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.
Am I Actually Defending Thinkpieces? I Guess I Am.
Twitter brought me a Jezebel article this afternoon called “Damn, You’re Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That’s So Freakin Brave and Cool”, by Jia Tolentino. The gist of it is that reading more diversely is good, even necessary, but that writing thinkpieces about doing so is just another way of othering underrepresented writers and making diversity about yourself. It’s an interesting perspective, and based on who I saw retweeting the link it’s certainly one that seems to resonate with a lot of minority writers. Still, it doesn’t really sit right with me.
Now, I imagine that the easiest, quickest negative response would be something along the lines of “Can’t win for trying.” And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t briefly go there myself, especially given the goals I recently set myself. The thing is, though, in her larger point about majority engagement with capital-D diversity, I agree with Tolentino. “If only it were possible to do something good and rewarding without publicly prioritizing what effect that act has on you,” she says. Moreover, like so often seems to happen with corporate diversity initiatives, there’s a real danger of people assuming that simply having some sort of diversity policy is the same as solving the actual problem. It reduces normalizing diversity in literature to something like a fad—here today, forgotten tomorrow.
Still, as much as I agree with Tolentino on one level, I’m much more ambivalent on another. The problem for me, I think, is summed up in the last few lines of the piece:
If you were a queer writer, or a woman of color writer, would you want someone to read you because they thought they were doing something dutiful about power structures? Or because they gravitated to you, not out of any sense that you would teach them something about diversity that they could then write about in a year-end essay—but that they just read you because you were good?
How similar does that sound to some of the arguments against affirmative action, ones I especially tend to hear from more privileged minority groups? “I don’t want to feel like I got a job just because someone was trying to fill a quota.” But just as with the affirmative action, it presents a bit of a false dilemma. The choice here isn’t necessarily between being read because of your talent and being read because of your gender or color or sexuality. In the real world, the choice can often be between being read because of a diversity mission and not being read at all.
In a perfect world, women writers, writers of color, queer writers would rise to the top and gain a following on the strength of their writing in much the same way that we imagine straight white men do. But we are just not at that point yet. If diverse writers are seeing any uptick in readership and stature in the industry, if there is any push right now toward a more inclusive mainstream, it’s only because the need to actively seek out diverse books is being called out so loudly, and that that call is being repeated widely enough to gain momentum.
Of course it would be great for underrepresented writers and artists to be sought out solely on the basis of their talent. But at this point, without an active effort to bring those writers more attention (and therefore more sales, the only signal with any meaning to the publishers and retailers who determine what actually gets onto shelves) then it’s difficult to imagine the status quo ever changing.
Authenticity, Fiction, Truth, Lies, and Jenny Lewis
I’ve been a little obsessed with Jenny Lewis lately.
I should back up a bit. A while ago I was out for one of my morning runs, listening to one of the one of the “workout” stations on Spotify. Most of the songs that came on were fairly terrible, but the rhythms were all propulsive enough to keep me chugging along. Some awful pop nonsense faded out, leaving nothing but the sound of my footfalls and labored breathing for a moment. Then a few chiming guitar notes rang out of the silence, a quick tempo drum beat kicked in, and there was Jenny Lewis singing about how she’s bad news.
I don’t know if it’s a great song. But there’s something about the way she sings it that makes me believe. “C’mere!” she shouts to her lover, her voice forceful but wild, maybe desperate. The guitar growls in answer and the drums stutter in syncopation like someone tripping over their own feet. I’m drawn in, and I can’t help but wonder: did you do this? Did this happen?
A few months after that morning run, a Facebook friend recommended her solo album, The Voyager. “I can’t stop listening to it,” my friend said. I promptly added the album to my “To Investigate” playlist and forgot about it until last month, and now I can’t stop listening to it either. Throughout the ten songs, Lewis seems to be struggling with regret and disillusionment, the pain of seeing what your life is as you head into middle age, and how it’s different from what you might have thought.
