Tuesday, November 01, 2005

oct 31 issue: Gopnik repeats himself

I love it when anyone takes a chance on writing about realism, but Adam Gopnik's essay on Winslow Homer is a little too formulaic . . .

Homer's "easy, unexcitable" relationship to lithography is "a bit like a contemporary artist as much at home with CGI as with a pencil." (68) Gopnik is speculating wildly in two very different historical contexts here . . . he's already admitted that Homer hated working at a lithographer and contemporary artistic practice is often just as emotionally charged when it comes to CGI and pencils . . . though I'm more familiar with the anti-Luddite side of that debate and it sounds like Homer should rightly be placed in the more traditional position of his time.

In the following paragraph, another ahistorical comparsion; during the Civil War Homer worked "as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly, the Life of its day." (68) So Harper's Weekly was to the Civil War as Life was to - what? When was Life relevant and for whom? Maybe most New Yorker readers know this, and I can take a good guess, but this isn't very illuminating.

In the very next sentence, "He was, from the first a plainspoken man who felt at home with soldiers and their officers - the model of an embedded journalist." (68) Another glib comparsion from one historical moment to another. This one doesn't work for me either. Gopnik's assuming something about what readers know and believe about embedded journalists.

And in the next paragraph, on the woodcut "A Sharpshooter," The image was meant to convey the same emotions we might feel looking at machine gunners feeding belts of bullets into their guns: an image of a cold blooded dealer of mechanized death." (69) Hm, is that what we feel looking at machine gunners? Which gunners? When? Where? Yet another. Rather than being persuasive (of what?) the effect is repetitive.

And you know what else is repetitive? Gopnik's use of the word "mechanized" and its variations. "He went to work in Boston as an apprentice lithographer, learning the basics of mechanical reproduction, and though he seems to have hated the drudgery and sheer mechanical insistence of it, he ended up with an easy, unexcitable sense of the translation and the transmission between painting and printing [ . . . see above]" (68)

The first use of "mechanical" sounds like a passing reference to Benjamin. A little off with the dates, but if he'd actually completed the thought Gopnik would have been forced to tell us how he was using the word. The second use of the word, in the same sentence, just repeats a word that doesn't quite mean anything yet.

The third appearance of the word is cited above in "machine gunners," clear enough, but then repeated vaguely in "mechanized death." The again in the same paragraph "the mechanization of war has unhorsed one of the four." (69) I'm still wondering just what he's talking about . . .

Now, frankly, the rest of the article isn't that bad. I like the use of the Henry James research (and the French stuff and the Japanese stuff), all of which puts things in a very specific time and place historically and aesthetically. And I like the rhetoric of "feeling . . . instantly conveyed . . . by the same cunning of emotion produced by compressing the signs of it" (70) and "an art so richly laconic" (70)*. And I think he gives fine descriptions of the paintings themselves, for the most part, and I agree that "Fox Hunt" at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art is amazing.

But then, one last lame ahistorical flying leap, the hunter in "Right and Left" is obscured by his shotgun blast "as phantasmal as one of the 'hidden' figures in the Zapruder film." All I have to say on that one is, ug.

There's a method to this madness, Gopnik wants to argue that Homer's realism is that of a journalist in a big US journalism trajectory. But its too tidy, and to make this argument, you've got to make some pretty facile historical comparisons. So why do it?

Affects: , ,
Sensory Experiences: ,


Blogger femme feral said...

I love that picture.

2:02 AM  

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