Obscurantism at the New Yorker

As I’ve said, I’m going to let my New Yorker subscription lapse for good when it expires at the end of March. The magazine has become too social-justicey; I dislike editor David “Invertebrate” Remnick’s craven decision to cancel the New Yorker Festival invitation to Steve Bannon after the liberal readers and other participants raised a hue and cry; and I just don’t find it worth reading any more. True, there are some good pieces to be perused, but there’s too much writing that resembles the starchy packing peanuts in a box that cushions something you really want.

Here’s one example of a styrofoam peanut, an article that I thought I’d enjoy reading. I’ve never liked Andy Warhol’s work, and wanted to see if I’d missed something. Instead I found superficial analysis and slick writing by someone who’s far more in love with his own prose than with art. (Schjeldahl is the New Yorker’s art critic and also a poet.) Click on the screenshot to read the short “appreciation” of Warhol:

Actually, though, I didn’t learn much except a few tidbits about Warhol’s life. There was not much of an analysis of why Schjeldahl likes Warhol’s paintings. The closest he came was this, describing items in a new Warhol retrospective at the Whitney Museum (there are illustrations in the online version but not in the magazine, which is unforgivable):

A room is crammed with eighty-four star and socialite portraits as hieratic as Byzantine icons—Polaroid-square in format and combining silk screen and brushwork in colors that startle one another. Speaking of color, a room in which many of Warhol’s multihued “Flowers” of the sixties adorn his chartreuse-and-cerise “Cow Wallpaper,” from the same period, is like a chromatic car wash. You emerge with your optic nerve cleansed, buffed, and sparkling.

There’s a picture of the flowers online, but it wasn’t in the magazine:

So it’s a “chromatic car wash,” which is a New Yorker writer’s way of saying “very colorful”: pompous and wordy.  I didn’t find my optic nerves cleansed and buffed, but merely assaulted by flowers that could have been painted by nearly anybody. Why is this good art beyond being colorful? Maybe there’s a reason, but Schjeldahl didn’t tell us. Or perhaps I’m too obtuse to understand.

Then the writer gets into the real meat of his piece: an analysis of The Meaning of Warhol.  This bit really irritated me:

Warhol didn’t make a mark on American culture. He became the instrument with which American culture designated itself. He was sincere. He could get away with practically anything because practically nobody believed in his sincerity: people haplessly projected cynicism onto his forthright will to surprise and beguile.

That’s just too clever for its shirt. The first two sentences baffled me. What does it mean to not make a mark on a culture but be “the instrument with which American culture designated itself”? Schjeldahl doesn’t say. It sounds good, though, doesn’t it? Perhaps I’m obtuse again, and perhaps there’s a ready explanation, but if there is one, why didn’t Schjeldahl give it? As happens so often, the magazine prefers the bon mot to clarity.

As for the last two sentences, they also puzzle me. Why would Warhol get away with anything because people doubted his sincerity? That, it seems to me, would prevent you from getting away with things, as people would be suspicious of you. Yes, perhaps people thought that Warhol’s soup cans and Marilyn-Monroe images were some kind of scam when he really meant them to be art (I don’t consider them as good art), but why would people admire Warhol for art that they thought was a scam?

But wait; there’s more!

. . . striving for recognition in the art world of the late fifties, he hit walls of disdain from macho Abstract Expressionists, such as Willem de Kooning, and horror, at his elfin effeminacy, from more guarded gays, including Jasper Johns and Frank O’Hara. The obstacles to his desperate ambition left him with no choice but to be a genius.

Genius entails luck: right place, right time.

No choice but to be a genius? What does that mean, exactly? And as for “genius entails luck: right place, right time”, well, that’s a Deepity. It must be true if for no other reason than that you have to have the proper environment in which to manifest your abilities!

But let’s move on; I have no time to puzzle over the lucubrations of writers overly full of themselves. You can read the rest of the piece for yourself, but I’ll show you the ending, which of course is supposed to be the high point of a New Yorker article:

The show’s boldest gambit, though one that falters for me, is an emphasis on the vast canvases of Warhol’s last years: gridded representations of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” and “Last Supper,” immense Rorschach blots in black or gold, abstractions in copper paint oxidized by urine; fields of camouflage patterns; and collaborations with the youthful phenom Jean-Michel Basquiat. In a way, Warhol was circling back to, and redeeming, the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic that he had strip-mined for his breakthrough works. The paintings are worth more attention than they have received to date, but they feel strained. What most abruptly stopped and then moved me, among the unfamiliar things in the show, were eight unique screen prints (of a fantastic six hundred and thirty-two) of an identical sunset that Warhol made for a hotel in Minneapolis, in 1972. Their meltingly beautiful, never-fail audacities of drenching color, lavished on a subject that is a cliché only because human eyes have never tired of it, reminded me that Warhol wasn’t only a twistily clever and unsettling historical demiurge. He was wonderful, too.

