Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Political Crit, Political Art

I've run across a couple of reviews of some show that's going on in London, some fellow named Richard Mosse has a video + pictures show called "Incoming" which is something about taking pictures of refugees with "military grade thermal cameras" a phrase I find fascinating. In this modern world, "military grade" often means "pretty crappy, but indestructible." But that's a side note.

Mosse is pretty clearly, based on the various quotations, playing the usual Art School game of Take a Thing and use it Backwards, and look how cool. Maybe he has some point to make, maybe he doesn't. There's no way that I have run across to know. I have not, I confess, looked very hard. I'm a lot more interested in Mosse's would-be critics than I am in Mosse.

This is because the reviewers, the so-called critics, are more interested in fetishing Mosse's process, and trotting out endless vaguely relevant citations. Much of the modern review style seems to be derived from the New Yorker, in which reviews are actually little essays about the reviewer, and how clever he or she is. The reviewer flaunts his or her own erudition, and salts in a liberal serving of New York City is Awesome. The subject of the review is mention in passing, and purely as a jumping off point. The only good thing I have to say about the work of Duncan Wooldridge and Lewis Bush is that they left New York out of it.

In Mosse's case, the game seems to be to wonder aloud if his process (the thermal camera) dehumanizes the subjects, or if it is the very act of photography which does that, and then you chuck in a bunch of subordinate clauses about, of course, we need to consider in the light of geopolitical whatsits, so you sound clever. Admire for instance, this bad boy of a sentence, selected by searching for "of course" in Duncan's essay, and picking the most egregious sample that turned up. The phrase "of course" is used in these things to lend gravitas to nonsense statements, and fluff up the word count.

The dehumanising of the body is of course continuous with the technology and operations of the state, which we understand as intermittently picking out and targeting the human subject with reasons that power justifies under the rhetorics of the war on terror, national security, and as Eyal Weizman has recognised, the chilling but pervasive moral logic of the ‘lesser evil’.

To be honest, I don't even know what the hell "continuous with" even means in this context, and I am pretty sure the author doesn't either. It goes without saying that Eyal Weizman is mentioned nowhere else in the piece. The other "rhetorics" despite being equally generic do not seem to rate some random citation. Also it's not clear at all that "dehumanizing the body" is what he means. After all, by referring to people as "the body" he's kind of already doing that. He means "dehumanizing people."

Let's suppose that by "continuous with" the author means something like "part and parcel of" or less idiomatically "an essential part of, built right in to". The author is then tying the "dehumanizing of the body" in as an essential part of the technology and operations of the state which includes rather a lot. Even the worst of states do many many things. Does the author mean "dehumanizing the body is an essential part of dental checkups for little kids" which is, in many states, part of their operations? No, of course not. The author means a very specific subset of the "technology and operations" and when he clarifies it, the "technology" drops right out.

The next sentence, clumsily grafted on with commas, tells us what he actually means by his enormous blanket term: intermittently picking out and targeting the human subject, justified by the war on terror, national security, and the moral logic of the ‘lesser evil’. The three "rhetorics" are actually the same one three times, in this modern era, so the author is again flapping his gums to make himself look clever. Note the complete lack of technology here, this is all operations.

So I think we can, roughly at any rate, squish this mess down to: Dehumanizing people is part of how the state gets away with killing them in the name of the war on terror. This, while true, is not exactly something most of us need to a refresher on.

Our old friend from the now defunct disphotic, Lewis Bush, has an equally sophomoric review, with many of the same pseudo-intellectual tics that lead to unreadabilty. We do learn that worldpressphoto employs copy editors, because Lewis's irritating tic of mixing up "it's" and "its" is absent (praise I regret I cannot lend to the other review, which botches it at least once).

So what's the problem, anyways?

In neither of these reviews do we see any actual criticism. These are both little platforms for the dunderheaded authors to pound their own little drums. Both reviewers are sure to let us know that they think the modern state is Just Awful. Both are sure to let us know that they are well read, and have thought a lot about photography. On the subject under review, though...

