Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Larger Than Art

John McPhee writes about his editors in a recent New Yorker (“The Writing Life,” The New Yorker, 7/2/12). The piece actually centers around two subjects, money with respect to his Farrar, Straus &  Giroux editor Roger Straus (a scion of the Guggenheim fortune) and the attitude toward the use of the words “fuck” and “motherfucker” by two renowned editors of the NewYorker, William Shawn and Bob Gottlieb. However significant the manifest content, it’s only the window dressing for a more profound subject, which is that of the guru. Shawn in particular was a larger than life, imperious and mysterious personality, a short bald man whose particular form of self-invention probably owes a good deal to the mystique of the patrician literary world of mid-twentieth century America which The New Yorker’s Brahmin German Jewish esthetic epitomized—and perhaps to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Would writers pay court to such figures as Shawn or even Gottlieb today? Gordon Lish, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, whose harrowing writing workshops were recently portrayed in the Broadway play, Seminar, was perhaps the last of these cranky old men of letters. The current editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, for instance, is a hard working journalist himself, who displays none of Shawn’s antics. From the little one is able to glean he appears to be a product of the Enlightenment, at least in publishing terms, a John Locke to Shawn’s Edmund Burke. He gives all signs of being an empiricist and rationalist who would discountenance Shawn's brand of charisma. The art world of midcentury America had its own share of brilliant, tyrannical intellects, Clement Greenberg being the most noteworthy, who held sway over generations of artists. But democracy has always facilitated mercantilism, and while The New Yorker is not run by the aristocratic Shawn, it’s owned by the Newhouse's Advance Publications and one could argue that the gallerista Larry Gogosian holds more power over today’s art world than an intellectual like Greenberg ever could.

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