When I was a kid, The New Yorker would arrive every week in the mail—a bulky, substantive tome with a headline-free cover that made it feel like a deeply serious thing, not meant to be trifled with or pawed at, but rather treasured and read leisurely, only after my parents had given it a thorough once-over.
I’d plunge in, usually jumping ahead to the cartoons. (I wasn’t nearly ready to tackle the dense subject matter in the articles themselves.) It didn’t matter that there was a kind of indefinable sameness to them, or that I rarely got the jokes; the pleasure here was aspirational.
Then there were the trips to the Museum of Modern Art’s huge, vaulting gallery spaces, located smack dab in Midtown, and a quick hop, skip, and a jump over the occasional pile of festering garbage away from my classes at the Art Students League, each floor peppered with all of the titans of 20th-century art. It looked like what my still-not-fully-developed mind imagined that a museum was supposed to look like—equal parts gravitas and grandeur.
That these twin pillars of adulthood—an especially cosmopolitan brand of adulthood, to be sure—seemed unknowable and unachievable was a huge part of the allure. It was the first brief taste of something inexorably profound, and a model for the kind of grown up I’d like to be. What great wisdom was being imparted, I didn’t really know; only that it was and that it forever would be. Gaining access to this forbidden kingdom would be a massive signifier that I could shove into the back of my sock drawer forevermore, even if I was still living at home.
But in recent weeks, both The New Yorker and MoMA have come under some serious critical fire. In large part they’ve been putting forth work that makes it seem as if they are shamelessly catering to kids, or at least pandering to celebrity, such that it’s worth questioning whether they still represent the twin towers of the cultural world.
In case you missed it, Girls auteur Lena Dunham penned a brief playlet for The New Yorker titled “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend: A Quiz” in which she runs down a list of 35 character traits or factoids that could plausibly be attributed to either the aforementioned puppy or beau. As editor David Remnick said in response to the article’s detractors, it’s pretty standard-brand, Jewish identity humor—miserly behavior, an abundance of body hair, asthma, and low-grade hypochondria.
Twitter, as is its wont, totally freaked out. Granted, Dunham’s already pure napalm when it comes to riling up the huddled e-masses, but the reaction to the Dog/Boyfriend primer went beyond the simmering, near-constant hostility toward Dunham’s work; howls that were it not for her (some would say, undeserving) celebrity, “it would never have made it past the editor’s slush pile.”
Not only was the piece branded “grotesque” and “ugly,” it was downright anti-Semitic. The Washington Post deemed it “the Jewish version of the minstrel show.” Not to be outdone, Fox News ran with this peach of a lede: “Self-proclaimed sexual abuser of her sister Lena Dunham has now turned her rapier wit to the quaint anti-Semitic custom generally reserved for Nazis and radical Muslims.”
It even managed to rouse the Anti-Defamation League National Chairman Abraham Foxman’s considerable (and yes, perpetual) ire: “The piece is particularly troubling because it evokes memories of the ‘No Jews or Dogs Allowed’ signs from our own early history in this country,” he said. “And also because, in a much more sinister way, many in the Muslim world today hatefully refer to Jews as ‘dogs.’”
For the record, I don’t think it is anti-Semitic. Somewhere in Dunham’s piece, there’s a better satire buried deep in a pile of sub-Borscht Belt zingers and stereotypes about mothers, Jewish and otherwise, whose true target was her own (or whatever generational or cultural group you’d like to posit her unnamed narrator’s) blithe sense of entitlement and privilege. You know, like she’s been doing for the last four seasons of Girls. The problem is it’s very hard to separate the art from the artist when Dunham is involved, especially when she takes to Instagram to stamp her piece “A love letter to Jack Antonoff [her actual boyfriend] and Lamby [her actual dog].” Sometimes the joke just doesn’t work.
I emailed Jason Zinoman, who writes a comedy column for The New York Times, about the polarizing effect that Dunham invariably has.
“It baffles me honestly. But I think every once in a while an incredibly young, ambitious artist gets a huge platform and lots of money and rave reviews and then everyone hates them,” he wrote. “It’s part of the circle of life.”
As to the piece itself, “I think the essay’s clumsiness made the controversy worse. It was not her best work,” Zinoman continued. “And as with so many controversies about comedy, the aesthetic issues are inextricably tied to the moral ones. Plus, I blame Abe Foxman.”
