Sunday, July 21, 2024

On Magic

I've been painting a lot.

I'm going to borrow an idea from Flusser, and then probably make a terrible mess of it. The idea is magic, and I'm borrowing it from his essay on photography. The underlying idea he's talking about is of a culture, usually an ancient one, that treats time as cyclic. Everything repeats. The sun rises and sets. Winter is followed by spring. The animals migrate, and so on. Flusser is interested in how such a culture transitions to a linear one, one of endless progress, where time is viewed as a straight line. He identifies writing as a technology that underlies this change, but that probably doesn't matter here.

You can name the linear time approach as Modernism, or Manifest Destiny, and probably a 1000 other names. Currently we have a lot of idiots in the tech industry describing the same idea as accelerationism.

In the world of cyclic time we have a lot of what I am going to call ritual magic in which some repetitive and usually tedious activity is done for probably unreasonably long, producing, sometimes, a result. A rain dance is ritual magic. You dance for days, and sometimes rain happens. Agriculture is also ritual magic. You dig a furrow with your stick. Then you dig another one. And another one. You plant a seed, you plant a seed, you plant a seed. Some months later, sometimes, food happens.

Washing dishes, sweeping the floor, doing laundry, painting a picture. These are all ritual magic. You manifest clean dishes, clean floors, clean clothes, or a picture, through a series of boring repetitive steps that go on far too long.

Modernism, the human urge to progress, constantly seeks to press the boring steps of ritual magic into a machine. We seek to rid ourselves of the tedious, the repetitive. The "work" of a human should only be the novel parts of the task, the decisions which differ every time through. If you repeat a step, you should automate that step.

We've been doing this forever. Prayer wheels, which specifically automate the tedious work of prayer, have been around for almost 2000 years. Agriculture has been automated more and more, since its inception (anyone who has done agriculture can appreciate this trend, farming is terrible.) Picture making has been automated with the camera, and now with generative AI.

Rather than manifesting a picture by tediously applying pigment to a surface one daub at a time, the camera largely reduces the process to one of making a small number of decisions. Mostly, you're making the choices that are specific to the picture at hand. Generative AI eliminates virtually all of the remaining repetitive tasks (setting up lights, setting up the tripod, checking batteries, blah blah blah) and reduces picture making almost completely to "what is specific to this task, what is novel."

Modernism is built around what is knowable. If you can know how a task manifests its result, you can build a machine to do the task (in principle.) You can automate picture making, farming, dishwashing. You cannot automate a rain dance, because you don't know how it works. You literally do not know the "mechanism" and so cannot "mechanize" it. In a meaningful way, there is no mechanism to know, but see below. Nevertheless, at some level, humans don't really distinguish between rain dances and agriculture. You do the thing over and over and over, and sometimes a result occurs.

It's "ritual magic."

The modernist version, in which the repetitive tasks are shoved into a machine, let's call that "technical magic."

A camera is technical magic, a painting is ritual magic. More or less. There's probably no strict line between technical and ritual magic, but there's definitely two big lumps at the ends of the spectrum.

Once you get your arms around this framing, you see it absolutely everywhere. Walking versus driving. Cooking versus ordering out. Religion versus secularism. It's all the same thing.

The observation I'm working my way around to is that people like ritual magic. We like the results of it, and we like doing it. It tickles something inside us.

Receiving a hand-written letter hits differently from a typed letter hits differently from an email. A home cooked lasagne is different from a restaurant lasagne, and is meaningfully "better" even if the latter is objectively better. If we have to do a lot of ritual magic, it's less fun. Ritual is boring and difficult.

Modernism struggles to insert itself here. Modern affluent people often look for ritual in modernist ways. They want to find themselves by traveling to South America and taking drugs in a clean and well ordered retreat. Nobody wants to just wash the goddamned dishes.

I think it's safe to say that the results of ritual magic are generally appreciated. You might not like my painting, but you appreciate the work of making it. What people generally try to dodge or dress up is the work of ritual magic. We want to use technical magic to produce the result of ritual. At this exact moment, we have a ton of people who are trying to use generative AI to become artists, to make art. It's not so much that the pictures suck, although they do, it's that there is an inherent conflict between ritual and technology. You cannot use technical magic to produce ritual results. You have to do the work.

If you serve someone takeout as if you cooked it yourself, you might get away with it but you'll know, and anyways you probably won't get away with it and now you've fucked up a relationship.

