Art vs. Revolution
Last week I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast Commonplace, featuring a conversation between host Rachel Zucker and poet and activist Juliana Spahr (if you don’t already listen to Commonplace, I highly recommend it). I always find Zucker’s conversations interesting and enlightening, but this one has stuck with me a bit more than usual because a large part of the conversation had to do with something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about for the past two years: the limitations of art as a means of protest or activism.
Almost exactly two years ago, just before the inauguration, I found myself distraught, feeling helpless and looking around for anything to do. I’d always had strong opinions about, well, everything, but I’d never been motivated to do more than just talk about the ills of the world. Talk and, I suppose, vote every other year. But suddenly I was faced with the reality of a Trump presidency and all I could think was that my life of complacency had in some way contributed to the horror we were now in. That just talking or writing or making photographs about injustice wasn’t enough. I ended up joining a grassroots organization and becoming something I never thought I’d be, something I’d even explicitly disdained in my youth: an activist.
Two years in, I’m still an activist. I’m also still an artist. (I’m also tired, all the time.) Often times I feel a tension between these two roles—any time spent on one is time not spent on the other, and I nearly always feel that loss. I want to do both, and more besides, but it’s just not physically possible. And so I wonder, over and over again, what can my contribution be? What ought it be? What must it be?
In an interview in 2003, Kurt Vonnegut talked about this very question. His response—delivered with all the sardonic wit that we expect from Vonnegut—has since become famous: “When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.”
Is he right about that? Well, yes and no—at least, that’s my opinion. If I’ve learned anything in the past two years it is that there is no substitute for actual organizing. Less than an hour before I sat down to write this, the Senate passed a bill to re-open the government after the President finally backed down. The only reason that this happened is because of two years of consistent progressive activism, two years of marches and phone banks and visits to Congressional offices and voter registration and community outreach and knocking doors and getting out the vote. It happened because people got up and made it happen, flipping the House of Representatives and holding their elected officials accountable and never letting up the pressure. And there is simply no way that art, alone, could have accomplished that.
But it’s also not true that art has no place or function in activism. To paraphrase something that I once heard activist Mariame Kaba say, if politics is about achieving what’s possible, then activism is about changing the limits of what’s possible. Or, if you prefer, “rebellions are built on hope.” Art and literature are engines for building empathy, giving us opportunities to understand and feel an emotional connection to people whose life experiences are different from our own. It’s that connection that allows us to expand the boundaries of what we imagine for the world. It’s that understanding that tells us what to fight for and why.
This is why I reject the notion that we have to make a choice between art and revolution. We need both. We need art and literature and creativity to teach us, to stoke our passion, and to keep us going when we get discouraged. But once we’re motivated, we have to follow it up with action to actually achieve the changes we want to see in the world.
Now, some people are going to have the time and resources and ability to do more than one thing, and to the extent that you’re able to be both an artist and an activist, that’s great. But it’s also important to recognize that movements are bigger than any one person, that no one should or even can do everything themselves, that we all have a role to play. Not everyone can grab a bullhorn and lead a rally. Not everyone can write a poem that makes the reader understand our shared humanity. None of us should be complacent, but all of us have specific strengths and skills we can offer. I believe we can change the world, each of us, and all of us together.
Dear Evan Hansen
Note: I will be discussing the plot of the 2016 musical Dear Evan Hansen in this post. If that sort of spoiler might bother you then it might be best to skip this one.
For Christmas this year J got me tickets to see Dear Evan Hansen. After hearing people talk about that show for close to two years I finally started listening to the soundtrack a few months ago, and it's been in pretty heavy rotation ever since. Last weekend we drove up the coast to Costa Mesa, the closest city to us on the show's national tour. It was a lovely evening—we drove by some familiar places from our Orange County days, ate a delicious meal, and the show itself was amazing. The music, the staging, the performances—it was all just great.
