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Monday, September 11, 2017

Colberg on Art

Jörg has another thoughtful piece up, a welcome relief from his reviews in my opinion. It contains a review, but it's secondary, without being a New Yorker style artifice upon which to hang a bunch of self-aggrandization.

I'm going to provide a handful of definitions, basically because I had to look all these words up. I mean, I knew roughly kinda what they meant, but not, you know, the details.
  • agitprop - A portmanteau of "agitation" and "propaganda", essentially propagandist art nominally intended to stir people up.
  • didactic - Intended to teach, specifically a moral lesson.

Jörg starts out well, making the point that Art with a capital A communicates, but often somewhat vaguely, in ways that may be hard to put your finger on. He asserts, correctly I think, that good art and agitprop, if not actually opposites, at any rate tend to be in opposition. Agitprop is clear, it communicates but one message, without much ambiguity (or depth). I suspect Jörg's complaints about didactic/agitprop "art"are more or less squarely directed at Lewis Bush's "It's Gonna Be Great" show, which was just a bunch of "hurr hurr I photoshopped Donald Trump to look like an idiot" material. Boring, stupid, simple repetition of simplistic leftist narratives. You don't have to look very far to find tons of this sort of thing, though, so maybe Jörg had something else in mind.

Then we move onwards to the assertion that the Bechers work was didactic, which I find interesting but am not sure I agree with. What moral lesson are we to learn here? To my eye, the Bechers were simply insisting that certain objects were interesting, without any particular judgement about what's interesting, about what lessons we are to find in these objects. We could project our own ideas, certainly, and I assume they had their own ideas, but ultimately it's just a bunch of pictures of buildings.

But hold on to that. Whether or not the word "didactic" applies is largely irrelevant here. The point is that, at least in my opinion, the Bechers are expressing a simple idea, namely, "these are interesting", without insisting on a specific reading, a specific moral point of view, or really anything of that sort.

Finally we get to the review. The book he reviews, by the way, is $45, which seems truly incredible for a book with this amount of hand work. I almost want it for that alone, except the content is completely uninteresting to me.

This book is didactic. In fact, it is agitprop, despite Colberg's notion that it is not. He is here betraying himself, allowing his weakness for overproduced photobooks to overrule his obviously good sense. He claims that the book functions because of "the surprise" that the pictures in it are not microorganisms, but instead bits of plastic floating in the ocean, which might be OK except that the publisher lacks the strength of character to make it a surprise. The reveal is right there in the blurb.

While the book itself may not insist on a specific moral lesson here, the fact is that it's being published today, now, when the only reasonably interpretation is that it's yet another piece of self-conscious art about how terrible it is that there's a bunch of plastic in the ocean. We may take it as given that the artist thinks we should legislate the use of plastic bags and so on.

There is in fact almost no disagreement about what is surely the central thesis of the book: "plastic bits filling up the ocean is bad." The points of disagreement are entirely about what should be done about it, with one side claiming that the invisible hand of the market will cure this problem as soon as it's done curing every other ill, and the other side saying that we need to legislate and regulate heavily. I side with the latter, but that does not make me love this book.

While I have not seen the book myself, it is transparently a rather twee concept wrapped around a simple repeat of one of the standard pages of leftist political narrative. I don't like Donald Trump, and I disapprove of plastic bits in the ocean, but simply repeating the same stories is just propaganda, and not very effective propaganda at that. Neither "It's Gonna Be Great" nor "Beyond Drifting" are going to create change. Neither are going to connect with their readers in interesting ways. Both are pure preaching to the choir, one with, I admit, production values that appeal far more to me than the other.


  1. Umm, you probably mean Bernd and Hilla Becher, do you? Well, I'm not a big fan of the Düsseldorf school, but Bernd and Hilla certainly knew how to behave at the table and were no belchers.


    Best, Thomas

    1. Indeed I do! And I have corrected the text (where I got it wrong every single time -- evidently I just got the wrong name in my head, and there is stuck!)

      Thank you!

    2. Sounds like a "Freudian Slip" - I suppose you're not a fan of the Düsseldorfers, either?

  2. As a German born American, who had relatives of artistic merit living in Düsseldorf, I have nevertheless never been comfortable with the Becher's work. To me, just the thought of producing art relatively soon after the 3rd Reich that implies, contains, addresses or deals with a 'straight face' with any kind of classification, even of objects, was morally reprehensible. I seem to be the only person in the world with this point of view, which means that I am totally off base. I raised this point once with Jörg, quite a while ago, but basically got a "duh huh...?" response.

