the scammery of representation

representation, book covers, and frankenthaler

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Hello friends—

I have not consumed much culture in the last week. There is a simple reason for this: I had to sign a bunch of tip-in sheets for a signed edition of my upcoming collection Filthy Animals. What it means in practical terms is that I spent a few days planning to sign my name thousands of times by buying markers and testing out different kinds of signatures. And then I spent a few days dreading having to sign my name thousands of times, and then a few days actually signing my name thousands of times. And then freaking out about whether or not I had the right labels to have the boxes of signatures shipped back.

This is not the first time I’ve had to do a lot of signing, and I always intend to watch movies I love or listen to audiobooks while I do this kind of mindless labor, but I never manage to. The thing is, I have a leaky autopilot. Which is to say that I am never truly in the flow state unless I am writing something. I can’t really watch movies that require a great deal of concentration or attention while I’m doing something like signing my name and shuffling sheets of paper. Partly because it’s kind of nerve-wracking! The tip-in sheets came with all these instructions about orientation and margins I had to be mindful of, and I’m a nervous person by nature which meant that the whole time I was kind of on edge. What I ended up doing was watching a mediocre but fine documentary about a Canadian murderer and then a less good documentary about a tickle sexwork exploitation ring.

I got it all done, but then I was left with this problem of not knowing what to write about. I ended up getting the letter out late last week, but I also want to get back into the habit of writing these letters on Tuesday instead of Thursday. Tuesday feels like a good day for a newsletter. Thursday feels like when all the media people launch their celebrity profiles and longreads on obscure parts of late quar aesthetics, and ideally, I’d like to run out ahead of that stuff because, let’s face it, I’m not writing about anything timely or particularly interesting. I’m just vibing. Toward that end, I’m writing a shorter, more personal piece this week in hopes that it will get me back on rhythm.

This morning, I spent a not short amount of time looking at some of Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings. Every time I share one of them on Twitter, there’s always a person who makes the joke that her paintings look like contemporary book covers. I’m sure you know the book covers they are referencing. The kind of bright Rorschach abstraction that summons to mind, in an accessible, populist way, the vibe and tone of the book while also evoking a sense of painterly gravitas. It’s the visual equivalent of that kind of lyrical-for-no-good-reason prose that permeates much of contemporary fiction. As a style, both of these modes ride out ahead of what they’re meant to convey, so that the content arrives and slots into a ready-made apparatus of meaning. Visually, it means that before the figuration is apparent, before you know just what you’re looking at, you have already absorbed an attitude conducive receiving the what by way of the color, by way of the idiom in which the image operates. It’s kind of ingenious, in its way, every book at the moment is meta, and depends on the context that we have made for it from all the other book covers sliding through the algorithm on Instagram and Twitter and Amazon and Facebook. A book cover is a synecdoche for all book covers of the moment, but then again, we have a word for that sort of thing: a trend.

It's true that every book cover is a readout of its era in the way that the text of the book is a readout of its era. In an ideal scenario, the cover and design work in concert with the content, so that one has the sense of an aesthetic whole when engaging the book as object and also as literature. But it is also true that we live in an era characterized not by the presence of trends and microtrends or even by the volume of trends and microtrends. We live in an era characterized by our awareness that we are being marketed to, solicited, bombarded with images not for the sake mere aesthetic pleasure but for commercial reasons too. With the rise of the industrial age, there came to be a necessity not just for the products themselves, but for the presentation of those products. In the era of mass media and then mass social media, the book has accrued the vibe of a status object. Not quite to the level of ironic and nostalgia that saw cord-phone attachments for iPhones and Gameboy phone covers, but not not those things. All of publishing is pecuniary emulation at the moment. But such is the era of the influencer.  

Then, what makes Frankenthaler art and what makes book covers ripe for memefication and parody? It’s kind of funny to me that you can’t share the work of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century without having it reverse-engineered into a meme to parody a trend in publishing that started about five or so years ago and reached its zenith sometime around mid-quar. I mean, it’s the sort of thing that has the snappy irony of a Joshua Ferris novel or an early DeLillo book. Right? The blending of the sacred (art) and the profane (commercialization) all pulped in the blender of capitalism. Another part of it that amuses me is that capitalism, working through art, through publishing, has essentially affected something akin to what Americans circa the 1950s imagined communism to be. Standard-issue, rubberstamped artifacts of cultural production. Which is in itself kind of funny in a DeLillo-y cum Systems Novel sort of way.

