Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pictures, Captions, Practices: Time for an Update

Update: This post was composed and saved on Wednesday the 3rd, but edited and posted on Thursday the 4th. So I edited the copy to say "yesterday." But the software records the post on the day it's saved, not posted. Hence the apparent confusion about what day it is.

Yesterday's New York Times featured a quartet of portraits of Mario Cuomo (viewable here), each designed to suggest an art historical vision of the former governor of New York: images "in the manner of" Warhol, Picasso, Mondrian, and R. Crumb. Thomas Fuchs produced the set, which run above the fold on page one. A rare event indeed: illustration on the most high profile broadsheet space in the nation!

Alas, I will confess that from my perspective the conceit is a tiresome one. I thought the same thing when I saw the final credit sequence to [the otherwise fabulous] Wall-E, which used art history as a time-marking device of visualization. Arguably an even more annoying statement, because it mimics the progressive, even teleological conception of the Western art historical narrative that's built into most surveys. Sigh.

But here's the thing: my beef is with the copy conventions displayed by the Times in the caption for the piece. Thomas Fuchs is an accomplished illustrator with quite a broad range, including but not limited to celebrity portraits. Stylish, smart, acute.

But the caption reads as follows:

"Mario M. Cuomo shows no interest in posing, but one illustrator visualized him as if depicted by, clockwise from top left, Warhol, Picasso, Mondrian, and R. Crumb." Italics mine.

The all-cap agate credit line at the lower right of the image set, and above the caption reads: ILLUSTRATIONS BY THOMAS FUCHS

Now imagine that the creator in question was a novelist (say Toni Morrison) composer (say Philip Glass) actor (you get the idea) or poet. Would the caption writer blow by the credit for Toni Morrison by saying, below a representation of her work, "one novelist"? Of course not! The agate line only makes it more irritating, because it's like a service entrance for the illustrator.

Why not write, ""Mario M. Cuomo shows no interest in posing, but illustrator Thomas Fuchs visualized him as if depicted by..." etc. Because the illustrator is an anonymous cultural worker, as opposed to the critically-engaged individualized hero, l'artiste.

I'll write more about what these practices reveal about cultural taxonomies and values some other time. But I did not want to let it pass without comment.

Was anybody else bothered by this?

Images: Thomas Fuchs, Late-cubist Mario Cuomo, New York Times, Wednesday December 3, 2008; Fuchs, The Oscar Fellowship, Entertainment Weekly, undated.


eben said...

your blog is strong indeed, they have edited the copy to now say:

"Thomas Fuchs, an illustrator, offers his own portaits in the style of [...]"

take that, gray lady!

blogger note: in post options you can change the date/time of the post.

John Hendrix said...

Great pick up DB. There is a funny conversation about "one illustrator" over at about this. How can so many educated people have no idea what to do with an entire field of creatives? Its so funny in a way, the blatant awkwardness of how the language.

As to the nature of the drawing, I've never seen anything like this on the front page of the NYT... After spending three years working there, I know the managing editors would never put anything 'editorial' and not 'journalistic' above the fold. Truly, I have no idea how this happened.

Illustrator Felix Sockwell is trying to start an ABOVE THE FOLD CLUB. Very small membership indeed.

DB Dowd said...

Eben and Hendrix, thanks for the comment. (And Eben especially for the heads up re: post options!)

John, yes, it really is a shocking choice for the NYT. Maybe it was a slow news day. You know, financial collapse, Mumbai attacks, Obama picks, Detroit exec promenades--nothing much happening nowadays.

What a peculiar business, no? The Attractive Invisibles: Illustrators in America...

Bob Flynn said...

We talked a little about the illustration at lunch in the studio a couple days back...probably because it was so prominently featured. I didn't catch the caption, but yes, and odd choice indeed.

Of the bunch, the Mondrian was the least successful, I thought.

John Hendrix said...

I think the Mondrian was the internal punch-line, like, "see how lame the concept the art director wanted me to execute turned out to be "