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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Azoulay on the Delia/Renty Daguerreotypes

Ariella Azoulay is kind of the darling of the self-styled "photoland" set, because she can be relied upon to take a suitably hard stand against whatever they think needs to be stood against. Also, she writes much much much more cogently and rationally than any of them do, so she's a great addition to the regiment, as it were.

She recently wrote a piece about the daguerreotypes of some specific enslaved people, which photos are held by Harvard, which photos Harvard is being quite dickish about, and which photos are the subject of a legal fight on behalf of one Tamara Lanier who claims with some justification to be descended from at least one of the people in the photos. This is now all lit up on twitter as some of the usuals are doing their usual things.

Having glanced at the twitter arguments, I think I am going to simply ignore them. They don't even rise to the level of coherence, being a mass of self-contradictory silliness.

Azoulay's piece, however, which you can read here: The Captive Photograph is worth our time, in my opinion.

A general theme we are going to encounter is that Azoulay and everyone else is muddling legal and moral arguments up. The legal situation is perfectly clear, the moral one is murky. This is not a show-stopper here, we do see situations in which a moral outrage leads to the construction of new law, that's normal and expected. It would be nice if people would stop muddling them up — and anyways the moment you try to make a legal argument here you're wrong, because the legal situation is crystal clear. The correct path is to make a moral argument, and then argue that the law should be altered to align law with morality.

Anyways, let us proceed.

Azoulay begins with a summary of the case, and introduces the use of the verb "to seize" to describing the taking of a photograph, which is a fascinating rhetorical flourish, and speaks to the strength of her underlying argument in ways we shall see in due course. She moves on to talk about the return of Art looted by Nazis, and the return from museums of looted artifacts to entities in the originating regions. She also talks about crimes against humanity, specifically the Shoah and the colonial project.

There is immediately a difficulty here, because the restitution of objects is, at least in legal terms, largely unrelated to the crimes against humanity which formed the backdrop against which the looting occurred. In legal terms, as far as I can tell, the restitution of objects is simply returning that which was stolen to the court's best guess at who might now have possessed it had it not been stolen. It's a straightforward unwinding of the act of looting.

The backdrop or atrocity surely colors the thing morally, but we're on dangerous ground to propose that you don't have to return shit you stole as long as you were nice about taking it, and I genuinely don't think anyone wants to go there. It is an inevitable consequence of the reasoning that shit looted in the context of a crime against humanity is special, and definitely ought to be returned. It's not impossible for push through here, but one needs to be careful, at least, to avoid the "theft is OK if you're polite" landmine.

At around this point you might notice that Azoulay is not actually making an argument. She is throwing stuff against the wall, to see if something sticks. Unlike many of her peers, though, the material she's tossing can be assembled into an argument without too much effort.

I don't know if the lack of dot-connecting is just a tic, or a sign of respect for the reader, or if Azoulay recognizes that her argument is a bit of a mess and therefore doesn't actually want to try to mortar it all together into the somewhat tilted structure it naturally forms. I suspect a bit from column A and a bit from column B. Be that as it may, I will attempt to construct the argument she is implying:

She wants to argue specifically that the daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia (and some others) are looted objects, taken against the backdrop of a crime against humanity, and that therefore the general structure of, say, the return of looted Art should be rolled out. At this point her use of the verb "to seize" with reference to taking a photograph becomes clear: she wants to treat the photographs as looted (seized) objects, so she's warmed us up a bit with the verb. This kind of rhetorical flourish always suggests to me that the author is unsure of their actual argument. Apart from the quibbles noted above, she has a serious problem in that the daguerreotypes are not looted objects. As things they were never in any meaningful way owned by the subjects, despite the use of the verb.

You can argue that it's not the silver plate itself that was looted, but rather the "image" that was looted, that abstraction which looks like Delia, looks like Renty. This is consistent with contemporary thinking, and sure, I will stipulate that. Those things were definitely "seized" in a meaningful way.

The trouble is that Azoulay doesn't want to argue for the return of the image, which is at this point unambiguously public domain anyways, she wants to argue for return of the physical object. So, she kind of willfully muddles the two up. She repeats several times that the photograph is a social document, that it is not an own-able thing. This is absurd if you take the word "photograph" to mean the physical embodiment, so.. surely she's talking about the abstraction of "image?" Right? But no, she's not.