Still, as much as I have loved and still love that show and particularly its music, I couldn't help but have some misgivings about the story. If you're not familiar with the musical, at the beginning of the show we meet Evan Hansen, a socially awkward and isolated teen who desperately wishes he could have some friends. The title refers to an assignment he receives from his therapist, to write himself motivational letters. After a classmate, Connor Murphy, kills himself, Connor's parents find one of Evan's letters in Connor's pocket, mistake it for a suicide note, and assume that Evan and Connor must have been friends. Caught up in the moment, Evan doesn't deny this, and by perpetuating that misunderstanding finds himself gaining popularity at school, a girlfriend in Connor's sister Zoe, and a second family in Connor's parents. This goes on until eventually the lie is revealed, and it all falls apart.
This kind of story of a mistaken identity and false relationship is one that's been done many times in theater and film. The 1995 Sandra Bullock movie While You Were Sleeping comes to mind, for example. In fact, I think a lot of older movies and plays have turned on this sort of plot device, and it's usually played for laughs and everything winds up in a perfectly happy ending—when Peter Gallagher comes out of his coma in While You Were Sleeping there is some climactic drama when Sandra Bullock's lies are revealed but in the end everyone forgives her and she winds up marrying Bill Pullman and everything is great. Dear Evan Hansen definitely treats Evan's lies with more gravity—Connor's parents appear to ultimately forgive him, but he's still left relatively alone by the end of the show, though having grown and learned from his experience.
The question I keep coming back to is whether the show means to say that Evan's growth and learning make all of his lies and the harm he causes worthwhile. J thinks not, because of how the show ends on a bit of a bittersweet note with Evan alone. I just don't know, though. Certainly we get much more about Evan's sorrow and regret over having lied (as expressed in the climactic song "Words Fail") than we do about how the Murphys process that revelation and come to a place of forgiveness (which occurs off stage, between scenes). And in the last scene, when Evan tells Zoe that her parents didn't have to keep his lies a secret, she tells him that this experience saved them.
On the drive home, J and I talked about this. She felt that perhaps I was being overly critical, not having enough empathy or consideration for a character that was clearly suffering from depression and anxiety, and who as young person wouldn't have had the life experience or tools to properly deal with the situation he found himself in. Which is a fair point, and certainly I think that if the show ended by punishing Evan like some Greek tragedy, that would have been profoundly unsatisfying. The thing is, Evan's not a real person, he's a character who was written. And I just can't get past wondering why he was written this way, why the show's creators wanted to tell this story in this way.
Then again, it's really difficult for me to get away from myself and my own biases and insecurities and fears when judging a work of art. I don't think anyone really can, nor do I even think it's necessarily something one should strive for. Really, the thing that's most likely driving how I feel about this show is how much I can relate to Evan. When I was in high school, I was lonely and felt isolated, and out of that isolation I acted in ways that sometimes hurt other people. Not to the same degree as here, but hurts are real even when they're not catastrophic. Seeing a story in which a sad, lonely boy is, if not redeemed then at least extended compassion, is something that immediately feels validating and comforting to me. And that's always a response that makes me start asking questions. I did it quite recently with Sarah Rees Brennan's YA fantasy novel In Other Lands. And now I'm doing it here.
As humans we are so strongly wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That in itself isn't a bad thing, it's basic to survival. But it can become a problem when an unwillingness to endure discomfort blinds you to the ways in which you might be harming other people. Ideally, we'd all be able to do both, to be able to both be gentle and compassionate towards ourselves while also admitting and correcting our faults. There's such a strong pull toward excusing oneself, though, and away from an honest assessment of one's flaws, that it can be very difficult to find that balance. And as easy as it is to snuggle deep into the blanket of denial, it's just as easy to overcorrect and swing into self-loathing. I'm not really sure where I am on that continuum right now.
There's so much I love about Dear Evan Hansen. The music is just phenomenal, soaring and lifting as it does. And hearing the message that no one deserves to be forgotten, that we will all be found, that in truth we aren't as alone as we feel—it feels good. I just always come back to this question: at what cost does this good feeling come? Maybe I am being too critical of this show, and I'd love to hear about it if I am. But I think that this is a good question to ask.
In Other Lands (But Mostly My Own Insecurity)
(Just a quick note: there will be some spoilers for Sarah Rees Brennan’s novel In Other Lands in this post.)
I finished reading Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands last night, a novel that made me just radiantly happy. That was not, however, the reaction I expected when I started the book.
