Tuesday, September 26, 2023


 There's a lot going on in this political cartoon by the great Jeff MacNelly.

Using three point perspective, he fits important information neatly through each of the three windows of the ambulance; he wraps lettering and symbols at orthogonal angles around the different vehicles (even respecting the curvature of the motorcycle gas tank); he foreshortens the figures at the end, while decreasing the size of the text in the word balloon; and he even has energy left over to draw the ambulance's front wheels at a different angle than the rear wheels.

It's hard to draw with that kind of precision and detail while still keeping the drawing lively and spontaneous but MacNelly manages it.  

MacNelly pulls off the same trick with this next cartoon:  recognizable caricatures of eight different senators, sitting in chairs at eight distinctive angles, surrounded by a variety of embellishments.

Even this third cartoon, which appears much simpler, is crafted with a watchmaker's precision.

Note the beautifully constructed face of the threatening bull: with only a reverse 3/4 profile to work with (partially obscured by a drooping ear) MacNelly does wonders with that deadly eye, the curl of the lip showing uneven teeth, the hair on the chin and the ring in the nose.   Who can draw like this today?

The figure of Perot is tiny in the background, yet his ultra-simplified likeness is convincing, and details such as the rodeo gloves and the big hat are remarkably effective for their size.

Many artists who are able to exert this kind of control let the control dominate the picture.  Not MacNelly;  his drawings were always jaunty and friendly and informal.  How did he do it?

For one thing, look at how he darkened that bull.  It's one wild scribble:

Even when he's drawing something like the shade on the side of a flat wall...

... he doesn't use consistent lines. No gray screen, zipatone or even cross-hatching here.  

These disorderly, unsystematic lines infuse his drawing with life. Compare MacNelly's loose approach with the work of other masters of "control," such as Franklin Booth, Virgil Finlay or Reed Crandall.  Compare it with the antiseptic technical drawing of Chris Ware and his legions of followers. 

Here's another drawing with a level of detail that might prove deadly in the hands of a less certain artist:

MacNelly pulls the same trick shading that wall:

But he has other tricks too.  If you're going to draw 16 distinctive people in a line, with their heads cocked at different angles and wearing different hats, you don't want them to serve as an anchor weighing down your drawing, you want them to contribute energy.  I love the way MacNelly smears this crowd together with line, and draws them hugging the curvature of the earth.

It's hard to think of a more dynamic way of drawing a crowd of patient people waiting in a long line.

Today's shrinking newspaper industry offers so few platforms for artistic talent.  Heaven knows what MacNelly would be doing as an editorial cartoonist in today's market.  But looking over our shoulder at his dazzling drawings, we get a renewed sense for what good drawing once contributed to journalism, and might contribute again. 


MORAN said...

MacNelly was awesome.

Albert Campillo Lastra said...

When I read articles like this one, in which you show us and make us learn thanks to a successful structural and technical analysis of a work of art or an artist, I can't help but wonder how much there is premeditation and how much spontaneity, or experience, or innate art on the part of the artist, I don't know if I understand myself?

Anonymous said...

Political cartoons are disappearing because cartoonists can no longer draw. No one today is like MacNelly. Ramirez is good but even he can't match MacNelly.


xopxe said...

I love seeing the correction fluid fix for the Perot's hat. You can almost imagine the man working the piece, and understand when and why he decided that.

Movieac said...

“ Who can draw like this today?”
No one really but political cartoonist seem like the only ones really trying. Most other works are embarrassingly bad.

Dale Stephanos said...

MacNelly's drawings were always magical. Another magic trick he pulled off was making it look so easy and fun that legions of young cartoonists like me thought we could do what he was doing. We soon realized it wasn't so easy. Jim Borgman and Bill Watterson made similarly inspiring work that had MacNelly/Oliphant DNA. Having been an editorial cartoonist with a daily deadline, I can tell you that those masterful scribbles and spontaneous marks owed as much to the ticking clock as they did to informed artistic choices. MacNelly just did it better than anyone. Grace under pressure.
Thanks for this wonderful post.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Yes indeed he was. And we should remember him for it.