Azoulay appears to be trying to forcibly drag the free-floating (arguably) non-own-able abstraction of "image" and apply to to the physical object. To claim that somehow the physical manifestation of a photograph is not own-able seems bizarre and counter-productive here, and if taken to the logical conclusion would be, um, disruptive to certain industries to put it mildly. If I glue a photograph to a car, or a house, or a can of beans, does the car, house, or can of beans become non-own-able? Indeed, cans of beans already have photographs on them, can we just take them, because they're not own-able?

Yes, this is a reduction ad absurdum but the point is not that beans should be free, but rather that Azoulay's argument isn't as strong as it might seem. This is, I think, the third element I have located of Azoulay's essay which is subject to an obvious reductio. This isn't math, so these aren't fatal, but this rather makes one go "hmm."

Moving on, she makes some arguments that slavery is a crime against humanity, which, sure, fair, and which appears to support her general theme that restitution is somehow more justified, or urgent, as a result of that.

Somewhere around here the attentive reader might notice that the argument serves rather more strongly a case for the destruction of the photos, as objects that should never have existed and were made as a direct result of evil, conceived in evil on multiple axes. Since, again, this is not Azoulay's desired outcome she has to rescue them.

At around this point things become somewhat weird. Azoulay drags out the idea of "index" in new clothing, and attempts to make an argument that the daguerreotypes are specifically and physically entangled with Delia and Renty, and therefore ought to be treated as something like avatars of those people. They are in some literal or almost literal sense, the people themselves. While they should not have been made, now that they have been made they are imbued with some quality which means that they are now precious, magical, objects.

This gets tossed into the blender with the weird idea that because we didn't, in 1850, have established case law about who owns what regarding a photograph that somehow all photographs are up for grabs. This is manifestly silly. Ownership does not rely on case law. Note, again, the muddling of legal ideas with moral ones.

As an aside, it is maybe worth pointing out that while photographs are not in any meaningful way equivalent to their subjects as objects, they are talismans which conjure the subject. This is not the same thing. With a portrait of you, I can conjure your presence: I can create an experience which is something like you being here. I am not, however, literally bringing you here. Your half of this social interaction does not exist, you are unaffected.

Azoulay then spins out these themes of photographs as non-own-able objects, and these specific photographs as literally family members, to conclude that the photos should be "freed" and returned to Tamara Lanier who will not "own" them but rather tend to them. It's a very appealing set of imagery here, but looked at calmly it feels a lot like the wheels have fallen off this carriage.

Do all physical embodiments of photographs justly belong to their subjects? Should we return all photos to their subjects, or the descendants of same? I can think of several archives that would object. The crime against humanity business appears to be an effort to fence things off a bit, but I'm not sure it works very well.

So, yes, you can kind of stitch the bits and pieces together into an argument, and there's certainly many things brought up that are worth a think. It's not a terrible piece. It is, manifestly, the result of trying to bolt together an argument to produce an outcome, rather than a coherent analysis leading to a result. Azoulay simply wants the photos given to Lanier, everything else is stage dressing. As stage dressing, it's a fair effort, though.

It's not a great piece, either. It's a kitchen sink of stuff the author hopes you might find persuasive, and it muddles up (seemingly on purpose) a bunch of things.

I think the legal arguments should simply be discarded. That dog don't hunt. Move on.

I am not at all sure that the restitution of looted objects is salient either, largely because these situations are largely entangled with legal issues and, well, see above.

I don't think the crimes against humanity angle is well used here, but I think it is necessarily the basis of a moral argument.

The proper argument, I think, is that humanity has long held the social idea that apology and restitution is an appropriate response to wrongdoing. Insofar as the return of looted Art is related to the Shoah, it is an apology and an attempt to make right a wrong. The legal case is not built on that, as near as I can tell, but the moral case is.

The best available proxy for the offender makes apology and a gift or a return to the best available proxy to the victim, as a social act which to a degree unwinds the harm done by the original wrongdoing. This is an ancient tradition, across many cultures, and forms the moral basis for much of our law. The other basis being vengeance, and the two are normally combined in something we think of as "just punishment."