There’s only one difference between you and me
When I look at myself, all I can see:
I’m just another lady without a baby.
I used to think you could save me,
I’ve been wandering lately
Heard she’s having your baby,
And everything’s so amazing
How could I resist her,
I had longed for a big sister
And I wanted to kiss her,
But I hadn’t done that
And, again, I want to know: When you wrote this, were you remembering or imagining? Are you singing in your voice, or someone else’s?
But why? Why do I care? Do the emotions mean more if they are drawn from her own life? And, if so, how does that work?
Almost all of my own work—and certainly the work that has resonated the most with viewers—is about myself. I try to reach for something other people can relate to, but I do this by showing things that are particular to me. And, thinking over my favorite work from other photographers, much of it is drawn from highly personal experiences. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Andi Schreiber’s Pretty, Please. Duane Michals’s The House I Once Called Home. Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota.
And yet, as much as I seem to value “honesty” and “authenticity” in music and photography, the same isn’t true for, say, books or movies. Of course there are autobiographical examples of each that I love, but I don’t love them more than my favorite works of fiction. Michael Ende never literally visited Fantastica, and yet that doesn’t diminish my feeling of wonder when I read The Neverending Story. Rick Blaine never had a club in Morocco, but the end of Casablanca still puts a lump in my throat. In fact, one of the things I have always said I most admire about novelists is their ability to bring things into being that never existed before, through the sheer force of their imaginations. If they can get me to feel something, that’s real, whether or not the events of their stories actually happened.
Why doesn’t this hold for songs or pictures, then? Mind you, there are fictions in lyrics and images that I enjoy, but the ones that stick with me the most, that I keep coming back to over and over, all of them come from life. Photographs need not be straight or documentary, and lyrics need not be literal, but the driving impulses behind my favorites of each are nearly always emotions and experiences that the artist really lived.
Is it a question of immediacy? A movie is populated with people you know are actors, and words on a page need you to interpret them, to picture them in your head. But when a singer says “I,” it’s hard to hear a persona in that, at least the first few times you hear it. And when you look at a photograph, it’s hard to get past the notion that what’s in the image was really in front of the camera, that the photographer was really there in the room. In either case, there’s room for fiction and lies, and interesting work can and has been made that plays on the audience’s ingenuousness, their expectation of honesty. But then the experience becomes intellectual instead of visceral. There’s value in that, too, but it’s never what I return to more than once or twice.
So then, where does that leave me with Jenny Lewis and her songs? I don’t know if she made them up or not. If I were to find out one way or another, would I care about them more or less? I’m not sure. Authenticity and honesty in art certainly don’t require literal truth. I’m reminded of a bit of advice that photographer James Luckett gave his students about writing an artist statement:
You have no duty to the facts. Your loyalty is to the honesty of your ideas, emotions, dreams, desires and needs; what Werner Herzog calls the ecstatic truth. That is your goal.
If what you’ve felt is real and you’ve put that into your work, then the work is honest, whether or not it depicts actual events. I like that idea, and I certainly can’t argue against it as advice for an artist. As part of the audience, though, I still haven’t made up my mind. But I suppose if the beat is propulsive enough, I’ll keep running.
Thoughts On (My) Photography
"A photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness."
That's a quotation from photographer Jeffrey Ladd which has been making the rounds in photoland, due in part to the fact that Jörg Colberg highlighted it in a blog post a few weeks ago. It's also something that a reviewer repeated to me (somewhat exasperatedly) during my session with him at the Medium Festival of Photography this past weekend.
I met with twelve people during the portfolio reviews, ranging from museum curators to creative agents to bloggers to gallery owners. I also got the chance to show my photographs to a few dozen others via the open portfolio walk and the Open Show presentations (the latter of which my friend Jonas was kind enough to invite me to take part in). The responses I got ranged from tepid to breathless. Some people found my pictures cute; others found them poignant. One reviewer complimented me on the quietness of the images; another said I needed to give him a reason to care. Several told me that I needed to make the work more universal, while others talked about how relatable the emotions and experiences were that I was trying to convey. One told me that I should study more; another said that I don't need to keep aspiring to the level of the photographers I admire, because I'm already there.