Albert Campillo Lastra-- I understand your question perfectly, and it's a good one. In my experience, artists start out being very conscious about each choice, and gradually, with practice, they become intuitive (and better).

JSL-- It may be a chicken and egg problem. If newspapers weren't losing readership, they would pay editorial cartoonists properly and give them more space. As opportunities shrink, I'm afraid the best tend to go elsewhere. I've written before about political cartoonists I admire-- Ann Telnaes, Steve Brodner, Ramirez-- they're each to be good enough to dominate the editorial cartoon spot in any current newspaper

xopxe-- I like that too. One of the virtues of turning right to the originals; you really get an Xray of the artist's choices.

Movieac-- I don't see any contemporary editorial cartoonists "trying" to use compositions as complex and ambitious as MacNelly's. However, I'd be interested in the names of any artists that you or other here think are doing the best work political cartoon work these days.

Movieac said...

Agree no one I can think of uses composition like MaNelly but in general most make an attempt to draw well. Don’t think anyone has that “old school” talent.

Richard said...

I don't think general audiences want the grit and complexity of a MacNelly. They like the antiseptic line and color of modern digital artists, they like the easy to read iconic shapes.

There's almost 8 billion people on this planet. I have to believe that if there was a sufficient market pressure for work like MacNelly's, a generation of artists would handily rise to the challenge.

kev ferrara said...

MacNelly's work exists because of newsprint and printer's ink and is optimized for it... as well as the eye rest and mind relief of a newspaper readership. It is essentially typographic - in keeping with the newspaper - but functions as a momentary antidote to extended eyeball concentration on tightly-spaced formal text. Like Steinberg, it is art made by and for the print-imprinted mind.

As an antidote to visual and mental stress, it is the simplicity and spaciousness of MacNelly's work (as with all cartoons) that made it popular and effective, not its supposed "grit" or "complexity." And if people aren't exhaustively poring over smudged text on newsprint, there goes its utility; thus there goes its generative market pressure.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Haven't you just described all of illustration (including Howard Pyle, Harvey Dunn, Walter Everett and Frank Frazetta)? In the early 19th century all magazines were densely printed pages of text without pictures, except for an occasional rare, small and crude wood engraving. They were mostly read by a tiny literate (and usually prosperous) audience. Magazines and illustration exploded into a huge mass market starting in the late 19th century when technology transformed magazines (and newspapers and books) into a revolutionary platform for delivering pictures to the vast majority of humanity that never had them before, and which formed the market for the advertising that paid for all those illustrators. You can argue that these illustrations were "eye rest and mind relief" from all those columns of unbroken text-- that was undoubtedly a portion of their commercial function. But if you're going to try to dismiss MacNelly on that basis, he'll have to occupy a seat in the dumpster next to all of your artistic heroes.

kev ferrara said...

I wasn't trying to dismiss MacNelly. I was responding to Richard regarding why his type of work is not going to be made anymore.

There are certainly overlaps between the role of editorial cartoonists and the Golden Age illustrators. Yes, relief of eye and mind strain is a shared purpose. (Although the fiction stories from back when were fairly untaxing. And rather poor; so much 'telling' that illustrators often provided the only 'showing' in the story.)

A big difference is that newspapers were very cheaply printed and were expected to be trash within a day or a week. Whereas the magazines the Golden Age illustrators adorned were often kept or some of the pictures clipped out and saved or hung. The production quality was, of course, much higher. I have tearsheets from 1905 that are still nearly white. But the few old newspaper sections I have from the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s are all browned, eaten from within by the acid composition of the pulp.

The second big difference is that the illustrators you mentioned expressed things aesthetically and naturalistically. MacNelly is a cartoonist - he expresses through conventions and lines. As comedy, his work is almost nothing but blantant distortions and visual elisions. If he drew anything correctly, it would stand out like a sore thumb and ruin the drawing.