    1. That is a *really* interesting remark. There is something essentially related to the actions of the Nazis there in the Becher's work, isn't there?

      Sure, it's benign. Buildings have no feelings, and nobody much cares about some abandoned industrial objects. But still, there's that same fetish with organizing, sorting, classifying that we see acting out in such unhealthy ways elsewhere.

      Bureaucrats everywhere love their files, and when they get some guns and some bad ideas, it rarely goes will for the subjects of those files.

      I ever thought of it that way, but I see your point instantly, and it kind of wigs me out.

    2. Hey Andrew, many thanks - I greatly appreciate the fact that you are seeing some of what has bothered me all this time!!!

    3. There are (at least) three of us - this almost anal cleanliness, tidiness, straight lines everywhere is exactly why "I'm not a big fan of (most of) the Duesseldorfers". Ve Germans like it ordentlich!

  3. Chris, I think this suggested link to the Nazis is a little, er, shall we say, chronologically convenient. The Bechers were barely in their teens in 1945. One might as well tar August Sander with the same brush for his 'People of the XXth Century' while we're at it, a work which actually got him into trouble with the Nazi regime. Classification/typologising is simply not the issue; what the classification is used in aid of is, however. The Bechers and Sander are innocent of all charges, I would suggest.

    The Bechers’ work considered as *art* does not interest me either, but as as a record of industrial archaeology it certainly does. That is where it belongs, a catalogue of unregarded but occasionally extraordinary buildings, often decorated with elaborate architectural features.

    Andrew, I am surprised you did the studenty thing of going to a dictionary to choose a definition of ‘didactic’ on which to hang your argument and bash Colberg. Colberg certainly doesn’t imply in his piece that the Bechers have a moral lesson to impart by photographing these buildings.

    1. I don't *think* anyone is suggesting that the Bechers were Nazis, I am certainly not. All I am reporting is that when I see (am prompted to see) Germans engaged in the sort of fetishistic organizing/filing/classifying behaviors, I flinch, a little.

      It reminds me of when I saw an speaker at an SAP-internal event exhorting his sales team to "unleash your indomitable will". The guy wasn't a Nazi either, but maybe German companies could use slightly different language.

      This is not to suggest that Germans are forever forbidden to organize things or use the word "will", of course not. I despise notions of National Guilt that passes down across generations. Still, one can acknowledge history and recognize that there are going to be these reactions.

    2. I think, but am not certain, that my argument works just as well if you drop the word "moral".

      "Beyond Drifting" certainly does have pretensions of offering a moral lesson, and it's not at all clear to me that the Bechers are offering any lessons of any sort, there is no sense of "didactic" that seems to apply, at least not any more than it applies to any photograph.

    3. To put it another way, Colberg is drawing a parallel between the Becher work and "Beyond Drifting" based somewhere around the word "didactic" which, no matter how you slice it, has something to do with teaching.

      I see that in the latter, which appears to be, ultimately, a beautifully produced but naive polemic. I do not see it in the latter, which to my eye is notable in its un-didacticness, no matter how you define the word.

    4. Indeed, nobody, and certainly not Chris, is suggesting the Bechers were tainted by Nazism. I just think it is a stretch too far to associate the Bechers' work with a Nazi/German obsession with classification, however faintly. But Chris recognises he is alone in his feeling!

      Your second point and third points I agree with completely.

    5. Hi, as I said, I am German born (1939) and I am absolutely NOT calling the Becher's Nazis. If anything, I am sure they were fiercely anti fascist! And I am totally proud of how Germany has been reacting to the current world situation.
      All I am saying is that I personally feel very uncomfortable with this particular typology being created by the Becher's at that time. I fully realize that it is totally a gut reaction, but it is there! I discussed this with my wife, who does wonderful typologies, and she thinks I am way off base. Perhaps the closest I can come to an analogy is that a person who has been sexually abused as a child might have a very visceral reaction to any kind of, what I might consider, totally acceptable nude photography. Something discussed very well in Berger's Ways of Seeing.