I admit, that last one was (and is) a bit difficult for me to swallow. I don't think of myself as a "real" artist, nor do I think of my work as anything special. Getting back to the quotation I led with, it's always been difficult for me to judge whether or not the pictures I make (or the things I write, or anything I do or think) are obvious, because everything I do is obvious to me. In general, I'm always surprised when anyone wants to talk to me or cares what I say or do. I almost never feel like I belong, or that I or the things I do will be important to anyone besides me.
(I can feel my in-laws rushing to say something nice about me here. I appreciate the sentiment, but I just want to make it clear that I'm not fishing for compliments. How I feel about myself and my work is almost entirely a product of my own insecurities, and is not at all rational. As proof: I crave validation, but receiving it makes me profoundly uncomfortable.)
During the second half of the festival I got to see some amazing lectures from a diverse group of photographers, all of them working in profoundly different ways toward different goals and exploring different themes and subjects. Chris Engman and Soo Kim are doing utterly brilliant work exploring the very nature of photography. Matt Black, Virginia Beahan, and Jess T. Dugan are engaging with important social and political issues in deeply humanist ways. And on the one hand I was genuinely excited to see their work, both as an audience member and in taking away new perspectives as an aspiring artist. But, me being me, it's hard not to look at what they do and be overwhelmed; by comparison, my own photographs and the themes I'm dealing with feel small and obvious and trifling. These are people who are dealing with complex questions about art and the medium of photography, or exploring critical real-world issues like gender, sexuality, the representation of marginalized communities, environmental sustainability, water use, poverty, economic inequality, and international migration. The only things I'm looking at are my relatively comfortable life and the inside of my own mind.
Not everyone who saw my photographs connected with what they saw, but some did, and did so very strongly. I tend to concentrate more on my failures than my successes, and so the fact that some people find my pictures boring or perhaps even self-indulgent makes me question what I'm doing. But the truth is that I'm aiming at a very specific set of emotions and experiences with my photographs, and even if those emotions and experiences might be recognizable, they're not ones that are going to matter to everybody. And that's OK, because I'm not really talking to those people. Moreover, I don't have to be talking to them. I always recognize the legitimacy of specificity in other people's work; I should be willing to do the same with mine.
When people ask me about my motivations in creating my work—as many people did over the course of the four-day festival—I always say that the artists who have most moved me are the ones in whose work I have seen something of myself. Something that I can relate to, that lets me know that someone else is going through the same things I'm going through, and thinking about the same things that I'm thinking about. That those artists, through their work, make me feel a connection to something bigger than myself, and help me feel a little less alone, a little less afraid. I say that this is what I want to do with my own photographs and writing. I think it's time to really live up to that statement, to own it. And that means accepting that I have a right to my own voice, and to believe in what I'm saying.
I still have a lot to learn—I always will—and it will always be important to me to maintain a sense of humility. I don't think I will ever stop being nervous or self-conscious about my work. But I'm coming around to the idea that this stuff of mine has its place in the world, and I'm cautiously optimistic about the future.
The other day I had an utterly fascinating—to me, anyway—conversation with one of my co-workers. A group of us were talking about our childhood music lessons, and how basically all of us quit relatively quickly. I mentioned how I really wish I'd stuck with it, and that if I had more time I'd love to take piano lessons. I found it interesting that I was the only one who had those regrets to any degree, but I was particularly struck by one guy's attitude. "Who cares?" he said. "I mean, whatever—music, art, who really gives a shit? All that stuff just seems like a way to kill time." Later in the same conversation he said he'd like to learn a new language but it turned out that it was mainly due to how that could expand his career possibilities. Indeed, everything that he expressed interest in had to do with new ways to make money or otherwise materially improve his lifestyle, and being presented with a viewpoint so totally different from mine was, if nothing else, something that made me pause. Intellectually, I've known that there are people out there who think like this guy, but most of the people I know personally are like me in that they take it for granted that at least some aspects of culture and the arts have value—it's a little jarring to see the opposite opinion up close.
