As January comes to a close, here are three pieces from around the web that I particularly recommend. Enjoy!
“The Fox News Theory of Art”
by Rachel Wetzler in the Baffler
Have you ever heard of Steve Penley? I haven’t, but then I guess the fact that I don’t know his colorfully dappled paintings of US presidents and American flags just means that I don’t watch much Fox News.
Penley’s art is more than just a regular feature and symbol of all that is patriotic on Fox. “You have seen his patriotic paintings all over Fox & Friends, and actually Fox News channel—everywhere you go, we see your pictures hanging up in the halls,” the show’s cohost, Ainsley Earhardt, enthused to an audience a few years ago, during an appearance by the “world-famous painter” on the show.
“It’s all over my radio studio now—we took ‘em all!” another one of the friends, Brian Kilmeade, added. “It’s brainwashing!”
That level of media exposure surely makes Penley one of the country’s most high-profile painters, whether you’ve heard of him or not. In a funny way, the right-wing mediasphere has a lot more use for artists than its liberal cable-media rivals.
Wetzler wades through a lot of Fox News (so you don’t have to) to find the Fox News Theory of Art, and it’s pretty much what you think it is: “Only three kinds of art exist for Fox News: patriotic, stupid, and obscene.”
Any way you slice it, it’s a mainly instrumental view of art: a given artwork gets the spotlight either because it is useful as propaganda for the Fox News worldview; because it serves as an illustration of how dumb and empty-headed liberal elites are; or because it outrages conservative sensibilities, and so can be used to rally the troops for the culture wars.
The favored “patriotic” aesthetic tends to channel Norman Rockwell by way of Andy Warhol, a late-Pop recycling of comfortingly clichéd American symbols. (Like Penley, the late Thomas Kinkade also took direct inspiration from Warhol’s Factory and described himself as Warhol’s “heir apparent.”) The best you could say of this work is that it’s probably more aware of how it operates than the art-loving public that doesn’t watch Fox News gives it credit for.
Conservative aesthetics are stereotypically all about taking a stand against decadent experimental art and for “real” traditional art. I’ve made a version of this point before (about neo-Jungian philosopher of the manosphere, Jordan Peterson), but by putting this art into the context of Fox News, Wetzler makes the point even more forcefully: it shows just how classically postmodern this conservative art is, if by that you mean art reduced to hollowed out signifiers, mutable performances, and stripped of any sense of a reality outside of media.
The Fox News view of culture may slam contemporary art as deliberately valuing offense over enlightenment, spectacle over skill, ugliness over beauty. But beneath a very thin Rockwellian veneer, all of this is equally true of the Through-the-Looking-Glass sensibility of Fox News’s rearguard. You can’t understand superstar Fox News artist Jon McNaughton’s One Nation Under Socialism, a painting of Obama burning the Constitution, outside of the value it puts on offense—aka “trolling the libs.”
And you can’t understand Joe Everson, whose shtick is live-painting the Statue of Liberty while singing the national anthem, outside of the appeal to spectacle.
“Patriot artist,” “nationally acclaimed flag muralist,” and frequent Fox visitor Scott LoBaido’s 20-foot-tall image of a musclebound Donald Trump is about as far from the profundities of “real traditional art” as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.
What’s it all mean? Probably that you should take Fox News art a hair more seriously than it is normally taken. Not in the sense of plumbing it for deep meaning—its meaning seems mainly to be its appeal to Fox News audiences. But as simplistic and easily mocked as it is, it’s much more savvy and finely calibrated to be effective than it gets credit for.
“Rise of the Blur”
by Dushko Petrovich in n+1
Petrovich, by contrast, reads political meaning in a phenomenon that you’ve probably seen everywhere and not read much into: the increasing presence of the blur in mainstream political photojournalism. “That we don’t fall off our chairs when we see this tells us how far we have come, photographically, in a very short time,” he writes. “We are a long way from Pete Souza’s languid, almost classical compositions on the Obama-era White House Flickr account, which in retrospect feel tinged with approaching horror.”
It’s an observant and nuanced essay, with the implication being that all the blurring is an almost an unconscious aesthetic symptom, registering a widespread, unnamable sense of looming dread. On the other hand, such blurry images are also “slightly virtuosic” and carry “the blush of pure expression.” Petrovich writes: “I have been told that what I was seeing was just the increased prowess of the telephoto lens, or merely the resurgence of shallow depth of field.”
I left the essay thinking it could be both. Photojournalism is in dire straights, images are cheap and everywhere, and it stands to reason that the dedicated professionals who remain—who are going to be focused in high-profile beats like political coverage and disaster reporting—feel pressured to register the individuality of their images with an arty shot. Wonky blurring is one way to do it. What’s interesting is that either way—as a symbol of an audience’s general sense of unease, or as a symbol of the photographer’s intensified need to register their subjectivity—we arrive at the blur through a sense of a system in crisis, just by different routes.
“Detective Stories About Feelings: The Driving Force of Peter Schjeldahl”
by Jarrett Earnest in Momus
Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl and what makes him an important figure, since his essay, “The Art of Dying,” was published last year. Earnest’s essay puts a commanding knowledge of his subject’s writing—he edited Schjeldahl’s recent book, Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light—to try to explain Schjeldahl’s Olympian everyman style.
There really are few writers who have the effect Schjeldahl has: his writing is almost untouchably on-its-own. But he’s also exceptionally engaging and reader-directed, and focused on connecting the circuits of artist biography and personal experience to make comprehensible a thought, an experience, a way of seeing.
Earnest describes his articles as “detective stories about feelings,” which gives a name to what I feel about them. He mentions Schjeldahl’s own account of his method: “Looking at art is like, ‘Here are the answers. What were the questions?’’ he once told me. ‘I think of it like espionage, ‘walking the cat back’—why did that happen, and that?—until eventually you come to a point of irreducible mystery.’”
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