But, it’s not even just in publishing.

You see it also in design trends across start-ups. Across businesses like cafes and hotels. You see it in housing trends. You see in it the near-ubiquitous blobby jewel toned anthropoids that illustrate articles and listicles, no? It all feels a part of a cultural moment, that moment being the end-result of social media’s rapidity and the velocity at which cultural objects and artifacts move through the collective, panoptic gaze of our moment.

It’s funny because it used feel like trends came out of the sky. How did kids in Alabama know that kids in California were super into yo-yoing when I was in seventh grade? Or that kids across America collectively decided that we were going to get really into those snap-bracelets. Mostly, television, I think. I remember one summer, there must have been about five yo-yo commercials. And I couldn’t go to Dollar General or K-Mart or Big Lots without seeing yo-yos everywhere. And I begged for one and I thought I had this cool new thing only to show up at school that fall to witness a sea of yo-yos. Not only that, but hacky sacks! Beanie Babies!

But when I was a kid, it felt like magic. How did everyone know to like the same things? And forget about the LL Bean monographed backpacks. To some extent, it’s transmitted via the same way. Except instead of overnight church trips and summer camps and visual assaults via commercials, we have Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube.  More and more, we aren’t being marketed to from the top-down, we’re being assaulted horizontally from our neighbors. From our feeds. Everything arrives mediated and contextualized, with so much meta accoutrement that you hardly even have to think about the thing you are engaging with. Your reaction has already been pre-chewed and pre-digested and it comes trailing a cloud of recommendations. You just have to click with your eyeballs and you download the right set of ethics and politics, and then there you go on your way to spread the gospel.

It makes sense that books would be as easily susceptible to trends and the strange currents of culture. But I think also, it’s less craven than all of that. I think what happens more often than not in design is that someone works at something and tries to get it just right within the particular context of what’s going on out there and what’s going in the book and what’s going in the artist. There’s an attempt to triangulate a just rightness, a fit, something that feels appropriate. I’m intrigued by the idea that a cover has to make sense for the book but it also has to make sense on the shelf next to everything else out there. And where it diverges, it must also diverge within a particular set of constraints lest it just look like a mess, a blobby, contourless mess.

The mode that seems most common these days, particularly regarding books written by people of color, tends to be a swirly, loose abstraction. There is much feeling to these covers. A painterliness, a digital abstract expressionism. As though one were falling back into a thing already made. The danger there being that in abstraction, it is easy for the untrained eye to gravitate to the part that seems most familiar. A face, a hand, an arm. And what often happens is that in aggregate, an array of such covers seem more alike than they probably really are. And because this cover is particularly common among books written by people of color, particularly women and queer people of color, the trend comes imbued with, well, you know, all the racism and sexism stuff.

Sometimes, I think people are unaware of the visual language that runs through and around our cultural context. We know that you shouldn’t describe a person as being coffee colored or say that their eyes look like various nuts or compare their hair texture to animal textiles. Like, we’ve come to understand some of the ready-made language for discussing the lives of people who aren’t straight, white, and middle class. But there is a finer, quieter language with a range of clichés all its own regarding race or gender or ethnicity or sexuality. A hypercasual design aesthetic takes over and it’s suddenly vaguely human figures on various poppy color backgrounds, as though one could not be bothered to draw a line of delineation. You know from the outset not so much that the book is about black people, but that the author is black and then one presumes to know what subject matter one will encounter in such a text. The visual cliché for the harrowing novel of black experience or queer experience or female experience or what have you has taken hold quite strongly. And the covers arrive with so much reflexive affinity, no? You think, ah yes, representation. Ah, yes, diversity and inclusion. Ah, yes, gender. Ah, yes, myself in book form.

I mean, I guess this is where I put my cards on the table to say that I am deeply suspicious of representation. I used to think that the best thing one could do was offer meaningful mirrors and representation to people who looked like me in my art. And to be clear, that can be meaningful and really beautiful. But I also think that there is this idea, prevalent and growing more so every day, that representation should be the function of art, of literature. One time, the writer Garth Greenwell said something like “co-opting is how capitalism shows its love.” And I think that’s more or less where I’ve landed with this. It feels more and more that by co-opting the politics of representation, what’s happened is that we have been gently dissuaded from questioning the corrupt underlying and overriding structures of society. Representation is a kind of opiate, no? It feels good in the moment, but then you see something dystopic like We need more black police offers! and you wonder if we haven’t lost the plot just a little bit. Besides, I do think that there are more important things in heaven and Earth than being traded like currency in the white man’s marketplace of ideas.