About twenty pages in, I took to Twitter to ask the two friends who’d recommended the book to me whether the protagonist would get less obnoxious, or whether I’d be stuck for the entire story reading about a character I hated. Said character, Elliot, is a snide, condescending teen boy, instantly and needlessly cruel to those around him, constantly pitying himself while simultaneously telling himself (and others) how much better he is than everyone else. Both of them told me that his arc would wind up being satisfying, so I stuck with it. I was skeptical, though, because I was fairly certain by that point that I already knew what his arc would be—Elliot would be shown to harbor a deep pain, his abrasive behavior would turn out to be a defense mechanism, and he would ultimately be redeemed, learning to become vulnerable and to be a good friend. And that is, indeed, more or less what happens.
Thinking about that character arc made me viscerally uncomfortable there at the beginning of the story. I wanted to put it down and go read something else. The thing is, we've had so many stories about the inner struggle and ultimate redemption of misunderstood young men. Misunderstood men of all ages, really. And this is both a consequence and a reinforcement of how privilege and power work. Through the choices of which stories we tell and which perspectives we tell them from, we are given every opportunity to empathize with and understand characters who represent the mainstream, the privileged, the default. The people who most need more empathy, those who are kept at the margins of our society, are the people whose stories are less often told, and certainly not in their own voices.
Do we really need another story about a shitty boy? I asked myself. Yes, he has his pain, but so does everyone, and not everyone chooses to deal with their pain by inflicting it on those around them. I didn't want to empathize with this kid. I just wanted to read about somebody else.
I'm glad I didn't, though. In Other Lands turned out to be a sweet and tender story, one that surprised me in how maturely it presented sexuality and boundaries and consent and violence, all while being fun and funny, too. The day before I started reading In Other Lands I tweeted “I want to read something happy. Or beautiful in a way that isn't painful. Or at least in a way in which the pain is not enraging or despairing.” And it was that. And I was happy reading it.
About two-thirds of the way through the book, it occurred to me to look at my initial reaction more closely. Not because the reasons for my discomfort were invalid, but I wondered if they were incomplete. I wondered if it might have to do not only with my desire for justice in the world and in art, but also for my unwillingness to let my younger self off the hook. At the beginning of the book, Elliot is thirteen years old. At thirteen, he is wounded and sad, and he hurts the people around him in order not to let them hurt him. He treats everyone like they're stupid, all the while also telling himself that he is fundamentally unlovable. It's not too far off from how I was at thirteen.
Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is my relationship to success and ambition. Over the past couple of years of therapy, I've come to realize that being of service is one of the most important things to me, that I want to be able to help others. And in the past month or so I've had the thought that if I had a bigger platform, I'd be able to do more for more people. But this is a thought that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
It's not that I think that in a fair world, no straight, cisgender, able-bodied men would be successful or powerful. It's just that in the real world, such men have had such a disproportionately large share of success and power that any time a man says “Yes, but I'm different,” I become skeptical. And that includes myself. The privileged classes take up so much room in the world, and maybe the best or even the only way to make more space for marginalized people is for those who have privilege to choose to step aside.
I think this is all valid reasoning. Yet, here again, I have to pause and wonder how much of my feelings are driven by a positive desire for justice and how much is just sublimated self-loathing. I think it's important and necessary to be willing to look at oneself honestly and critically. But it's also worth considering that beating yourself up can also be a form of narcissism.
Here's where I'm trying to get toward: that I can make room for others and lift them up and be helpful and useful, and I can do that while also pursuing my own successes. That I can recognize and atone for past mistakes without letting those mistakes define who I am and who I will be. That it's good for me to remember I don't deserve more than anyone else, but that's not the same as saying that I deserve less. That everyone can have their needs met, including me. I'm not there yet, but I'm working on it.
Last week I was talking to a coworker about the books the two of us had read so far this year. He had mostly been reading historical nonfiction and contemporary political biographies. I admitted that nonfiction has, for the most part, been too much for me lately. This isn't entirely true—I've actually read quite a bit more nonfiction this year than I usually do, much of it relevant in one way or another to the times we're living through right now. But for the most part, what I've found myself longing for is fiction, which I suspect is motivated in large part by a desire for escape.
