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Friday, October 26, 2018

Seize the Mic!

I happened across a remark in a completely different context to the effect that words have no power. The context was such that what the writer clearly meant was some loser yapping on the internet has no power. My immediate reaction was well, propaganda and marketing have power. And so I got to thinking, as I sometimes do.

The difference between some loser yapping on the internet (e.g. me) and actual marketing (propaganda) is that the latter has power specifically because the speaker has, as it were, seized the microphone. People are listening. When @Adolf13938239 starts talking about Jews, nobody cares. When Goebbels did, people cared, because people were listening to Goebbels. When I say that such and such a razor is excellent, nobody cares. When Gillette, or Consumer Reports, says something about razors, people are listening.

It works the same way with Art in general and Photography in particular. It's about seizing the microphone, or having it thrust into ones hands. We all have opinions about what's good and bad, but only people who have the microphone actually get to choose. Szarkowski and Stieglitz, famously, held the mic in the USA with what one might term somewhat mixed results.

Anyways, this leads us around to competitions.

Competitions are pretty much explicitly an attempt by some entity to seize the microphone. It turns out that if you've got some money to throw around, you get to make these choices. If you or I offered a 100,000 euro annual prize for the best political art, or whatever, by golly we'd find the microphone thrust into our clumsy paws. People would be crawling out of the woodwork to help us out (they'd like to control things too, plus, the smell of money). Possession of a large sum of money in no way correlates with taste, however.

Deutsche Börse, for instance, has no taste. Their PR department simply decided that it would be good marketing to sponsor a prize. I guess before that it was Citigroup, about which, well, ditto. The Photographers' Gallery of London is in the mix someplace as well, advising, no doubt pretending that they're the source of taste, of historical knowledge, of Art-Legitimacy for the prize. I have no opinion of TPG, for the record, and this is just a single example which may or may not precisely fit the mold into which I am attempting to thrust it.

These prizes have no legitimacy, basically. They're nothing but an attempt to seize the mic, using money. There is no reason to suppose that anything which wins such a prize is anything good, or bad.

Now, it has always been this way. The moneyed sponsor is as old as, well, as money.

Deutsche Börse, Citigroup, even I dare say The Photographers' Gallery, all differ from John Szarkowski, Alfred Stieglitz, and Lorenzo de' Medici in an vital way. They are corporate entities. Their taste, such as it is, is mediated through committees, who in general are working from some sort of brief. The individual, however justly or unjustly they hold the microphone, at least has room for idiosyncrasy, for whimsy, for taste to penetrate.

Culture is, by and large, the collective taste of individuals. What the corporate entities would like to give us is the individual taste of a collective. The former is culture, the latter is a crummy imitation.

And that's why big-money competitions are bad.


  1. This may be tangential to the subject [is that the correct word?] My major beef with competitions these days is that they all want money from me so that they can look at my submission for five seconds, and then maybe, just maybe, will allow me to mat and frame some prints and at my cost ship them to them. I find this totally unsatisfactory and hence have quit submitting my work.

  2. The old 'Award Winning Photographer' schtick. A desperat attempt to grasp at some kind of legitimacy. How many people really (really with a capital R) care about the photography of other photographers other than photographers who only generally care about their own photography. It's a 3 layer deep inception cesspit. I love photography and hate it in equal measure.

  3. The Nobel prize, the Oscars, The Taylor-Wessing prize, the Man-Booker prize, bla bla. Give me the Razzies and the Ig Nobels anytime. (And I thoroughly agree with you, Chris.)

  4. Hey Andrew, what has happened to links back to commentators’ websites?

    1. I have no idea! Did your name used to lead back to your web site instead of your g+ profile or whatever the heck it's doing now?

      I don't *think* I changed anything, but who knows? I do go poking around in settings now and then. I will go look to see if there's something I might have changed, in the next couple days.

    2. Sorry, I should have said profile. However, I do think it would be nice if one could get to a commentor's web site or blog, or at least profile. If one is going to make comments concerning other people's work, one should be willing to show one's stuff! :)

  5. Ming Thein (I agreed with you that he has no apparent talent) appears to have grabbed a microphone by running a blog, so a lot of money and a competition is not a requirement to get the mic.

    1. Yeah but who cares what Ming Thein says other than boomer corporate professionals and dentists with a a taste for leather, exotic hardwoods and artisan cheese?

    2. Hey, let’s leave the cheese out of this! What has artisan cheese ever done to you?

  6. When commercial entities host such contests, my guess is that it has nothing to do with taste or art, to them it's just another marketing exercise for some purpose or other. I bet most of them outsource the judging because they want no part of it, they just want to be seen handing over a cheque.