The proper argument therefore is this:

  • Renty and Delia were enslaved and photographed as a specific crime, and also part of a vast crime.
  • Tamara Lanier is the best available proxy for Renty and Delia as victims.
  • Harvard University is the best available proxy for the offenders.
  • Therefore it is socially, morally, just that Harvard make apology and restitution to Lanier.
  • That apology should include the transfer of two daguerreotypes to Lanier.

Each line requires a bit of spadework to support (is Lanier the best available proxy? Does the apology due actually justly include these specific objects, or should it be cash, or an honorary degree, or whatever other things it is in Harvard's power to bestow? etc.) I do not think anything here is insurmountable.

Thinking in these terms might even produce a better solution than simply handing to silvered plates over.

Certainly this line of thinking produces the desired result (Lanier gets the photos) without all the weird logical consequences of Azoulay's argument. Not every photo belongs to its subject. Not every photo is an un-own-able free agent. Harvard owns the things, but gives them to Lanier as an act of contrition. No need to turn the world upside down here.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Notes on Henri Cartier-Bresson

It seems like there's still hella people mad that Bresson took, it turns out, more than one exposure for each picture that we see. I am pretty sure I've been reading about this controversy for decades now, but every generation throws up a new bunch of people.

By now it is impossible that they ever genuinely held the belief that HCB only shot one perfect photo since literally no sources or people say this. There is literally only the phrase "the decisive moment" which never appears without a pile of caveats and explanations. I maintain that you cannot be interested in photography and under about 40 years of age, and have actually believed any of the supposed mythology around this.

But there's tons of people, apparently, still mad about it.

What is unclear to me is whether there was ever an interval in which something resembling conventional wisdom held that Cartier-Bresson's methods were anything other than what they were. He appears to have been completely open and honest about them throughout his life. The entire controversy appears to have been built, essentially, on a couple of vague sentences, translated from French, which can if you squint be misconstrued to suggest a working method other than what he actually used.

I am reading, on someone's recommendation, a 2016 paper entitled "The Decisive Network: Producing Henri Cartier-Bresson at Mid-Century" by one Nadya Bair which, on the one hand, is pretty reasonable, but which on the other hand seems to be a little intent on finding smoking guns. Just now I read in it a quote from Beaumont Newhall on HCB which, again, if you squint could be construed to mean one thing, but which is equally consistent with HCB's actual methods if you just stop squinting so hard. The author intends us — kinda sorta — to see it as part of, essentially, a kind of conspiracy to present HCB as he was not.

It's not actually clear if the article is intended to be a historical summary of the shenanigans involved in producing and promoting a book (which, to be fair, invariably involves a certain amount of fiction and hagiography) or whether we're to see this as a more-or-less unique conspiracy to create HCB as an artist rather than a photojournalist.

The paper's central complaint, if indeed it is a complaint, is that HCB-the-artist was manufactured by a consortium of gatekeepers. Which, well, of course he was. That's how anyone-as-artist happens. It has almost nothing to do with the work. I will also remark in passing that HCB's photos are different in many cases. There's something going on there, and what it is isn't a mystery, it's well known and thoroughly explained.

Being an artist requires only that you make art. Being recognized as an artist, especially an important one, is essentially a PR job performed by a cast of thousands. You don't even have to make art, you just have to get picked out of the box of kittens and submit to having the lipstick applied.

We get a little insight when the author contrasts HCB as sold to the amateur photographer (as a man with a mysterious unteachable technique) with Ansel Adams. The latter was, supposedly, sold to the same (American?) amateurs as a photographer with a teachable technical method, rather than a philosophy. Which, I guess, is not far off? Adams, of course, was no such thing. The guy was drowning in philosophy.

Nevertheless, we were infested for decades with losers who had mastered the Zone System and a strong sense of their own self-worth, but nothing of importance. Was there, somewhere, a corresponding community of Decisive Moment people who'd learned an equally useless set of anti-facts about HCB's work?

I dunno. But certainly I cannot recall ever seriously "knowing" anything substantively wrong about HCB's methods. As the man and his photographs crept into my consciousness, so did his methods and ideas.

ADDENDUM: It is worth noting that Bair takes issue with the whole idea of Art (or at least Photography) as a sequence of Great Men. This is a drum that I too have been beating, and a theme I agree with completely. This is, arguably, the larger theme in her paper.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Lol

Here's a piece that appears in some irrelevant arts publication, which is getting passed around a little as very important and insightful. It's a fairly easy read. Let's see how important and insightful it is.

