A Matter of Taste; Who's Watching the Kids? | Media | Chicago Reader

A Matter of Taste; Who's Watching the Kids? 

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By Michael Miner

A Matter of Taste

A magazine whose lead article sports the irresistible title "Jailbait at the Millennium," a magazine that thinks long and hard about Lolita, JonBenet Ramsey, LeAnn Rimes, The Bad Seed, Calvin Klein ads, and the weird outsider artist Henry Darger...

Well, such a magazine should have made more riveting reading than the June New Art Examiner, now vanished from the newsstand, which had this to say about all that: "Youth and sexuality become archetypical signals of the postmodern schizophrenia that we face in the wake of the slaughter of a failed belief in youthful innocence and the lost desirability of the modernist mythos."

Chew on that if you will. But I'm going to push on to what was most interesting about the issue--its pictures, and not a one of them more provocative than the cover. To sell the magazine, the New Art Examiner picked a print by Inez van Lamsweerde of a pink, rouged, crimson-lipped, shirtless prepubescent girl fingering a pale blue guitar. "Kick Ass!" asserts the instrument's gleaming shell.

On the inside back cover is an ad from the Stephen Daiter Gallery for "Cypress Knees & Tupelos," an exhibition of nudes photographed by Rod Cook. Rippled Water, the print shown in the ad, is one of these nudes. The model is standing in water in the shadow of a tree, her lower legs and one arm indiscernible and her face lost in her hair.

Rippled Water isn't the picture the Stephen Daiter Gallery wanted to run with its ad. Gallery manager Paul Berlanga originally submitted Rod Cook's Half Submerged. The New Art Examiner accepted the print and laid out the ad, but then the staff thought twice. "We had long discussions here in the office," editor Kathryn Hixson assures me, as her staff persuaded itself that Half Submerged was a tacky piece of work that would offend other advertisers and contradict the editorial message. Taking an action apparently unprecedented in its history, the magazine rejected the artwork for an advertisement.

"A minor but significant issue of censorship in a community already besieged," says Berlanga. "I said to the editor, 'This is an editorial decision that amounts to censorship.' They said, 'This is an anti-Lolita type of issue. It's full of articles against the idea of women being used as means or objects, of women being fetishized. You'd be embarrassed.' I said I was willing to take my lumps. This is an homage to the female form. I had a lot of faith in the image. But they were tired of seeing women in parts and chunks represented as art in the male fantasy."

Half Submerged isn't exactly parts and chunks. It shows roughly as much of a nude female as Rippled Water. But it does focus on a torso, moreover a less mature torso, sporting a nipple ring.

"Actually," says Hixson, "it's not a very good picture, but we didn't tell Paul that. It's advertising--right?--not editorial, so it's not a freedom-of-speech issue. We said, 'Look, we think this will be bad for your artist because it's in this particular context. We're critiquing the objectification of the female body--and you're showing it.' The second choice wasn't much better, but she was upright, and a grown woman, and she had arms."

Hixson doesn't think much of Cook's work. "It's like that level between pornography and fine art that's black-and-white and looks serious, but it's just pictures of naked ladies." But if Half Submerged doesn't meet what she calls the New Art Examiner's "standard of visual excellence," how does she distinguish it from the Lamsweerde print on the cover, which is more disturbing by leaps and bounds? She replied, "If you notice, in the picture on the cover there's a female character with a head and arms in an active pose addressing the viewer. The artist is self-consciously aware of the stereotypes operating in the reception of that piece."

And Cook isn't?

"We don't see it in the piece," she said.

It's not self-conscious? I asked.

"Right," she said.

And what about Fanny; Montalivet, France, 1997, the print of a barely pubescent nude illustrating a review whose chief complaint is that Jock Sturges's "young subjects are, overall, too innocent and not complex enough to command our rapt attention."

"Jock Sturges is bad," said Hixson, "but at least he knows what he's doing."

In other words, art knows what it's doing. Of course so does child pornography. But art can always ask, "What's the difference?" and justify itself by having raised the question.

Not that everyone will forgive art on that account. "We got in the mail yesterday the cover of the magazine torn up into little bits," Hixson told me. "It was anonymous, and the back of the envelope said, you people shouldn't publish these things." She found the envelope. "These issues may need to be discussed," someone had written, "but this cover is irresponsible, is a direct and offensive use of disgusting titillation....It is not suitable material in a house where children live nor in a place where children learn or play."

