Thursday, September 6, 2018

Up The Garden Path

In about 1953 Nicholas Monsarrat published a short story entitled "Up The Garden Path." My precis might be off in a few particulars, it has been some time since I read it. It goes roughly like this. A successful writer meets with a young man who wishes to become a writer, and who has a chapter written which is excellent. The successful writer lends the young man money to support him while he finishes his novel. Then he lends him more. The touches keep coming, and eventually it is revealed that the young man has been partying quite vigorously on the money, and at the same time has been borrowing funds from other successful authors and so forth on the strength of the same chapter of writing he's been showing around.

There is a falling out, naturally, shouting and tearing up of agreements and so forth. Some time later, the young man's novel appears. It is brilliant, it is vast, and it relies on among other things an in-depth experience with London nightclubs and the party scene therein. It becomes clear to the successful writer that the young man had in fact been writing, researching, working his ass off the entire time. There is an awkward meeting, and the story concludes.

The point to take away here is that this particular work, the novel the young man was writing, was built upon actual experience, on a life fully lived, which when combined with his artistic skill and a great deal of hard work, produced something great.

Looking over work by all the young turks of the sort that Jörg Colberg is so fond of, and having examined to some degree the world they inhabit, I get the notion that these people in general have no particularly rich life to draw on. They hang around with other young artists, occasionally trying to suck up to publishers, curators, and so on. They design one another's books, they host little pop-up galleries of one another's work (I'm not just an artist, I'm a curator!) They hustle, constantly, to get little grants and fellowships and whatnot.

On the face of it, their world appears to be extremely narrow, and rather insular. Or at any rate it is consistent with generally available information that is it so.

While it is possible that they are, some of them, living lives filled with breadth and richness, it is not clear when exactly they are fitting it in. Further, it does not turn up in their work at all.

All that is required here, though, is that a critical mass of them be basically boring people with narrow lives, fully immersed in the incestuous circle jerk. If enough of the players live this way, their work will set the tone, will circumscribe the set of tropes and ideas that can be deployed. And thus we end up with endlessly self-referential work that is about the artists, and occasionally about Art. Very little about bigger ideas, or even small ideas that exist outside that narrow world.

Occasionally work pops up which boils down to "I took a field trip to the real world, here are some snapshots of the horror that exists out there."

It strikes me that the names Sally Mann and Cindy Sherman almost never turn up in these circles. If there's a sufficiently large list of female photographers being constructed generally one or both will make the cut. This seems on the face of it to be rather odd. If we are obsessed with ideas like Female Gaze and Women In Photography and feminist ideas and so on, as every single person in this little social set is (or at any rate claims to be) surely these two names would pop up a lot. Cindy Sherman especially, who has mined these exact areas out in depth for decades.

It cannot be that these people are unaware of these artists, who are both predecessors and contemporaries.

Regardless of the reasons for the narrowness of the work, it is worth suggesting that if you wish, yourself, to make work that is not narrow, you should get out and live a little. See things, immerse yourself, have experiences. Absorb them fully, a quick field trip does not count.

And then work.


  1. Ah. This is a perfect synopsis of what is missing from photographic art of our times. Not in all fields but especially in work derived from gestation in academia.

  2. Not just photography. The insular world of the art academy is more concerned with the verbal than the visual. The visual is there to provide proof of concept, as if poor work can be elevated though using enough words. As David Smith said, " The language is image".

  3. What Kirk said. I'd add that most of these people are simply too young to have developed independent opinions about anything other than being young. If you have built a career out of that, what happens when you stop being young? Did you read the feature on Wolfgang Tillmans by Emily Witt in the New Yorker? Exhibit A...