It's interesting, because even the fiction I've been reading this year has often touched on the very same social and political issues that I spend so much of my time on, and which I am ostensibly trying to get away from during my down time. Somehow, though, presenting the same ideas in fiction makes them feel less stressful, or perhaps less threatening. The fact that it's something that might happen instead of something that did happen provides enough of a remove that I'm able to interface with them more easily. I'm not quite sure what to make of that, really.
The last book I read—which I finished this past Wednesday—was the fifth and final chapter of an epic fantasy series that I started reading eight years ago, when it was recommended to me by the same coworker I mentioned above. Since then, I've learned a lot about representation and literary tropes, which is to say that I noticed things about this story that were most likely problematic in one way or another, which I wouldn't have noticed before. I couldn't enjoy it in an uncomplicated way anymore, which on balance I think is a good thing—I'd rather be more aware than less. Even so, there was something seductive about the experience, something that brought me back to my youth in a way that I found familiar and comfortable, which makes me think there's something worth interrogating there.
I read a lot as a kid, and the overwhelming majority of my reading was science fiction and fantasy, and really a lot more fantasy than science fiction. Books like The Lord of the Rings and Michael Ende's The Neverending Story are probably two of the most foundational texts of my life. There are a lot of reasons I've come back to those stories over and over again throughout my life, but something I've been thinking about for the past few days is how fantasy, especially epic fantasy, is a genre in which stories are built around a certain fundamental conservatism.
Epic fantasy is, for the most part, a genre about war. The stories are usually set in a world that is some mythical analogue of a real historical period—often, but not always, European. There's usually some sort of a hero's journey, and the central conflict usually pits a few heroic individuals against some ancient evil in order to decide the fate of the world. There are exceptions to all of these, of course, even in just the examples I named before—in The Neverending Story the "villain" of the first half is more or less human disillusionment, and in the second half it's the protagonist's vanity. But genres are more defined by their centers than by their boundaries, and for the most part we recognize fantasy by its most common tropes: swords, sorcery, and a battle between good and evil.
Lately when I read epic fantasy, whether it's a contemporary novel or a classic of the genre, I find it an intensely nostalgic experience. And I think this is something that's kind of built in to the genre, perhaps in a way that wouldn't have been as potent for me when I was a child. There's something seductive about a simple story with clear, simple morals. And even though fantasy authors have for decades found interesting ways to complicate their heroes or villains or conflicts, ultimately most of these stories still come down to a fairly uncomplicated moral binary. It's comforting, being able to read a story and just go along for the ride, without thinking too deeply about whether or not we really want the heroes to win. Or whether scenarios with clear winners and losers are even something we ought to be rooting for in the first place.
I suppose the easy thing to do here would be to turn this into some sort of sermon about this kind of nostalgia and escapism being bad for us, but I'm not going to do that. We all talk all the time about self-care, and choosing to spend your leisure time reading comfortable adventure stories is as legitimate a way to unwind as most other methods we might come up with. Still, it's on my mind that tomorrow we will be deciding again how we wish to be governed, and that the rhetoric we use to talk about elections is generally one of binaries, of good and evil, of winners and losers.
I guess what I'm saying is this: we all love stories that comfort us and tell us the things we want to believe, especially the things we want to believe about ourselves. And in and of itself, there's nothing really wrong with that. But I think we have to be willing to look more deeply at our stories and ourselves if we wish to live in a real world that's just, and that works for everyone. I think we have to be willing to be uncomfortable sometimes.
In about two hours I’ll have my final portfolio review of the weekend. I can never help feeling apprehensive ahead of these things, a bit anxious. I think that’s more instinct, impulse than anything else, though—at this point I’ve shown my work enough not to take it personally when someone doesn’t like it. Some people may find a piece boring, others may find it resonant. It’s the same work; the only variable there is the viewer.
I should back up a bit, I suppose. I’m attending the Medium Festival of Photography, part of which involves a sort of art speed-dating. Eight times over the course of two days, I get twenty minutes to show my work to some curator or gallerist or publisher, introduce myself and my work and hope that it lands. It doesn’t always, of course. Reviewers are like anyone else, they have their tastes. The main difference is that a reviewer has the vocabulary to tell you why it doesn’t land. Usually.
