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.

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