Paragraph one. An inauspicious start, as it is gibberish. Yes, it's some sort of allegorical blather, aiming to draw out some sort of "my art is separate from me, and yet connected to me" as if that was special, except that this describes literally 100% of all the art ever made. Moving on.

Google reports a shocking 2 hits — total — for the complete sentence "Where do you locate your art?” one of which is this mess, the second being some PDF from the 1980s, on monoskop. I suppose some people might like to say it, but to be perfectly honest, I am dubious. Then we repeat the sentiment of the first paragraph, only moreso. Somehow the art is "not exactly there, but is in excess of there." whatever that might mean. Nothing, obviously, except that our writer is a bit overwrought.

The third paragraph is a bit vague. Does Kuo mean that his art, specifically, derives its meaning somehow by its perpetual failure to be pinpointed? I think yes, that must be what it means, rather than something like all art, or some other category of art. Given that Kuo's art is, basically, apps for phones, I confess that this bit is a little hard to follow. It seems honestly like it's right there in the phone, on that one chip. Or not, whatever, where is the art in a Monet, reeeeally? Surely it exists in the liminal space between the viewer and the canvas, or some similar bullshit. Again, whatever the hell Kuo means here it probably applies to Monet and everyone else equally, and it remains completely opaque what any of this has to do with the derivation of meaning.

Next graf. The meaning has a complexity that something something. What is "its [the meaning's] formulation" exactly? Is this somehow related to the perpetual failure to be located exactly? Honestly, I'm not seeing a hell of a lot of simplicity to belie here, but maybe this notional simple formulation is something Kuo hasn't told us. At this point anything is possible. Anyways Kuo's gestures emerge from nothing, cool.

Then they go somewhere, in the next graf. "There" I guess. Where else would they go?

And now the favorite device of the shoddy art writer, the next graf opens with the pronoun "This" which could refer to pretty much anything, but whatever it refers to is definitely a fiction, which certainly doesn't narrow the field down at all. It's probably not "the art" but whatever it is is filled with meaning which somehow it lends to the art. "It follows that..." it most certainly does not follow. This mouths the approximate noises of an argument, but is certainly no such thing. Let us graciously assume the conclusion, unsupported as it is, that "something [presumably the art, Kuo's art?] is meaningful because it comes from nothing."

Next graf, I can get behind this one. The idea that something's meaning is fluid if its own nature is fluid seems reasonable to me. So, yeah, if we're unsure what the hell it is, its meaning could grow. Presumably we are, again, talking about Kuo's art again, though how we got from an imprecision of location to an imprecision of nature is completely opaque to me. This is again a standard device of the shoddy art writer: talk about X a lot and make some pretend arguments about X and then just act like you were talking about Y all along. Given that the arguments about X were trash in the first place, it's not clear what this accomplishes, rhetorically, but whatever.

At this point we begin to move past what appears to be largely linguistic meaningless posturing, and move on to something a little meatier. I will now drop the paragraph-by-paragraph nitpicking, and look to the larger shape of the thing.

Kuo begins to discuss "value" without bothering to unpack that. Is this monetary value? Some abstraction of value like social value? Kuo seems to think that value should somehow relate to labor, which is bonkers when we're talking about art. This feels like a superficial and pointless nod to Marxism. Kuo wants to break that labor down into individual gestures, whatever "gesture" means, for some reason. I guess the total labor is after all the sum of all the little bits of labor, so somehow the (undefined) value is to relate to the sum of the (undefined) gestures?

There seem to be several problems in here, but let us soldier on anyways, again allowing the conclusion: some useful notion of "value" is equated to the sum of the "gestures" of making the art. Each gesture is a little snippet of labor which, recall, crosses over from Kuo to some difficult to pinpoint "there," and the whole acquires "meaning" somehow or other in the process, either because the gestures come from nothing, or perhaps because "there" is hard to pinpoint. Kuo's gestures generate meaning by their... motion(?), and are summed up into value, and obviously art is somehow a result as well.

Honestly, it's not clear how much any of this matters because at this point Kuo will not be returning to any discussion of gestures or labor.