Time is a funny thing. Influence too. The great Franklin Booth's romanticism and linework would have been a sure bet for extinction. Yet Nicholas Delort has been winning awards with a style influenced by him, and there's a raft of others playing around with his fine and beautiful technique. (As an aside, Finlay and Crandall, both stiff and unexamined artists in my view, should not be mentioned alongside Booth. It is a great pity that Walt Reed never wrote down what Booth said in his class.)

As far as Pyle and Wyeth's influence - and their influence on Frazetta and FF's influence on the gigantic fantasy genre which still rampages across the global culture, it seems the very opposite of dustbinned. Not a day goes by that I don't see a half dozen fifth generation attempts to create fantasy work in their 'American Imagist' style.

What is going extinct is the paper and pen. And thus handwriting. In all its forms. A massive loss of humanity.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just my age (mid 40s), but even though I grew up with and enthusiastically embraced the use of computers and other gadgets, I'm lately finding myself drawn back to paper, pencil, pen, brush and ink. The computers of my youth were fantastic tools for fostering a mindset of creative problem solving and expanding the imagination. Something has changed, however — at least, as I see it. Especially with the advent of machine learning, the computers are using us and not the other way around. Humans are farming out their creativity to the machine.

Plus, I'm finding it exhausting to keep up with the pace of change. The software (which isn't owned, only borrowed on a subscription basis) is constantly updated, so that you might be perfectly content with it today and yet find it broken or overburdened with unnecessary features in a month. The fees go up over time, as do the hardware requirements. The rug is constantly being pulled out from under you.

In contrast, traditional media are comfortably reliable. The pencil and paper I use today are essentially the same as what I used as a school boy. It's nice to focus on actually drawing rather than adjusting sliders and settings and choosing from a mind-boggling array of options. Besides, the feeling of graphite scratching against paper always beats the parallax and delayed response of a plastic stylus on glass.

But most of all, that act of making marks, with all their imperfections, onto something tangible, reaffirms our humanity at a time when the cultural zeitgeist seems to be all about throwing it away in the name of some futurist utopia that feels more and more like a dystopia to me.

The 1988 video game Snatcher is set in a cyberpunk future heavily inspired by the film Blade Runner (which itself is based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). One scene in the game depicts a group of homeless men gathered around a trash-can fire for warmth. They are members of a faction known as "freemen," the player is told, and are homeless by choice as a sort of rebellion against the constant surveillance and control of information by the authorities. That bit of world-building strikes me as prescient. People today are constantly being watched, and watching one another, and so-called "mental illness" proliferates. It might as well be called spiritual death, utter despair that can't be dulled by the 24/7 social media circus or cured by the pills handed out like candy by the psychiatrists.

People want, even need, to slow down, reflect, concentrate, to make something with their own hands and their own mind. Which is all my roundabout way of saying that I think these traditional media might be overdue for a comeback.

Movieac said...

Found this anonymous comment about AI on another site.
“It's not that computers will become smart and take over the world. It's that computers are stupid and they already have."

David Apatoff said...

Dale Stephanos-- Thanks very much,I share your view of MacNelly. And if his deadline was responsible for that flurry of strokes, it's all the more impressive. I was always astonished that, in addition to his editorial cartoon, he was able to take on the comic strip Shoe in his spare time.

Richard-- It's not just the market pressure for cartoons like MacNelly's. The market for the newspapers in which they appeared is evaporating. Perhaps that's the result of an increasing lack of interest in the news or perhaps that's the result of an increasing lack of interest in words.

Anonymous said...

>> Perhaps that's the result of an increasing lack of interest in the news or perhaps that's the result of an increasing lack of interest in words.

Perhaps people are sick of being manipulated by an increasingly inept and increasingly authoritarian elite class.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- I've been searching for someone to explain why "elite" became a dirty word. Perhaps it will be you?

In the past, "elite" (defined as best or most select) was something that people aspired to be. They worked hard to achieve it, and sacrificed to become as educated as they could. The Green Berets were an "elite" fighting force, Top Gun pilots were elite-- the best of the best-- and the same for the moon landing astronauts.