Humans have many ways of "knowing" things. The first is more or less rational, we follow chains of causes and effects, modus ponens and all that stuff. Philosophers like to get fancy about this, but roughly speaking we "know" about the world of stuff we can hit, or drown in, or set on fire. At the same time, though, we also like to "know" things through a process of feeling, of "faith" if you will. You can pretend that this is silly, but it's damn near universal. Humans have some sort of built-in affinity for mysticism. Maybe it's just our natural pattern matching mental machinery gone amok (we danced last year, and it rained, let's dance again) or maybe there's something meaningfully "real" that we cannot know by hitting stuff. Those questions are outside the scope of these remarks, and it doesn't matter for our purposes here.

Technical magic is essentially executed by moving from the epistemology of mysticism to the epistemology of rationalaity. If we can identify the parts of the ritual that are, in the terms of the rational way of knowing, are efficacious, then we can insert that ritual into a machine. The rain dance "doesn't work" in those rational terms, if you measure things you find that in the terms of rationality, of cause and effect, of science, rain dances do not produce rain. In mystical terms, in the faith-based way of knowing, rain dances work fine, however. To say "rain dances don't work" is to commit to the modernist epistemology, the way of knowing which leads to linear time, to progress, to science, and also to manifest destinty, colonialism, and so on.

You're welcome to reject mystical epistemologies! I have no particular dog in this hunt. But the day-to-day manifestation of those ways of thinking are rituals, and humans have a potent affinity for ritual. To acknowledge that you love getting a hand written letter more than you love an email is to reject modernism, and to embrace a kind of mysticism. The hand written letter is objectively inferior in every way, it's hard to read, it's slow to create, it's slow to deliver. It has literally no advantages, and yet, we like getting them.

To enjoy a painting is in a sense to reject modernism, and to embrace a mystical approach to the world. Again it is in every way inferior to a photograph, except some vague and contested "sense of artistry" or whatever the hell you want to call it. Whatever it is that you see in a painting as an advantage is essentially rooted in an epistemology that is not modern.

The only practical thing that comes out of all these ruminations that I've been able to find is this: don't think of washing dishes as a chore, but rather an an act of ritual magic which manifests clean dishes.

Beyond that I think it's useful to acknowledge that we, as humans, like these ritual things both as doers and consumers. We like at least the idea of cooking a meal from scratch, and we certainly like eating it. We should also realize what we're about, and not muddle up ritual magic with technical magic. The point is the process. If you cheat at the ritual magic and actually execute it technically, you're doing it wrong by definition.

If what you seek is food, by all means order out. If what you're actually looking for is the warmth of the human condition, buy some onions and whatnot, and cook.

Or, you know, make a painting.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

What it looks like

Anyone who's taken any meaningful number of photos and looked at them has likely experienced the sensation that, while a photo looks like the thing, it doesn't look like the thing. This is the gap between the optical reality of whatever it is, and the so-called percept, the impression the thing makes on your mind. If you take a picture of a wrench or something, a "record shot," it probably works out ok. If you take a picture of a sunset, or a city street, or a child's expression, you're likely to experience the gap between optics and perception. Arguably this is the challenge of quite a bit of "serious" photography.

This phenomenon can turn up, to a degree, at the very moment of pressing the shutter.

I don't know about you, but I have certainly experienced this sort of a thing a lot: a long process of fidgeting to set up a shot, tinkering and moving and thinking and looking, and then at the moment of shutter press instantly realizing "no, that's not it." This is a deeply stupid thing which I hate, and have labored to train myself out of, but it's also quite real. Something about the shutter press itself tends to drop away perception, leaving you somehow more open to the optical reality in that instant.

I am vaguely developing a theory that this might be what Garry Winogrand was on about when he said “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.” This may or may not be the exact quotation, and it's possible he said much the same thing many times, I don't know and it doesn't matter. My point here is that perhaps what he was actually doing was not never getting around to making the all-important contact sheets. Perhaps his work was done at the shutter press. Perhaps all he needed was that moment of pure optical seeing, and that satisfied him.

If you pay attention, you might have noticed that in this sense we live in a society that is filled with Maiers and Winogrands. Millions of people with a phone record photographs of myriad objects and scenes, photographs they may never look at again. I don't know about you, but I have frequently experienced someone scrolling through their photos, 100s or 1000s of them, to show me something they just remembered. "I saw this weird cat" or "there was a guy riding a bike with a hat" or whatever. There are two things here that seem noteworthy: first, that we collectively now record random visual facts that we recall later in conversation, and second that we record 1000s of other visual facts that we will never recall later.