Now we come to what seems to simply be a personal crisis "oh no, I think it might not actually be worth anything" and a cry for a buyer, to "redeem" the value of the labor, that sum of the gestures. "Value" remains a bit vague, but we're maybe closing on on a cash-value as, at least, a proxy for whatever inherent value Kuo is talking about. A buyer will appear in due course, but will not really help Kuo out.

Following this we have some mysticism around "code" describing the ERC-721 interface, and some stuff about tokens being things that are owned. This is a false mysticism. Land deeds, for instance, have exactly the same properties, along with quite a bit of other nifty stuff like subdivision. NFTs are, essentially, what deeds would be if they were invented at 2am by a drunken idiot, and implemented in software by another drunken idiot. Kuo should not be bamboozled here. Kuo writes code. Kuo is attempting to bamboozle you with pseudo-mysticism.

We get a sort of clumsy analogy launched here where NFTs come from nothing just like Kuo's gestures, and recall that it is the coming from nothing that imbues Kuo's art with its meaning, except when it's the mystery of location that does that. Or maybe both do. But yeah yeah, meaning isn't value, and NFTs aren't art. Ok. Kuo will not be returning to the analogy, despite the fact that he obviously spent the entire article up to this point specifically setting up the analogy, which he has just dismissed.

Some symbolism around zero, which seems inappropriate here since zero is just what we programmers call a "magic number" in this context. It's a special number, which when used in a specific context, alters the meaning of mechanism from "move this thing" to "create this thing" (which is terrible programming practice, by the way, but these are crypto-bros designing this shit, so of course. Remember the 2am drunks? Those guys.) so zero in this context is not worthless, it is literally a mystic sigil that alters behavior of the NFT-machine. But whatever, moving on.

Amusingly, in the very next paragraph Kuo implies that NFTs are eternal, but if he'd actually read the code he links to, he'd see that Transfer()ing something to that worthless zero address destroys it. Create NFTs by moving them from zero to somewhere, destroy them in perfect symmetry by moving them back to zero. So, I dunno what the hell he's on about here. I mean, sure, nobody does that. But they could? You could presumably write a smart contract that destroyed the thing after 10 sales. Banksy? Paging Mr. Banksy?

Now we're on to obsessing over value, which, yeah, is a thing? I'm not quite sure how we got from the mechanics of ERC-721 and the metaphysics of zero to suddenly people are freaking about about what their NFTs are worth, because "They believe in something" but here we are. It's certainly true, they do, and they do. This statement, though, comes completely out of the blue and is in no way connected to anything Kuo has said earlier. He might as well have said "And also, cows poop" which is equally true.

Ok, ok, a token's value is held in the destination wallet, uh huh, uh huh. Wait, now we're talking about a token's meaning? Kuo has literally never even hinted that NFTs have meaning, but suddenly we're hip-deep in analysis of their meaning. "Oblivious to nothing, an NFT collapses meaning into a sum." Speaking of... uh, meaning. That sentence doesn't. Seriously, it just doesn't mean anything at all. It's gibberish. Is this a reference to things having meaning because they come from nothing? Does this apply to NFTs as well as Kuo's art? Kuo insists that tokens must mean something because they are purchased, which, frankly, does not appear to follow at all. Kuo has insisted that value and meaning are distinct, and up until this moment mentioned nothing about an NFT except its value.

At this point Kuo's philosophizing around NFTs is just a car crash. There's just random shit all over the place that might once have been a point, but it's all fucked up now for sure and some of it is on fire.

Ok now we get into what appears to be the crux of the thing. Kuo is upset that people are buying NFTs of his art as, apparently, investments. They don't love Kuo, they're just hoping to make a quick buck. More complaining, a nod to web3 (no, web3 doesn't mean anything, it isn't anything, it's just a trash pile of buzzwords) and a little race baiting for flavor.

This makes Kuo feel like NULL which is bad, and then some more gibberish about a gap between 0 (zero) and nothing, which is bad, and which mutates in the very last line into a gap not between nothing and something else, but left by nothing. Unless that is somehow a different gap?

Look, I know it's just sort of allegorical poetry but this sort of shoddy language makes me slightly crazy. Even Shelly wasn't this shoddy, if he had a gap twixt his heart and his gizzard, it did not suddenly become a different gap although it was wont to be compared with dozens of other gaps.