Ever since the ancient Greeks, the greatest achievements were accomplished by cultures with elite ambitions. The Medici family was comprised of elite connoisseurs who funded Leonardo, Botticelli, Raphael and Michelangelo. In the 20th century the Solvay conference in Brussels, an invitation-only summit of elite theoretical physicists was a turning point in human understanding of reality; 17 of the 29 attendees at Solvay went on to win Nobel prizes. To bring the subject back closer to this blog, The EC artists were the elites of the comic book field, and everybody knew it. The name of "The Famous Artists School" reeked of elitism. The artists who came together to make Little Annie Fanny in the 1960s were the cream of the crop-- Jack Davis, Frank Frazetta, Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman. The Kennedy administration in the 1960s was renown for bringing together the culturally and intellectually elite, whether for the space program, or to support the top artists and musicians.

Watch the U.S. presidential debates in the 1960s, when candidates articulated complex substantive thoughts in complete paragraphs, Then compare those debates with today's thuggish debates where churlish candidates bash each other with sound bites intended to manipulate less educated, more gullible people.

Any help understanding this trend would be appreciated.

kev ferrara said...

To bring the subject back closer to this blog, The EC artists were the elites of the comic book field, and everybody knew it. The name of "The Famous Artists School" reeked of elitism.

I think you are confusing Elites with elites.

During EC's heyday, no Elite would be caught dead mentioning the company except in the context of senate hearings on juvenile delinquency. And the FAS was advertised on the back page of comic books.

Elites would, however, be playacting that they liked Braque, Picasso, and Pollock.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I agree that newspapers were cheaply printed with lower production values, but that just meant cartoonists had to overcome those disadvantages by using a bolder line, or stark contrasts and chiaroscuro effects. Every medium or style has its challenges, and artists must work around all sorts of advantages and disadvantages. Pyle and Dore worked around primitive engraving, Rembrandt worked with etchings that were in mirror images, Franklin Booth voluntarily worked in a laborious style that prevented him from using lines with the expressive variety of MacNelly's.

Perhaps One reason Booth is not higher on my list is that I personally prefer the more frisky line of A.B. Frost or Edwin Abbey, or the symphonic variation of Coll or the gusto of Gibson or Flagg or Lowell, or the more sensitive variation in line from Sickles or Briggs or Fuchs. But I agree with you 100% about Crandall and Finlay. They too work with a painstaking fine line approach, but they are nowhere near Booth's league.

I also agree with you about the popularity and influence of Frazetta. My point was only that the companies who paid for his pictures over the years were also looking for "eye rest and mind relief," just like the newspapers who hired MacNelly. I'm guessing that if Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard didn't have those pictures to aerate their dense prose, they would have a tiny fraction of their readership today.

As for "A massive loss for humanity," boy do I agree with that. The only thing that remains to be determined is the value of what we're trading it for.

kev ferrara said...

As for "A massive loss for humanity," boy do I agree with that. The only thing that remains to be determined is the value of what we're trading it for.

Well, I wrote "a massive loss of humanity." By which I meant that our humanity is embodied in the handmade. And if people no longer make anything by hand, out of care and fascination and love and willpower and expression, then little trace will be left of them as they go through life. Their nature/souls/personalities, their physicalities will simply fade to nothing. (This will also be a massive loss for humanity, of course.)

I can think of nothing that matches individual humanity in its value to me. Every mass movement I'm seeing going forward is anti-ardour; technocratic forcing toward the generic and the controlled, and social forcing towards tribal-political conformity and banality. People are increasingly too afraid to speak their minds and increasingly too lazy to think their own thoughts. And why bother to do the latter when you can't do the former anyhow?

Pyle and Dore worked around primitive engraving

Pyle's early engraved work is fairly execrable.

Franklin Booth voluntarily worked in a laborious style that prevented him from using lines with the expressive variety of MacNelly's.

This analysis is at the level of listening to Aretha Franklin belting out a jingle for a Chevrolet TV ad with all the standard Soul-Sista melisma linear embellishments - warbling and wailing - and thinking that because her lines are so varied(!) and expressive(!) that she must really mean it!

