Sunny side up

Cynicism is so 1990. sincerity is back in vogue.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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"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.

"We've been waiting to exhale for a long time," says Mr. Thompson. He points to what he calls early examples, such as Oprah Winfrey. "There is a woman without an ironic bone in her body," he says. Behind her came people like Dr. Phil.

"He's a tell-it-like-it-is guy," he says. "Irony," says Thompson, such as the sardonic '90s sitcom hit, "Seinfeld," "is tell it-like-it-is-not."

Others suggest the shift is even more profound. William Strauss calls this the leading edge of a full-bore generational overhaul, decades in the making. "This is a time when the culture cleanses itself," he says, describing a transition he has written about in "The Fourth Turning," a book he coauthored.

History has moved throughout time in cycles of four overturnings which, Mr. Strauss writes, "have kept the great wheel of time in motion, infusing civilization with periodic new doses of vitality." Strauss dubs the final turning of each cycle a reverse of the film "Pleasantville," in which "we take out the garish colors and put in pleasant ones."

His theory is that cycles of history have repeated themselves for centuries. Today's mood, he says, most resembles that of the Great Depression.

"Up until the fall of 1929, America inhabited a decade of wonderful nonsense," he says, comparing this to the '90s. The popular phrase of that time was, "Oh yeah?" in response to any attempt to be serious. The '90s equivalent was "whatever!" Strauss says with a laugh.

The mood shifted after the stock market crash that brought both eras to an end, he says. "This ushered in a new mood and there was no going back," he says. The terrorist attacks helped this shift move along more quickly.

"The events of 9/11," says Strauss, "pushed people toward the enduring, toward things that are sweeter." Look at classic images of Norman Rockwell and the Depression-era movies, he says, films that focused on noble people in the midst of difficult circumstances.

"Whether it was Frank Capra or Andy Hardy, the image of teens in the '30s was young people with bright shining faces who were honest and sincere."

Today, says Strauss who works with high school theater groups across the country, young people want their stories to have traditional beginnings, middles, and endings.

The next generation also works together well in groups. "This is not a niche culture," he says, "happy is in."

Not everyone is going to like this change, adds Strauss, who, as cofounder of the satirical musical group "The Capitol Steps" certainly understands irony. "To some eyes, this will look bland, even propagandistic," he adds with a laugh.

On the positive side, however, he sees a much more civic culture, with a more politically engaged populace.

Elle Woods would certainly agree. After all, she marches on Washington in order to change what she considers an unjust law. It's just that she does it without losing her style. Says one gushing co-worker, "you've come further than all of us, while maintaining your bounce and sparkle!"

This new generation also is not entirely without the knowing nudge or wink. It just won't have the sharp elbow's edge, say pundits. This is the era of the sophisticated innocent, again well-captured by Elle as she begs lawmakers to heed her call.

"An honest voice is louder than a crowd," she says over and over during her Jimmy Stewart/Gary Cooper moments. Then, in a supremely Elle Woods moment, she adds, "stand up for the land of the free gift with purchase!"

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