Irony: Art’s New Currency

Can a film, whose viewing experience has been likened to being “stabbed in the head”, become an icon in film culture? Tommy Wiseau would argue yes, for The Room, the off-kilter movie he wrote, directed, and executive-produced, has defied all norm and expectation by becoming a cult classic, a staple in midnight screenings. Is it then safe to say that incompetence and poor quality have become the new currency in the world of art? Take, for instance, “ugly” fashion. Reputed brands the likes of Gucci and Balenciaga continue to make chunky, bedazzled sunglasses and six-inch high rubber Crocs (which retailed for the equivalent of rent for three months and sold out). On the other end of the spectrum, retailers in the West such as Target and Walmart capitalize off of the ugly Christmas sweater trend during the Holiday season.

This pattern of behaviour reflects the consumers’ ironic appreciation of certain products, as they are more likely to consume products solely because of their campy or kitschy value. Broadly speaking, it can be said that consumers behave in this “irrational” manner because they want to be “in on the joke”. For instance, the streetwear brand Supreme has received backlash from fashion critics for merely taking a white tee, branding it with their logo, and earning millions off it. However, in an interview, it was revealed that most consumers of Supreme products are aware of this, and only buy into it in order to be part of this elaborate practical joke.

The reasons behind this phenomenon are numerous and tricky to pin down. Think-pieces online dismiss it as mere cheap thrills for the elite to indulge in, while others throw around empty words like ‘late-stage capitalism’ in a haphazard attempt to locate an economic reason. It can be said that this phenomenon operates because there is evidently a market and a demand for “one-of-a-kind” items. The more garish an article of clothing, the more eyeballs are drawn to the brand. Further, the attention economy theory, which operates just as well in this context as in the context of the digital world for which it was made, says that in the modern world, consumers have satisfied their basic human needs. Firms are then faced with the task of competing for the consumer’s attention and do so by producing and marketing goods that differ from other goods based not on their utility, but on their novelty, exclusivity, perceived worth, and so on. This theory commodifies attention, which, in a world saturated with fast fashion and booming film industry, is scarce.

It might arguably be more profitable for industries to deal in ugly clothing, bad music, and unintentionally absurdist films than the inverse. The Room is the best example of profitability due to ironic appreciation. Tommy Wiseau, for instance, advertised The Room through a single billboard placed in Hollywood, and funded the film’s entire 6 million dollar budget from his own pocket, only for the film to bomb at the box office and reap a grand sum of 1800 dollars in its first two weeks, after which it was pulled from theatres. Yet, incredibly, Wiseau has reported that he has now earned every dollar he invested in the movie back, with some economists estimating that Wiseau continues to make 1-2 million dollars per annum off it. (Even that single billboard became somewhat of a minor tourist attraction in Hollywood.) Other movies, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Labyrinth starring David Bowie, Donnie Darko, share similar camp-esque aesthetics and have achieved similar heights of notoriety.

And although it may seem profitable and lucrative in the long run, trying to replicate this phenomenon is a gamble few companies would be willing to take. Finding a balance between the absurd and the public-friendly entails high risk and low reward (unless the company, like the brand Supreme, has built a strong brand reputation and created consumer loyalty). Thus, market research would also yield futile results. Furthermore, it is also nearly impossible to replicate due to its very nature; the act of attempting to replicate it would make it lose its appeal from the perspective of the consumer.  In 2012, Korean artist Psy’s song ‘Gangnam Style’ became a sensation for similar reasons (i.e. for its novelty in the Western market, absurdity, and “vulgarity” due to its choreography). However, as Psy began to release follow-up singles, listeners began to tune off as they believed nothing in his musical career could match this viral phenomenon. Thus, in the eyes of the consumers, the novelty of such products lies also in their “organic” nature. Consumers are now more likely to be turned off by advertisements because they are aware of the brand’s attempt at manufacturing within the consumer an emotion. Thus, even if further research reveals the kitsch-genre to be the most rewarding one in the realms of film and fashion, it is improbable that it will ever be fully exploited.

This phenomenon of ironic appreciation is reflective of the general public’s apathy towards the art industry as a whole. This industry has now reached the phase of saturation in its life-cycle; the demand for maximalism in fashion and quirkiness in film, and desire for that sincere, home-grown feeling in music only shows how tired the public is of the current “safe” trends in entertainment and retail industries. Innovation (and a mild dosage of eccentricity) may be the only antidote for the public’s growing ennui, and the cure for the stagnant state of the art industry. Therefore, although creative minds in the industry may be unable to imitate the charm of kitschy cult favourites, by understanding consumers’ appreciation and demand for the bizarre, they can make necessary arrangements towards producing more products that fall within the realm of ingenuity.


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