It’s sort of a fraught relationship, really. As emotionally and physically exhausting as it is on the artist’s side of the table, the reviewers are doing a lot of work as well. And, of course, they have their own agenda. They have their own businesses and projects they need to support, so of course it will be on their minds what you can do for them. I think asking otherwise is kind of unreasonable.
Still, there are good reviewers and bad reviewers. I always appreciate when a reviewer will take the time, not just to look, but to understand at a deeper level than what’s immediately obvious. That’s actually surprisingly difficult given the format—some work just doesn’t reveal itself in twenty minutes, and if you’re trying to show more than one body of work, the difficulties only increase. Getting depth from this sort of review requires either a lot of effort or an unusually high degree of perceptiveness and ability to articulate on the part of the reviewer. But you do get that sometimes. The best thing a reviewer ever told me was in my second year reviewing. After a full day of hearing, at best, “This isn’t ready yet,” I asked him what he thought I should do differently. To which he replied, “It’s not for me to say what your work should be, or how to make it be what I would like it to be. All I can do is tell you what I see in it.”
The good ones do that. They take the time to understand what you want to do, point out where you’re doing it well, help guide you through the places where you lose your way. (We all lose our way from time to time.) Many people will prefer to tell you what they would have done, though. It’s not a particularly useful form of feedback, but it also doesn’t accomplish much to take it personally.
The thing is, the deeper a connection you make with your artistic community, the more you will find yourself in a position to dispense advice. That is, in a position where people will ask for your opinions. (Unsolicited opinions are rarely useful.) And in these situations, you kind of have to decide who you want to be. I always have an easier time offering praise for the parts I appreciate, even if I don’t particularly like the work overall. But often people want more, and so what I always try to ask is, “How can this work become more itself? More what it needs to be?” I don’t know that I’m always successful at this, but I try.
I guess it’s just on my mind, what it means to be a good artistic citizen. What it means to be a good friend. There are people who feel that not being blunt is a failure of honesty, but to me this often feels unnecessarily cruel—no less so when I’ve done it, myself. You can be honest and offer critique, and still be kind.
In any case, right now I’m in a pretty good place with my work and my creative life. I feel at peace. I hope you do, too.
Scattered, vol. 2
- There’s a period at the beginning of a story where I am, as a reader, lost. This is just how sequential narratives work—at first, I don’t have any context for the events and characters I’m experiencing, and it takes a little while to get there. Sometimes more, sometimes less, and I nearly always find it a bit unsettling, like being adrift. I haven’t wanted to admit to myself that I enjoy novels more than short stories, but I do, and I think this is part of why. I get more time before I have to feel that floating sensation again.
- Last week, a friend of mine commented on one of my Instagram photos (a high-contrast black-and-white image) that he “liked my high-con work.” It’s nice to get compliments, of course, but it’s that word “work” that caught me. I tend not to think of what I put on Instagram as my “work.” Rather, I think of it as “the screwing around I do instead of my actual work.”
- I had a similar thought about my podcast about a month ago. I spend far more of my time far more regularly recording and producing my show than any other creative endeavor I’m engaged with, but I always think of it as something I do on the side, rather than my actual work. Part of that, I think, is that I don’t know how I would feel about thinking of myself primarily as a podcaster, instead of a photographer or writer.
- I’m attending a portfolio review next week, and I’m bringing five bodies of work. (That’s too many, but that’s another conversation.) All of them began as images that I found without looking, without intending to turn them into anything. Just by letting myself follow my natural instincts and interests. With two of them, I realized that I had something after a while and then started shooting intentionally toward developing the project further. Three of them, though, are series I didn’t realize were “work” until I was done.
- Nearly every “studio” photograph I’ve ever attempted has wound up feeling forced, obvious, or just clunky. They feel like a shout, but good photographs usually whisper. At least, my good ones usually do. And those ones almost never happen when I’m trying to make them happen.
- Writing, though. Writing is always a chore. Writing always starts with an idea of where I am and where I want to get. This works alright with an essay—you can be louder in an essay than you can with a photograph without it feeling didactic. My poems never satisfy me, though, and perhaps this is why. What would it mean to write something accidentally?
