Saturday, July 25, 2009

Why I Can't See a Painting: The Semiotics of Jon and Kate Plus 8

[Editor's Note: I wrote this when the Jon & Kate brouhaha first broke, but never got around to finishing it. It's still not finished, but I'm running it just because I still think the issue (whether context is necessary to understand art, not Jon & Kate per se) is interesting and because perhaps the context of the article itself has changed from it was first written and, if so, what does that do to one's understanding of the article . . . or Jon & Kate?]

"The law of trainwrecks—hard to watch, harder not to watch—was in full effect during last night's Jon & Kate Plus 8." - Joal Ryan, Eonline, on Yahoo!

Just to be clear: I (that is, your Paint Rag editor) don't watch "Jon & Kate Plus 8," TLC's reality show about a couple (the eponymous Jon and Kate) with eight kids (fraternal twin girls and fraternal sextuplets, three girls, three boys). I do, however, have a fascination with the commentary about the scandal that surrounds the show. As Chandler Bing might say, ironically, "Could I be more post-modern??"

For those who don't know, allegations recently arose that Jon was having an affair, then allegations arose that Kate was having an affair (with one of the bodyguards on the show), then there were renewed questions about the welfare of the children on the show, including whether child labor laws are being violated. In short, the reality of the situation is that the attention and celebrity occasioned by their status as television stars has, in the usual course, morphed into a tabloid fascination with their foibles.

Against this backdrop, the season premiere was, shall we say, a trainwreck. There's plenty of general criticism and kibitzing out there, including speculation that TLC will make the "will they get divorced?" question part of a season long arc that will end in a cliffhanger finale. Like I say, perversely fascinating.

But the reason I bring this up is this quote by Time's TV Critic, James Poniewozik, in his blog entry: Jon & Kate Plus 8: This Would Be the 'For Worse' Part:"

"It's clear what Jon & Kate has become now: It's The Hills for old people. Like MTV's reality show, it's less a TV series than a media environment, where the broadcast itself is only the starting point. You need to follow the coverage in the tabs and on the gossip shows in order to get the full storyline and the context.

Watching the confessional interviews themselves last night—with all those publicist-managed phrases about "my choices" and "this situation"—would have been near-unintelligible to someone who hadn't followed any of the wider media coverage of the show."

This was interesting to me . . . does one now need to know the broader societal context in order to understand a television show?

The proposition sounded familiar to me and finally I placed it . . . Tom Wolfe's "The Painted Word." Wolfe's skewering of contemporary art (circa 1975) begins with him reading New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer's review of show called "Seven Realists" one Sunday. This passage catches his attention:

"Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works, of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial—the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify."
Wolfe goes bananas:

"What I saw before me was the critic-in-chief of The New York Times saying: In looking at a painting today, "to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial." I read it again. It didn't say "something helpful" or "enriching" or even "extremely valuable." No, the word was crucial.

In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can't see a painting.

Then and there I experienced a flash known as the Aha! Phenomenon, and the buried life of contemporary art was revealed to me for the first time. The fogs lifted! The clouds passed! The motes, scales, conjunctival bloodshot, and Murine agonies fell away!"

Damn! All I wanted to know was, what the hell kind of theory do you need for realism??

Do we really need to know context for a painting? What about Jon and Kate . . do we really need to read People Magazine as a prerequisite for watching a television show?

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