The first strikes me as the visual analog of other social interactions "I heard a joke" or "let me tell you this funny story" or "I had such a frustrating time at the bank today." We, or at least some of us, now integrate purely visual phenomena into this normal flow of human interaction. "I saw a weird dog, let me show you." This constitutes an extension, and modification, of the ways we interact, and that's interesting. McLuhan would probably make something of it. A culture that does this is somehow different from one that does not.

The second one, though, that's Winogrand again. Somehow, people are recording visuals without much expectation of ever looking at them again. They may rationalize it thus, but in reality their phones simply have far too many photos to ever meaningfully be used to salt later conversation. Their actions, the taking of so many photos, point to something else just as the same actions point to something else in Winogrand and in Maier.

I theorize that they're looking at the world in a photographic way. For whatever reason, some people are interested in what the world looks like in photographs, in the sense that they savor that moment of the shutter press, that moment of pure optical seeing. They find value, I submit, in that moment and that way of seeing the world.

As a person who, after a fashion, draws, I am coming to understand that there are more ways to see the world than I imagined.

When you draw things from life, you observe the subject in a completely different and new way. You have to notice the details, the relationships between this bit and that bit, and so on. You notice how large the gap between the bottom of the nose and the top of the lip is, whether the eyes tilt up or down at the outer corner, and so on. A lot of very very small things.

If you learned to draw the way I did (which I think is essentially the modern approach to teaching drawing) you do a lot of exercises and whatnots to "see" optically, to step around the perceptual layer, and to see just as the camera sees. This can, in theory, be the end of it. My technical abilities, and I suspect virtually everyone's technical abilities, simply aren't good enough to make that work. At some point you have to develop a kind of dual vision, combining the perception with the purely optical vision. Only then can you really bring whatever it is to life on the page.

My problem is that I'm simply not accurate enough to take a purely optical approach. There are some savants who can do it this way, but I'm pretty sure they're very rare and that normal working artists work just like I do. That is, they combine a perceptual vision with the optical one, using the percept to make adjustments to the drawing. "No, her face is a little more round" or "it's a bit darker under the bridge" or whatever. In this way, interestingly, the drawing comes out aligned with the percept. The problem of "it's correct, but the thing doesn't look like that" literally does not occur. If the drawing doesn't look like the thing (which happens a lot!) it's a technical problem. You've simply failed to put the right bits in, and leave the other bits out, or you've muddled up an important relationship. It happens!

It goes beyond simply leaving out the inconvenient power lines that are the bane of all landscape photographers. You're leaving out everything that doesn't support the perception, and emphasizing the things that do. The drawing is in some sense (perhaps aspirationally) optically correct, but nevertheless it constitutes a rendering of the perception and not of purely optical vision.

Drawing, and more specifically the teaching of drawing, teaches one to see the world in a more camera-like way, but also forces the intrusion of a lot of details that people like Winogrand may have never noticed. Winogrand saw the pretty girl, and then he saw her through the viewfinder, and then he saw her again at the moment of the shutter press. Winogrand saw the girl in, probably, at least three meaningfully different ways, and still he likely never noticed the gap between nose and lip, and could not tell you about the tilt of her eyes. There are a lot of ways to look at a girl, or at a rock, or a bird, or a sunset.

Drawing is a giant pain in the ass, and you have to bring a pencil everywhere. A phone, though, everyone's got a phone. Everyone can see the world that way, now. Literally anything that's even slightly eye catching can be examined in that "shutter press optical truth" fashion, and as a side effect, the captured frame can be recovered later if you like.

I never really understood the desire to see the world that way. I've never taken photos without the intention of eventually generating a photograph, probably on paper. This is kind of standard photographer philosophy, right? "It's not done until it's printed!" kinds of sneering are commonplace. That you are not a real photographer unless you print is, for all practical purposes, unquestioned dogma. Thus it is that we find Winogrand and Maier such mysteries: "why oh why didn't they print? It is beyond understanding!!!"

It's possible, though, that just as I see the world through the eyes of a (ham-fisted) guy-who-draws, and it's genuinely fun, that Winogrand and Maier and 100 million other other people are finding pleasure in seeing the world through the eyes of someone-who-photographs.

Whatever it is that's going on, what is certain is that the action of photographing occurs many orders of magnitude more often than the "making of a photograph" in the traditional sense. Statistically, the percentage of photos that are made with the intention of printing them, or even sharing them, or even showing them to a single other human, rounds to 0.0. Something is going on here, and the traditional views of photography simply are not relevant to whatever that is.