All in all this appears to be Kuo wanting to be loved for his labor, his loving gestures which make art, his intense furrowed brown that imbues his art with meaning, and now he has these dickheads buying his shit as an investment, and that makes him sad. It's not clear whether he's sad that they're dickheads, or that they're buying his art as an investment.

All the business about 0 and NULL and ERC-721 seems to be irrelevant. This is exactly what would happen if some dudes were buying Kuo's art in a gallery and having it drop-shipped directly to their Swiss Vault.

This is the big important think piece? Or art whateverthefuck? I don't even know what this is supposed to be, let alone what it's supposed to mean. When you peel away the gibberish and the pointless analogies that lead nowhere, you're left with some dude whining about how NFT bros are buying his art in a way that makes him feel bad. I dunno, he could stop offering NFTs of his art?

As an aside, fulcrum arts somehow manages to combine a very modern feel with an almost geocities insensibility to design, it's almost incredible how bad their site looks while still sporting that very 2021 Wordpress Template flavah.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Success!

About once a year some sort of information leak occurs, and I receive evidence that They have been complaining to one another about how Problematic Molitor Is. However frequently it occurs, it certainly happens a lot more often than someone actually complaining to me about How Problematic.

Now, to be fair, They have horrible OPSEC because They are dumb, but I cannot imagine I am learning of more than a small percentage of the complaints, by which I deduce that there's a surprising amount of locker room gossip about How Problematic Molitor Is.

Which I think means that, by the incredibly low bar of "photoland," I am not merely a critic, but a successful one.

I do hope there's some sort of statuette! I don't need a big ceremony, but some sort of recognition would be nice. I'll be checking my mailbox for an invite!


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

By Request

I also make meals, shelving units, photographs, and books.



Halloween's a-comin' girls, get your pants on.

How Much Art do we Really Need?

An oft-repeated complaint in the Art Community is the lack of sufficient funding, usually government, for the arts. Art, as we all know, is a good thing, and as a society we should have a lot of it.

So far, so good.

Further, for the cost of one shitty fighter aircraft we can do a great deal of arts funding, and since the airplane is arguably a net loss to society, maybe we ought to fund arts instead. Setting aside the fact that the airplane is, essentially, a thoroughly successful make-work project, this again seems fairly sound. Fewer military jets, more sculptures.

What I have not seen addressed is what on earth we are supposed to do with all this art.

If we increased funding by, oh let's go crazy, say 10x, we would presumably have many times the amount of contemporary art being made. Probably not 10x, but maybe 2x or 3x, and the artists would be a lot less stressed out. It's not clear who would be waiting tables at local restaurants at this point, but again, let us set that aside along with the "military procurement as a very complicated welfare project" problem. Maybe the out-of-work aerospace engineers will wait the tables.

Free markets are pretty damn good at one thing: working out what the demand for some product is. The verdict is in on the subject of contemporary art, and that verdict is "not much." The general population doesn't much care for contemporary art. They like classics, blockbuster shows from previous generations and previous centuries. To be fair, if you've looked at much contemporary art, it's obvious why.

So let's suppose we get 2x as many books of glum photographs, 2x as many projects involving epoxy and body hair, 2x as many paintings in whatever the abstract painting theory of today is, 2x as many angry sculptures of whatever politicians have the prog-left in a tizzy today. What happens to all this shit? As of now most of it ends up in a dumpster within a few months already. It doesn't sell, nobody is interested, the artist gives up or stops paying rent, and into the dumpster it goes.

I will stipulate that making art is good for people, even if the art does go straight into a dumpster. That said, I am not entirely comfortable with the idea of a government funded "work-as-therapy" program, at least not unless everyone gets to play, which just turns into Universal Basic Income.

My dark suspicion is that the artists calling for more funding generally would be satisfied with simply redirecting the current funding into their own pockets. If the funding did increase, producing more art which nobody wants, they would quite likely propose that the problem is that the public is not educated enough to appreciate the art, which raises the uncomfortable spectre of re-education. I dare say only a few critics would actually advocate for art-education internment camps; but I am nearly certain that virtually all of them would blame the public comma education-of for the near universal disdain for epoxy-and-body-hair projects.