Yours is remark about entertainment, not Art.

Anonymous said...

>>I've been searching for someone to explain why "elite" became a dirty word. Perhaps it will be you?

Why and when: About the time that ‘Elites’ started caring more about their status and power in Washington D.C. and lobbying money and less about what was actually happening to the people of this country. About the time that ‘Elite Universities’ starting indoctrinating kids into being destructive and inept political advocates instead of competent patriotic entrepreneurs with real educations in history and literature. Around the time that elite Silicon Valley geniuses decided to develop algorithms to addict people to their websites and video games instead of helping people lead better, healthier lives offline. Around the time that normal Americans realized that ‘Elite Media’ figures hated them and lied about them and existed in cliques full of people that hated them and lied about them. Around the time of Bay of Pigs and Vietnam. The Challenger exploding live on TV. The Sokal hoax. Jayson Blair. Around the time that we learned the Clintons were paid over a $150 million dollars in speaking fees by Wall Street, Drug Companies, Russia, and the banking industry and were supposedly ‘Democrats’ for the people. How much do you want?

Richard said...

> I've been searching for someone to explain why "elite" became a dirty word.

I know you were asking this rhetorically, but I thought it was worth investigating.

I agree with Kev that "elites" is the operative word. The evolution of the adjective to a noun seems to have given it the basis for a pejorative thrust.

The earliest uses of "elites" as a noun were from the late 1800s, where it referred to elite military units. It wasn't until its use in the late 1930s, however, that the word took on anything like the form we know today.

The earliest occasion I can see, of "Elites" referring to a class, is in 1937 in "The Chinese Social and Political Science Review". This then seems to set a trend that for a couple years, where the term was occasionally used to describe class structures in China, India, and Japan.

Then, in 1939, there is a marked uptick in the use of the term to describe leadership in Nazi Germany. Between 1939 and 1942 the term is used regularly to describe Nazi leadership.

Then in 1942, the term is first used abstractly to describe any ruling class member, by two authors. Marxist, Lewis Corey, in "The Unfinished Task: Economic Reconstruction for Democracy", and Max Lerner in "Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas".

Finally, the term appears to break away with sociologist C. Wright Mills "The Power Elite", 1956, in which Mills 'points to the interwoven interests of the leaders of the military, corporate, and political elements of society and suggests that the ordinary citizen in modern times is a relatively powerless subject of manipulation by those three entities'

This book then seems to be the inflection point for a meteoric rise. Looking at Ngram Viewer, we can see that "elites" has exploded in popularity since 1956, with a steady growth in print every year since.

Richard said...

Oh, shoot, I completely left out of this timeline that the English word "elites" had a preceding cognate in the French sociological term "élites".

The French term appears to have been coined around ~1905, and used almost exclusively by French socialists.

This term hit a short period of popularity in the 1920s, as used by Gustave Le Bon, who went on to influence the fascists, with sayings like: "La force d'une nation ne se mesure pas au chiffre de sa population , mais à la valeur de ses élites" or "The strength of a nation is not measured by the number of its population, but by the value of its elites."

The French term was further popularized by Pareto in Les Systèmes Socialistes (1926).

It fell out of use for a short time, until becoming fairly popular in the late 1930s to early 1940s. It's usage in France has remained fairly flat since then.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Right,"a massive loss of humanity." My transcription error, I didn't intend a substantive change.

If you find Pyle's early engraved work "fairly execrable," it may be more a result of Pyle's growth curve (which was impressive) than the effect of wood engraving. But none of that affects my basic point: that having MacNelly's work filtered through the limitations of newspapers is no worse than other great illustrators filtered through wood engravings, or scratchboard, or having having Booth's drawing translated through his painstaking technique. All those methods require some accommodation, but if the artist is good, they compensate.

I agree with you about Aretha Franklin using soul techniques to sell Chevrolets or Ray Charles to sell Coca-Cola, but I find that inapposite here. I think a sinuous, expressive line can be used to draw an embracing couple or a piece of industrial equipment without compromising the purity of the technique in any way.

