Saturday, October 20, 2018

How We Judge

Specifically, how do we judge pictures. But everything else, too.

First off, most people don't. They're interested in the content, and as long as they can make out what the content is, that's pretty much all they care about.

No, I mean those of us who judge pictures as pictures.

I have gone in at length in years past about how social groups rapidly converge on very specific standards, which are then pretty much all that is in play when it comes to members of the group judging pictures. My recent experiment on ARS Beta only reinforced my ideas on that front, and were surprising to me since it turns out that almost no social interaction is required to produce a remarkably restrictive community standard.

Consider for a moment that in a larger sense, we are all members of society, societies, members of overlapping and expanding circles of society stretching outward to "all living things" or wherever else you might choose to stop.

Art is a construct of those overlapping groups of humanity, with their conflicting, intersecting, overlapping, and evolving ideas of what constitutes Art, Good Art, Interesting Art. It cannot, as near as I can tell, be otherwise, and so to complain that pictures are judged based merely on social standards is in a way absurd. On what other basis, after all, would we judge?

Well, when society is working properly, ideas flow around from person to person. We attend to ideas that we see, or hear, or read, we internalize those ideas, and then we produce (sometimes) our own notions based on everything that is in us. Things come in to me, and things go out of me. Ideas meet, join or repulse one another, evolve, and become something new. Sometimes the new idea is recognizably the old one, or a rejection of it, sometimes it is a more complex synthesis of stuff.

There are, as I see it, two basic forces operating here. These exist in each of us as individuals, and also reflected in society as a whole.

One force seeks to support, to clarify, to exalt a specific interlocking set of ideas. This force argues against other ideas, seeks to suppress them. It rejects ideas that do not fit, in the service of its singular goal. This force is comforting, tempting. It promises simplicity and clarity, it offers us the answers. See also politics, religion.

The other force seeks novelty, contradiction, the energy of hybridization. It welcomes other ideas, seeks to integrate them, to blend them with that which already is. This is a lot more fun, but can be uncomfortable for people.

Neither is particularly good or evil, both are necessary. Without the first, the ideas flowing through society flit lightly from place to place, never becoming clear, never becoming a plan of action, never really producing greatness, a kind of foolish and fluffy anarchy. Without the second, ideas ossify into dogma, enforced by thick-headed authoritarian brutes.

The trouble with social media is that is it encourages the creation of the second scenario, the one without the fluffy anarchy of hybridization. More exactly, social media enables the creation of infinitely many islands of this scenario. That uncomfortable business of contradiction and disagreement can be muted, blocked, banned, unfollowed, or sometimes just bullied out of existence. The single unified voice, preaching a single unified and simple dogma, is as popular on Facebook as it is in a church of a political system. ARS Beta has shown us that you can eliminate virtually every aspect of these systems, except the single "win approval" aspect, and the result is precisely the same. A single authoritarian voice arises, with alarming swiftness, and the interesting part of the game ends.

The single voice allows us a simple set of standards by which we can judge.

Pictures, here, are judged pretty much exclusively on how closely the resemble other pictures that the unified and authoritarian voice tells us are good pictures.

This part is pretty much normal. Why is the Mona Lisa great? Because authoritarian voices, which are to an infinitesimal degree our own voices, tell us so.

The part that is not ok is when nothing else is a good picture, when that fluffy and foolish anarchy is eliminated almost entirely. Nothing new turns up. The ossified ideas simply stiffen, cool, and simplify further.

It is from this impulse that we derive some many terrible rules of composition. These "rules" are always -- always -- presented to us specifically as methods by which one can make pictures which resemble pictures drawn from the canon of authoritarian-blessed pictures.

At this point I will crawl out on to a limb and see what happens.

The vast majority of people who style themselves Serious Photographers appear to be men who like technical things. The lean toward rule-based solutions to problems. They lean, in fact, toward that authoritarian impulse that seeks the simple answers, that like pictures that look like other pictures. Photography communities both online and offline tend to be dominated by these people, and are, to be blunt, pretty fucking toxic.

The ugly truth is that most people think fascism is a good idea -- if they can be in charge.

Separate from that are people who actually are Serious Photographers. These people embrace both sides of the business, the anarchy and the authority, in various measures.

Interestingly, the male dominance drops a lot over here. Not, I think, because women are better, but because women are repulsed by the authoritarian communities and seek other places to be. They find more balanced places to be, and to make their Art.


  1. I don't think you're really that far out on a limb here Andrew. Your characterization of the population of Serious Photographers (real or self-styled) seems pretty solid. The only thing I'd add is that many of the self-styled variety fall into the circle I label "like playing with camera gear" rather than the circle I label "like making and appreciating photographs". There's a bit of overlap between those two circles, but plenty of (male) people are in the former rather than the latter.

    And to your point about ideas and how they float around in society, I'm almost certain I'm just feeding back an idea I first read on your blog! That's wonderfully circular if I'm right.

  2. You pretty much fucking nailed it. Thanks for a good read.

  3. I don't see how any project with a name that reads (to a Brit, anyway) as "arse beater" can be other than satirical in intent. "Arse baiter" in the US fashion is not much better.

    That aside, what you have identified is the tension between what are often named "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" tendencies in society and art; in Europe, often seen as the conflicted, dialectical struggle between the stiff-necked Protestant north, and the easy-going, Catholic south. See Thomas Mann, Rilke, etc.

    The "techie hobby" element of photography does add a whole extra gendered layer, though, I agree. But I can't resist suggesting, once again, that you should just stay the hell away from those internet forums. Think of them as porn sites for sad, lonely men...


    1. I have to say, I feel rather excellent about the notion that I am recapitulating Thomas Mann. And I don't participate in forums (well, ok, every now and then I post on LuLa but mainly because I write for Kevin now and then), I just look in from time to time to see if there are any changes.

    2. "I just look in from time to time"... That's what they all say... I have *no idea* how this stuff got onto my machine!