Every week at least one article in the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times is completely devoid of content. These articles usually use a chatty tone to babble irrelevancies about one aspect of a news story that is supposed to reflect a trend or epitomize an idea.
Yesterday, it was Roberta Smith’s article titled “The Coy Art of the Mystery Bidder,” which was a series of cleverly stated observations on the social significance when a buyer of an expensive work of art remains anonymous, such as the person who anonymously purchased a Picasso this past week for more than a $100 million.
Smith, who is described as an art critic for the Times, has nothing of import to say, but prattles some not-so-sharp but coyly phrased observations about the super-rich; conjectures on which ethnic caricature might have done the buying; imagines a fantasy in which the $100 million is given to the New York Public Library; and concludes with the assertion that when blowing millions on a work of art, it’s much more admirable if you tell people who you are. Threading together these disparate thoughts is a gossipy tone and the idea that we all inherently have a high interest level in seeing rich folk spend money.
The article is nothing but contentless filler, a pleasant way to read for a few minutes without having to actually think about what you’re reading. We see this kind of writing all over the news media and the fact that the Times has been cluttering “The Week in Review” section is not very amazing, just a little pathetic for a publication vying to be our national prestige newspaper.
What I find most fascinating, however, is how even in these contentless fluff pieces that the writer is able to employ propaganda techniques to instill a set of values, some unstated but present in the assumptions or the subtext.
Let’s start with the first few sentences of Smith’s piece: “If you follow art auctions even peripherally, you know that each one leaves a trail of question marks. Who bought the van Gogh? Who bought the Johns?”
It seems like a harmless if slightly gossipy opening, a kind of a trivialization of both the business of art auctions and the evolving history of which artists society esteems most. But why Jasper Johns? His name is not mentioned elsewhere is the article as an artist whose works are frequently at auction or breaking sales records. So why Johns? Why not Rauschenberg? Or Rivers or Motherwell? Or one of the all-time biggies like Monet and Giacometti whose works are shown elsewhere in the story as examples of those bought anonymously for record or near record amounts.
Van Gogh makes sense because he’s the one artist whom everyone will have heard of. (50 years ago it might have been Renoir, or perhaps Michelangelo.) So if the other artist that the writer selects as an example is not another Babe Ruth like Rembrandt or Picasso, her selection is her statement that this artist is very important. Smith selected Johns, for I don’t know what reason. But it clearly is a great piece of propaganda because without telling us that she thinks Johns is important, she conveys it in the subtext of the grammar. He gains stature on the subliminal level merely by being the fill for the blank of “other great artist” in the sentence, “Who bought the ____?”
Now let’s look at this little tidbit: “Strictly enforcing one’s privacy — at a time when so much goes public as fast as it happens — may be the ultimate public display of power, and thus the most erotic.”
While admiring the irony of a private act becoming a public act, let’s quickly move to the real meaning of the sentence: that power is the most erotic attribute one can have.
Her way of expression takes it for granted that everyone agrees that power is more erotic than say good looks, athletic prowess, knowledge of teen dance styles, intelligence, resemblance to nuclear family members or artistic talent.
And this power that Smith finds so erotic, what is it and how does it manifest itself? One word: money. Smith slyly proffers “powerful” as an appropriate synonym for “moneyed,” especially when it comes to erotic matters, and because she puts it into the subtext as a series of assumptions (and because we read it so often in other subtext), we get the message without stopping to consider if it’s true or not. The message of course is that all things including the measurement of power and sexual appeal reduce to the common denominator of money.
The handling of the topic is also a matter of ideology, in this case, the trivialization of public discourse, the turning of all news into gossip and all gossip into news. Her topic is the anonymous buyer, which is the current events hook. Instead of doing a chatty gossipy contentless piece of fluff, Smith could have analyzed if there is some difference in the makeup of the anonymous (whose names eventually do comes out in most cases) and the non-anonymous buyer. She could have reported their true reasons for wanting to remain anonymous (instead of her almost-racist hypothetical about an imaginary Russian oligarch). She could have traced what happens to art bought anonymously and if that differs significantly from art bought by a publicly-revealed person or company. Of course taking any of these approaches would have required Smith to do a little research. Heaving chatty tidbits of myth, assertion and ideology probably takes less time.