How Cringe Culture Is Appearing in Contemporary Art

Ayanna Dozier
Jul 31, 2023 7:52PM

“Live for Now,” commercial for Pepsi, 2017. © Pepsi Global, via YouTube.

The Australian siblings and filmmaking duo Dan and Dominique Angeloro, known as Soda Jerk, created the film Hello Dankness (2023) earlier this year, a work composed entirely of samples from other films and advertisements to narrate the sociopolitical landscape of the United States from 2016 to 2021. The piece opens with an unedited, extended version of Kendall Jenner’s 2017 Pepsi advertisement, “Live for Now.” In that commercial, the model is seen leaving the superficial environment of a fashion photo shoot to join an “authentic” protest, filled with young creative types marching together and bonding over their shared love for equality…and Pepsi.

Jenner, presumably emboldened by the radical politics of consumerism and its ability to cross political bridges, gives a Pepsi can to a riot officer in this commercial. The exchange is meant to signal a break in decades of police brutality that can only be accomplished through the offering of a soft drink, a Pepsi, specifically. For Soda Jerk, the commercial marked the arrival of “cringe culture” as the leading social norm of 21st-century media. Contemporary artists, as respondents to the sociocultural times they live in, have begun to respond to cringe culture and incorporate it into their practices.

Christine Wang, Bella after, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich.

Christine Wang, Bella before, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich.


According to Andrew Paul Woolbright, an artist, curator, writer, and gallery director of Below Grand, cringe, as a 21st-century cultural sentiment, is a response to the performance of sincerity that emerged through reality television, social media, and post-9/11 nationalism. The more we began to watch others perform authenticity, the more awkwardness became a central feeling of the 21st century.

Contemporary artists like Boo Saville, Christine Wang, Carrie Schneider, and others are making art that encapsulates the feeling of cringe. The work itself might induce cringe or it may reference encounters that evoke cringe across popular culture through celebrities and political figures, from Mariah Carey to Angela Merkel. These artists’ paintings and photographs demonstrate that cringe might be the most contemporary subject in our midst.

But what is cringe, exactly? The word cringe describes feelings of awkwardness or acute embarrassment, most often from the way that a person acts or interacts with others. Cringe may arise due to the performance glitches, like when Ashlee Simpson awkwardly danced off-stage during her 2004 Saturday Night Live performance after lip-syncing to the wrong song.

Artist Christine Wang, whose paintings incorporate internet memes, popular personalities, and text, defines cringe as “secondary embarrassment that involves two people: the subject who judges and the object that is judged to be cringe,” she told Artsy. “The first person or point of embarrassment is the object of my cringe. The second person, myself feeling cringe, is the subject in the sense of the word—I am subject to the feelings of embarrassment for the first person.”

Christine Wang, Galadriel, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich.

Take, for example, the 2022 painting Galadriel, which was included in Wang’s 2022 solo exhibition “Fake Stupid, Queen of Cringe” at Galerie Nagel Draxler. In this painting, Wang uses a meme of Galadriel, the character played by Cate Blanchett in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where she shows the future to Frodo through a water bowl. What makes the scene memeable is Blanchett’s deadpan delivery and intense eye contact. Wang’s painting further intensifies this through her mixture of acrylic and oil paint that creates a near-photorealistic reproduction of the image. As close to reality as Wang’s paintings appear, they never quite feel seamless, thus producing an uncanny feeling that adds to the cringe factor.

“Cringe allows me to have sympathy and aversion towards the cringey person at the same time. I feel fear and I identify with cringe,” Wang explained. “Cringe culture also involves the internet, and my work is about how the internet recontextualizes images of celebrities within a meme format. Cringey people don’t think they are embarrassing, but when their images are recontextualized and circulated, the cringe becomes cringey.”

In a similar fashion, Carrie Schneider’s painterly photographs of popular icons that share either the same first or last name as the artist, recontextualizes how these figures have emerged in memes or in GIFs. In her series “I Don’t Know Her” (2023), which was featured in her solo exhibition of the same name at CHART earlier this year, Schneider recontextualizes a popular GIF of singer Mariah Carey. The artist rephotographs—still by still—Carey’s infamous “I don’t know her” response to a reporter when asked about the work of Jennifer Lopez in the early 2000s via a makeshift ultra-large camera on photo paper.

“I don’t know her” is the epitome of awkward as Carey blissfully smiles while shaking her head “no,” as the reporter tries to get her to say more. In the 20 years since that cringe encounter, the sequence has become the ultimate sign of what Schneider defines as a “feminine refusal.” For Schneider, the “I don’t know her” response was Carey’s way, through awkwardness, to refuse to be baited by the press to deliver a scathing remark that would have made headlines; hostile press surrounded Carey at the time, as she was recovering from a nervous breakdown. In this light, cringe can actually be seen as an opportunity for audiences to find a deeper meaning within the performance, like uncovering Carey’s agency in that awkward moment.

Christine Wang, Merkel Raute, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Cologne/Munich.

Schneider noted that she is thinking of “I don’t know her” as “a structure of social entrapment, where there is no good (useful, productive) way out, so the only answer is to drop out.” She added, “[Carey’s response] is meta while being completely and totally germane on the street. Her simple refusal operates on multiple registers which is why it struck a chord with so many of us, and has continued to resonate for so long.”

Jesse Firestone, curator at Montclair State University Galleries, similarly explains that cringe can be examined as the “punctum,” as described by Roland Barthes, of many artists’ practices, as a means of resonating with the viewer. In all of the above insights, cringe is felt or explained through the individual’s ability to feel cringe, to recognize their awareness and ability to respond to art and media based on how they feel about the work.

Like the Pepsi ad and per Wang’s and Schneider’s work, cringe is often recontextualized or identified by others across everyday media. Cringe is not a space of outright mockery, nor is it a gimmick. In fact, Firestone warns against the situation where “cringe is the sole focus of an artist’s practice, rather than a mode they engage with.” Instead, as the curator concludes, cringe in art can be considered “a way to remind us of some of the most raw human emotions [available]: Failure, accountability or lack thereof, and shame.”

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.