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New Sincerity during Quarantine

Gracie Neirynck, Creative Team Member

December 23, 2020

Art changes throughout time, evolving to address each century’s unique struggles and values. In an effort to retaliate against the cynicism of a post-war era, modern writers began to pioneer a new age of writing which they called New Sincerity. This era was founded upon the idea that in modern times it was far more courageous to describe the subtle dust and honesty of everyday life than it was to write about extreme emotion. It rebelled against the idea that sentimentality was naive and instead sought to express it. This idea appealed to me as I came to college. Repulsed by the aftertaste of teenage angst on my tongue, I became enchanted with the lingering notion that honesty could be a form of rebellion. As the world began to shut down during quarantine, I wondered if this idea would hold up in a time of isolation. I wondered if sincerity would still be resilient.

When March reared its ugly head my fast-paced freshman year of college became completely still, like that of many others. This stillness bothered me. I felt utterly useless as I read each morning about the thousands of people across the globe who were falling victim to a virus which was completely indifferent to them. There was no real outlet to express my frustration. It is hard to rebel against something which is so indifferent. The only way I know how to rebel against indifference is to be sincere. In a nation more ravaged with the virus than ever before, the age of New Sincerity is more relevant now than it was before quarantine.

Zadie Smith demonstrates the ways in which art is an instrument of sincerity in her short story, “Words and Music”. This short story follows unique characters in distinct settings, every character connected solely by their passion for art. Through these characters she encapsulates the enduring beauty of artistic expression.

The story opens on a young girl scatting, using her voice to imitate the tones of an instrument. The girl’s strange devotion to sounds and shapes even if they lack linguistic meaning emphasizes the bizarre appeal of art. Zadie Smith uses the meaninglessness of the sounds in this passage in order to convey a lack of intention. This art is not trying to be grandiose or profound. Rather, its purpose is simply to exist. Through this Smith suggests that the beauty of music is created when it is born for its own sake; without bragging of its melody or begging for an audience. Similarly, the artist is most sincere when their art is created from an inexplicable desire of expression, and it is this relentless desire which Smith finds admirable.

We see these sentiments repeated as the narrative changes to follow a man without legs who talks endlessly of disco. His enduring loyalty to music he can no longer dance to is a testament to the stubborn admiration humans have for music. This relentless love begs the question, what is it about music that captures us? Why do we love it unconditionally? Zadie Smith does not attempt to answer these questions and instead suggest that the simple fact that humans love art so ardently is magnificent within itself.

Zadie Smith blurs the lines between identity and art in her final scene. She describes an outdoor concert in which multitudes of people gather to listen to a lone guitarist. The concert becomes a near-supernatural affair as she describes the music surrounding the people and the ways in which it hijacks their thoughts. Here, the main character entertains the idea of a purely auditory world. How would she distinguish herself from other sounds? Would they merely mesh together to form a convoluted kind of symphony? By stripping away the material world and leaving only sound behind, Zadie Smith confronts the ways in which one’s voice is tangled in the music of the world. Identity then becomes blurred with art, and only regains its independence through consciousness. Once again, art enables honesty of identity, and it is through this honesty that these characters find a sliver of catharsis.

What Zadie Smith ultimately digs at in “Words and Music” is the idea that art is the product of an intangible itch on the soul. You scratch endlessly, you bleed onto paper, but your soul will always itch. Although never perfect, within art there exists a shadow of honesty, and this is why I cling to it so fervently. It is why during this pandemic my headphones felt as natural as hair and I had to clear my bed of books each night. I think that art, no matter how sloppy or unedited it is, is rebellion. I think each time you sing, dance, or draw simply because you want to, you are voicing a silent “fuck you” to indifference. It is through sincerity of expression that we can retaliate against everything threatening vulnerability. I use art to cope because underneath metaphors and melodies art gives me a chance to be sincere.

As we head into winter and what will likely be a few more challenging months, I want to leave you with my favorite quote by Zadie Smith:

“He who sings to himself without earbuds is especially precious to me now, like hearing the song of a bird long thought extinct.”

I hope it reminds you that art is never foolish and encourages you to create with abandon.

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