“Real artists rarely wear bags on their heads.”

So wrote Jonathan Jones, the Guardian’s art critic, of Shia LaBeouf’s first performance artwork #IAMSORRY, a collaboration with artists Nastja Rönkkö and Luke Turner. Jones’ remark was relatively typical of commentators, most of whom rushed to characterise the show as incoherent and attention seeking, LaBeouf himself as “erratic”, “bizarre”, even “mentally unstable”. LaBeouf was roundly denied the status of “real artist”; instead, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s project has been framed as the by-product of a mental breakdown.

Jones’ border policing of art, his treatment of LaBeouf as an intruder from the parallel universe of pop culture, is unsurprising. In fact, Jones’ dismissal of LaBeouf says more about the insecurity of the art establishment than the works themselves: both #IAMSORRY and LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s subsequent projects constitute a sophisticated response to a question that’s plagued the art world for half a century: how can artists cut through the noise of mass culture and connect meaningfully with their audience?

Understanding how LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s work answers this question begins with the American author Philip Roth, who in 1961 commented on the rise of ‘celebrity’: “The actuality is continually outdoing [writer’s] talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” Roth was writing at the dawn of colour television and the blurring of the line between person and persona. Commenting on the pageantry of televised presidential debates, he wrote: “As a literary curiosity, [the debates] produced a type of professional envy […] All the machinations over make-up, rebuttal time, all the business over whether Mr. Nixon should look at Mr. Kennedy when he replied […] was so beside the point, so fantastic, so weird and astonishing, that I found myself beginning to wish I had invented it.” If public figures are beginning to perform like fictional characters, what need is there for novelists to invent them?

In the 1970s and ’80s, postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon built on the idea of the unreality of reality itself. DeLillo’s novel White Noise, for example, asserted a hyperreality that actually overwrites lived experience. In a particularly neat illustration of this idea, Heinrich insists the radio is always right:

“It’s going to rain tonight.”

“It’s raining now,” I said.

“The radio said tonight.”[1] 

By the end of the 20th Century and DeLillo’s brand of postmodern detachment and irony had been swallowed up by the very corporate culture it was designed to critique. Take a 1985 Pepsi television ad depicting a van selling Pepsi which turns up at a beach on a sweltering day, to the delight of a crowd which flocks towards it, followed by the slogan: “Pepsi: The Choice of a New Generation.” The ad knows that there is no real choice depicted: the crowd simply flock to the first product they see. By acknowledging its own falsity, the ad was able to flatter the critical awareness of its jaded audience, wise to the manipulation of traditional advertising. As David Foster Wallace wrote, “the commercial invites complicity between its own witty irony and [the] veteran-viewer[‘s] cynical, nobody’s-fool appreciation of that irony… It congratulates [the viewer] on transcending the very crowd that defines him, here.”[2] 

Fast-forward to 2012, and the airwaves are saturated with self-deprecating advertising. Namely, a GoCompare advert featuring the company’s much-maligned mascot Gio Compario getting shot with a rocket launcher. In 2015, drinks manufacturer Oasis ran a campaign with the slogan “You’re thirsty. We’ve got sales targets.”

Foster Wallace’s fiction was “a response to the contemporary prevalence of irony in American literature and culture”.[3]  His tactic was to embrace irony’s opposite, to rediscover the conviction of modernist work as part of what was later dubbed the “New Sincerity”. This movement saw artists attempt to establish a direct relationship with their audience that Michael Chabon has described as “a two-way exchange of attention, experience and the universal hunger for connection”.[4]  Wallace’s prediction was that the next generation “might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “How banal””.[5] 

Cue Shia LaBeouf.

Far from being a loose cannon in the art world, LaBeouf is one of a new generation of pioneers of the New Sincerity. In 2014, LaBeouf began collaborating with Rönkkö and Turner, the author of The Metamodernist Manifesto, an attempt to carve a path between the “naive sincerity” of modernist art and “cynical insincerity” of postmodern art. Metamodernism, a term first coined by the Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, positions itself “between and beyond irony and sincerity”, what Turner in the Manifesto calls “pragmatic romanticism”. Metamodernists aim to create work that is powerful, honest and romantic, drip-feeding irony whenever this verges on corny.

Take the two hashtags – #STOPCREATING and #STARTCREATING –that LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner had written across the L.A. skyline. Having been accused of plagiarising the work of comic book artist Daniel Clowes in his short film HowardCantour.com, LaBeouf was issued with a legal notice from Clowes’ lawyer, which contained the words “he must cease all efforts to create”. Resistant towards the imposition of legal frameworks on artwork, and perhaps a little embarrassed, the trio plagiarised the legal letter itself, emblazoning the words #STOPCREATING five miles wide across the sky. This was an ironic and even puerile riposte, a quintessentially postmodern act. Yet the artists then decided to generate a second hashtag – #STARTCREATING – and to aggregate photographs taken of it by people on the ground. Whilst the first hashtag deconstructs the notion of intellectual property, this second was borne of a desire to move beyond irony, towards optimism, sincerity and the hunger for connection: to demonstrate that his cynicism towards intellectual property had not destroyed his faith in creativity.

LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner are building on the groundwork laid by Wallace, who also tested the limits of artistic expression against the boundaries of intellectual property law. In Chapter 9, ‘Author’s Foreword’, of his unfinished novel The Pale King, Wallace interrupts the narrative flow to draw attention to authorial artifice. “Author here”, he writes. “Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona […] this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace […] addressing you […] to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true.” Wallace is asking the reader to abandon their suspension of disbelief and connect directly with his ‘true self’. Yet, as he goes on to write, the legal disclaimer on the first inside page of the book clearly states the characters and events contained within it are fictitious. This calls the objective reality of the legal disclaimer into question, along with his supposedly authentic self, revealing the passage to be yet another expression of his authorial persona. In his short story ‘Octet’, this logic is laid bare: “to break the textual fourth wall and kind of address (or ‘interrogate’) the reader directly […] [is] an ‘honesty’ which […] is actually a highly rhetorical sham-honesty that’s designed to get you to like him and approve of him (i.e. of the ‘meta’-type writer).” For Wallace, artistic sincerity was as desirable as it was impossible.

Shia LaBeouf #STOPCREATING

Like Wallace, LaBeouf continually attempts to strip away the layers of his public persona to reveal the human being beneath. Take #FOLLOWMYHEART, for which LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner broadcast LaBeouf’s heartbeat live over the internet to document his instinctive response to various interactions. Where Wallace’s sincerity as mediated by a self-editing “anticipatory logic” concerned with how he would be received, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner attempt to go beyond this, stripping communication to its most corporeal, unconscious level. Unlike Wallace, LaBeouf embraces his inability to control his public image: LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner recently filmed this motivational speech in front of a green screen in an almost actively inviting reappropriation. The continued, purposeful destruction of his celebrity (“Yes, I know I look like an idiot with these fucking pants on…”), is LaBeouf’s attempt to “reassert some kind of control over “shia” the object”, to move beyond the “highly rhetorical sham-honesty that’s designed to get you to like him and approve of him” and so to connect with others as a human.

Another area in which LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner attempt to further the work done by Wallace is that of video calling. In a particularly prescient passage in Infinite Jest, Wallace charts the rise and fall in popularity of what he terms ‘videophony’: “The real nail in the coffin for videophony involved the way callers’ faces looked on their […] screen, during calls”, he wrote. “Not their callers’ faces, but their own.” This insightful and hilarious social commentary on how humans struggle to connect with one another in a digital culture, whose every portal to another person is simultaneously a distracting mirror, is characteristic of Wallace: there is no way out.

#Interview is LaBeouf’s attempt at escape. In it, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner had LaBeouf and journalist Aimee Cliff sit opposite one another for an hour wearing GoPros, in a sort of IRL video call. The GoPro footage was presented in a split-screen video online alongside the transcript of a previous email thread, in which they had discussed their mutual inability to escape the performativity involved in communicating over the internet: “I deliberately wrote this email v quickly in an attempt to override the feeling of self-editing or trying to project anything “unreal” but i can’t escape the feeling that that in itself is a “fake” thing so, lol”, wrote Cliff. Strangely, the video highlights the similarity between communicating online and face-to-face, how both can oscillate between performance and sincerity. It also explores what LaBeouf calls “the humanity of the networks”, how technological modes of communication can provoke different (and not necessarily inferior) types of human connection, even “connecting on a soul level”.

#Interview distils LaBeouf’s contribution to art. By documenting the difficult journey to a meaningful human connection, he issues a message of optimism for a generation who grew up breathing self-awareness like air, whose long exposure to the meta-discourses of popular culture had numbed them to sincerity. The video may look ridiculous, but that’s the point. By foregrounding the artifice of contemporary existence, he somehow cuts through it,  temporarily suspending our complex rules of cultural engagement to access some more meaningful connection. Indeed, it is LaBeouf’s role as a celebrity that renders his explorations of what it means to be human in a hyper-connected world so captivating. Of course his work can be written off as self-aggrandising attention-seeking, but in a narcissistic, mediatised culture in which “it [has become] impossible to separate in an absolute manner those communications genuinely directed toward the benefit of the receiver from those that serve primarily to draw attention to the sender”, isn’t he simply dramatising a common predicament? Even if his work is attention-seeking, isn’t this merely an honest articulation of the self-promotion everyone of us engages in on a daily basis? It may be easier to turn Shia LaBeouf into a meme than it is to look him in the eyes, but in a culture increasingly characterised by artifice, self-promotion and narcissism, let’s at least admit we are in no position to judge: Shia LaBeouf is one of us, and he deserves to be seen as such.


[1]  Don DeLillo, ‘White Noise’, quoted in Ahmad Ghashmari, ‘Living in a Simulacrum: How TV and the Supermarket Defines Reality in Don DeLillo’s White Noise’, p. 177

[2] David Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibas Pluram: Television and U.S Fiction’

[3] Adam Kelly, ‘David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction’ in ‘Consider David Foster Wallace, Critical Essays’, ed. David Herring, p. 133

[4] Ibid., p. 145

[5] David Foster Wallace, ‘E Unibas Pluram: Television and U.S Fiction’

[6] David Foster Wallace, ‘The Pale King’. p. 68

[7] David Foster Wallace, ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’, p. 125

[8] David Foster Wallace, ‘Infinite Jest’, p. 147

[9] ibid.