So why are the paintings worth more attention than they have received? Why do they feel strained? And as for those wonderful sunsets, they’re not shown either online or in the magazine, but I found them at another site. Judge for yourself whether they are meltingly beautiful:

It’s not Warhol’s work I’m beefing about here, though it still fails to move me. Yet—as I was when I took Fine Art 101 in college, taught by a man who really knew how to get you excited about art—I’m still curious and willing to be educated. My beef here is about writing like this:

. . . audacities of drenching color, lavished on a subject that is a cliché only because human eyes have never tired of it, reminded me that Warhol wasn’t only a twistily clever and unsettling historical demiurge. He was wonderful, too.

Pardon me, but things become a cliché WHEN people have tired of them, and no longer see them as fresh. Here are the Oxford English Dictionary’s defintions of “cliché” used as a noun:

In what sense, then, is a sunset a cliché when people have never tired of it? To me, sunsets are gorgeous and not clichés. Maybe you can squeeze some meaning out if that, but it’s bad writing, as is the phrase “a twistily clever and unsettling historical demiurge”, which one must strain to untangle.  The last sentence is meant to distill for the masses all the orotund phrases that Schjeldahl worked into his article, but he’s failed to tell us why Warhol was wonderful.

Wikipedia describes Schjeldahl as being, besides a poet and art critic, an “educator”. But he’s failed to educate me, and I’m someone who’s reasonably intelligent and curious about Warhol. All I learned is that the magazine continues to prize writing that sounds good over clarity and meaning.

One of my smartest friends once described the New Yorker to me as “a middlebrow magazine”, and I thought, “Wait! It’s for educated people, isn’t it?” And then I realized that the magazine is intended for people who want to feel as if they’re intellectuals, and in that sense my friend was right (see below for OED definition of “middlebrow”).

Don’t get me wrong: I still like a lot of what’s in the magazine (Anthony Lane’s movie reviews still interest me), but it’s become less interesting as its grown more predictable and tiresome in the house style of baroque prose. Its disdain for science, and implicit stance that there are “other ways of knowing” (see my friend’s take on that here) also bother me. But you may feel otherwise, and I won’t argue about it, as it’s largely a matter of taste.

 

Middlebrow:

36 Comments

  1. yazikus
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    That piece – (not PCC(E)’s) gave me a headache.

    Smally typo alert:

    shown either onine


    I think I like the sunsets. As 70’s, midwest, motel decour.

    • Brujo Feo
      Posted December 26, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      I had the same reaction…I’ve seen worse…at a Motel 6.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted December 26, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        You’re never going to make it to Middlebrow that way. I would rarely think Leonardo when looking at Warhol.

    • Posted December 26, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Fixed, thanks.

  2. Barry Lyons
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Contrary to the assertion made in the title of this New Yorker essay, I’ve always found it very easy to escape Andy Warhol. The man’s work has always bored me.

  3. KD33
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    “…the starchy packing peanuts in a box that cushions something you really want.”

    Perfect! And I can think of a half dozen other publications where this also applies.

  4. Posted December 26, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    “Andy Warhol is the only genius I’ve ever known with an IQ of 60.”

    Gore Vidal

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted December 26, 2018 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Vidal maybe didn’t know Trump…

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 26, 2018 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      They don’t come any bitchier than Gore Vidal (unless maybe you go back to Oscar Wilde).

  5. Steve Gerrard
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I saw a Warhol show in Portland a few years ago. It is easier to grasp the Warhol schtick if you think of him as an interior decorator, rather than as an artist. Breakthroughs in how to make your dining room appealing. The New Yorker is all about being fashionably intellectual; middlebrow is a good term for that.

    • Posted December 26, 2018 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      Funny you should say that! I was just thinking that the sunset collection would make pretty napkins for a harvest table or for gift bags.

  6. Posted December 26, 2018 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    “Warhol didn’t make a mark on American culture. He became the instrument with which American culture designated itself.”

    I also found the language over the top but I actually liked this pair of sentences. The first sentence claims Warhol’s work didn’t really impact mainstream culture, only the art world. Debatable, I will admit. The second sentence is saying that Warhol’s iconic work symbolized American culture. This was due to Warhol’s choice of subject matter, most of which was quintessential Americana: Campbell’s soup, Marilyn Monroe, etc.

  7. Mike Cracraft
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    I always considered Warhol similar to the Kardashians: famous for being famous and not much more. It seems he was right at home doing portraits of celebrities and members of the ruling class.

  8. Posted December 26, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I feel like I could do better, but that is not saying much.
    For example his obscure “He became the instrument with which American culture designated itself.” would have more clarity by saying ‘He became an instrument that merely reflected American culture so that all of us might see it’.

  9. Albert Habichdobinger
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    To me the best Andy Warhol piece of art is the peel-off banana on The Velvet Underground And Nico album cover

  10. CAS
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    His review is mostly meaningless gibberish.

  11. Posted December 26, 2018 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I do like his sunset pictures. But a competent high school student could do them.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 26, 2018 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      I don’t like them (going by the illustration on this page).

      Real sunsets offer gorgeous finely-detailed and delicately graduated shadings of colour. Warhol’s appear to me to be just over-simplified blobs.