Rim shot. Yes, the outrage cycle that inevitably accompanies “scandals” like these certainly played a part in ginning up the cries that The New Yorker has lost its way. Here’s where we arrive at the suspicion that Dunham’s piece wasn’t so much a bug, but a part of the operating system. That the magazine business and print journalism has been in decline for decades is as universal a truth as you’ll find. Total average newsstand sales dropped by 12 percent and circulation is similarly down 1.9 percent in the first six months of 2014. As revenue from print advertising declines, though, web circulation and digital advertising are continuing to tick upward.
As such, a scorching hot take or boldface byline like Dunham’s that gets passed around on Facebook, Twitter, and so on, generating a slew of critical retorts and howling jeremiads, followed hard upon by equally galled responses to the criticism can have some serious value, bottom line-wise. And no, that doesn’t mean the editors are feverishly riffling through submissions or taking a deep dive into SEO data looking for The Dress 2.0.
I asked The New Yorker whether Dunham’s ability to garner attention was in any way a factor in the decision to publish the piece.
“We’ve published many famous writers—Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, to name a few—and also countless rising talents who are not household names, particularly in Shouts & Murmurs. In fact, new and emerging writers have written some of our most popular Shouts pieces,” a spokesperson said. “Fame is not the parameter by which we judge a person’s work. Is the piece good? That’s what matters.”
Well, sure. Then again, Harold Ross probably printed the occasional Dorothy Parker column in her later years that may not have been filled to the brim with biting satire and wit simply because by that point she was Dorothy Freakin’ Parker.
The New Yorker’s spokesperson also added that the magazine has been showing a profit for a few years now. Though the graph has been pointing downward since 2008, there is some optimism to be found. They garnered a solid 16 percent increase in newsstand sales compared to 2013 and, in the most recent Alliance for Audited Media report, single-issue sales, both print and digital, were nearly flat (-741 copies or -2.1 percent) compared to the previous high, performing well above the industry average (-14.2 percent). Digital single-copy sales and total digital circulation were up and total circulation was nearly even (-1 percent), though they did lose approximately 200,000 visitors per month online compared to 2013.
That’s not to say that anything popular is a priori trash. It’s almost impossible to point to a one-to-one correlation without peering into The New Yorker’s books, but if the cost of funding Jane Mayer, Seymour Hersh, the literary criticism and all their great, long-form investigative journalism is the occasional slight Tom Hanks thing, or Jonathan Franzen fretting about the birds (and getting into a serious pissing match with the Audubon Society), such that Slate can rattle of a list of recent high-profile names like “Jesse Eisenberg, Mindy Kaling, Steve Martin, Lena Dunham, and Tina Fey,” and ask “how many of their pieces would have made the cut without the glittering byline?” so be it. As Zinoman said, “The New Yorker remains incredible.”
There’s far less ambiguity when it comes to the economic incentives and Björk’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. As was the case with Dunham’s article, as Artnet’s Ben Davis predicted prior to opening, the reviewers unleashed "an immense Eyjafjallajökull-sized ash-plume of critical bile.”
Jerry Saltz of New York magazine called it a “disaster” and “self-inflicted wound,” later posting a photo of the flaming embers of his press pass on Twitter. According to Deborah Solomon of WNYC, the show was “an abomination.” They really dropped the hammer on the museum as a whole, with Michael Miller flatly declaring that the show’s curator, Klaus Biesenbach, had engaged in “starfucking” that had transformed “MoMA into Planet Hollywood.” Peter Schjeldahl lamented that the once-venerable institution had become a “wannabe groupie” that is “rising to new levels of incompetence.” Artnet even went so far as to demand that Biesenbach’s professional head be served up on a platter.
I trundled down to MoMA to see for myself, hoping the combination of a chilly early April morning and the off-peak hour would be a reasonable buttress against the shuffling, packed crowds and interminable lines that had peeved the press so.
Alas, it was to no avail. The various rooms and hallways are kind of cramped and you find yourself trudging along like extras from The Walking Dead, gawking at Björk’s music videos, outlandish costumes, and hand-scrawled notebooks. There’s a also a Volkswagen-sponsored “augmented audio guide” that was written by the Icelandic poet Sjón to provide “a 3-D listening experience by building on the combination of signal processing, location-based trigger points, and movements of each individual visitor to create a customizable experience for each visitor of the exhibit.”
Semi-meaningless branded language notwithstanding, it was downright annoying to hear Björk reduced to some kind of supernatural, ur-manic pixie dream girl, or to have haiku-ish, faux-insightful non sequiturs piped into your ears like, “Make sure you pause for thought,” and “A song could be sung by a coconut with purple fur.”
