The Null Device

Against whimsy

In his most recent column, Charlie Brooker suggests a few things to give up for the New Year, among them, variants on "Keep Calm And Carry On" and cupcakes:
Of all the irritating "Keep Calm" bastardisations, the most irritating of all is the one that reads "Keep Calm and Eat a Cupcake". Cupcakes used to be known as fairy cakes, until something happened a few years ago. I don't know what the thing was, because I wasn't paying attention. All I know is that suddenly middle-class tosspoles everywhere were holding artisan cupcakes aloft and looking at them and pointing and making cooing sounds and going on and bloody on about how much they loved them. I wouldn't mind, but cupcakes are bullshit. And everyone knows it. A cupcake is just a muffin with clown puke topping. And once you've got through the clown puke there's nothing but a fistful of quotidian sponge nestling in a depressing, soggy "cup" that feels like a pair of paper knickers a fat man has been sitting in throughout a long, hot coach journey between two disappointing market towns. Actual slices of cake are infinitely superior, as are moist chocolate brownies, warm chocolate-chip cookies and virtually any other dessert you can think of. Cupcakes are for people who can't handle reality.
Meanwhile, Melbourne writer/broadcaster Helen Razer opines on the recent epidemic of whimsy and quirkiness in popular culture (i.e., cupcakes, polka dots, knitting, pugs, ukuleles, Zooey Fucking Deschanel, et al.):
[Miranda July] is to cinema as the contemporary cupcake is to carbohydrate. This is to say, she is fantastically decorative and easy to consume but ultimately delivers naught but empty calories in a gaudy blast of sugar. In her non-narrative narratives about mildly depressed shoe salesmen and people who babysit slightly injured cats, she hints at depths that do not exist. This, of course, is not a transgression we could attribute to the cupcake. But July's perplexing popularity, just like the cupcake's, is founded on the overuse of whimsy.
The popular actress and singer Zooey Deschanel had elective surgery that saw her brain and taste replaced with a clockwork mouse. Michael Cera, insufferable star of the insufferably whimsical Juno, works to a similar mechanic and if I see one more knitted effing toy at a gallery, I may take a needle and hurt the next ''craft practitioner'' foolish enough to offer me a cupcake. As for burlesque. Well. If I had my way, ''whimsical'' disrobing would by now be a summary offence.
Razer places the blame on Jeff Koons, the yuppie banker who parlayed his skillset into becoming the founding artist of the Capitalist Hyperrealist movement, predicated on an infinitely shiny, infinitesimally superficial lack of deeper meaning, and in doing so, brought whimsy into the mainstream.
It is difficult to pinpoint the moment when whimsy escaped from the birthday parties of six-year-old girls and into the business of serious art. We might suppose that this was in the same moment intelligent women stole cupcakes from their daughters. I personally place the shift at about 10 years ago when I noticed a large dog sitting by Circular Quay.
There are many things to loathe about Jeff Koons. Much of his work is a triumph of money and plastic. Even when he does not work in plastic, he seems, somehow, to be hygienically safeguarded against any infection by meaning. This, to me, is his gravest offence and the primary impact of his stupid sculpture Puppy.
Which suggests that the kooky, twee whimsy that infects White-People consumer culture is itself a necessary consequence of the rise of postmodernism. The question is: what mechanism leads from A (the state in which it is a truth universally acknowledged that Everything Is A Market and that nothing has any intrinsic meaning deeper than the price that the market will bear for it) to B (the ascendance of cupcakes, polka dots and Manic Pixie Dream Girls with ukuleles to cultural universality).

Meanwhile, the Graun's Jonathan Jones puts the boot into Damien Hirst, Blatcherite Britain's answer to Jeff Koons:

But from a British point of view, don't you feel thrilled that the most outrageous artist in the world, the most hated and reviled, is from these shores? I mean, we used to be crippled by good taste – or rather, people saw us that way. How did it come about that a British artist outdid Andy Warhol as a businessman and Jeff Koons as a master of kitsch? It is surely a national triumph.
Something happened in Britain in the 1980s and 90s that tore up the national rule book – in politics, economics and art. Hirst, whatever your feelings about him, is a symbol of that time of change. And like it or not, at a time when we wonder what is coming next, he flies the flag for a provocative and electrifying world image of Britain. Just like Thatcher did.
One could make a case that Damien Hirst's art is to Thatcherism-Blairism what Rodchenko's constructivism was to the young USSR and banners of heroic peasants waving red flags were to Maoism; it was the house style of an ideology, in this case one combining the naked free market of Thatcherism with the feel-good spin of Blairism.

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