I don't think I'm really part of that? I still take photos for downstream purposes, never just for the action of doing it, but I am certainly the odd one out here.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

On Choosing

AD Coleman firmly holds the opinion that a photographer, as an artist, must choose their photos. To simply shoot a bunch of pictures is not enough. To him, Vivian Maier essentially does not exist as a photographer. This is a position with which I concur, and which I have argued for at some length over the years. Photography is choosing.

You choose where to stand, where to point the lens, when to press the shutter. You choose frames at the contact sheet. You choose final prints and arrangements. Unless you proceed through to the end, the job is not done.

You can shoot 100,000 frames and choose 12. You can shoot 12 frames and choose 12.

But you must choose.

Colberg has a piece up arguing against projects. You have to subscribe to a thing to read the whole thing, so I don't really know or care where he goes from the part I've linked to. The thrust seems to be that "the project" is a straitjacket in a bunch of ways, some harmful. On the one hand this is obviously true.

On the other hand, you have to choose. In order to choose, you need some sort of rubric, it is the essence of choosing. If a rubric doesn't in some sense constitute a project, I don't even know what any of those words mean.

In the olden days, before say 1990, you'd just choose the bangers. "Chicago, 1968-1978" you dig out the contact sheets from that decade, sort out the ones from Chicago, and circle all the bangers. Pick the best 20 of those in terms of technical details, and you're done. There's your show.

And then we moved on, that got played out and while there are still people trying it on just like that nobody much cares unless it's a Big Name retrospective.

The rubrics for choosing have gotten more complex. We demand some sort of connections, some sort of theme, some sort of meaning in the collective pile of final pictures.

Again, I don't care when you choose. Shooting-to-order is just choosing early. Digging through your midden of contact sheets is choosing later. It doesn't matter.

If Colberg's eventual point is that your project has to be kind of fluid, then I have no argument with him. It's stupid to pin down a hyper-specific rubric too early (although, to be fair, limitations can stimulate creativity.) Let the rubric float a bit, and you'll be a lot happier in the end. Colberg also seems to suggest that photos shouldn't be constrained to a single project, which, again, I agree with. This is just allowing a photo to fit more than one rubric.

On the one hand, homeboy is clearly drawing on his experience teaching idiots in MFA programs, but on the other hand, who the hell cares what corners idiots paint themselves into? An idiot can paint themselves into a corner with any set of tools whatsoever, so the fact that they're crying in a corner might not be evidence that the tools you've given them are bad.

Figuring out a rubric for a body of work isn't easy. Lots and lots and lots of photographers cannot do it at all. The Goldsmiths vanity MA seems to produce a steady stream of people who haven't the foggiest notion, because it is run by a guy who hasn't the foggiest notion. There are loads of people who take pictures for money (where the rubric for choosing is supplied in the form of what we normally call "a brief") who are completely helpless when confronted with doing it for themselves. They take a bunch of pictures on some theme, and throw out the blurry ones. The pile of sharp and in-theme photos grows without limit, but no meaning ever emerges, and it's not clear that the photographer even knows what that might look like or that it would be desirable. They helplessly watch the pile grow until they tire of the theme, and move on to a new theme. Rinse and repeat.

Most people who take photographs never even bother. They hold up their phone and tap the button. They make one choice once, and that's the end of it. They post the photo somewhere, or show it to their friends, or whatever. I do this! I take photos to send to people: "is this your ring?" "are these the right makeup wipes?" "look at what my dumb dog is doing!"

These things are not "art photography" though, they're something else. None of these people is making any kind of statement. There's nothing to say except the immediate content of this photo, right here, right now.

To be honest, I remain completely stymied in my own "practice."

I know (in some sense) that it's not just bullshit, because I see things in which someone chose some pictures and meaning emerged. I see things that I made in which this happened. At the same time, I struggle with the idea that maybe it is all bullshit, that the rubrics are essentially arbitrary, and that the so-called meaning is just pareidolia. My answer, though, has been to stop taking pictures. I am not going to go and shoot on some random theme and hope that something emerges, because I know that ends with a midden of pointless photos.

It's possible I am coming to that point that Cartier-Bresson arrived at. When you draw something you know you've definitely made something. It might be shitty, it might be bad, but god damn if you didn't actually make a thing that has your fingerprints on it.

To abandon the idea of the rubric is to abandon the entire enterprise beyond the "look at what my dumb dog is up to" project. If choosing is bullshit, then photography as an artistic venture is bullshit. I don't see any way to save it.

I dunno man.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Travel Photography


I'm back for at least one post because I had some thoughts. Sometimes that leads to more thoughts, which is really the problem with thoughts, isn't it?