There’s a fascinating story to be told—or at least information to be learned—about Björk and her process, how she’s chosen the various visual artists and filmmakers that she’s collaborated with over the years, and so on. This isn’t it. It feels like a particularly twee, auto show-like presentation of the entire Björk-ian oeuvre at best, and a pretentious infomercial if you’re feeling less generous.
I emailed Barry Schwabsky, the art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum, and he explained that this show’s pop subject matter isn’t necessarily indicative of a massive change in MoMA’s mission statement.
“The Museum of Modern Art has never been exclusively attached to the fine arts of painting, sculpture, and their derivatives. Since I became acquainted with it when I was a teenager it has had a film department, a design department, etc. You can see a helicopter there, and you can watch a Hollywood movie,” he wrote. “So there’s no special issue about the museum incorporating what’s called popular culture. The issue is whether the museum should seek to be popular culture. As it happens, this afternoon I got a text message from a curator friend: ‘I am in the MoMA lobby feeling it is time to leave the Arts. The place is completely insane and so disjointed. It is not about the crowds. The art scene has been full of crowds at many different times in many different places. It’s the mall mentality. It’s the window shopping mindset.’”
Which, yes. Examples of celeb-driven work abound of late, whether it’s Tilda Swinton napping, a Jackass premiere, Tim Burton’s teenage sketchbooks, and so on. And it does seem to be working, with attendance that has risen to approximately 3 million visitors per year, and membership topping 150,000. Biesenbach was not available for an interview, but a spokesperson did say that the limited size and scope of the Björk show would not have a pronounced effect on the bottom line.
That said, Schwabsky explained that this clunker (and the equally reviled “Forever Now” exhibition) doesn’t mean that there isn’t good, scholarly work, like the recent Gauguin show, being presented. Rather, as a whole, “If people who love art are feeling desperately let down by what they see MoMA becoming, it’s not because it gave some space over to a pop singer. It’s because the museum (and not only MoMA) is forgetting how to cultivate the receptivity to art, as opposed to simply moving the crowds in and through and out.”
I asked if this was the necessary end product of an $826 million institution, one that has further plans for expansion, has begun demolition of the American Folk Art Museum, and is competing with the Metropolitan Museum of Art for tourist dollars.
“It’s because the new rich don’t have the ‘noblesse oblige’ attitude of their predecessors,” Schwabsky wrote. “They don’t see an art museum as something that needs to be run on a different basis than their businesses, as the rich once did... It’s one more consumer choice and as such is expected to pay its own way.”
Which brings us back to Dunham, and the last sixty-odd years of U.S. cultural history. This isn’t just about any one failed exhibition or article; it’s about the disintegration of any barriers between pop culture and the art and/or literary word. Granted, anyone caught espousing the notion that there should be a difference between The New Yorker and Mad Magazine, or an art gallery and a graphic novel, comes across as stuffy and elitist. That’s totally true; it is an elitist notion of artistic merit. But without it, it can feel like you’re left with nothing but profit as the sole determinant of value.
This too is practically a rite of passage: the insistence that our time, our youth and our artistic heyday was dedicated to a selfless pursuit of great, noble truths and undeniable, uncorrupted beauty, and now these darned stupid greedy kids have gone and messed everything up. Whinging that the present debasement of aesthetic purity or abandoning of traditions is sign of a biblical-level reckoning can be fun sport, to be sure, if only because it flatters both our nostalgia and self-importance.
Here’s ex-staffer Renata Adler declaring The New Yorker “dead” in 1998. Go back to 1984 and you’ll find Michael Kinsley doing the same, sneering at the magazine’s “smug insularity, its tiny dada conceits passing as wit, its whimsy presented as serious politics, and its deadpan narratives masquerading as serious journalism.” And here’s James Panero, the executive editor of the New Criterion telling me via email that “humor in The New Yorker has been on the descent since the death of Harold Ross. It has been years since anything funny has broken through the shrill cry of Shouts & Murmurs. The New Yorker’s tone-deafness is a reflection of the magazine’s insularity, which has been cultivated to its detriment,” and, “Now that the Museum of Modern Art has bulldozed the American Folk Art Museum to make way for another high rise, soon every luxury condominium in midtown will be anchored by an exhibition of Björk.”
There’s no easy solution here either. The economic realities can’t be avoided, unless the United States Government was to radically alter its stance with regards to spending on the arts. Perhaps the best answer is that this is all part of a natural cycle, and years from now, some nostalgic, weepy detractor will be bemoaning a world that no longer appreciates the sublime poetry of cat memes and listicles.