I say this as a guy who is constantly making shit. I make crappy things, I make beautiful things, I make practical things, and sometimes I make some pretty decent art.

However, I do not presume to inflict my work on everyone. I do not hew to the belief that my work deserves to be archived forever, no matter how good it is. Even if it's really really good, there's probably better work, more important work, more appealing work out there. In the competition to be archived, displayed, appreciated, I do not expect to win. It would be unreasonable to expect to win, there's so much excellent work out there.

So, I get the desire to make things. I get the desire to be paid, even to make a living, making things. What I don't get is how that actually works in society, at some vastly increased scale.

What the hell would we actually do with all the art?

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A Question of Ethics

This piece is being written with an eye to a slightly larger audience, so I beg my regular readers' indulgence as I bang on about a few points that you're probably exhausted with. Also, less swearing than usual, and again, I beg your forgiveness.

This photo is being passed around on twitter, with the accompanying caption, and has sparked the usual re-iteration of everyone's opinions.



I intend to produce nothing like a definitive answer, although my opinions may creep in from time to time, but rather to provide some food for thought. Let's think about this photo.

First thought, the photographer, if the caption is to be believed, was being sneaky. Being sneaky is never a great idea, whether you're photographing someone, or cheating at dice. On the other hand, this doesn't really reflect on whether the photo ought to exist, where some uses of it might be ok, and others less ok, and so on. Nevertheless, the photographer is a sneak.

What about the photo, though? How does a photo work anyways?

A photograph is a talisman which conjures its subject. We react to the photograph, in an attenuated way, as if we were there with the subject. This is in contrast to a drawing, a painting, a verbal description, none of which evoke this visceral response. It's not magic, of course, the subject does not feel our eldritch gaze or anything like that. But, when we look at this photo we are as-if present in the subway, with the mother and children.

(Set aside abstract photos and photorealistic paintings, if you don't mind)

The mom has consented, implicitly, to be seen. She has not consented to be conjured in this way.

As photographic subjects, we know at some level this power of the photo, and (sometimes) we object. We may gesture in a way to specifically indicate I do not consent to the making of this talisman, with its power to conjure me. No. Not everyone reacts this way, not everyone reacts this way all the time. Nevertheless, social convention is that we ought to be permitted to withhold this consent. The law varies, and often does not agree, but social convention is commonly in that direction.

Note that the "harm" the photo does is not of the order of violence. The functioning of the photograph is more on the order of a rudeness, something like a stranger butting in on a private sidewalk conversation. When we look at the photo, the mother does not feel our gaze, it affects her not at all. Nevertheless, if she knew of the photo, she would know that the talisman exists, she would know that, in this one-way, attenuated, fashion the presence of she and her children can be conjured at will.

I did it just now, pasting the photo in up there. I am as guilty as any of us. I conjured her presence, for myself, for you, without her consent, and in defiance of social convention. I am being rude, right now.

Let's think about rudeness.

Sometimes it's OK to be rude. You can shove a total stranger, if you're shoving them out of the way of a speeding automobile. You can butt in to a private conversation to let someone know the train is boarding.

With a photo, every time you look at the picture it's a new pseudo-presence, a new pseudo-interaction. Most of the time we're just butting in.

What if the mother and children were leaving the country, never to return? Their relatives might appreciate this photo, this notional usage might be more akin to "your train is boarding!" than "MY OPINION IS!"

It is also a very beautiful photo. Bordering on extraordinary. Perhaps as a parent I am biased. I am happy to have seen it, my life has been in a trivial but real way improved. The world is in a trivial but real way improved by the addition of this little beautiful object.

Do these things cancel on another out? If there is enough benefit accrued, does this cancel out the lack of consent?

I don't think so. I mean, we can't help but add things up and weigh them, can we? But the fact that the train is boarding and that this is useful information does not make the rudeness go away. It is rude to butt in. The information was helpful. We can weigh one against the other if we like, but both remain perfectly true and unchanged when we do that.

The photographer is a sneak. Neither mother nor children consented to the making of a talisman to conjure. Neither mother nor children are particularly harmed by the talisman they did not consent to. Some uses of the photo might be excellent things, others terrible, most are more or less neutral. All these things are true, they overlap and interconnect, but I do not see how anything cancels anything else. They simply are.