The News & Van Gogh’s Ear

One of the reasons I love the New Yorker is that its writers place their subjects in broad context. Many (most) news outlets exaggerate the importance of every issue under consideration, like each is the MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD. Viewing the world thus presented is like running around tearing your hair out over constant self-created crises. Very taxing; very stupid. For the New Yorker, no article is an island. Every topic is related to many other topics, and those relationships are explored. As a result, it respects the relative importance of things, keeping things in perspective and presenting a coherent worldview. When this is done particularly well, it’s such a relief that I want to cry.

Adam Gopnik’s piece “Van Gogh’s Ear” in last week’s issue did this to me yesterday with its last paragraph:

It’s true that moral luck dramatized by modern art involves an uncomfortable element of ethical exhibitionism. We gawk and stare as the painters slice off their ears and down the booze and act like clowns. But we rely on them to make up for out own timidity, on their courage to dignify our caution. We are spectators in the casino, placing bets; that’s the nature of the collaboration that brings us together, and we can sometimes convince ourselves that having looked is the same as having made, and that the stakes are the same for the ironic spectator and the would-be saint. But they’re not. We all make our wagers, and the cumulative lottery builds museums and lecture halls and revisionist biographies. But the artist does more. He bets his life.

(“Moral luck,” here, is “making something that no one wants in the belief that someone someday will.”)

And this is just a book review! But it indicates a deep understanding that the meaning of a book is its relationship to all the other stuff out there in the world, not just the words on the pages.

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