      If he wished to explore the fascination of an array of different-coloured squares I think it would have been better using ‘cleaner’ colours with sharply defined borders in the design of each square. Just IMO.

      cr

      • Posted December 26, 2018 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

        These could be based on real pictures. And anyway the simplicities of the color gradations invite the viewer to fill in what is missing, and to translate what is unreal to what is real. That is part of what abstract art is about. I can dig it.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 26, 2018 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

          I have nothing against abstract art per se. Some of it I like very much. Just I don’t think this example is very good.

          But obviously, it’s a matter of individual taste.

          cr

    • Posted December 27, 2018 at 3:16 am | Permalink

      The answer whenever anybody says about a work of art “I could have done that” is “but you didn’t do it”. In a lot of modern art, the idea is more important than the degree of skill needed for the execution.

  12. Posted December 26, 2018 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    A lot of these writers suffer from Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome.

    • Posted December 28, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Yes, they are afraid to be attacked as people unable to understand modern art.

  13. grasshopper
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    “That’s just too clever for its shirt.” sounds like nice re-working of the line “I’m too sexy for my shirt.” from the song “I’m Too Sexy”, by Right Said Fred. It’s a good song – it mentions cats, too.

    ‘Cause I’m a model, you know what I mean
    And I do my little turn on the catwalk
    Yeah, on the catwalk
    On the catwalk, yeah
    I shake my little tush on the catwalk.

    • Posted December 26, 2018 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      That song always brings a smile to my face.

      • grasshopper
        Posted December 26, 2018 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

        Right Said Fred might have got the name of their band from the song ‘Right Said Fred’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8Ybkj7oLJU
        The song is about moving something from A to B, but they never tell us what it is.

        • Posted December 26, 2018 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

          That song is vaguely familiar. I probably heard it somewhere in my somewhat English childhood.

    • Gabrielle
      Posted December 26, 2018 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      “Catwalk” in the song means the runway that fashion models walk down during fashion shows. I don’t know why the runway is called this. If you watch the music video (probably on Youtube somewhere), you see the two brothers walking down a street together, the way models would walk.

      • Taz
        Posted December 26, 2018 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

        “Catwalk” is a generic term for any long, narrow walkway. Most large factories have catwalks.

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    As for the last two sentences, they also puzzle me. Why would Warhol get away with anything because people doubted his sincerity?

    My best guess as to what Schjeldahl is saying there is that many people, including some critics, originally read Warhol as a cynical purveyor of camp, while sincerity was his saving grace. But then, the best camp has always been the most sincere. Ask Auntie Mame.

    • Diane G
      Posted December 26, 2018 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

      What a great example. 🙂

  15. Taz
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    striving for recognition in the art world of the late fifties, he hit walls of disdain from macho Abstract Expressionists, such as Willem de Kooning, and horror, at his elfin effeminacy, from more guarded gays, including Jasper Johns and Frank O’Hara

    Can someone spare this guy a period?

  16. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    “Colors to cleanse the optic nerve”.

    Would someone care to give me the scientific explanation of how that works?

    (Yeah, [/sarcasm])

    cr

  17. Michael Fisher
    Posted December 26, 2018 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    The New Yorker crew like to use writers who can pump out wordy column inches with the minimum of getting-to-the-fecking-point. Even the recording of a simple interaction becomes almost a film script with plenty of scene setting before business is gotten down to. It’s boring, pretentious crap.

    That article requires a light, skipping eye as here & there there’s interesting beginnings that say a lot less than they could – Schjeldahl has been in that scene for five decades & must have some great stories he can’t tell. Shame.

    Here is something better. Missus & Hubby Brooke Alderson & Peter Schjeldahl are cat people:

  18. Roo
    Posted December 27, 2018 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    My interpretation:

    – When the author talks about having one’s optic nerve ‘cleansed’, I think he is speaking about art as fulfilling historically religious (or at least therapeutic) roles. This makes sense, I think, if you have ever emerged from a religious institution feeling suddenly more uplifted, unburdened, ‘cleansed’, or whatever you like to to call it. I think he is assuming a shared frame of reference on that one.

    – To not make a mark on culture but be what culture is designated upon is pretty straightforward, I think. I.e., he didn’t *change culture, he *created culture. Whether or not you agree is another topic, of course, but I think that one is meant to be taken at face value, not as an obscure analogy. He’s simply saying he was a Founding Father of culture, in a way, not a rebellious force who made a mark on it.

    – I think the author is saying that Warhol “got away with” things because people assumed he was, in a sense, joking (or being ironic, incendiary, rabble rousing as a political statement, etc.); when, in the author’s opinion, what was written off as a joke or political parody may well have been a real opinion. Not so sure if I agree on that one (from the little I know about Warhol, the idea that he liked to get a rise out of people for its own sake seems to fit better,) but as pure psychoanalysis is impossible unless you read minds, who knows? Maybe Warhol was hiding more true sentiment than people realized behind a veneer of ‘rabble rousing’.


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