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Sunny side up

Cynicism is so 1990. sincerity is back in vogue.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 2003


If art reflects society, Americans appear to be embracing a new motif that has this as its signature theme: "Sincerely Yours."

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From popular music and TV to Hollywood movies and fine art, the importance of being earnest - last seen so definitively in America during Norman Rockwell's era - is back in vogue, particularly among the young. In music, it's heard in the heartfelt tunes of the band Coldplay and Texas chanteuse Norah Jones. On TV, dramas such as NBC's "American Dreams" celebrate wholesome family values. Hollywood's "Legally Blonde 2" continues the "bright makes right" story of pretty-in-pink Elle Woods, who actually says, "I'm the luckiest girl in the world!" Even in the art world, the public is flocking to shows in which beauty and cheeriness take precedence over the oh-so-'90s ironic or shocking.

At the "Matisse Picasso" retrospective in New York, curators have noted that the colorful, cheerful Matisse has drawn far more visitors than Picasso. And in Los Angeles, "Modigliani & the Artists of Montparnasse" showcases the passionate, bohemian context of the 20th-century artist and the sheer beauty of his work.

"This [early 20th-century period] is very rich. It's also inherently optimistic and sincere," says Kenneth Wayne, curator at the Albright-Knox Gallery who organized the Modigliani show, now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Matisse and Modigliani "are visually beautiful and fun to look at," says Carol Eliel, curator of modern and contemporary art at LAMCA.

"This is what people want to look at now." This stands in stark contrast to such shows as 1999's "Sensation" exhibit, which included excrement and dissected animals.

Much has been written about the death of irony in the arts following 9/11, but now the pundits who stir the tea leaves of culture see the sincerity is what's replacing it.

The recent movie "From Justin to Kelly" features the first winners of TV's "American Idol" competition in such sincere, well-scrubbed sing-your-heart-out roles that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney come to mind.

This is not necessarily a predictor of quality - the movie itself was not screened for critics and it bombed at the box office. This straight-ahead sincerity also doesn't mean that violence and sex in TV and movies are suddenly out of fashion. Graphic violence and leave-little-to-the imagination sex are still prevalent in pop culture.

Hip-hop stars 50 Cent and Jay-Z, for example, continue to top the charts. Their lyrics are laced with profanity, and loaded with sexual and violent images. Meanwhile, Jewel and Liz Phair are repackaging themselves as sexy mainstream pop artists, dressing in skimpy skirts and plunging necklines.

What is emerging, nonetheless, is an optimistic chipper culture with little interest in cynicism and the grunge look. Even recent college grads are optimistic about the future, according to recent reports, despite a weak job market.

Cultural observers and experts say this new generation is gravitating more toward meaningful images and a positive outlook, and Hollywood and the art world are responding.

Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, who created "Moulin Rouge," a film about the bohemians in early 20th-century Paris that has become a cult hit among the 18 to 25 demographic, says this is the generation that has seen it all.

"They want something more meaningful, something from the heart," Mr. Luhrmann says. "They're tired of irony."

Even before 9/11, when the collective psyche rejected irony, the signs of a shift were apparent, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.