My family and I went on a trip, to London for a week and Paris for a week, and it was pretty great as you'd expect, and so on and so forth. I had some thoughts about the nature of Travel for Travel's sake, and photography, and so here we are. I tried to contact everyone on the flight path to see if there was a chance to visit, but I probably forgot some of you. Sorry.


I distinguish here between Travel for Travel's sake and all the other reasons to go to places. One travels for work, for business, to visit people, and so on. Here I am interested in Vacation Travel, the kind of travelling one does in order purely to be in a different place.

I contend that underlying, or entangled with, this kind of travel is a sort of hope or expectation of personal growth. Vague, indefinable, growth: we hope to return from our trip in some way enlarged, perhaps a better person, or a wiser person, or something. We go to Egypt, and as a requirement of the journey we look at the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and in that looking we expect or hope to find some sort of epiphany, some sort of catalyst, some sort of chemical reaction that changes us into something more than we were. This is, I think, an error. I'm not sure where this idea came from, but I think it's a real idea, and I think it's a wrong idea.

That sort of indefinable en-biggening can in fact occur on a Vacation! We do expand, if we pay attention. But it's not at the Tourist Attractions and it's mostly not at the Large Objects or the Expensive Objects or the Beautiful Objects.

When we go to somewhere far away, or even to somewhere not very far away at all, we have the chance to observe new ways of livings ones life.

In our VRBOs in Europe we had laundry facilities in the apartments, which was very nice. These facilities took the form of tiny combined washer-dryer units. The surprising property of these things, to me, was that it takes literally all day to clean and "dry" clothing, and then you have a heap of fairly damp clothing which you festoon all over the place to finish drying. To describe this as "a bit different from the American way" is to severely understate the situation. If I use the "hurry up" cycles, I can produce a small load of clean and bone-dry clothing in an hour, at home.

The consequence here is that you need to plan differently. You should start laundry in, say, the morning. When you get home, you take the damp clothing out and festoon it about, and at bedtime you fold it and put it away. It's not a big thing when you get the hang of it. It's a tiny difference in the rhythm of life. This is where the epiphanies, in my judgement, occur.

When you go to Paris for a week (or go to visit your relatives one town over, or go to Eritrea to fight with or against the rebels) you experience a life with a texture different from the life you live at home. You will, more or less by necessity, adapt to the new rhythms, the differences subtle and vast between this life and that one. You become larger. You return home with a slightly wider understanding of how one might live one's life.

It seems foolish to assert that the washing machine affected me more than the Eiffel Tower, but I think it genuinely did.

And now onwards to some sort of connection with the photo and with photography.

Susan Sontag famously made some remarks about vacation photos. She describes them, I think, as acquistions, the act of photographing the Sphinx is an effort to acquire the Sphinx. This is pretty silly, but in some sense she was on to something.

I think what we're doing when we photograph the Sphinx is that we're acquiring the experience of looking at the Sphinx. We were hoping for an epiphany, which may or may not have manifested itself. By photographing it, we acquire a photograph, a little portal back to that original experience of seeing the Sphinx. Unconsciously, perhaps, we hope to "return" to this moment, to rediscover, or perhaps to cast about fruitlessly again for, the epiphany we wanted. We hope also to share this moment with friends and family, to either lord our own growth over them, or perhaps to share that experience, that growth, with them.

In all (most? many?) cases, though, I think that there is no growth, no epiphany, the photograph in the end is no different from the postcard (which has a sharper and better lit photograph anyway), and the Sphinx didn't make us much different in the first place. The things that did make us bigger and better are impossible to photograph being nothing more than the textural details of life in this place.

Berger's "Ways of Seeing" opens with a great bit in which he demolishes Walter Benjamin by demonstrating that there is not, there cannot be, any special "aura" associated with an original artwork. Any "aura" you feel is an illusion produced by you, inside yourself. In the same way, the Sphinx has no "aura" and the Eiffel Tower does not have within itself the power to change you. You might, perhaps, choose to be changed in its presense, somehow, but the objects are just sitting there. The textural detail of life, on the other hand, has an almost mechanical action on your mind. You are forced to adapt to the washing machine if you want clean underwear, you are forced to cope with the almost-instant-on hot water heater every time you shower, and if you want to eat, you're going to have to sort through the subtle differences in how to get food here.

Of course I took a bunch of photos, and I drew some pictures, but none of them are connected to that desire to be enlarged, they're just records of stuff we saw. In the end I just sort of sift through them, unsure what to make of it all. It's a process.

I did see this young and beautiful woman in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris. Note the, uh, wear patterns. After a moment's consideration, I elected not to contribute, but I did take the picture.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

I'm Not Dead

Really, I am not dead.

