New Sincerity

daniel johnston

New sincerity is a term that has been used in music, aesthetics, film criticism, poetry, literary criticism and philosophy, generally to describe art or concepts that run against prevailing modes of postmodernist irony or cynicism. ‘New Sincerity’ was used as a collective name for a loose group of alternative rock bands, centered in Austin, Texas in the years from about 1985 to 1990, who were perceived as reacting to the ironic outlook of then-prominent music movements like punk rock and New Wave.

The use of ‘New Sincerity’ in connection with these bands began with an off-handed comment by Austin punk rocker/author Jesse Sublett to his friend, local music writer Margaret Moser: ‘All those new sincerity bands, they’re crap.’

Nationally, the most successful ‘New Sincerity’ band was The Reivers (originally called Zeitgeist), who released four well-received albums between 1985 and 1991. ‘True Believers,’ led by Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Dee Graham, also received extensive critical praise and local acclaim in Austin, but the band had difficulty capturing its live sound on recordings, among other problems. Another significant ‘New Sincerity’ figure was the eccentric, critically acclaimed songwriter Daniel Johnston. Despite extensive critical attention none of the ‘New Sincerity’ bands met with much commercial success, and the ‘scene’ ended within a few years.

In Russia, the term ‘new sincerity’ was used as early as the mid 1980s or early 1990s by dissident poet Dmitry Prigov and critic Mikhail Epstein, as a response to the dominant sense of absurdity in late Soviet and post-Soviet culture. In Epstein’s words, ‘Postconceptualism, or the New Sincerity, is an experiment in resuscitating ‘fallen,’ dead languages with a renewed pathos of love, sentimentality and enthusiasm.’ This conception meant the avoidance of cynicism, but not necessarily of irony. In the words of University of California, Berkeley professor Alexei Yurchak, it ‘is a particular brand of irony, which is sympathetic and warm, and allows its authors to remain committed to the ideals that they discuss, while also being somewhat ironic about this commitment.’

Critic Jim Collins introduced the concept of ‘new sincerity’ to film criticism in his 1993 essay entitled ‘Genericity in the 90s: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity.’ In this essay he contrasts films that treat genre conventions with ‘eclectic irony’ and those that treat them seriously, with ‘new sincerity.’ Collins describes: ‘the ‘new sincerity’ of films like ‘Field of Dreams’ (1989), ‘Dances With Wolves’ (1990), and ‘Hook’ (1991), all of which depend not on hybridization, but on an ‘ethnographic’ rewriting of the classic genre film that serves as their inspiration, all attempting, using one strategy or another, to recover a lost ‘purity,’ which apparently pre-existed even the Golden Age of film genre.’

Other critics have suggested ‘new sincerity’ as a descriptive term for work by American filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, P. T. Anderson, Todd Louiso, Sofia Coppola, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, Zach Braff, and Jared Hess, and filmmakers from other countries such as Lars von Trier, the Dogme 95 movement, Aki Kaurismäki, and Pedro Almodóvar. The ‘aesthetics of new sincerity’ have also been connected to other art forms including ‘reality television, Internet blogs, diary style ‘chicklit’ literature, personal videos on You-Tube.’

In response to the hegemony of metafictional and self-conscious irony in contemporary fiction, writer David Foster Wallace predicted, in his 1993 essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,’ a new literary movement which would espouse something like the New Sincerity ethos: ‘The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.’

In his essay ‘David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,’ Adam Kelly argues that Wallace’s fiction, and that of his generation, is marked by a revival and theoretical reconception of sincerity, challenging the emphasis on authenticity that dominated twentieth-century literature.

‘New sincerity’ has also sometimes been used to refer to a philosophical concept deriving from the basic tenets of performatism. It is also seen as one of the key characteristics of metamodernism. Related literature includes Wendy Steiner’s ‘The Trouble with Beauty,’ Elaine Scarry’s ‘On Beauty and Being Just,’ and Bryn Gribben’s 2005 ‘Bodies that Shatter: Ekphrasis, Beauty, and the Victorian Body as Art,’ and the term was taken up designer/film auteur Brady Becker. Related movements may include Post-Postmodernism, New Puritans, Stuckism, and Remodernism.

‘The New Sincerity’ has been espoused since 2002 by radio host Jesse Thorn of PRI’s ‘The Sound of Young America,’ self-described as ‘the public radio program about things that are awesome.’ Thorn characterizes New Sincerity as a cultural movement defined by dicta including ‘Maximum Fun’ and ‘Be More Awesome.’ It celebrates outsized celebration of joy, and rejects irony, and particularly ironic appreciation of cultural products. Thorn has promoted this concept on his program and in interviews to the point that a scholarly work on Russian post-Soviet aesthetic theory included mention of Thorn as American popularizer of the term ‘new sincerity.’

A typical explication of Thorn’s concept is this 2006 ‘Manifesto for the New Sincerity’: ‘What is The New Sincerity? Think of it as irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power. Or think of it as the absence of irony and sincerity, where less is (obviously) more. If those strain the brain, just think of Evel Knievel. Let’s be frank. There’s no way to appreciate Evel Knievel literally. Evel is the kind of man who defies even fiction, because the reality is too over the top. Here is a man in a red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit, driving some kind of rocket car. A man who achieved fame and fortune jumping over things. Here is a real man who feels at home as Spidey on the cover of a comic book. Simply put, Evel Knievel boggles the mind. But by the same token, he isn’t to be taken ironically, either. The fact of the matter is that Evel is, in a word, awesome. . . . Our greeting: a double thumbs-up. Our credo: ‘Be More Awesome.’ Our lifestyle: ‘Maximum Fun.’ Throw caution to the wind, friend, and live The New Sincerity.’

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