- Perhaps the most difficult thing for me, as an artist and just as a person, has been to accept that the things that come easily to me have value. That validity doesn’t have to come from struggle. That play can be as profound as work. That even though it’s good for me to stretch myself and try to improve, the way I am, already, is enough.
- What would it be like if I accepted that, for the most part, my process is observation over invention, presence over planning, play over work? What would my work be like? What would my life be like? What would I be like?
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.
Not For Me
I bought Beyoncé’s Lemonade album eight days ago. That I have listened to it a mere seven times through is only a reflection of the amount of time I have to listen to music, and not at all of my feelings about the music. Because this album is a masterpiece, and I love it. I love how musically adventurous it is. I love the naked emotion, both the roar in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the sigh in “Pray You Catch Me.” I love the confidence and the vulnerability, both. I love how it makes me feel. As much as I understand about Lemonade, though, I know too that there are parts I do not understand, that I may never fully understand. I love it, but it wasn’t made for me.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: art that isn’t for me. I thought about it when Prince died, of course, because on some level music so brilliant and so explicitly about freedom and limitlessness is for everyone. But, of course, there are parts of Prince’s music that I can’t access, which the life I’ve lived simply hasn’t given me the experiences to be able to know.
Is there a way to talk about this that isn’t appropriative? That isn’t trying to make it about me? Maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t be thinking about this so much if I didn’t feel a sense of entitlement. The question that stays in my mind isn’t so much what I’m allowed to love or what I can say I relate to. Rather, I wonder about participation, and about how my presence affects the rest of the audience.
Years ago I saw a feature on Lenscratch of photographs from a young artist named Natalie Krick; I was drawn in by the wit and intellect apparent in the images. She had something to say about femininity, about feminism, about youth and age, about parents and children, about our image-saturated culture. Much later I discovered she was on Instagram, and I loved the way that even her casual studio and process snaps had both a boldness and a sense of play, and an assuredness that I have certainly never felt about either my art or my body. But it’s clear, too, that that play is with and for the young women who are her peers and friends, and not at all for some dude out in the suburbs who has three kids and is pushing forty. I love her work and I think it deserves to be celebrated, but I wonder sometimes whether I am intruding.
Back in March, Jenny Zhang—whose poetry and essays I adore—tweeted a link to an interview between her and fellow writer Charlotte Shane, titled “There’s no spectrum of nuance for why people might expose themselves.” I had just recently read Zhang’s essay “On Blonde Girls in Cheongsams” and had been thinking a lot about how erased I have felt at times in my life, how I have not felt entitled to access the Asian culture into which I was supposedly born. And I loved her for putting that feeling into words and then again for putting those words into the world. I felt seen. At the same time, I knew that much of what she wrote in that essay was something I’d only really understand if I’d grown up as a girl. In the interview with Charlotte Shane, she asked
I’d be interested to know what you think the gender breakdown of your readership is, and then within the men who read your work, do you ever feel like they are judgy or creepy or perhaps looking for evidence of a womanís brokenness or fucked-ness, and what percentage are just open, curious, voracious for your stories and your ideas?
It’s a thing I’ve wondered, too, because Zhang’s writing is so often about her sexuality, her body, and it must attract all manner of creepers. And, indeed, both she and Shane talked about that. I can imagine how frustrating, how infuriating it must be to get that kind of reaction from men who you were not talking to, who you were never thinking about when you were writing your own truths, but who still feel allowed to do whatever they want with your writing. I can imagine it, but I can’t really know how it feels because it’s not something that has happened to me.
And this is the crux of it: this work represents a phenomenon which I have never and probably will never experience, but which millions of women live every day. It is speaking to them, not to me. And if I go into this space, no matter how much I love the work, nor what my intention may be, it is true that my presence may make one of these women feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Here some dude will pound the table and shout “Not All Men!” but this is entirely missing the point. (Also, he is an asshole.) The point is that the work is by a woman, speaking to other women, and if my being there makes one of these women—who may connect more deeply with the work than I ever will—unable to enjoy and connect with the art or the artist, then that is me interfering with the purpose of the art.