While taking its lumps for "disgusting titillation," the New Art Examiner has no interest in also catching it for censorship. When I called Hixson, advertising director Mari Eastman and business manager Joshua Rothkopf also invited themselves onto the phone; they wanted to weigh in on the ad Berlanga insisted on turning into a censorship issue. "It definitely looks like an outtake from Silence of the Lambs, except it's hipped up," said Eastman. "It's just cheesy."

"Do you want me to get you a good definition of censorship?" Hixson asked at one point. Sure, I said, and she put the phone down and polled her staff on the collective viewpoint.

"Ummm," she announced, "we think that censorship is in the public forum and has to do with authorities and governments that repress free speech and stuff. This is a private concern--money changing hands, you know. It's a business agreement that is negotiated."

She's right that this was strictly business, not a First Amendment issue. But it understandably exasperated the gallery forbidden the art it believed would most effectively move the merchandise. "I think the arts community has a tough enough time without having one of its own do this," says Berlanga, who in the tradition of businessmen rebuffed by the editor down the street had been in Hixson's home and considered her a friend. He made two suggestions he construed as compromises. First he proposed running the original ad with a banner across the objectionable portion of Half Submerged. "I would like the banner to have said that the magazine refuses to show the image, and leave it at that," says Berlanga. "I thought that would have been a little fairer."

The New Art Examiner said no.

He also proposed running the original ad with a disclaimer next to it announcing that the New Art Examiner was printing it under protest.

But the magazine saw no reason to print under protest an advertisement it didn't have to print at all.

Yet at the last minute the New Art Examiner caved in. The change of heart, Eastman told me, came when "we realized that Paul was really into this." Hixson decided the magazine didn't need to become the heavy in a censorship controversy. She told Berlanga he could have the print he wanted if he'd pony up $300 (doubling the cost of the ad) to pay for remaking the page. Naturally, Berlanga said no.

So nobody got what they wanted, not even the magazine, which can't celebrate its integrity because it stuck to its guns only until it didn't.

Would Half Submerged have been unsuitable in any other issue? I asked Eastman.

"I doubt it, actually," she said. "I mean, the issue preceding, we had images of people giving oral sex. It's not like we're prudish or object in general to naked women."

Who's Watching the Kids?

The New Republic has purged all of Stephen Glass's old articles from the Internet, which means you're going to have to wait for the anthology. There ought to be an anthology--though I'm not aware of anybody actually proposing one--because in his "journalism" Glass masterfully created a bizarre parallel universe. Like Carl Hiaasen's Florida, it's a place you half believe is real, except that in Glass's case the New Republic believed wholeheartedly. Therefore readers did too.

The New Republic explained that its Web site is a permanent record, and blatant falsehood doesn't belong there. I think it does--along with a warning to readers not to believe a word Glass says--as a monument to one magazine's gullibility. It would also let posterity appreciate the amplitude of Glass's imagination.

I've made the most cursory review of his New Republic work, not even touching the other magazines such as George and Rolling Stone that also disclaim him. There was celebrated poppycock, such as the nonexistent First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ and the nonexistent software firm Jukt Micronics. (Of course, "jukt"--or juked--means faked.) Then there was the piece about the nonexistent Association for the Advancement of Sound Water Policy (AASWP), the "liberal environmental group" Climate Lookout, and the "Christian organization skeptical of global warming" Truth in Science that found him quoting from their press releases and interviewing Truth in Science spokeswoman "Lucy Galt." There was even the stuff he admitted to inventing.

For example: "I called AASWP and asked them to explain the dangerously low rainfall in Werty, Iowa--a fictitious town." And: "I made the scenario as implausible as possible, so no one would get into trouble....I told her I worked for the Amish Agricultural Cooperative in Lancaster, Pennsylvania."

Glass blithely segued from the Amish Agricultural Cooperative to a lab job he'd had five years earlier impregnating rats, which is when he discovered that music helps rats along and "Indian is better than classical which is better than jazz." Then he segued again to recall that "when I was in junior high school, I fantasized about being a big-time international pirate."

The name of this particular piece was "Washington Diarist: Ratted Out," and it's one the New Republic now tells us "could be considered entirely or nearly entirely made up." (Perhaps the pirate fantasy is true.) The magazine has listed 23 Glass articles, dating back to December 1996, that contained "fabricated material." The tour de force was last year's "Spring Breakdown," supposedly an account of collegians meeting in Washington to chart the future of conservatism--in fact, another "entirely or nearly entirely." The narrative is crammed with deft symbols that scream lampoon.

