The Artful Collector: Vulgaris Triumphus? on Judging (SFWA) Magazines by Their Cover

Judge books by their cover?  Everyone does it.  That’s why – and despite the mis-marketing, agenting “horror stories” (both artist and author) and egregious lack of talent (cover-wise) – books and yes, magazines, still get judged by how well their covers make money for publishers, or (as in this case) attract (or repulse) members of an organization.

Is Jeff Easley’s painting of a sexified fantasy female warrior a clear case of Vulgaris Triumphus* only IF the viewers happen to be a mainly male, and if the image happens to be one that appeals mainly to male sensibilities?  How far are female arbiters of good taste willing to go to stop editors from exposing the pure among us to pop cultural tastes – which have long provided marketers with employment if they are astute enough to bet on sexier, darker, more violent imagery doing a better job of “showing and selling” to a male audience than fairies, angels, unicorns and rainbows?

It’s bad enough that we have phalanxes of art connoisseurs and eager consumer behaviorists ready to tell us what we should be hanging on our walls, or how to decorate our nests in order to look smart, rich and “with it”.

SFWA 200th Anniversary cover with Jeff Easley art.  [SN: I am a member of SFWA and I like this image]
SFWA 200th Anniversary cover with Jeff Easley art. [SN: I am a member of SFWA and I like this image]
Now we have feministas and their male counterparts yapping about how putting chain mail bikini-d warriors on the cover of SFWA demonstrates support for the gender-biased underbelly of SFdom.

Why not just look at this as another case of roses dipped in Lucite, tapestries of dogs playing poker, or gift-shop garden gnomes?   Must everything disliked by one group or another be attributed to intolerance or “objectification”?  Why not give credit to the one attribute of culture that is endemic to all, and will not go away?  Bad Taste. 

When it comes to bad taste, are there any among us who can claim to be immune from the fascination with the standard masterworks in our field, the classic favorites of our genre?  You say dragon, I say flying saucer.  And we’re both right!  Do you need pictures here to know what I mean?  I think not.

Who is willing to step forward and decree: this is icky – but that is elegant?  Ok, well I am.  Somebody has to do it.

So in that light: The Sterns were right.

Walter Keene. "Boy and his Poodle" (my title)
Walter Keene. “Boy and his Poodle” (my title)

In their The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste  (Jane and Michael Stern, HarperCollins, 1990) they included those icons “Walter and Margaret Keane, the husband-and-wife painting team of the sixties who invented the big-teary-eyes school of painting.” (p. 169) Whose imagery (no matter whether Walter or Margaret should take credit) never fails to elicit that “involuntary groan of horror and fascination that is the true mark of bad taste at its juiciest.” (p.8).

Clyde Caldwell "Frank Family Portrait" 1978. Acrylic, 30" x 24"
Clyde Caldwell “Frank Family Portrait” 1978. Acrylic, 30″ x 24″

On which side of the divide, I wonder would they place our “Frank Family Portrait,” commissioned from Clyde Caldwell, 1978?  Clyde – along with Jeff and Keith Parkinson, Larry Elmore – was an early member of TSR, Inc.’s stable of artists, and one of the famous “Gang of Four.”  I’m sure your discerning eyes can see how that D&D™ look was clearly expressed in Clyde’s depiction of us, including the family dog, bottom right (“Flash,” our collie) – a much different take on a family pet than the Keane’s “pet poodle” you’d agree.  But is it in good taste?

According to the Sterns’ definition, “appropriateness can be a helpful measure of good taste; more to the point, extreme inappropriateness is a sure signal of bad taste.” (p.9)

I’d like to think you wouldn’t view our beloved portrait (which our three children hated, then tolerated – and now view – 34 years later – with bemusement) as being “inappropriate”!  What could be more appropriate for SF/F art collectors than this? Surely it’s not in the same class as rubber dog poop, fuzzy dice, bobbing head dolls or Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie (sorry if this purveyor of naughty negligees are before your time….trust me, bad taste) . . .  but given the reactions of SFWA members to Jeff’s redhead, I’m not so sure.   At least Clyde was an equal-opportunity sexist – and I still think I made a damned good female barbarian warrior – at least as good as Jeff’s!

* the phrase used by Clement Greenberg (notable art critic and historian) in his classic essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch” in 1939, to describe the worst of popular bad taste, translated as “vulgarity triumphant”

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1 Comment

  1. My kids would have loved a family portrait like that, perhaps because we used to play D&D as a family. And no, I do not find the portrait inappropriate – but that is probably due to my male insensitivity 😉 Incidentally, I had to alter the web address to get a closer view. The one that loads gives a “page does not exist” message. This works better:

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