Two from 9/8

… in the September 8th issue of the New Yorker. Both presenting the usual challenges to understanding — there’s a lot you have to know to make sense of them — and both playing on language.

(#1) by Jeremy Nguyen

(#2) by John McNamee

La cage aux artistes. What do you need to know? The easy part: that Pablo Picasso was a celebrated artist. The harder part: how to recognize Picasso, from his facial appearance, his build, his customary clothing, etc. Then you need to know some conventions of English usage, in particular that the phrase a N, where N is the name of an artist, can be used to refer to, among other things, (a) a work by N or (b) an artist comparable to N.

Then we have the woman leading a man by the hand through one room into another, in what we can guess is her apartment or house, given that he says, “You have a Picasso?” (with you presumably referring to her, or some group including her, and a Picasso presumably referring to the man in the cage, the only other salient referent in the context).

We recognize that the man in the cage resembles Picasso physically and is dressed like him (see below), yet the speaker in the cartoon says a Picasso, implicating that the man in the cage is not the artist himself but merely a simulacrum.

Mysteries remain. Why is the woman pulling the man into the next room? For a sexual liaison? To view more of her art collection? (It looks like there are some framed works in the room they are in.) Or what? And, most vexingly, why is the Picasso-simulacrum in a cage? Does the woman collect artists and/or their look-alikes? Or what?

This is where things tip into absurdity.

The New Yorker‘s own account of the cartoon doesn’t dispel the aura of the surreal:

Description: Woman leads man through her apartment, past Pablo Picasso in a cage.

Now a note on Pabo Picasso and his appearance. From a Mental Floss piece “8 Things to Know About Pablo Picasso”:


5. His iconic shirt is no ordinary striped shirt.

It’s a Breton-striped shirt. In 1858, the navy and white knit top became the official uniform for French seamen in Brittany, with 21 horizontal stripes to represent each of Napoleon’s victories and a continuous stripe from shirt to sleeves to make it easier to see sailors in the distance. Coco Chanel brought working-class Breton stripes to the fashion world in 1917. They’re still en vogue.

The Breton shirt in the cartoon has fewer than 21 stripes, so it’s not the regulation shirt Picasso so frequently wore. (The Breton shirts in fashion today have a variable number of stripes and come in many colors.) But that’s only evidence that the man in the cage is probably not the Picasso, but only a Picasso, which is what we already suspected.

Final note: Only one Nguyen posting before this, on 2/5/17 (with some notes about the artist).

Flowers of evil, shrubs of delusion. To understand the McNamee, you need to recognize the scene as God speaking to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. That’s the easy part. A bit harder: you need to know the actual text, at least the phrase the tree of (the) knowledge of good and evil. From Wikipedia:

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is one of two specific trees in the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2–3, along with the tree of life.

Genesis 2 narrates that God places the first man and woman in a garden with trees of whose fruits they may eat, but forbids them to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. When, in Genesis 3, a serpent seduces the woman to eat from its forbidden fruit and she also lets the man taste it, God expels them from the garden and thereby from eternal life.

Then the language play: for the phrase the tree of knowledge…, the sad counterpart phrase the shrub of delusion. Both: the PLANT of ABSTRACTION.

About the artist. A Pie Comic cartoon of John McNamee’s was posted on Language Log by Mark Liberman on 5/4/15. From his website:

John McNamee is a cartoonist and writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Mad Magazine, The Onion and Clickhole. He is also the author of the long running webcomic Pie Comic.

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