Anonymous-- I'll skip over the curious fact that all your examples of bad behavior by "elites" seems to be drawn from the left side of the spectrum, ignoring the abundant examples on the right, and cut right to the chase: Assuming that many people with wealth and power have misused their advantages, who would ever think the best response is to reject higher education, professional achievement, empirical evidence and civil government? How do "non-elites" improve their lot by ignoring science and embracing superstition and conspiracy? If people feel mistreated by "elites," I'd think those people would want to learn as much as they could, understand as much about the world as they could, make as much as money as they could, improve government, level the playing field.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- Thanks for a delightful and highly interesting detour through etymology. I'm very impressed. Of course, there were words similar to "elites" that had a positive connotation-- for example, Greeks during the golden age viewed a "citizen" of the polis as a higher being than the "uncivilized" barbarians in countries next door. And of course India has its caste system. But let's stick with the term "elites" for now.

You write, "I agree with Kev that 'elites' is the operative word." Actually, I thought Kev's suggestion was to distinguish "Elites" from "elites." I find your distinction (the noun from the adjective) to be more useful.

With the benefit of your historical analysis I can appreciate how the term "elites" evolved from a compliment to a pejorative term when it was used by have-nots to stir up resentment against the haves. It sounds like leftists/socialists had a great deal to do with re-shaping that word, just as the fascists on the right proudly considered themselves elites. (This would be an odd use of "elites," as the Nazis drove away one of the greatest collections of cultured minds in history, from Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud to Enrico Fermi and Billy Wilder)

But if the meaning of the word "elites" changed in the 20th century, I'd say it's in the process of mutating once again in the US, where "elites" seems to mean anyone with more than a high school education. Strangely, the people fomenting (and often profiting from) the resentment against science, education and accomplishment are often wealthy and privileged people who've been educated in the best schools and who own publishing empires or real estate dynasties, or who profit immensely from the sale of products such as tobacco or fossil fuels. Is it time for a new chapter in your etymology?

kev ferrara said...

"I agree with Kev that 'elites' is the operative word." Actually, I thought Kev's suggestion was to distinguish "Elites" from "elites." I find your distinction (the noun from the adjective) to be more useful.

I would think the question of whether The Elite (those in power or of supreme influence, and considered highest in status) are in fact elite (superior in all the important ways, not just in the ways that get them into power, thus actually deserving of status) goes to the heart of the entire question.

Any serious illustration fan knows that Modernists took hold of the cultural reigns between the wars and had themselves crowned, in the process shunning illustration and anything that even utilized naturalism and observation, banning it from the kingdom. Not just in the schools but also in the galleries and auction houses. I personally consider this an illegitimate usurpation of the top rung of the aesthetic hierarchy. And pretty much everything I write aims to make the case.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I'm not sure how any group-- whether modernist artists or other cultural grandees-- is able to "have themselves crowned."

The Brandywine Museum is currently exhibiting a handwritten letter from Andrew Wyeth to Edward Hopper. Hopper had asked Wyeth to co-sign a letter to the Whitney Museum complaining about the Whitney's focus on modernist art at the expense of art that utilized naturalism and observation. Wyeth declined, with this explanation:

Dear Mr. Hopper, I am going to be really frank with you. The current run of things in the art world is an ever present threat. The company our paintings hang with in group exhibitions isn’t what you or I would wish but it is a challenge to be up against a 6‘ x 6‘ nonobjective, and not have the forms and meaning of our realistic paintings fade into nothingness.

I feel that abstract art and all its cousins is the toughest neighbor that realism has had to put up with for years. Our ideals must be searched the deeper, and you will always stand as the greatest contemporary power of us all. Wherever one of your paintings hang, all else fades into triviality.

You could be the only one in a show of 4000 non-objectives and be the victor. I do not feel we should weaken our cause by letters of protest, but should strengthen it by better paintings. Could it be that realism has become paunchy from centuries of easy living? We must not forget our weapons are paint brushes, not voices or public points. With the greatest respect for your silent power,

sincerely yours,
Andrew Wyeth."

kev ferrara said...

