This Again

Posted by on December 31st, 2009 at 1:10 PM

It seems to me that in the various discussions round and about of the above Chris Ware cover for The New Yorker a lot is being read into the image than is actually presented.  For instance, a fellow signing himself as Gorjus (never know when the Secret Police might be monitoring you) sees

The parents of the children wear a different mask; while there is nothing physical upon their faces, the reflection of their email and RSS feeds and status updates smear across their features, shutting them off from the world more than any Wolverine® latex ever could. It is, in one still image, a surpassing and comprehensive look at American society in the 21st century: we send our children out with masks to play-act traditions that were shaky and hoary when we were young, forcing them to play outside and make friends with the neighbor girls, while shutting down ourselves via 3G and electrons and Cymblata and whiskey more then even our own parents could manage.

Noah Berlatsky sees:

The bourgeoise literary tradition where you excoriate the bourgeoisie for their empty, lifeless culture by creating empty, lifeless culture.

And I really fail to see how you can get all that from the information provided.  Ware here is employing the Ernie Bushmiller practice of paring the image down to its bare essentials, albeit for different purposes.  What do we actually see here?  The time is twilight, when one normally goes trick-or-treating, and la-de-da, de-da-de-da, ’tis Autumn, when you will often find that Halloween takes place.  It is an affluent neighborhood with character, each house built along its own plan in a style of architecture of which Ware is known to approve.  The parents are being kind enough to take their children on an outing which is of no interest to themselves.  While their children go about their business they have each individually taken the time to check their personal devices, which cast a ghostly glow from their screens and upon the parents’ faces, just as the light from the doorways casts a ghostly glow on their children’s faces.  The figures in silhouette appear trim and youthful, with one a bit dumpy not excessively so, and even this indicates a certain unpretentiousness.  The question to be asked would be, is this truthful?  Well, it cheats a bit in that I don’t think those things give off enough light to illuminate your face.  As to whether one might see several people looking at their own particular personal devices at the same time, I think that’s something you might see only every day at any time in any city in the country.  When one person checks his it sometimes has a yawning effect.  They seem to be doing it in the same manner as they might while their children were getting their hair cut.  If they’re being indifferent it’s a rather protective kind of indifference.  In my day we tricked or treated on our own, but my day was a long time ago.

This falls within the classic range of New Yorker covers, less pointed and more decorative then a gag cartoon, and done primarily for the purpose of obtaining what they pay you for doing a New Yorker cover, which I’m guessing is a lot.  On most magazines it’s the photographers who get that gelt.  It depicts the classy exurban way of life a goodly segment of The New Yorker’s readers either live or aspire to.  If there are hard teachings to be found in this week’s New Yorker they will not be found on the cover, which seldom goes any harder than rueful.  If there’s a message being delivered by the image, it would seem to be ” everybody seems to have one of those these days, don’t they.”

If you read Ware’s scribblings in his sketchbooks you know that he is apt to pass harsh judgment on very short judgment, but as far as I can see in this image any judgment is being withheld.  Unless you’re assuming that when in the presence of another human being one ought to be intimately engaged with them it’s hard to see what’s wrong with this picture.  I suppose one could infer that each child has a different single parent, but it’s certainly not explicit.  It’s true that the style of drawing makes the people look like manikins, and manikins have a symbolic significance in art, but sometimes a silhouette is just a silhouette.

(I note after having written the above that the cover was accompanied by a story inside the magazine which may supply the material that’s being read into the cover.  I couldn’t tell you because it was printed too teeny tiny on the website for freeloaders to read.  For that matter, given that it’s Chris Ware it might be too teeny tiny for a lot of us to read on the printed page.) 

Be Sociable, Share!

6 Responses to “This Again”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “Unless you’re assuming that when in the presence of another human being one ought to be intimately engaged with them it’s hard to see what’s wrong with this picture.”

    Come on. If you show parents playing with their cell phones rather than interacting with their kids in a holiday setting, that has meaning. And yes, Ware is a talented enough artist that the blandness of the picture — the fact that the people look like mannikins, the fact that there are no holiday decorations and no masks — has meaning too. The “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” is cute, but in this case you’re actually arguing that sometimes a cylindrical object made in cuba that you smoke is just a cylindrical object made in cuba that you smoke because Ware didn’t write “CIGAR” on it in big letters.

  2. Chris Duffy says:

    Hey, Noah! But isn’t letting the kids run up to houses while you wait for them on the sidewalk what good parents do on Halloween? I don’t think there’s NO critique at all going on in the image, I just think it’s fairly “lite.”

  3. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey Chris. That was Eric Reynolds point, in the comments over at my blog, if I remember aright. I think that that’s a reasonable position. I’m willing to agree to disagree about it at this point, anyway!

  4. Caro says:

    The story inside, btw, does back up the “technology shuts us off from the world” interpretation, as well as the “each child has a different single parent” theory. Also it supports the masking allusion: the center of each spread (nicely stuffed down into the seam) is one of those vintage plastic Halloween masks, first in color, then evacuated of color (like the ones from the cell screen). On my reading, it’s consistent with Noah’s “excoriating the bourgeoisie” as well, although you could make an argument that the colorless mask is a response to the criticism that Ware de-glammed the holiday. And “excoriate” implies, well, a passion to the critique that I don’t see…I kinda get the feeling that “boring things are boring” is almost the point.

    Unfortunately, however, the story inside also strikes me as a significantly less sophisticated narrative than what Noah and compadres came up with. What Ware seems to have accomplished with the cover is reminding us of a pretty interesting and complex cultural concept — which he then, given two full spreads in a magazine widely read by passably literate people, does absolutely nothing original or incisive with.

    Seriously, a really pedestrian graphic/story about the distancing effect of technology earns the accolade “an artist at the absolute height of his powers? This is a trope that Delillo covered — even more bleakly yet with more humor — in 1985, before we even had cell phones that we could take out of our cars. At least if we’re reading all this into the cover, the conversation can be about wordless art: I’m not sure I see the visual genius in comparison with, say, Jeff Wall, but I’m happy to be challenged on that. However, once narrative enters the picture, this piece just gets lame.

  5. Caro says:

    I should say that the actual conceit in the story is a contrast he draws between the ways we “masked” our secrets before technology (spoilers deleted) with the ways we mask them now. The more things change yadda yadda. Still, hardly earth-shattering profundity…

  6. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey Caro. Yeah, Jeff Wall’s a nice take-down. I think Ware has arguably done things that graphically exciting — but not here, and, at least to my mind, not for a while.

    Ware also used to have somewhat more to say; his narratives were weird and filled with bizarre fantasies and irony that was actually mean-spirited. He seems to have jettisoned most of that; he doesn’t seem to have much to say anymore except “boring lonely middle-aged white guys are lonely.” Which does get tiresome….