Is Mosse trying to say something? God knows, perhaps, but Duncan and Lewis don't. And, more to the point, they don't care. How did Duncan and Lewis actually react to the installation? Did it make them think? In a way yes, but mainly it made them think of clever things they could say about using thermal cameras. There's no evidence that either one of them actually looked at the pictures or videos in anything but passing. Glance at a couple of things, scribble some quick notes, and then move on to how we can best work in a references to the book I leafed through the other day.

Do I think Mosse has anything to say? I dunno. Maybe not.

In which case I'd like to know that. "Richard Mosse's recent installation and book Incoming while a potentially interesting re-tasking of military hardware to new uses, does not actually seem to have anything to say. It is not clear that Richard Mosse has any point whatsoever." might make a nice review in that case.

Or, if he's got some point of view, something to say, other than "gosh, refugees. So sad." then tell me what that is. Come on, guys, it's not that hard.

But you've got to actually look at the pictures and watch the videos, which I admit is rather a bore.

Anyways, onwards to Political Art, now that I've had my fun with the Political Crit end of things.

Altogether too much Political Art seems to be about raising consciousness and socially positioning the artist. Some terrible issue that we already know about is dragged out for us, and shown to be terrible. The artist is positioned to be against the terrible thing, and, generally, to blame whatever it is that all the other fatuous lefties blame for the problem. Often, the nebulous "state" is the target. And then we're done! Hurray!

This is wildly stupid.

Full disclosure: I am a fatuous leftie, and my default position is that it's all The State's Fault too. These idiots are actually right, but they're right in a way that accomplishes nothing.

Let us suppose that I am Richard Mosse and I think the refugee problem confronting Europe is terrible. If I am lazy, I can pretty much execute the above program, and I am done. Let us suppose, though, that I have ambitions to actually address the problem. What can I do?

Step one is to work out some clear and potentially achievable goal. In general I will want to change hearts and minds. Perhaps I want to influence a specific vote, perhaps I want to support funding for some program, or class of programs. Perhaps I simply want to reduce prejudice and create open conversation. No matter what, it's likely to come back to changing hearts and minds.

Who's attitude and/or opinion do I want to influence, and in what direction do I want to alter it?

I say hearts and minds deliberately. You've got to hit both. All the rational discourse in the world won't change anything, unless your target can feel it, and if they can feel it they still want a rational reason to change.

Step two is to work up something artlike to speak to the mind. Give them a rational reason to support such-and-such an idea, give them a reason to think it'll make things better. Show them former refugees working hard at difficult jobs, and cite them some statistics about economic growth. You art should specifically speak to the audience you have in mind. If you're trying to influence businesspeople, tell them about money. If you're trying to influence working people, tell them about jobs.

Step three is to work up something artlike to speak to the heart. Show them some little kids before, and after their parents get jobs. Tell them some personal stories of desperate flight, of rescue, of success, of gratitude to the host nation. Again, target the audience.

Step four is to blend the two into a coherent whole.

It doesn't even have to be true, although obviously I disapprove if it's not. I've just detailed how propaganda actually works, and it doesn't work through extensive use of subordinate clauses and the phrase "of course", it works as described in my handy 4 step guide. You might say that propaganda is terrible, but I say that propaganda is, for my purposes here, nothing more or less than political art that works. The alternative is political art that doesn't work.

To be blunt, I cannot see how Mosse could possibly be on the right track. By showing us refugees with freakly thermal imaging, he cannot possibly be shaping the hearts of the audience in positive ways. Creepy alien creatures are coming for us! Fuck! Run! is pretty much the normal gut reaction to the stills I've seen. Perhaps Mosse wants to influence people to support carpet bombing the refugee camps, though.

Anyways, I don't know whether political art is shittier than political art criticism these days, or vice versa, but I think they both tend toward the awful. At least in the Art School world, and the other spheres that revolve around it. There are surely people beavering away in isolation doing something better. Me, for instance.

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