of the elements used against themselves: the traditionally racist “mammy” face, the Sphinx (often conveniently forgotten to be in Africa), the material of sugar (which was grown and harvested largely by African slaves), the Domino company (famous for its misuse of its factory workers), the size and scale, the bleached whiteness of the sugar and all the racist associations bleached and white suggest, the racist idea of a “sugar baby,” the so-called fig-gesture of one a hand (that can mean both good fortune and “fuck you”), and more. (Contrarily though, to point out how difficult and loaded this trope is now, there is an excellent review of the work by Nicolas Powers which completely disagrees with me here, Link).

In general, nevertheless, I would suggest a moratorium on irony other than self-irony (which is a form of jesting at ones own expense to temper ones hubris). As a trope in contemporary art, straight irony has long outlived its usefulness. Seriously, I am not kidding.

Next time: Allegory