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  • Investing in "Modernism":Smart Magazines, Parody, and Middlebrow Professional Judgment
  • Daniel Tracy (bio)

Throughout the summer of its first year, 1925, The New Yorker poked fun at experimental modernism in ten articles surveying fabricated avant-garde movements. Corey Ford's series carried subtitles emphasizing an ongoing study of "creative art in New York" or, mocking experimental modernists' perceived pride in their outcast status, "fugitive art." Ranging from scribbling on public telephone walls to drawings found in public library books and broken windows, the reports parodied the magazine's own self-advertised function as a transmitter of up-to-date high culture, and played off a common dismissal of aesthetic experiment as fraud effected by people without any real talent. The first two entries, "Blotters" and "Probing Public Murals," an investigation into scribbles on the sides of telephone booths, emphasized automatic writing and drawing.1 In the latter, an "artist" named "Mr. Swackhamer" explains that while waiting for a number, "I just happened to have a pencil in my hand, and the next thing I knew, there I was starting to draw on the wall. It just sort of come, you might say. I had no idea what it was going to be when I started, except I know I asked for Longacre 3430 and they give me 3450 and I said no, operator, 30, not 50, and there I had it written out before I realized it, 3430, with a sort of circle around it and designs like rosebuds." After further describing his art he suggests, "you might call it inspiration." By appropriating the idea of unconsciously directed writing as a source of aesthetic genius, Ford suggests a possible sham in modernist rhetoric and blames it on the obsession with finding the next new thing in art. [End Page 38]

Such parodies were by no means uncommon or limited to any particular publishing venue;2 however, a satirical parody of modernist pretensions might seem strange for a magazine that, from its earliest issues, championed modernist experimentation, and nowhere more so than in the visual arts. Covering an "international exhibition of modern art" at the Brooklyn Museum, a typical art review glowed with the "wish there was a law" forcing people to see it themselves and offered the complaint: "In a week in which we waded through the latest Academy show we were forced to cross the river to see that this was the year 1926."3 More than suggesting boredom with the "traditional" art of the Academy (an institution that represented resistance to modernism both in The New Yorker as well as Vanity Fair), the critic's reference to leaving Manhattan alluded to a motif familiar to any regular reader: the complaint that New York had no Museum of Modern Art (complaints that continued until they got one, in 1929). And although the magazine would sometimes use the term "modern" to mean contemporary, here and at other moments it referred exclusively to the experimental, what it would at times term "modernism." Suggesting the Brooklyn exhibit as an equal to the infamous Armory show of 1913, The New Yorker critic praised its experimentation even while offering a tongue-in-cheek warning: "We can say that some of the canvases are not square, that some seem to have a fourth dimension. None of the sculpture is what you have seen in gardens or standing on golden oak stands in the bay window." This review asks its imagined reader to imagine yet another reader for whom even the relatively bland experiment of non-square canvases would shock, and recommends the show especially to the "coward" who needs to face up to his or her aesthetic fears. The reader, hardly the coward, gets the distinction of needing modernism's shock of the new the least but desiring it the most. In his work on modernist parodies, Leonard Diepeveen treats them as signals of resistance, and in doing so ratifies Fredric Jameson's description of them as a normative backlash.4 Yet, specific contexts, like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, reconfigured the evaluative work performed by such parodies. These magazines presumed the recurrence of a particular audience that would read and appreciate, alongside parodies...


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pp. 38-63
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