I know that if art is put out into the world for the public to view, it is not wrong for me to view it. I know that if I see some part of myself reflected in someone else’s art, I can experience that connection and feel good about it. But what the boundaries of participation and engagement with a piece or with the artist are—or should be—I don’t know. I’m sure it varies from piece to piece and artist to artist, from situation to situation. I want to be respectful. I want not to cause harm. I don’t know if there’s an answer and I know there isn’t a rulebook, but I hope that there could be a conversation.
Rauschenberg, de Kooning, and the Arrogance of Art-Making
I’ve been contemplating a new piece recently. A new way of working, really, something that breaks from what I currently do as a photographer or writer. Big changes are always scary, and this is certainly true for changes to one’s artistic process. The future is an uncharted territory, and it’s always unclear what you will find if you head down a new path. Perhaps it will be a new vista, perhaps ruin.
Speaking of “ruin” in the context of an art project smacks of hyperbole, of course—it may feel like disaster is lurking but, realistically, artistic failure means only the loss of time and, perhaps, money. Still, I can’t help thinking about the ways that the creation of art can affect one’s life, a sort of quantum effect where the observation intrudes upon the observed. And this brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg.
One of Rauschenberg’s most famous and controversial pieces is “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” De Kooning, of course, was one of the most celebrated Abstract Expressionists, and Rauschenberg was a particular fan of his. As the story goes, Rauschenberg was interested in finding ways to make art that didn’t involve traditional mark-making and had hit upon the idea of erasure as a technique. But he was unsatisfied with erasing his own works. In this interview on Artforum, he says:
I was trying to figure out a way to bring drawing into the all-whites. I kept making drawings myself and erasing them, and that just looked like an erased Rauschenberg. It was nothing. So I figured out that it had to begin as art. So I thought “It’s got to be a de Kooning.”
“Erased de Kooning Drawing” has gone on to become a significant work in itself, and people have praised it for how it pushes the boundary of the medium, decried it for removing what would have been an important de Kooning piece from the world. I’ve always seen the art of it as being in the act of its creation, which is to say: the act of destroying the original de Kooning piece. The object that’s left, which hangs today at SFMOMA, is really a pointer to something more like a performance. In erasing de Kooning’s drawing, Rauschenberg was destroying something that he valued in order to make something else.
The thing that marvels me most right now is the same apprehension I’m having with my own work: the unknown future. Some art—and Rauschenberg’s is a prime example—changes the world irrecoverably just in the act of creating it. And though “Erased de Kooning Drawing” ended up being a success, there’s no way that Rauschenberg could have known that before he started. Even leaving aside whatever the financial outcome of the piece may have been, or whether it was eventually accepted into the canon of “great art,” it would have been possible for Rauschenberg to know before he started scraping away at the paper that he would be satisfied with the result when he finished. And if he hadn’t produced something that at least he felt was worthwhile, then the act of destruction would have been meaningless. It would, in fact, have taken something valuable out of the world and given nothing back.
To be able to take that leap, to be assured enough of the validity of your ideas to be able to do something like that: is that confidence? Arrogance? How does a person come by it? Was it something cultivated, something nurtured, or is it something you have to be born with? Is this something I could find for myself? And should I? Am I prepared to deal with the consequences if I should fail?
Of course, I find myself rushing to point out that I have no thoughts to destroy something like a de Kooning—what I stand to lose is merely personal. Though, at that, if the damage would be limited to my own emotional state, this doesn’t make it so terribly less daunting to me.
Too, I know that I have taken risks before. So much of my work is about family, about my relationship to the people in my life, and by taking private moments and making them public, I am inevitably and irrevocably altering the moment itself, our memories of the moment, and my relationship with the people in the images. I have always known this, and yet the necessity of showing my story has trumped my responsibility to the other people who populate that story.
I know I’m being cagey here. I’m not ready to go public with this new idea yet. Maybe something will come of it, or maybe I will decide that it’s not worth the risk. I may even decide against it for other reasons—I never have difficulty coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t do something. Still, I can’t help thinking about Rauschenberg. Is the making of art inherently arrogant and narcissistic? Or is this question merely my own anxiety rearing its head again?
