Miranda July is the hottest name in independent cinema right now. I know this because a cineaste of my slight acquaintance, whose day-job it is to decorate cupcakes with “satirical” trim, recently told me. “Miranda July is the hottest name in independent cinema right now,” she said as she nibbled a pastry shaped to resemble a rat.
If you have not yet viewed Ms July’s oeuvre, it would be reckless to amend this mistake. Even if her work is both “hot” and “independent”, it is also entirely slap-able and seems chiefly concerned with poor jokes about poop and bad sex. The 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know marked July’s first award at Cannes, her directorial debut and the appreciation of anyone who has ever eaten and enjoyed a “satirical” cupcake. It’s awful and cutesy and deniably meaningless.
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.
Whimsy. Like iPads and overly bookish spectacles and bacteria, it is everywhere.
It is difficult to pinpoint the moment in which 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 grown and intelligent women stole cupcakes from their daughters. I personally place the shift at about ten years ago when I noticed a large dog sitting by Sydney Harbour.
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.
Puppy, who has since scampered to the Guggenheim, is an enormous West Highland White Terrier made of steel and topiary. I have no quarrel with this feisty little breed and find the Westie’s likeness entirely acceptable on headbands or at the birthday parties of six-year-old girls. He has no place, however, rolling over for bloated art.
Thanks to the ruse of whimsy, Koons and his terrier are permitted to feast on the bones of meaning. The appearance of childlike spontaneity excuses a lack of thought and gives rise to a thousand other dogs. The films of Wes Anderson, by way of example, are rabid with whimsy and seem to hint at deep emotional difficulties when, in fact, all they do to chew on the gristle of magical realism and upchuck it at the doorway of art.
In recent comedic seasons, the gifted humorist Daniel Kitson has elected to replace actual jokes with the sort of quirky reminiscence that would make John Irving call for restraint. Once, he spoke with incandescent wit about all he saw wrong in the world. Now, he sits next to bits of obsolete technology in a cardigan and talks about “ordinary lives”.
The popular actress and singer Zooey Deschanel had an elective surgery which 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.
There is, of course, that kind of “whimsy” that has changed the world of art. If Marcel Duchamp had never whimsically thought to sign a urinal and call it art or if Lewis Carroll had never dug a rabbit hole, we might very well be still looking at ordinary landscapes and reading narratives that only take place in the real.
But, these works, fanciful as though their origins might have been, do not simply suggest meaning; they actually produce it. And they do so not, as the contemporary burlesque dancer does, by offering us a whimsical tease to confuse our view but in allowing us the space for interrogation with their bare ambition.
Now so very often in the cupcake half-bakery of art, whimsy dresses the naked truth. Often in a cardigan.
This was written for and first appeared in The Age newspaper.