A Predictable Trend in Photography Criticism
There’s an article from PetaPixel that’s currently making the rounds on social media, called “A Disturbing Trend in Photography.” In it, long-time photographer and photo educator Neal Rantoul makes the argument that the art photography of today is heavy on words and light on quality. He says:
Go to a graduate thesis show and take a look. The students are concerned with issues of identity, gender, developmental and emotional positioning, posturing, physical and emotional abuse, cultural and societal pressure and assumption, human rights, sexual identity, and on and on. Each of these ideas and many others takes on a personal relevance and importance square in the photographer’s aim, as though there is a catharsis that when shared it is assumed to have relevance to others who are there looking at the work. Of course, much of this is narcissism, self-absorption, even making work with blinders on.
Rantoul lays the blame for this trend on the ubiquity of contemporary MFA programs and the increasing ease with which modern camera technology allows us to produce “stunning results” without any real mastery of the craft.
In the five days since the article went live on PetaPixel, I’ve seen a great number of my peers sharing it on their various social media feeds, talking about how great it is, how well written, how spot on the argument and observation. The thing is, there is nothing unique or even particularly unusual about Rantoul’s piece—I’ve literally been seeing pieces like this shared about once a month for as long as I’ve been following photography.
If there’s anything that artists and art critics love besides the art they favor, it’s complaining about the current state of the art world. This is a long and storied tradition going back hundreds, possibly thousands of years, so there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the fact that it’s still happening now. And, really, I don’t need to pick on Mr. Rantoul too much—even if he’s not advancing any new ideas in his piece, it’s by no means the worst or most strident of the bunch.
Generally speaking, thinkpieces decrying the state of contemporary photography make some combination of three basic arguments:
- Art used to be much better than it is now (e.g. in the 80’s, in the Modernist period, in the Renaissance, etc.) and the current trend is dangerous or disturbing.
- The art establishment has suckered the critical or art-making populace into believing that the new style is important, but it is ultimately empty. (I call this the “Emperor Has No Clothes” argument.)
- Artistic practices no longer pay proper respect to traditional constraints, and they should. (e.g. “If a photograph requires words or explanation, then it is a failure,” or “Photoshop is ruining photography.”)
Now, I can understand the appeal of arguments like this, particularly if one feels his or her own interests are not reflected in the tastes of the art establishment. My main problem with them, though, is how ahistorical they are.
The tendency to look backwards with warmth may well be innate. Certainly people have been doing that about art as long as there has been art. But go back to any historical period, and you will find people talking about how the current trend is garbage. Back in the 1980’s, Robert Hughes told everyone he could about how stupid and shallow Andy Warhol and his art were. In the 1960’s, John Canaday regularly took to the pages of the New York Times and alleged that the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists was only due to the art world having brainwashed the public. And from the 1890’s until his death in 1948, Royal Cortissoz used his position as the art critic for the New York Herald Tribune to loudly denounce the egotism of the anti-traditionalists—he particularly hated the Modernists, claiming that they were “ruining the younger generation.” And so it goes, throughout history.
Even were we to limit ourselves to viewing art’s past with modern sensibilities, it’s extremely unlikely that any previous period was any better, considered as a whole. We must bear in mind that history is always written with an agenda, that we are only ever presented with the parts of the story that are considered worthwhile. In the context of art, time acts like a sieve in which only the great or important work remains in the narrative; the landfill of history is full of art that no one cared about. It’s not at all a matter of apples-to-apples when comparing the greats of yesteryear with any random student of today. Rantoul does this explicitly: he names Frank, Friedlander, Callahan, Sommer, Baltz, Cartier-Bresson, and Ansel Adams as his exemplars of photography’s golden past while holding up a hypothetical “graduate thesis show” as the opposing side. But, honestly, how many people at any point in history were doing great work in their early 20’s? I somehow doubt that “20 or 30 years ago” college kids were regularly making revolutionary art, and even the ones who were making interesting work were likely not widely accepted by traditionalists. It’s also worth noting that most of the work we know best by the men he listed in the context of “20 or 30 years ago” was really made 50 or more years ago. This, too, speaks directly to the idea about the curation of history. We may notice a surplus of bad art today, but wait fifty years and people will only remember the good.
But what do “good” and “bad” even mean? If artistic quality were in any way objective then you would expect opinions about it to remain relatively static. Yet though, for example, John Greenleaf Whittier was hailed in his own time as one of America’s most important poets, he’s seldom read today. And Van Gogh, on the other hand, famously died penniless and obscure, and is now considered one of the most important figures in Western art history. Tastes change, the avant-garde becomes tradition, and perhaps the only constant is the grumbling about how far standards have declined.
It does appear to be true that art photography today is largely concept-driven. I would also agree that the favored visual aesthetics of the present are different from what they were two decades ago—though in that respect I think you’d be hard pressed to find any time since the Renaissance when that wasn’t the case. Many photographers who came up in the film era now find their preferred methodologies to be out of favor, and I can understand why that would be frustrating. But any explanation of a major art trend that relies on blaming art-school groupthink or assumes that the new generation is simply vapid and narcissistic—both of which, not coincidentally, function to prop up the traditionalist viewpoint—is ultimately an exercise in self-soothing, not intellectual rigor.
What, then, does explain the new currents in the artistic ocean that so discomfit Rantoul and so many other people who write about photography? Questions about art movements often prove difficult to answer conclusively without the benefit of hindsight, but I have a theory, which in many of the details is not too different from Rantoul’s. As he points out, modern tools have, indeed, taken much of the technical challenge out of producing a traditionally beautiful photograph. But when neither long experience nor virtuosity is required to produce technically perfect work, the result is that technique tends not to remain very impressive or even interesting, and the generation of artists following a wave of technological upheaval tend to start looking for other things to do with their medium. There’s a certain irony here that photographers are now finding so much to complain about in the digital age, because it was the invention of photography, itself, that spurred exactly the same sort of innovation in painting.
It’s fairly well-accepted by art historians that the advent of photography directly led to the increasing use of abstraction in painting. Once painting was no longer the quickest, easiest, or most cost-effective way of producing an accurate representation, representation quickly lost its preeminence as the determiner of quality in art painting. Photography was invented in the early 1800’s, and by the middle of that century it had largely replaced painting in the realm of portraiture. And it’s by no means a coincidence that at exactly that time, the dominant Romanticism of Western painting began to give way to Impressionism, which in turn led to Post-Impressionism, Modernism, and so on. Nor is it surprising that as the painting aesthetic changed, the traditionalists pushed back—critic Louis Leroy famously said of Monet’s Impression, soleil levant:
Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.
That line was written in 1874, but you see the same sentiments about egotism and shoddy technique in Rantoul’s piece from last week.
To me, this suggests not that photography is in some sort of decline, but rather that we are in the first stages of a new artistic revolution. It may well be that what’s to come in the next few decades will leave even the bright-eyed idealists of today behind, but not only is there nothing we can do about the inevitability of change, it’s not actually a bad thing. After all, as revolutionary as Monet and his Impressionist friends were, it’s still hard to imagine them immediately embracing the work of, say, Jackson Pollock. We somehow manage to have room for both in the canon, though.
Extended artist statements and conceptual series may fall out of vogue at some point, but when and if that happens it will be because another new trend has replaced it. I don’t know what that will look like, but what the future thinkpieces will say about it is not in any doubt.