I just can't think of anything to say about photography. Drawing has kind of eaten my brain lately, but I am utterly unqualified to talk about Drawing, really. Maybe some day. I draw a lot. Every day. I am substantially less bad at drawing than I was a year ago, but I'm not good as such, and I certainly have no expertise or theory.

It's always tempting to just pivot to a this-is-my-life blog, but for whatever reason I am loathe to do that. Lots of people do, and that's fine, but I just don't feel it for this blog here and now.

To an extent this is a knock on effect of the workshop/retreat I did with Jonathan Blaustein a year or so ago. I came away from that with a serious plan to do serious work, a sort of "stop screwing around and get down to business" situation, and it turns out that I'm not quite ready to do that. Or I don't have the time. Or the energy. Or something. Maybe I simply haven't got the stuff for anything except screwing around.

Anyway, it was time to fish, or cut bait, and apparently I am doing whichever of those doesn't include doing a lot of photography or writing about photography.

Consider me on indefinite hiatus, I guess. Sometimes saying "I am on hiatus" stirs the pot, so it's 50:50 I'll be back in short order with 20,000 words, each more unhinged than the last, but I make no promises.

I do plan to actually get back to doing photography at some point, to doing that serious project, but it's just a hypothetical for now. Don't take me seriously until I actually deliver some fucking pictures.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Vandalism and Local Art

A couple days ago, I guess, some protestors entered the National Gallery (the British one, not the American one) and had a go at a painting, because that's a thing we're doing now. To be clear, I don't think people ought to do this in general, and I don't think these protests make any sense. It's clearly just a "bit" the kids have settled on.

That said, it raises in my mind the question of who actually cares? There's been an outcry, of course, about our cultural heritage and so on. These valuable artifacts must be preserved, and their destruction is a crime against humanity! I've seen calls for much more vigorous security arrangements, which seems like a terrible idea to me. I don't really want angry, tense, guards on a hair trigger.

What, exactly, is the value that any of these paintings is bringing? I'll accept extremely abstract answers! I'm not here to reduce culture to dollars or to British pounds. Did the Rokeby Venus enlarge anyone's life? Does a Monet? I am, for reference, extremely pleased that these things existed! I am pleased that they exist, and I don't think people should destroy them! At the same time, I am not entirely sure why we should mourn their loss. There is no "mysterious air" here, it's just a picture.

If the painting had been, instead of vandalized, suddenly revealed to be a modern forgery, well, what then? The painting would quietly vanish from the walls, and the consensus would surely be that Culture writ large has been Improved rather than Impoverished. And yet, it would be the same painting. The fact that we believe it to be authentic seems to be an essential feature of whatever actual value it's bringing to us. Berger covers all this in "Ways of Seeing" of course, with his marvelous takedown of da Vinci's "The Virgin of the Rocks," it's not new with me.

Functionally, the Rokeby Venus has been the subject of a few million glazed-over glances, a few hundred art student sketches, and a very small handful of the weeping fans. What its current existence does for Culture is pretty vague.

Also, the mirror looks like a fucking head in a box, not a mirror. Dude, wtf were you thinking?

The history of the thing is pretty interesting! It occupies a notable position in art history! Something something nudes Spanish Inquisition, you can read all about it on wikipedia. The physical artifact on the wall doesn't seem to be particularly relevant to that, though, except as a sort of moral anchor to the story, a reification of the story. It performs the role of a photo illustrating a news item.

Let us compare, though, with an annual event here in Bellingham, the 6x6 show hosted by our local art store.

This is an open show. You can pick up a 6 inch by 6 inch square of one of several materials, for free, from the art store. Cover it with art. Anything. Paint it, carve it, attach sculpture to it, sew it. Return it to the shop, they'll give you a coupon for future purposes as a reward, and they'll hang your work. Zero curation, everything goes up. They have a show for about a month with a grid of 100s of 6x6 artworks on the wall of their gallery. You can buy any piece for $25. Proceeds to a local art non-profit.

The work is everything from 5 year old kids scribbling with crayons to professional working artists painting small landscapes. One piece was made by the artist's pet snails crawling around with pigment.

It is, easily, my favorite Art Thing in the world.

I'm now going to stealthily replace the Rokeby Venus with Monet, because the position of Monet in our culture while similar is more immediately salient. You won't have to think as much.

I put things in the 6x6 show, and so do my kids. I am, this year, the only photographer (I think) in something like 470 pieces. Which is wild! My kids draw/paint stuff. Usually, nobody buys anything we put in, about which more anon.

