The Cézanne Situation: A Rant

“Journalists are like whores; as high as their ideals may be, they still have to resort to tricks to make money.” ~Pierce Thorne

It is no great secret that I tend not to hold journalists in very high regard. One only has to look as far as any televised news broadcast to see the glaring subjectivity, sensationalism, and spin doctoring that are the Three S’s of modern news media.

That being said, wading through journalistic garbage is necessary in order to learn exactly what is happening in the world around you. And so, I am usually able to tamp down my disgust long enough to sift through various news reports to attempt to piece together some sort of picture of world events.

Ignoring journalistic ideals has become the norm, and this is more than evident in the glossy periodicals like Newsweek and Time. Just as televised news has to fight for viewership against crappy “reality” programs, glossy periodicals fight for readers among the slew of people who would rather pick up a tabloid (aka: celebrity gossip rag). And, in order to do so, they tend to adopt less-than-idealistic methods of reporting and columnizing.

As a rule, I don’t read Newsweek. It rarely has anything to offer that I haven’t already read online (ah, one of the joys of the digital age) or that isn’t half-conjecture and opinion.

That being said, when you have an hour for lunch, forgot your book at home, and are stuck in the break room with a pile of Us Weekly and People… that lone Newsweek in the corner looks pretty damn appealing.

So, settled in with my soda and my music, I proceed to peruse the thing. It was actually going along okay- while no particular article had struck my fancy, I hadn’t yet tossed the thing across the room in irritation.

Then, I reached the arts section and saw this article.

At the first paragraph, I was stunned. Unable to stop reading, I continued through the trainwreck “article,” actually vocalizing my growing outrage when I hit the following:

Cézanne isn’t ineffable in some swoony, aesthetic, double-rainbow sense that puts him beyond words. He’s so effing effable, he’s unparaphrasable.

Yes, this is what passes for nationally distributed artistic commentary these days. I remain as appalled as I was when I first read it. And while the coworkers who were on the receiving end of my loud, protracted rage-bitching about this article had no idea what the hell I was talking about, maybe you will, dear galleons.

We’ll begin with the obvious- the entire premise of the article is that the work of Cézanne is beyond our ability to articulate. Which I might tolerate from a layperson. An utterance of the phrase “I just like it” coming from some average Joe on the street does not bother me. There is a primal draw from some artistic works that speaks first to our emotions, much later to our logic. And, without some knowledge of artistic jargon, it can often be difficult to put into words exactly what it is about a piece that draws us to it.

But when you are a paid artistic critic and columnist for a nationally distributed publication, I expect a great deal more from you. I expect you to be extremely knowledgeable about art. After all, that’s your damn job.

There is truth in the statement that Cézanne is no Cubist, despite the fact that Cubism was heavily influenced by his work. Nor is he an Impressionist. Cézanne is classified as Post-Impressionistic by the majority of the art community. He is a transitional artist. His work bridges Impressionism and Cubism. Here’s an example of Cézanne’s work, Pyramid of Skulls:

Despite what Gopnik seems to believe, Cézanne is not unique in his transitional stylings. One of the most well-known transitional artists is Karl Brulloff (also transliterated Briullov/Bryullov), a Russian painter from the early nineteenth century who bridged Russian neoclassicism and romanticism. You may know Brulloff for his best-known work, The Last Day of Pompeii:

And there was Masaccio, the Italian painter who bridged medieval and Renaissance styles. Here is one of his works, The Expulsion From the Garden of Eden:

There are two, right there, and I barely put 5 minutes of effort into searching for them. There are tons of transitional artists, artists with work that doesn’t quite fit into one style or another, but instead seems to have characteristics of two or more. These artists are often revolutionaries, artists who paved the way for the next artistic school or style to come into prominence.

But in no way should we box all artists into these artistic schools. Because the fact remains that some artists fall far outside traditional styles or schools. Their work fits no style of the past or period. These rebellious outliers won’t sit nicely in the molds we’ve set. That’s the world of art for you.

So, to act as if Cézanne is unique in this regard baffles me. Gopnik is supposed to be a knowledgeable art critic (he has a doctorate in art history from Oxford, for fuck’s sake). Not only that, but he’s a journalist– he’s supposed to be researching his work. Instead, he spends 621 words telling us why he can’t explain Cézanne’s appeal and treating the artist as if he were some mythical god of the art world.

Gopnik’s section on Cézanne’s work lacking definitive “truisms” that can be used to pigeonhole other artists was particularly irksome to me. To say “Michelangelo is about cosmic drama and heroic bodies; Monet is about light and brushwork and modern French life” is just as patently wrong as it is to say that Cézanne reduces the world to geometric shapes. There is truth in all of these statements, but they are all bold generalities that miss the nuances of each artist’s particular work. When you study any of them in depth, those so-called “truisms” are insufficient to describe these artists.

Gopnik’s attempts to develop a mysticism around Cézanne by saying nothing at all are a delightful example of the laziness and frivolity we allow journalists these days. And perhaps this article speaks to the general public, to those who never studied art, who lack the vocabulary to explain their attraction to certain artists. The false mystery Gopnik surrounds Cézanne with would resonate with someone who struggles to put into words why they prefer one artist to another. They might see in this article a universal truth, that some art cannot be explained.

Which is not so much an actual truth as a perceived truth. Perhaps we are so quick to believe it, though, because visual art has the ability to hit an instant emotional note, with a depth that most writers cannot manage in entire novels. Language being a function more of the logical side than the emotional, with art being vice versa, it’s easy to see how we can be seduced into believing art is beyond the scope of language. However, I stated earlier that art speaks first to the emotions, later to logic. If we push beyond that initial emotional surge, and if we have the necessary vocabulary to do so, we can come damn close to capturing our emotions and aesthetic opinions with language.

To say we can’t- and to say so as a goddamn journalist– is the laziest thing I’ve heard in a long time. And it saddens me to think that our society allows this, that we reward so-called journalists like this for blatantly not doing their jobs.

And this is not the first time Gopnik’s journalism has been criticized. Browsing some of his other articles, I found the following:

  • It’s baffling to me why Blake Gopnik placed a headline emphasis on the artist’s lack of interest in talking about race. It seems such cheap reporting. I expected more depth in his reporting. Why not discuss the artist’s journey or key influences and aspirations for the future. Why not let us know what he wishes the viewer to feel, know or understand? In what ways or how does the artist accomplish his aims?
  • The article lacked depth/dimension and demonstrated that Gopnik clearly did not have any special interest in the subject.
  • Talk about making a thesis of a forced sematic.
  • Oh no, not one of the Gopniks – about the most pretentious clan ever.
  • Blake, how can you possibly find the time to be an art critic when you clearly are occupied full time with being a hypocrite?

Anyway, that’s the last time I’ll be picking up a Newsweek for some time.

Also… double rainbow? Really, Gopnik? Were you trying to score some points by being hip to youth memes? Christ, I hope not.

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