Now, at this point it would be easy for me to go on a tirade about how awful it is that people think art is a waste of time, or how our societal values or educational system are out of whack, or bemoan the direction in which we're headed as a civilization. But I think that it would be a mistake to draw too large a conclusion from one oddball co-worker, aside from which, I'm sure that people like this have always existed.
And, you know, I can't even really fault this guy too much for valuing things he can get paid for. After all, he enjoys what he does for a living, and thinks that it's important. I believe in hard work and being part of a team, and so I give my best effort to be good at what I do and to get the job done, but when you come right down to it, the only thing I get out of my career is money. So, really, who's the more mercenary between the two of us?
No, the thing that I keep coming back to as I think about this conversation is that I can't really disagree fundamentally that it's all just a way to kill time.
Don't get me wrong, I love art. I love creating it and I love being part of the audience. There aren't many things I value more highly or would rather spend my life doing. But when you come down to it, isn't everything we do just a way of passing the time, distracting ourselves from the fact that we're going to die some day? Perhaps we like to think we are creating a legacy, or doing some great work, but consider Shelley's Ozymandias: "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" the king proclaimed, intending his statue to last forever. And yet, "Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away."
We talk about art in terms of expression and communication, of evoked emotions and shared experience. But what is any of that if not a way of making the time we have here a little more bearable? And, in the end, isn't that really the value of things like art and culture and entertainment? We have only a short time in the world, and for so many of us that time is full of injustice and hardship, loneliness, sadness, toil, or, if nothing else, at least inanity. If by making something and putting it out there for people to see, we can help someone feel a little less alone, make their time seem a little more fulfilling or even just fun, it's hard to for me to see what else could be a better use of your time.
Art, the Art World, and On Taking Pictures
I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one of my favorites is On Taking Pictures. For those of you who don't follow it, On Taking Pictures is a weekly podcast in which hosts Bill Wadman and Jeffery Saddoris—to use their own words—discuss the art, the science, and sometimes the philosophy of making images. They cover photo-related news, there's the occasional bit of gear talk, but what I really love about this podcast is the conversational tone. Listening to these guys talk about photography reminds me of the conversations I used to have back in college with Juliette's theater friends, an experience I miss.
One of the recent episodes included an exchange that got me to thinking a lot about my own struggles with making art, which I've excerpted below. To give a little background, Bill had recently been to an exhibition of photographs by Zoe Leonard, at which he found himself frustrated by what he perceived to be a lack of quality or substance to the photographs, as well as by what he considered to be a very pretentious artist's statement. (A somewhat frequent refrain on the show is Bill's dislike of what he terms "art-school pretense.")
BW: To your average person, this is crap! But to somebody this isn't crap, and I'm sure her pictures are very well regarded, I'm sure Zoe Leonard makes a good amount of money taking the pictures she takes. And more power to you. I don't get it. Now, somebody could say, well you know what? Maybe your work is far too pedestrian and too derivative and too boring and too commercial in a "lower C" sense.
JS: But you're also not waxing poetic about the significance of that.
BW: Exactly. I'm not writing labels that are 250 words long about how my photographs are objects of objects and the objectification…
JS: Yeah. "I'm creating a new movement, pedantic objectivism."
BW: Exactly. You just spent everyone's artistic pretense.
The conversation spoke to some of the frustrations I've had with the art world, both as a member of the audience and as someone who's trying to do something with my own work, and I couldn't help but want to respond. So I ended up writing a somewhat embarrassingly lengthy and rambling email to Bill and Jeffery, which they were very gracious about. But once I had gotten the whole thing written out, I realized that I wanted to broaden the conversation and include the people in my own life. So, with Bill and Jefferey's blessing, I've taken what I wrote to them and adapted it for this blog. I hope you'll bear with me while I meander.