Helen Frankenthaler, Commune, 1969.

But, wow, we have drifted far afield from Frankenthaler. I was looking at her piece Commune. It’s acrylic on canvas. What I like most about it is (shocker) the severity of it. On this tannish background, near the top of the canvas, there’s a green geometric object, like viewing Greenland on a paper map. It also has the casualness of a green shirt or smock left on the floor. Or even like the first experimental strokes of a painting itself. The mossy green object near the top of the canvas is not static. There is movement within it, waves of ochre or chartreuse. The edges of the figure feel three-dimensional almost, they’re gray-blue and bleed up and out. Flashes of color within the field of the object itself, like choppy water catching the light. I like Commune for its playful weightiness. The tension between the seeming casualness and playfulness of the figure on one end and the way it’s pulled taut on the other, as if pinned. And then it clicks, it’s like, oh it’s a shirt drying on a line. You can see the dip of the collar, the gathering at the shoulders. The sleeves. The fatigue green of it with its impressions of orderliness, regulation, and yet the asymmetry denoting risk, denoting the individual. Pinned, but free to billow, twist, contort.

It’s the kind of painting I would love for a book cover but would never get because I am black and gay and also it is too subtle a painting. There is too much negative space in it even though the negative space is one of the things I love most about it. In the end, none of Frankenthaler’s paintings would ever make a good cover for exactly this reason. She is a master of negative space. Holding things in exquisite tension. You have to study her paintings carefully, arriving not always at neat conclusions, but to a series of dissolving, shifting ideas and associations about what it is she might be painting. To try to reason out the what of a Frankenthaler painting is kind of beside the point, I guess. It’s like reading “At the Fishhouses” to figure out which fishhouse Bishop was writing about. It misses the point of the painting, I think, which is to say, it tries to draw a neat parallel between object and subject. It is an overdetermined way of engaging with art.

Commune might be a shirt, or it might be an island or it might be a dress or it might be a tree or it might be a bear or it might be anything at all. The point of abstraction is to disrupt the ready-made mode of witnessing and to transmute it into something else, sometimes truer, sometimes playfully oblique to true representation. Abstraction renders our negotiation with reality tactile, tangible, legible. It forces us all to reconsider our modes of seeing and witnessing and to ponder just why it is we feel that one to one recreation is the truest form of representation. We are forced to reconsider the iron-welded fusion of form and meaning.

It’s funny then to see abstraction become such a dominant mode in this very capitalist enterprise of selling books. I grew up hearing that abstraction was for babies and that anyone could do it. That it wasn’t real art, that there was nothing refined or interesting about it. That it was pretentious and hoity-toity. And now to see it become, in a sense, the visual language of our moment, the franca lingua of cool design ethos. I mean, it’s kind of amazing, and ironic, I guess. Capitalism speaks in many tongues.

But a less cynical read on all of this, the covers that are and the covers that will never be is that we’re all in the business of trying to capture something ephemeral and fleeting. We’re all trying to capture the mystery of experiencing the world as a singular person, and asking what it is we do with that experience. The process of making art is never as craven as we imagine it to be from our comfortable, cynical perches online. It’s easy to line everything up and to point out the overlap and to read some sinister, capitalist intent into it. I mean, there probably is a sinsister capitalist intent lurking in the background of almost everything we do. But it is also possible that artists are working in true conversation with their time and with the art they are being asked to represent. They undertake that work with care and with sensitivity and they do so under unimaginable deadlines and with all sorts of horrible corporate constraints. It seems silly to take art and line it up and say, This is all the same! When each of those pieces represents countless hours of work and effort and expertise not only to make the art, but to refine the sensibility that made the art possible.

In some way, we’re always on the look out for patterns. Narrative is where humans are most comfortable. We intuit from the signs that flit across our many-eyed gaze something about what it means to be alive or what is coming around the bend. It is partly the thing that kept our ancestors alive, and so we react to recognized pattern with a frisson of apocalyptic glee. Every time we spot a pattern, we flush with the exhilaration of being alive, we’ve slipped the guillotine yet again! It’s funny to me, then, that we’re doing this with covers drawing on a loose interpretation of abstraction, abstraction being an attempt to break up those old patterns. A way of disorienting that collective cultural eye, to show it something new, something novel.

Still, I’d love a Frankenthaler cover. All that quiet rage burning a hole right through the middle of the book.