The Visual Claptrap Trap
As a visual artist and art educator, I think about ugliness quite a bit. I think of it as I observe reurbanization in Richmond, Virginia, where I live. The architecture of new apartment buildings runs the gamut from styrofoam-shaped stylistic nods to Mexico, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Old South (sometimes all in one building) to the fake mid-century modernism analyzed so well in “Why Is Everything So Ugly?” (Issue 44). Each “look” is an urban capitulation to developers’ calculations—the difference is merely the style. I think of this as I watch the university where I teach erect one new building after another in the Marriott version of collegiate-gothic style, despite bold statements about going beyond the canon. I also think of this as I teach drawing, printmaking, and artist-book classes to students who declare, before even trying, that they cannot draw. After thirty years of teaching, I think I know what they’re really saying: “I do not have time for the slow process of learning drawing skills. And drawing does not matter anymore. Please don’t expect much from me.” It takes semesters of working with them (if they give me that much before decamping to something more “relevant”) to activate the idea of drawing as an exercise in observation, embodied knowledge building, and visual communication instead of a means of virtuosic rendering.
The current state of discourse about visual art is devoid of conversations about design, craft, and beauty. I note that the word beautiful does not appear once in the essay. Neither does craft. I do not blame the authors for these omissions: the writers are probably young intellectuals who have come of age at a time when beauty and beautiful have long been banished from discussions about visual art. As suspect as the concept of beauty can be, throwing it on the discredited heap of canonical approaches to art and architecture amounts to a spectacularly self-defeating act. I propose that one of the reasons everything is so ugly, as the authors aptly identify, is that most visual artists have largely stopped trying to make meaningful beauty a part of our lives. We, the artists, architects, art educators, and art critics, have abandoned our fellow humans who desperately seek something that makes visual sense. Left to their own devices and bombarded with lazy thinking and conformist and monetized leftovers—style, in other words—they have no choice but to consume highly processed corporate visual claptrap. Capitalism is blasting a fire hose of visual sewage at the world while the best visual thinkers are busy trying to impress the painfully shrunken circle of cognoscenti, carefully avoiding or underplaying questions of beauty, craft, and design in their work, lest they be labeled insufficiently intellectual.
Do not misunderstand me: I am not advocating a return to older forms of artmaking. What I would like to see instead is a robust conversation about what beauty might be, and mean, in today’s world.
The essay is a diagnosis, not a prescription. It stands on the precipice of the cultural conversation we need to have. It taps into a thirst: I long to hear and participate in conversations about what constitutes good visual design. And, most of all, to question why visual thinkers and makers have decided to abandon the most powerful tools of the trade.
“The New New Reading Environment” (Issue 45) was a superlative look into the dilemma of “the self-respecting reader.” Though I like to think of myself as a “self-respecting reader,” I unfortunately also happen to run social media strategy for another publication catering to the same reading type (one much, much smaller than n+1). As the slow death of the Old New Reading Environment has increased the potency of “an age of media decentralization,” it’s carried many of the furthest-from-central publications even further away from being serendipitously vomited onto a paying reader’s phone screen. Our growth in subscribers and submissions used to be directly correlated to how well our tweets did; as Twitter (X?) falters, I’ve been frantically texting with other magazine staff, trying to figure out where we’re all going. Do people who read use Threads? Bluesky? Do I have to double down on our newsletter now, inventing more anodyne copy to surround the pull quotes that otherwise would have been fine alone elsewhere? Should we just languish, thirsty, in the desert of X on twitter dot com? It’ll be interesting to watch where we all turn to beg for impressions.
Tangentially, I was surprised that n+1’s continued prognostication of Twitter mostly ignores one of the most annoying uses of now-X. Twitter was an effective “access to the inner thoughts of the ruling class” and a forum for literary types, but it was also a potent tool for brands. Perhaps the usage of Twitter by brands simply falls under the ruling-class usage you described, since we’re in the post–Citizens United brands-as-people climate. But either way, we’ve all rolled our eyes at Wendy’s or Netflix or, I don’t know, Charmin promoting their products with zillennials. Just a few weeks ago, TGI Fridays lamented, “We want the bird back,” and then tweeted “silence brand” at Chili’s response. (The call is coming from inside the Bar & Grill.) What will the corporations—or rather, the underpaid people whom those corporations hire to run their social media—do now? The biggest question for our quality of life remains unanswered: Will brands now be more or less annoying online?
I see the slow decline of Twitter as analogous to the slow death of the mall. No, I don’t feel remorse about JCPenney and Spencer’s being basically banished from brick-and-mortar, nor from the “public square” of Twitter. But banished too are the the lit-mag mall goths. Maybe we’ll all move to Tumblr.
In your most recent Intellectual Situation (“The New New Reading Environment”), you liken the paywall to an insurmountable fortress, an unscalable wall, a series of rocks and catapults that conjures a Tom-and-Jerry-esque charade between reader and read. While I don’t dispute that the cost of reading online has skyrocketed—an unfortunate inversion of the advertising attention economy—there still is hope for bibliophiles on a budget! An incomplete list of paywall passages, not to be used on n+1’s website, of course:
1. Reliable old incognito tab. Though the method may no longer unlock the unfettered access it revealed in the olden days, it can often still double your number of “free articles remaining.” Something is famously better than nothing.
2. Use a VPN. Remarkably, VPNs are for more than circumventing social media blockers in your middle school cafeteria. Paywalls that track your IP address to determine how many free articles you can read a month don’t stand a chance against this classic bait and switch.
3. Plug the URL into the Wayback Machine. While this method won’t work for hard-hitting timely news, those “Contemporary Themed Reviews” and culture war think pieces may have been uploaded to this digital archive by some historically inclined Good Samaritan.
4. Convert the webpage to a PDF, either manually or with webtopdf.com. Once a man tried to flirt with me at a bar by promising me access to a New Yorker article using this method. Little did he know I only go home with subscribers.
5. Use your network. Password sharing isn’t just for streaming. Befriend other readers, members of the press, and members of elite institutions with access to NYT Cooking. Some offices have perks like free coffee or discounted gym memberships. Some will pay for your Atlantic subscription.
6. Similarly, your local library probably has access to various subscriptions, websites, magazines, and more. Plus, then you’ll be in a library! Maybe just go there anyway.
7. Try any combination of the following paywall disablers/adblockers/extensions: 12ft.io, Bypass Paywalls Clean, uBlock Origin ad blocker, Bardeen, and Unpaywall.
8. Search for the article in the Tor browser. Be warned: after I did this I was inundated with spam Facebook friend requests for months. But at least I got to read about the death of the ski resort.
9. Still, Facebook may be good for one thing: use the Facebook URL for your article of choice. Whenever I went on Facebook to reject a spam friend request, I’d inevitably stumble upon an enticing-looking link that would then redirect me to a paywalled piece I could not open. But in that liminal space, the window that reads http://facebook.com/l.php?u=LINK, a world of un-paywalled possibility waits.
10. If you want to feel more technologically savvy after using Facebook, right-click and edit a few webpage elements via the “Inspect” button and refresh. This method has the added benefit of feeling like real hacking.
11. Clear your cookies. I don’t really know what that means but it can’t hurt to try.
12. Finally, the least conventional but perhaps most effective method: just ask. On the other side of the electronic bouncer is a person who probably would be ecstatic for you to read their work. Email them.