Now, I think it's useful here to distinguish between "art" and "the art world," the latter being a community of gallerists, curators, and critics, and to some extent the artists who are supported by that community—largely the kind of MFA-holding elites that get Bill so hot under the collar. From both my own observations and from what I've read, contemporary art is kind of all over the place, encompassing a huge range of styles and themes and techniques, but the art world has more or less decided on a particular sort of conceptual and intellectual approach to creating and understanding art that it will embrace, and it rejects everything else.
The art world tends to reject beauty and sentimentality—in fact, art that engages directly with most emotions seems to be something that the art world has difficulty with. Art that deals with or springs from sociopolitical concepts tends to do well, especially if it's shocking or ugly. Especially in photography, work that is exalted tends to be project-based and conceptually driven, rather than "grown" in a more organic way.
All of this has been tough for me, since the focus of my own photography is finding and engaging with the narratives of my own family life and the places I live and have lived. I know what it is that I'm trying to do with my work and although I know I haven't gotten to where I want to go just yet, I think I'm good at what I do, photographically speaking. The stuff I show at portfolio reviews and local crit groups tends to get good reactions, but when it comes to submissions I deal with a lot of rejection. I've had gallerists tell me that my stuff is good but that they probably couldn't sell it. I've had art competitions and photo magazines reject my work with comments that the pictures are well done but aren't really "fine art."
So on the one hand, I often find myself shaking my head at what does get embraced by the art world. I often find myself being able to appreciate contemporary art on an intellectual level—saying to myself, "OK, I see what you were trying to do here"—but a lot of it utterly fails to move me. I think I feel some of the same frustrations that Bill does, in that way.
But when I step back and think about it, I can't really see why intellectualism is necessarily an invalid way of approaching art. It frustrates me that there doesn't seem to be room for other kinds of work in the art world, but, really, what's wrong with this kind of conceptually driven art?
Back in April, a writer acquaintance of mine—Daniel Abraham—posted the following quotation to his blog with the instructions to discuss it: "Inaccessibility in a work of art is either a failure of craft or a statement of contempt." The comment thread produced some interesting conversation, I thought. My response was that that presented a false dichotomy—while inaccessibility could be a mark of failure or contempt, it could also be due to the fact that not everyone is equipped to hear what you are trying to say. From the standpoint of literature, the point of a book is the experience one gets from reading it, and some experiences that are worth having cannot be had if the book is easy to understand. The act of working to understand the book is in itself an integral part of the experience. That doesn't mean that this is the only valuable kind of experience you can or should get from a book, but there's room for lots of different kinds of books and lots of different kinds of experiences, and accessibility is not a virtue unto itself, only a means to an end.
And, of course, the reverse is also true: difficulty and opacity are also not virtues unto themselves, and just because a book is an easy read doesn't mean that it can't be a profoundly valuable experience. And it's also certainly true that some work is simply pretentious or contemptuous and has no substance, and can't provide a worthwhile experience no matter how hard you work at it.
What this says to me is that art need not be universal. That some experiences—valid, even important experiences—are simply not going to be accessible to every potential audience member. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Or rather, if it's bad, it's bad in a way that's tragic for the artist rather than condemnatory of him. But just because some people—or even most people—won't get it, doesn't mean that a work of art is bad or shouldn't have been made, or that the approach used in creating it is invalid, or that the people who do get it are wrong for celebrating it.
Bringing this back to contemporary photography, I think that the problem with the art world is not that "art-school pretense" is a bad thing, or that 250-word artist statements are ruining art. I think it must be the case that some contemporary art is a load of bullshit, but I think it must also be the case that some of it is merely designed to elicit reactions that I either miss or that I don't value, and that has to be OK. The problem isn't with conceptual roots or an intellect-only approach or "pedantic objectivism," or any of those things in and of themselves, but rather the problem is that so many other valid approaches to art are shunned.
