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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Representation and Interpretation

I struggled with this topic for days and days and finally came up with the right image, scrubbed all the half-assed text I had, and started over with brand new half-assed text.

Imagine, if you will, a murmuration of starlings. We might just as well think of other flocks, a vast shoal of fish, and so on, but I prefer the romance of the starling. In this enormous configuration we have a gigantic number of birds moving more or less as one. Each starling follows the others, and yet each one, we might imagine, also leads in a small way. Each bird is a part of the whole, mostly following, but also contributing to the leadership, to setting the direction. Importantly, each bird is part of the structure, and also a follower of the structure, and also a leader of the structure.

In the same way our culture is like a murmuration of, well, of stuff. Of Art, and novels, and tweets, and conversations over beer. Our culture is not only made up of these things, but also is directed by these things.

Consider a photograph of a rose. Allow me to press back into the traces that exhausted word "narrative" and talk about Narratives of The Rose. It's an emblem of beauty, and of love, in our western world. If I photograph it in soft backlight, with tiny droplets of dew on its petals, I repeat that Standard Narrative. I amplify it every so slightly by the repetition. My photograph, my starling, is at that moment simply following the flock swooping off in the current direction. Not everyone will love my repetition of that narrative, the recently jilted may reject that story of Love and Beauty. Your personal opinion may diverge from the Standard Narrative, or with my repetition of it.

If I choose to photograph the rose crushed into the mud, surrounded by mud, I defy the Standard Narrative, somehow. My starling is pushing in its tiny singular way in a different direction. Will the murmuration turn? Probably not.

A skilled propagandist, seizing control of a critical handful of the starlings, and picking precisely the right moment can turn the murmuration, pivoting around a tree, a hill, or a change in air pressure, into a new direction. Perhaps not the one the propagandist chose, but at any rate one that suits him well enough.

A friend of mine spent some time on his blog trying to untangle some issues surrounding portrayals of Africa in Tinytin comics, and the statue "The Footsoldier of Birmingham" (he approves of the latter, disapproves of the former, as do I). The Africans in Tintin are silly caricatures, bug-eyed golliwogs, lazy, and so on. In its time, this portrayal was a starling following the flock. Hergé was no more responsible for negative stereotypes of Africa than I am, but he did follow them, he did in his small way amplify them. But, Tintin is not the murmuration, it is but one starling.

Remove Tintin from its time, and it is a lone starling, flying through, well, not an empty sky, but a rather more thinly populated one. There is no murmuration any longer, although there are rather too many lone starlings. Tintin flies against the mainstream narratives today, in this way. Is it harmless? Not entirely, but it is still just one little bird.

My children will read Tintin, it is my job to ensure they know that Africa is rather more complex than that, it is a vast region of 54 countries (at least) and 100s of different cultures, none of which have particularly large eyes, and none of which are congenitally lazy.

"The Footsoldier of Birmingham" is an interesting case. The actual incident on which it is based appears to have almost nothing to do with the apparent message. A young black man was leaving the scene of a protest, of which he was not a part, and bumped a policeman. The policeman's dog was startled, and the cop restrained the dog from getting all up on the young man.

A photo was taken, which allowed a different reading, namely that the cop was siccing a vicious dog on a helpless young man. This photo, in its time, was a starling flying against the murmuration. It suggested a brutal, racist, cop in a time when the Standard Narrative of cops was as good guys, not thugs. This photo, along with a wide collection of other material, belongs to that great turn in the murmuration that is America, which turn we know as the Civil Rights Movement.

The statue, loosely based on the photo (bur further amplifying the message of the Thuggish Cop, the Innocent Boy, and the Vicious Dog) dates from the 1990s, and rather than flying against the Standard Narrative is in fact flying entirely with the current (new, post Civil Rights Movement) narrative. By analogy, it is just another tedious backlit rose, sightly amplifying the long-standing Standard Story.

In all these cases, we have the objective reality which is arguably not a cultural artifact at all. We also have representations of that, which may or may not align with the underlying reality.

In turn, these representations represent "narratives" which may or may not align with a) the current Standard Narrative or b) our personal opinions. Art that does not align with the Standard Narrative is often a lot more interesting, but beware of defiance for defiance's sake.

And finally these representations in their alignments may or may not take part in some subtle change in direction of either the Standard Narrative (i.e. they may become part of vast turn of the murmuration-of-culture) or in your personal opinion (they may "reach you" in some important way).

Everyone who makes Art seriously knows that weird sensation of working with waldos that merely work the controls of other waldos and so on, hoping to somehow, at some great remove, make some kind of goddamned difference. And yet, frequently, when we look at Art (particularly Art with which we disagree) we are wont to ascribe vast power to it.

Hergé was working with the same set of waldos working other waldos that we all are, Tintin is not bottled purified, bottled, fascism waiting to spring forth and corrupt our society. Neither are my little books purified, bottled socialism, waiting to spring out and bring forth Paradise on Earth. They're all just starlings.

Watch out for murmurations, though.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, holy crap.

    I suppose you can see the work of people like John Gossage (specially The Pond) through this lens. Or the whole New Topographics people.

    If the person fully emerged into The Narrative sees the landscapes made by Gossage, Shore, Sternfeld et al., they would most likely remark how drab or contentless they are.

    I believe these artists are just going against the current Narrative, per your model. It appears to me that the current Narrative in landscape photography (at least among internet photographers) is to make beautiful images that objectify nature, and that have a superficial message of classical aesthetic values. They essentially value beautiful pictures of sunsets, and stuff that a commoner would feel comfortable hanging on their living room wall.

    It's funny that photographers on the internet feel compelled to do photography like this, because our modern landscapes nowadays are everything but these romantic representations from the past. But then, they are just part of The Narrative, I guess.