A Brief Analysis of The Getty

Of the many compelling narratives explored by Joan Didion in The White Album, her essay on the J. Paul Getty Museum struck me especially. In keeping with the themes of the work as a whole, The Getty is short and outwardly impartial, with profound insights contained within its story and form.

Didion begins the essay with a description of what can be called the reality of the eponymous villa, which is that it is a “giddily splendid […] commemoration of high culture” that is “so immediately productive of crowds and jammed traffic that it can now be approached by appointment only” (74), the second point being an irony that resolves in the last paragraphs of the essay. Didion then cites reviews by the Los Angeles Times and New York Times that derisively compare the Getty to “nouveau-rich” dining rooms in upscale California communities. Immediately following this section there begins an exhausting critique of the Getty that comes not so much from Didion but from the critics and inhabitants of the upscale dining rooms, by proxy.
In this section there is a clever distance between the author and what is written, with many key words and phrases surrounded by quotation marks, almost sarcastically. This disassociation of the author and the text begins to build the confusion that ends up pervading the conclusion of the essay.

On page 76, partway through the first paragraph, Didion moves away from this critique and shifts into what are apparently ideas of her own: that the Getty glorifies “opulent evidence of imperial power and acquisition” not for the sake of “bad taste” but instead to tell us “that we were never any better than we are and will never be any better than we were” and that this statement is what so deeply offends (or disturbs) the elites that criticized the Getty.

The words of Getty himself are then presented, following a concession about whether or not Getty’s intent for his museum matches Didion’s perception of its message, a further hint at the removal of the author from the text. With further quotations, Didion offers Getty’s refutation of his critics in which he takes (or at least claims to take) an anti-elitist stance. Didion grabs hold of Getty’s use of the word elitist in order to begin constructing the essay’s climactic insight.

This insight is one of what Didion calls “social secrets”, and it is hinted at in the very beginning of the essay. We are told that the Getty is immensely popular in the first paragraph of the first page, and are then immediately presented with a detailed account of its seemingly universal panning. This contradiction is seemingly ignored until Didion breaks through to clarity in the end of the essay, though the pieces of this epiphany are set throughout. Didion uses Getty’s words to attach the term elitist to the Getty’s critics, and then reverses the same words to imply that Getty fits a similar description. This confusion of contradicting opinions and observations is then ascribed to, rather than explained by, Didion’s assertion that “On the whole, ‘the critics’ distrust great wealth, but ‘the public’ does not. On the whole, “the critics” subscribe to the romantic view of man’s possibilities, but “the public” does not.” (78) This insight is very much a part of the particular flavor of 1960s cultural disorder and social upheaval that is depicted in The White Album as a whole, and in this way it slides seamlessly into the conceptual narrative that surrounds it.