Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Colberg on Roger Ballen and Art

Colberg's latest bit, here, is a review of Roger Ballen's book Ballenesque which is some sort of retrospective.

Our friend opens with some really quite sharp remarks on Art and what it ought to do. While I might state things a bit differently, and have, I agree with Jörg here. It's a lead-in to his discussion of Ballen, and ends up being a sort of weird apologia in opposition to what he actually has to say about the book and the pictures.

Colberg seems to sort of indistinctly dislike Ballen, although I can't quite be even sure of that. It might just be his knee-jerk "if it's successful it must be crap" response, but I'm not sure. There's a definite tone of "Ballen is too damn headstrong" throughout, I find, which I found to be wildly offensive. Ballen is right, and Colberg is wrong: the Artist cannot spare even a moment, not an iota of energy, worrying about what other people think.

Sure, when you're learning, when you're collaborating, it's a different thing. But when you're out there, there's simply nothing for it but to roll the dice, do your thing, and see what happens. We know precisely what happens when you insist of workshopping things, and looking (and taking) feedback. You get milquetoast bullshit. We get MFA students making the least interesting books imaginable about subjects drawn from the list of Super Challenging subjects:
  • Myself. The most uninteresting subject on earth but very very safe. Nobody in academia will deny your Lived Experience.
  • Racism in America. This is officially challenging, but is among the safest subjects ever. You'll get some angry tweets, though. It's ok, literally everyone else who sees your work will fawn over you for your bravery.
  • Sexism. See above.
  • How lame Rural America is.

Ballen has the temerity to do none of these things. He's doing something quite mad.

I'm not sure what on earth Colberg is trying to say drawing lines from Ballen to Arbus, Lipper, and Gilden, other than all of them seem to have the same complete lack of interest in their subjects. He's muddling up cruel photography with photographs of a cruel world here, and it's not clear he's making much sense.

All in all, Colberg's not got a lot to say about Ballen. He starts out strong, and if one applies his comments on Art to Ballen, one ends up easily with "this stuff is Good Art" because by god it gets up in your face and expands the old brain. It's like Dali, except real, right? But then Colberg wanders into the weeds of kind of hating on the guy.

I think it's also possible that the title is a joke, Ballenesque could be a reference to arabesque, as much as it is a naming of a style.

But the first bit is very strong.


  1. Three pieces down, you wrote: "The lesson here is, I suppose, that if everyone is shouting at you to be more emotional, maybe you should pay attention."

    And yet here you state: "[T]he Artist cannot spare even a moment, not an iota of energy, worrying about what other people think."

    Which I happen to very much agree with, btw, although it does strike me as inconsistent with your prior statement.

    Are visual and aural arts really that different or have I missed some subtle nuance that distinguishes the contexts surrounding these two statements?

    Mind you, I'm not trying to bust your chops here, just curious as to how these two situations are so different from one another to merit what appear to be completely opposite responses from the two artists involved.

    1. That is an outstanding question ;) I am known to shift and change, sometimes quite rapidly. Let me attempt here to rationalize it, and see what you think!

      Ultimately, I think the artist probably wants to make some sort of connection or statement. The artist wants, at some level, to be understood. Or at any rate that is at least a reasonable desire for the artist to entertain.

      Where the artist cannot afford to take input, to worry about the audience, is in the methods used.

      You do your thing, what you feel is right and proper, as hard as you can. You don't focus group your work, you don't workshop it.

      And then, well, you hope you've got it right enough that the connection, the communication, the statement, reads.

      If you workshop it, if you focus group it, then you wind up with a much higher chance of *something* getting through, of making some sort of connection. The trouble is, it's not your connection, it's the the thing you're trying to do. It's some collaboration with your workshop-partners, and it's probably watered down.

      But maybe I am just trying to smash two incompatible views together in a way that makes some sort of sense. I've done crazier things!

    2. If it's any consolation, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."


  2. I note Colbert has reviewed Balkan at least twice and interviewed him at least once. He is fairly consistent in what he writes about him too. I don't so much get the feeling that he hates him, more that he has a subjective dislike of the images and that is something he can't quite let himself say or, perhaps, admit to.
    Content wise I see a lot of similarities to Jan Svankmajr, a Czech surrealist.

  3. I just wish he'd done a better job of tying it all up. It felt like he just dribbled off. I was expecting this structure:

    - Art does these things.
    - Ballen's work has evolved blah blah
    - Ballen's work is not always easy to take
    - BUT Ballen's work DOES THE THINGS that Art ought
    - Therefore while I find it hard to take, I approve of it

    Or something. In some sense I guess you could pretend that Colberg's assuming we're smart enough to connect the dots. On the other hand, though, in the absence of an actual firm statement from Colberg, it's not particularly clear which dots we are to connect.

    For the record, I think Ballen's work is strong, it is Art-Like, and it is not always easy to take. This is really the strength of the surrealist, to show us something completely crazy, and yet also familiar, to pry open our minds in a not necessarily comfortable way.

    I suspect that Colberg and I agree strongly on Ballen, and much more, but I can't always tell, and I wish he would stand up on his own hind legs and make some stronger statements.