Fair enough as far as it goes, David.

I would often say to art friends - who seemed not to understand me - that our pictures had to compete at the graphic level with Franz Kline. I'm less inclined to believe that myself now, because being graphically obnoxious for its PR value seems a rather paltry artistic target to shoot for. Especially when it entails being poetically dumb in the process. And of course, there is no doubt that great work speaks for itself - to the non-blinkered - in an open forum.

But that isn't really the question.

Ideologies are infamous for burrowing their way into influential spaces, gaining control, and permanently banning any dissent. Ideologies are also infamous for relentlessly slandering opponents rather than meeting them fairly on either the battlefield of ideas or in a fair marketplace where the quality of works matter. Ideologies are full of Iagos whispering to ensure their own status by flattering and frightening the egotistical and powerful while reputation-savaging and tainting others who might get in their way.

When Andrew Wyeth died, Slate ran a grotesque and ghoulish slam against him by Timothy White. Not a single remark about how good his work was. Just invective and jealousy about his success outside the halls of proper aesthetic goals. Within hours, apparently, a raft of letters poured in to Slate - including mine - and they changed out the article. As you probably know, the so-called 'Art World' is filled with many a nasty and miserable bastard with an axe to grind from childhood.

I was gifted a great big beautiful History of Art book directly from Barnes & Noble some years back. Written and edited by a bevy of Ivy League poobahs. In short order it revealed itself to have a particular narrative and to be a propagator of that narrative. The correct narrative. And a narrative that didn't argue against the 20the century art that was elite in quality, it simply ignored it entirely. Wiped it from history by banning it from the history books.

All of politics is about distorting market perceptions, not competing. "Competition is for losers", as Peter Thiel famously said. And the best way to avoid competition is to simply excise it from public awareness.

I've previously shared anecdotes about Modernists taking over art schools and hiring all their friends and firing all the old hands who knew the earlier information. This happened at many of the finest school here and abroad. I've shared several instances of illustrators being rebuffed from moving on to gallery work because of the taint that had been put on illustration from without, through political means. Then there is the matter of the early dealers in modern art and their shenanigans and their coziness with the newspaper PR machines and wealthy patrons with political axes to grind. And so on.

Obviously I cannot make the entire case here, but the picture starts to come clear the more anecdotes are piled up.

Richard said...

But if the meaning of the word "elites" changed in the 20th century, I'd say it's in the process of mutating once again in the US, where "elites" seems to mean anyone with more than a high school education. […] Strangely, the people fomenting [..] are often wealthy and privileged people [..] Is it time for a new chapter in your etymology?

Believing that wealth and social class are inherently interrelated is of modern American vintage.

Before the 20th century, there was nothing unusual about the idea that a poor aristocrat could be more “elite” than a wealthy foreign-born merchant. In other countries, too, this is still the standard. In India, for example, the difference between wealth and class/caste is crystal clear.

America took as axiomatic that we have no social class system. We have no landed gentry, no knights, no samurai, no vassals, no viziers, right?

I had a communist friend balk when I said that his disgust at Trump’s fake tan was “classist”. How could it possibly be classist, he argued, when Trump is a billionaire and I work at a bookstore? That’s not what class means, he went on, I should know, I’m a communist.

In the United States, he is, at least legally speaking, correct. American law provides no recourse for a job candidate who is not hired for being a hick, jersey shore-ite, ghetto, white trash, hillbilly, or cholo. Nor for his/her fake tan, southern accent, corn rows, belly shirt, smoking habit, Ford F-150, tramp stamp, camo pants, Fast and Furious bumper sticker, or low rider car. Our country's "social justice" warriors watch TV shows like Jersey Shore, My 600 LB Life, or Real Housewives of New Jersey, and do not complain about their being entirely class mockeries.

Similarly, I’ve heard several media outlets say “what could it possibly mean that Fauci is an ‘elite’?” He makes $400k, they say, a good income, but by no means an “elite” income for a doctor. J Edgar Hoover, similarly, only made $10k as Director of the FBI, something like $175k today.