I wish I had some answers for you. I’ll be thinking about it. Good luck, everybody. I hope the coming week is fruitful for you.
I can’t remember exactly how long ago the first funeral I attended was. I was nine years old, maybe ten, and one of the counselors from my daycare center had committed suicide. He was everything I had wanted to be back then: smart and funny, with an immensely inventive creative mind. I remember the way his Adam’s apple bobbed and his voice cracked when he spoke—he was only sixteen—and the way his hair curled where it was long in the back. His father’s voice broke, too, when he gave the eulogy. I remember being sad and terribly confused.
The most recent funeral I attended was this past March. He was a friend, and the husband of my office’s admin. He was one of the first people to compliment my photography. He had a sudden heart attack, and passed away after spending a few weeks in a coma. It was chilly and gray on the morning we gathered at the Miramar National Cemetary, but though it rained before and almost immediately afterwards, during the actual service it was dry. Even though I was expecting it, the crack of the rifle salute made me jump.
I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life, which is just to say that, whether friends or family, I’ve lost a lot of people. And I’ve grieved.
That I’m thinking about grief today makes sense, because for the last several hours I’ve been watching what seems like the whole world grieving over Prince’s death. It would have surprised a younger me that I am grieving as well.
I remember exactly where I was when I found out that Kurt Cobain had died. It was April of 1994, and I was on a week-long school camping trip. We were on our way from one campsite in Anza-Borrego to another in Joshua Tree and the bus had stopped at a supermarket in Twentynine Palms so that we could all go to the bathroom and pick up some more supplies. All of the newspapers in the vending machines outside had Cobain’s face on the front page. I remember being unfazed, because that was before—just before—music really started to matter to me. I looked over and saw a girl named Britta bent over with her arms wrapped around her stomach, sobbing uncontrollably. I didn’t say anything, but I remember being surprised and confused. “Why are you so upset?” I thought. “It’s not like you knew him.”
And my fourteen-year-old self would be equally surprised—no, more so—that I spent a good chunk of this morning quietly sniffling at my desk and hoping that my cubemates didn’t notice. I didn’t know Prince. I’d never even been in the same room as him. And though I have enjoyed his music for a long time, it wasn’t the foundational music of my life; I didn’t even really listen to it all that often. Nevertheless, I am grieving his loss.
The way I feel right now is not the same as the way I felt when I watched my mother and her sisters open the urn and empty their father’s ashes into San Francisco Bay. It’s not the same as the way I felt when I found out that a friend had jumped off the Bixby Bridge. But these emotions are no less real for being different.
I’ve seen a lot of “Man, fuck 2016” on the Internet today, as for the past several months. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, and now Prince. And more besides. At each passing I’ve seen an outpouring of love, of sadness, of memories—though perhaps none so much as with Bowie and Prince. What I understand now in ways that I didn’t when I was a high-school freshman is that whether or not you know an artist personally, they may still be a part of your life. If that connection is different from what you have with a close friend or loved one, it is nonetheless still meaningful and profound, and the loss of that presence is truly a loss.
I have seen so many people today talk about how Prince’s music, his style, his life, made them feel accepted, helped them find a sense of self. Back in January people said the same of David Bowie. I can’t honestly say the same thing, but, even so, there was this sense of security, of continuity, to knowing that they were out there, doing their own thing and doing it so perfectly, so singularly. If I didn’t think of them every day, the days that I did think of them did make me think about accepting myself and accepting my work, about letting myself be OK with the idea that I’m different from other people. And now that they are gone, the world does seem a little less bright.
We are all in some way or another looking for connection. And that feeling, that recognition and acceptance can come in a lot of different ways from a lot of different places. I find it in a certain look in my wife’s eyes, in the laughter of my children, in the memory of my grandfather’s slow, deep drawl. I find it, too, in the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice cracks in “Dear Theodosia,” and in the tenderness of Judith Fox’s photographs in I Still Do, and in Jude’s brokenness in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. And today I’m finding it in the unshakeable confidence of Prince’s guitar, a confidence I have never felt but which he makes me think some day I could.
If you’re feeling a little lost today, if you’re feeling sad: it’s OK. It’s OK to feel that way. I feel it too. We can feel it together.