"The minibar is open and empty little bottles of booze are scattered on the carpet. On the bed, a Gideon Bible, used earlier in the night to resolve an argument, is open to Exodus. In the bathroom, the tub is filled with ice and the remnants of three cases of Coors Light. The young men pass around a joint, counterclockwise....Over the next hour, in a haze of beer and pot, and in between rantings about feminists, gays and political correctness, the young men hatch a plan. Seth, a meaty quarterback from a small college in Indiana, and two others will drive to a local bar. There, the three will choose the ugliest and loneliest woman they can find. 'Get us a real heifer, the fatter the better, bad acne would be a bonus,' Michael shouts. He is so drunk he doesn't know he is shouting. Seth will lure the victim, whom they call a 'whale,' back to the hotel room. The five who stay behind will hide under the beds. After Seth undresses the whale the five will jump out and shout, 'We're beaching! Whale spotted!' They will take a photograph of the unfortunate woman."

Once again Glass--at least in retrospect--had shown himself to be so enamored of deception that he plotted a con in the fiction he was passing off as journalism.

The story ends with a whale triumphantly beached, after which a bunch of the collegians get naked in another room. Among them is "Cynthia," who tells Glass, "This is, like, just how the movement is now. Get used to it." And the New Republic swallowed it whole.

But how could the New Republic have ever suspected? Wasn't acclaim for the young fabulist universal? Read the letters. "'Spring Breakdown' (March 31) was filled with fairy-tale stories and flagrant distortions....I attended the CPAC conference and, to my knowledge, none of the fantasy tales he told occurred." "The conference I attended and helped organize bore almost no resemblance whatsoever to the one he wrote about." "In his article 'Anatomy of a Policy Fraud' (November 17), Stephen Glass omitted a slew of facts." "What a stupid, mean-spirited article Stephen Glass wrote in your February 10 issue." "Your article ('Hazardous to Your Mental Health,' December 30) by Stephen Glass about the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and its executive director, Michael F. Jacobson, contained a staggering array of inaccuracies, gross omissions and unfair attacks." "In 'No Free Launch' (November 3), Stephen Glass seriously misrepresents the opposition to the launch to Saturn of the Cassini probe." "I was greatly disappointed to read Stephen Glass's inaccuracy-drenched story."

And if the above correspondence failed to alert the New Republic to its little problem with believing manuscripts too good to be true, there was this reader's reference to a moment too perfect by half: "Stephen Glass's article ('Probable Claus,' January 6 & 13) mentions a fourth-grade boy who sat in Santa's lap and shouted, 'Santa's got a boner.'"

Not that there wasn't praise. It was likely to come from readers who had nothing to measure Glass's reporting against but their own biases: "Stephen Glass's 'Spring Breakdown' is an exemplary slice-of-life portrait of Generation X, circa late '90s."

Last week Chicago Tonight gathered some of the wise heads in Chicago media to discuss the recent falsity epidemic. In addition to Glass, there was notably the Boston Globe's Patricia Smith to chew over. Smith--whose editor reports that the number of her suspect columns is now up to four dozen--specialized in quotable salt-of-the-earth types. Janine Byrne, cosmetologist: "I got three kids, and I tell you, if they were missing all that time, I'd turn heaven over and shake God out to find them." Dorothy Gibson, mom: "Seems like that girl's feet grew a size since we bought those. You know, when they get a certain age, nothing sits still." Claire, cancer victim mulling word of a drug that cures cancer in mice: "I'm not proud. Right away I said 'Rub it on my skin, pop it to me in a pill, shoot me up with it.' If I could find a way to steal it, I would. Hell, if I could get my hands on it, I'd swallow the whole...mouse."

Smith wasn't the absurdist that Glass was, but like him she calls attention to deception while deceiving. "So we've established," one column began, "that Stephen Fagan, he of the forehead-hugging hair, Palm Beach preening, and makeshift social status, is the most pathological of pathological liars." "Claire"'s cancer is described as "something false and foreign growing inside her."

Smith invented common folk who talk the way the common folk she didn't have time to find would; Glass manipulated and ridiculed our presumptions about human nature. Very different from both of them were the CNN and Time reporters who claimed there'd been a secret military mission to kill American defectors in Laos with sarin nerve gas. They believed in their story so fervently they were blind to contrary evidence.

What everyone did have in common was journalism's booming marketplace for caricature. Go ahead and concoct a tribe of Bible-thumping goofballs like Truth in Science or a Vietnam atrocity hushed up since the 70s--plenty of readers and just enough editors will accept it as true. These are days, the cold-eyed realists will tell you, when anything can happen. The hard-bitten skepticism of the newsroom has mutated into credulity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Half Submerged", "Rippled Water," and New Art Examiner cover.

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