But what about this small, often poorly made, extremely local, art? It hits quite differently from a Monet. I could write at length about why a Monet is "better" but at the same time some child's crude drawing of a frog has its own intense value. At the bottom, the Monet and the Frog are the same: a piece of decor, with the potential to move us emotionally, to enlarge us as humans. They are the same in that both Claude and the child, let's call her Susie, essentially wanted to show us what something looked like: A Garden, A Frog.

There are endless details of scale, of technique, of scope of imagination, and so on that could be brought to bear to show how the two paintings are different, and one much superior. Mostly, though, the Monet painting is superior because the people we pay to tell us what's superior have said that it is superior.

Looking at a Monet can hit pretty hard! The effect is real! I love Monet, and have travelled to see Monet paintings! At the same time, though, a part of what I experience is the cultural baggage, the stamp of approval from the curatorial staff of various museums, the stamp of approval from critics and historians. The Frog hits differently, it has no baggage.

Nevertheless, it manifests with awful clarity the sincerity of the artist. The Monet and The Frog both reveal the will, shared by Susie and Claude, to show us what something looks like. Looking at Monet, the cloud of cultural baggage tends to obscure this will; looking at Susie's Frog nothing is obscured. There is a reason theorists and critics are obsessed with the ways children draw. There is an authenticity, a clarity of purpose, a purity of method (as it were) that a more thoroughly educated artist, or even art appreciator, loses.

Monet is in a sense sealed in amber and elevated to a pedestal. We cannot but react to the paintings, because we're told to do so. Monet is distant. You literally have to take a trip to see a Monet. For $25 I can have Susie's Frog in my home, over my desk, and look at it every day by raising my chin slightly. Susie's Frog was made here, in my town, by a child who probably lives no more than 2 miles away from me. There is an immediacy here, a nearness. Susie's Frog is a radically different cultural artifact than is a Monet painting, and in many ways it's much more salient.

Looking at a Monet can be a powerful experience, but in the end I leave the gallery and return to my life much as I was before. This kind of High Culture, as defined and managed by the priesthood, feels like a separate track, a kind of entertainment I can step into when I want to, but which doesn't live and breathe with me, with us. It has nothing to do with my daily life, with the daily clockwork of my little town.

Something is lost when an artist matures. The childish authenticity fades as the artist works to become more technically proficient, to make something look real; or perhaps the artist is trying to imbue their work with some sort of abstract meaning. Passing "beyond" the desire to show you what a frog looks like, the mature artist tries to make the frog look "real" or tries to make the frog stand in for something else.

This is, of course, the business of High Art, but damn is it hard. Many, perhaps most, artists spend a long time in the doldrums between childish directness and the actual ability to make the frog mean something. They're not painting a frog, they're painting a painting of a frog but no more than that.

Interestingly, the pieces that sell quickly at the 6x6 show are exactly these pictures. The realistic but ultimately kind of empty paintings of bicycles or boats, the well-made pictures with silly jokes, and so on. I like these things too, but I don't much want to own one. As well, there are certainly a few artists in play who are genuinely injecting meaning and depth into their well made pictures, and those sometimes sell as well. The childish frogs don't really sell, which is in a way a pity. I dare say people want to have something that's obviously well made, rather than something clumsy. Perhaps they're not very interested in the art children make; their loss.

In the end, I love 6x6 more than anything else Arty, because it hits inside my world, rather than outside it. It's Art that lands inside my life, my existence, not outside it in some temple to culture, not on a track that is parallel to my life, but actually on the rails my life runs on.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The War for Culture

I've stumbled over a few items randomly, which just coalesced into something in my head, so, here we go.

Sam Bankman-Fried, currently on trial for operating an enormous kinda-Ponzi scheme in the crypto world (it doesn't seem to have been as coherent and organized as even a proper Ponzi, it seems to have simply been a sort of maelstrom of money that leaked a lot until the money was gone) is having his private conversations closely analyzed. As some point he seems to have written something or other about Shakespeare, arguing that so many humans have been born since Shakespeare that, statistically, there must have been many better writer after Shakespeare.

This illustrates a profound failure to understand how culture arises. Interestingly, while everyone had a good time making fun of Sam, I didn't see anyone offer a coherent explanation of why he was wrong. I plan to correct that here!

Second item: there's a guy, Devon Rodriguez, who's made something of a name for himself drawing and painting People On The Street. He's all over social media, and if you're looking for youtube videos on drawing portraits you're gonna have a hard time avoiding this guy's useless videos. He's a skilled technician, but mainly he's a social media presence.

