Posts from March 2008

McMuffin, McNuggets, and The Wire

When I heard that Herb Peterson, inventor of the Egg McMuffin died recently, I couldn't help but think of this scene from The Wire (warning: language NSFW).

In that scene D'Angelo is teaching his idealistic co-workers a more cynical view of business. He argues that the inventor of McNuggets is probably still slaving away in the McDonald's basement while the people at the top of the company are raking in money from McNugget sales. The Wikipedia page about Chicken McNuggets doesn't mention a specific inventor, so it could be true. Or, maybe more fitting, the McNugget was invented by committee. I've had my share of both McMuffins and McNuggets, but if I had to choose one over the other it'd be the McMuffin without question. (Though I'm trying to quit, honestly.) Sounds like Herb did ok. is ten

I can't believe it, but is ten years old today. I had a little fun at Jason's expense last week with a single serving site that lets you know whether or not Jason has a guest author or is posting himself, here. But the fact is, Jason's media filter has been a daily read for me most of those ten years (I remember when it was notes), and he's continually improving his editorial skill while many weblogs rise up and die in the space of months. Ten years is a big milestone. Congrats, Jason!

Analyzing Rockwell

I recently read an entertaining book by Richard Halpern called Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence. (Here's an excerpt from the book.) I heard about it last year in a segment on On The Media called Not So Innocent. Rockwell's illustrations are a piece of American cultural DNA (and still a big business), and Halpern examines this piece under a Freudian microscope.

The Freudian analysis was interesting, but my favorite sections of the book discuss the line between commercial art and fine art, and the ways mass produced art draws from fine art. Halpern quoted Clement Greenberg several times, who wrote an essay called Avant-Garde and Kitsch. I had a fuzzy idea of what kitsch meant, but viewing the term through Rockwell's work helped me understand it. Basically, according to Greenberg, kitsch art steals proven ideas from earlier avant-garde art, and turns them into products.
The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience.
Halpern lays out the case that Rockwell took many ideas perfected by Dutch masters such as Vermeer and Jan Steen, and transposed an idealized America into 17th Century Dutch interiors. I'm simplifying his argument, but watching Halpern map connections between famous Rockwell images and earlier classics is fun.

Norman Rockwell is one of those artists people feel very strongly about, so it's no surprise this book riles people up. The Freudian interpretations of his illustrations attack the foundation of innocence that his illustrations are supposed to represent. But beyond the exploration of innocence and disavowal, there's a fascinating case study in the road from high art to mass produced kitsch. And I'll definitely never look at a Norman Rockwell the same way again.