But to explain the difference between J Edgar Hoover and my millionaire fat bald Italian landscaper, we need more than economic class. There is a very real sense, a social/cultural sense, in which Dr. Fauci is an elite while Mr. Trump (who served McDonalds in the White House and celebrates hotel Taco Bowls as authentic culture) is a proletarian. In which a Texan oil man can be a pleb, while a $77k/year NY Times editor is gentility.

When Republicans complain about “elites”, this is the kind of class being talked about, not having bachelor’s degrees or more money. It’s anger about the calcifying social class structure in the United States, and that these specific guys with diplomas don’t seem to care what anyone else thinks or feels outside of their influential coastal bubbles.

To unpack what we mean when we say “elite” is pretty crucial, then, to understand what the two sides of American politics are talking about.

kev ferrara said...

We’re running a bit far afield here, but…

The Elite is fundamentally a status question, while eliteness is a qualitative question. The former a social construction, the latter an embodiment.

High Status is like cleanliness; next to Godliness. The clothes are flattened and fresh, fine linens and clean laundry being indicative. Even facial wrinkles are ironed out on an outpatient basis. The sacred speak the good magic words, demonstrating the clean thoughts. They like what is important (holy) to like.

Conversely, the peasantry are unclean; speak with the profanities as determined lately by the Priesthood (the prestige media, and now the woke occupation). They wear the rough clothes, the real hair, and the real wrinkles. They like what they like.

High Status vs Low Status roughly translates to Sacred vs Profane.

The fear of being tainted as low status is exactly how high status people are controlled in their thoughts and actions; on what is allowable to believe, who it is allowable to quote or admire, who one is allowed to vote for, what art one should admire and invest in, what books to read, and so on. All is either beatified or demonized in the circumscribed world of heavy prestige media consumption and its induced status consciousness. (Say one word or phrase associated with the demonized, and out come the intense blood dart eyes; the infidel revealed among us. Or maybe worse, a fool or dupe who believes the lies of the outsider demon leader.)

kev ferrara said...

The reaction of being offended is actually a very interesting one. In the world of comedians (real comedians that is) nothing is sacred. Talk is understood to be birdsong; signs to play with in order to create art. The pearl-clutchers (now called ‘Karens’) who take it all seriously are the risible enemy.

Among the perpetually offended, however all talk is holy writ; all speech is sermon. And there are very strict guardrails for what is allowable and proper to say from the pulpit of the mouth. To these types, to say something terrible is to act terribly; to, in fact, be terrible. In orthodox Judaism even to think an illicit thought is considered an actual act of sin. Comedy doesn’t exist because nothing is funny; Comedians are just bad people.

Being offended is on the surface a real reaction. But one layer beneath is a reflexive status claim that broadcasts disgust with and rejection of any "pollution" of one's Elite/Holy Sensibilities.

But a further layer underneath that, taking offense actually expresses an acute and raw fear of being singled out, found out, and degraded in status, thereafter subject to lower class indignities and abuse. This is why, so often, those who came from degraded beginnings are the most highly reactive with respect to status questions once they attain some respectability, comfort, and stability in life. They are usually the self-selected nervous guards with the quick trigger fingers sitting on the top of the citadel’s walls policing entry into the statusphere and firing on raiders. They are also the politicians, up from nothing, that now demagogue polarization into superior and inferior factions.

Robert Cook said...

"I don't see any contemporary editorial cartoonists 'trying' to use compositions as complex and ambitious as MacNelly's. However, I'd be interested in the names of any artists that you or other here think are doing the best work political cartoon work these days."

The only US political cartoonist I know of today whose drawing I find truly fetching is Mike Luckovich at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He's not up there with giants such as MacNelly, perhaps, but his drawing has real personality, skill, and sensitivity.

Gary Locke said...

we could use a brain and pen/brush of MacNeely now-------- Michael Ramirez is carrying the torch pretty well------- but MAN--i DO MISS this man's work!