He has millions of followers, and the backing of at least one NYC real-estate developer, and so he got a little popup show for his paintings. This show was reviewed on artnet by some hapless critic, who pointed out that the paintings were not very good, and went on about social media influence.

Devon's PR machine, noting an opportunity, decided to pull out the "I won't let the haters stop me!" page from the Social Media Influencers Handbook, and has been running that play for a while.

Here again we see the intersection of "Culture" in the form of Art and Criticism of Same with something more populist.

Finally let us recall that Larry Gagosian got himself a pretty girlfriend, painter Anna Weyant, a hair older than 1/3 of his age, and appears to be trying to make her into a Major Painter using his credentials as an art dealer. Weyant appears to be a significantly more interesting painter than Rodriguez, and is also a fine technician, so I don't really have a sense of whether she's "good" or not, in any way that makes much sense to me.

Let's keep these three little examples in mind.

Culture, contrary to common understanding, is not a distillation of the finest products of the finest creative talents, elected by some alchemy that inexorably whittles away the inferior and reliably, eventually, locates the best. It's just not. It's a hell of a lot more venal than that.

Bankman-Fried missed the point about Shakespeare: we have defined him to be great. Yes, the work is technically good, the meter or whatever you want to name is excellent. Shakespeare is great largely because, for him, the standard is how much like Shakespeare are you? Obviously, he is the best at being like Shakespeare. The attentive observer might wonder out loud how much of "Shakespeare was really good at specific important technical things" is actually "these specific technical things are important because Shakespeare was good at them." It's fair to suggest that there's a bit of push and pull going on here.

Larry Gagosian's efforts on behalf of Anna Weyant are specifically interesting, because Larry is absolutely a member of the club of people who get to decide things like "who are the really great painters anyway?" He's not the only member, though!

And finally we get around to Rodriguez. He has essentially no backing from anyone in that club, but he has a lot of social media followers, and he's got some rich people in his corner. Rich people who would probably like to be members of the taste-making club, rich people who probably go to some of the same parties that Larry Gagosian attends.

What interests me here, though, is whether we're seeing something larger.

Why should a small club of goobers like Gagosian be in charge of High Culture? There certainly seem to be days when they're picking shit at random (abstract expressionism? really?) and there's really no doubt that they do a lot of selection based on how hot and/or slutty the artists are. Why shouldn't TikTok select the Important Artists?

The crypto bros made a brave attempt to seize a beachhead in Culture with NFTs. Unfortunately for them they were thoroughly embedded in the crypto world, which turns out to be 100% scams, and also their art was really really terrible shit, not even rising to the level of kitsch. It wasn't even populist, it was just dumb. The try was bold, though, and it looked like it might work for a while! Beeple and his dumb $69 million dollar whateverthefuck looked like a real thing for a minute (before we learned that it too was a scam, oops.)

I don't much like Rodriguez, in part because his work isn't very interesting (it all looks like it's an excellent copy of some extremely bland reference photo, and some people think that's because they are in fact excellent copies of extremely bland reference photos.) I also dislike him, though, because his videos gum up the search for "how the hell do I draw a nose" with what are essentially ads for his work and his classes. I just want a few pointers on how to draw a nose!

My opinion, though, should not really carry any weight. Who gives a shit what I think?

The very idea is insane that these things should be decided a small group of people with degrees in art history, and an even smaller group of wealthy assholes who've eased their way into advising even wealthier assholes about which art to buy. Why should this specific group be in charge of determining what we see when we go into museums and galleries? Especially the museums and galleries funded by our tax dollars! Maybe we should be seeing a lot more kitsch!

On the other hand, there seems to genuinely be value in some small group making insane selections, however venal the reasons, for future generations. Maybe it doesn't matter what gets picked, as long as it's weird enough, as long as it's not populist kitsch. Maybe the job is simply to weed out things that are easy to like and pick some vaguely coherent selection of stuff that's hard to like. Future generations then have something to think about, something to struggle with. I think I'd rather live in a culture where we have abstract expressionism to gape at, than a culture were it's all likable kitsch.

In general I would rather see the collapse of Art As High Culture. I believe in local art. Rodriguez would do well as a Local Artist. He's entertaining, people like his pictures. I think people should totally be able to buy his pictures, sit for portraits, whatever. I don't think we would be well-served by making him into a Great Artist to Stand With Monet, but then, I'm not sure we're well served by the very idea that artists should be elevated to some stratosphere.

But my opinion doesn't matter. This isn't the first time populist art has made an assault on the cathedral, and it won't be the last. It'll be interesting to see how it shakes out, I guess.