What I haven't really settled on for myself is whether the kind of egalitarian, inclusive approach to understanding art that I seem to be in favor of has any limits, and, if so, what those limits are. Am I really saying that anything goes when it comes to art? I don't know, maybe. I don't like the idea of art that's mean or intentionally condescending. I have a lot of trouble with "appropriation art." And I haven't really settled for myself whether art has to be about something, whether it has to be trying to say something. I don't really like the idea of saying that it does, but whenever I run into an artist who claims he's not trying to say anything—I find this happens most often with painters, for some reason—my first reaction is always to wonder why he's bothering to make anything, then.
And, of course, almost all of the art that has really spoken to me, especially recently, has all been about something. Judith Fox's book about her husband's Alzheimer's—which is about Alzheimer's, of course, but is really about aging and loss and enduring love. Elizabeth Fleming, whose take on parenthood has been a big inspiration for me, and whose recent work about family and place and loss I really enjoyed. Deborah Parkin, who makes pictures about memory and childhood and depression. Even Alec Soth, who I've always seen as making work about manhood and loneliness and, in some ways, immaturity.
As always, I'm interested to know what other people think about all of this. Does art have to be about something? I was particularly interested in Bill and Jefferey's thoughts because they both enjoy portraiture a lot—Bill is, in fact, a professional portrait and editorial photographer—and that's a genre I've always had trouble connecting with. I tend to feel about portraiture the same way I feel about ballet—I appreciate the technique, but it rarely moves me. When it does really work for me it tends to be portraiture that's more project-based and conceptual, in which case what it's "about" is more obvious.
The OTP guys were kind enough to respond on the show, so if you're interested you can have a listen. There aren't clean answers to these questions, but in spite of that—or perhaps because of it—it's important, I think, to ask them and think about them. If you have any thoughts on any of it, I'd love to hear them.
Beeswax. It makes a great lip balm. It's also something you should mind--but only your own.
You have probably seen this week's "Are You Mom Enough?" cover of Time. At least, judging from my Facebook feed and the blog buzz about it you have. I have no doubt that the photographer, Martin Schoeller, and Time's cover editors were fully aware of how riled up that cover would get people. It is, after all, exactly the kind of thing about which people these days feel a need to opine. You know what, though? This is not something that falls into the category of "your beeswax."
"But! But!" I can hear the objection coming already. "Don't you think she's screwing up her kid by keeping him on the breast so long? My God, don't you think it's weird?"
Yes, of course I think it's weird. You know what else I think is weird? Something you do in your family. Yes, you--all of you. And of course I think she's screwing up her kid, not because she's extending breastfeeding or following attachment practices but because she's a parent. You are screwing up your kids too. So am I.
Look, every single one of us is going to get it wrong with our kids. The best we can hope to do is to minimize the damage we cause and give our kids the means to cope with the rest.
And aren't there enough real problems in the world without having to find new things to get upset about? On the scale of things for me to care about, this is somewhere between how other people make their hot dogs and whether or not they put sweaters on their pets. Are they doing something I wouldn't do? Sure. Does it affect me? No, not really.
So, sure, maybe I think it's weird if some family wants to breastfeed their kids until they're twelve. But odds are, their kids are going to be fine, and parenting is hard enough on a good day; the last thing most of us need is some nosy blowhard butting into our lives to tell us what we're doing wrong.
It does cut both ways, of course. That other family over there? The one that bottle fed from day one and Ferberized their kids? Those kids are going to be fine, too. Maybe that's not how you would raise your own children, but it's none of your business.
None of us are perfect. We're all doing the best we can. Let's all just take a deep breath and get back to minding our own beeswax.
My Latest at Life As A Human: The Popculturist Hears WTF
There’s something about funny people that has always been fascinating to me. A truly funny person has that combination of intelligence, insight, and charisma that is immediately recognizable and impossible to ignore. I think, too, part of the allure is the recognition of a skill or talent that I don’t have, myself, but that I respect and admire in others.