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Seriously, about that Rolling Stone cover

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I was initially dismissive of the “controversy” concerning the latest Rolling Stone cover because it originated from people making arguments like this:

The cover of Rolling Stone was once reserved for the newest bands, the hottest singer-songwriters or the pop culture phenoms grabbing the country by the scruff of its neck.

Christian Toto, the author of this one, strikes me as one of those “internet researchers” whose store of knowledge consists of ideas half-mastered and mistakenly remembered, the sort that require a quick search to “confirm” that Rolling Stone is “about” music. He has no personal connection with or real knowledge of the magazine and doesn’t desire any. This lack of intellectual curiosity is made manifest in the rest of his post, which consists of quoting “celebrities” like Ralph Macchio re-tweeting the sage words of “one of the creative forces behind HBO’s Entourage.” The limitations of such critics notwithstanding, they accidentally stumbled over a solid point. To quote joe from lowell:

The picture they chose to make the cover of Rolling Stone looks too much like a rock star. It looks like a zillion Rolling Stone covers we’ve all seen. The graphic designers were clearly going for that “ordinary, attractive person is really a monster” effect that the text describes, but they picked the wrong pic. The photo doesn’t read as “ordinary, attractive person who might live next door,” but as “the latest pop star Rolling Stone wants to promote.” It gets in the way of what they were trying to do and muddles the message. They should have used a photo in which he looked a little goofy, or a photo of him at eight years old, instead.

The criticism here isn’t that a lowly music magazine is breaking from routine and lionizing Tsarnaev — it’s an aesthetic judgment that acknowledges what Rolling Stone tried and failed to do. The difference, in other words, between conservative and aesthetic critics of the image is that only the latter are capable of correctly assessing its intent and judging its effectiveness. Conservative critics legitimately believe that Rolling Stone‘s trying to disseminate images of dreamy Islamic radicalism to impressionable American youths, whereas aesthetic critics can read the words beneath the image and understand that the cover fails rhetorically. I think Other Scott need not fear the progeny of strange bedfellows — this is just the most recent case of deliberate conservative misprision. They see what they want to, so when they look at the Rolling Stone cover, instead of seeing what’s printed:

They see what’s politically convenient:

The context is still technically there, but it’s rendered inscrutable by the controversial imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that all should become offended by a universal flaw.” Defining the entire cover down to Tsarnaev’s self-portrait — treating it as if the words didn’t exist — allowed conservatives to circulate an ahistorical and acontextual version of it that’s offensive to everyone. Much like the fight between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman began when Martin landed his first blow, conservatives have managed to bracket the conversation about this “controversy” such that the image being discussed is, by and large, the second one above. Having done so, they can rally their cultural warriors against the Shariah-loving editorial board of Rolling Stone with the usual dishonest gusto.

But liberal and aesthetic critics should have sense enough to realize that the problem with this cover wasn’t in its intent so much as its execution. In all honesty, I don’t think Rolling Stone should be criticized for its visual-rhetorical failure here, but for rehashing the tired trope of “The Monster Next Door.” That’s Keith Morrison‘s bailiwick, and Saturday mornings on MSNBC would be infinitely poorer if Rolling Stone put him out of business.

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