Sunday, November 25, 2018

Art? Or Artists?

This piece in the New York Times is getting passed around in the usual circles: 8 Artists at the Paris Photo Fair Who Show Where Photography Is Going.

So, there's a bunch of problems with this piece. Not least it the fact that the piece makes no convincing argument whatever that this is the future of anything, we see nothing even remotely new here. These are all safe, comfortable projects retracing familiar, safe paths.

More important, to my eye, is the fact that almost nothing whatever is said about the work beyond how it is made. There is nothing (ok, there's 1 sentence, I think) about what the work might mean, what it is about. One could argue, I suppose, that since the piece is actually about the artists this makes sense, because there is a certain amount of material on the artists. So and so is gay, so and so is mixed race, and so on and so forth.

But that doesn't explain why there's so much material on how these objects are made.

To my eye it appears to be about equal parts "how it was made" and "who is the artist" with almost but not quite nothing about what the work might actually be about, what the point of making these pictures might conceivably be. While the work might be meaningful, powerful, insightful, I think it is telling that the way the work is being pitched is essentially "cool people using cool processes to make, well, whatever, who really cares?"

Now, this is the New York Times, which has long felt that whatever goddamned random jumble of words they choose to commit to paper is essentially the only thing that matters, but this piece seems especially egregious.

There's also the problem that John Steinbeck didn't live in the Central Valley, so I dunno what Louis Heilbronn is on about. Some combination of wanting to namedrop the big name, and confusion about details.

Anyways, this all seems to play into some kind of Warholian school of brief fame, as opposed to anything about making art that's worth a damn.

When you're talking about Art it's probably not sensible to ignore the presence of the Artist (most of the time). The Artist is hanging about the place. The processes are also lurking around. It makes no sense to talk about a sculpture without acknowledging that it is a sculpture with all the whatever-it-is that might imply in your discussion. Similarly, photographs. Or photographs printed on mulberry paper, wetted, and then sculpted. Sure, these are all real things, and we should not ignore them. They help us to define the edges of the work, if nothing else, in the sense that we don't wind up using the standards and ideas of, say, theater, to talk about a painting.

But you cannot substitute some things for other things. In the end, Art that doesn't provide an Art-like experience is lousy Art.

If you're attempting to generate that Art-like experience through the interestingness of the artist and the process, rather than via the work itself, well that's all well and good. Also, that's called Performance Art, not photography, not sculpture, not painting. Performance. Art.

And even then your performance ought to mean something, ought to have something to say, an opinion, an idea, an emotion. All too often even this is not the case. The name of the game, often, appears to be to dazzle the audience with enough confusion about just what the hell is going on here that they somehow miss the fact that there's no point to the whole operation.

Related to this are some remarks I made on Khadija Saye some time ago. We can discern in the love affair the European Photo Elite had with a bunch of tintypes she made just before her death much the same set of stuff. I argue, convincingly I think, that the very best we can say of these pictures are that they are almost completely opaque. For white euro-derived people like me all we're likely to extract from these pictures is a re-iteration of that oh-so-healthy "Africa! Mysterious Continent!" reaction.

But god damn the Artist has such a Cool story, and the Process is also Cool, and the pictures, well, whatever. Tellingly, all the discussion of this work was about the Artist, her tragic death, and the coolness of the process. Nobody seemed to have a clue about what the pictures might mean, how they might enlarge us, educate us, make us feel. They're just there and let's get back to the tragedy of Grenfell, ok?

I consider it perfectly possible that the work was in-progress, and that had it been completed it might have become a thoroughly remarkable piece of important art. But, as it stands, being a handful of tintypes of things I do not comprehend, and which I see no reasonable way to learn enough to comprehend, I am not seeing it.

If the point is "Hah! Got you, white boy, and your Orientalist reaction!" well, sure, but it's not as if we're lacking in pictures that do that. National Geographic produced 100s or 1000s of magazines filled with Africa! Mysterious Continent! And, to be honest, whatever there is in Saye's pictures, they feel far more sympathetic than that. I don't comprehend them, but they look a lot deeper than some cheap shot against racism, they appear to me a well of meaning that is beyond my grasp. But, I could be wrong, because at the end of the day I don't grasp a single syllable of it. Just as I am pretty sure the Voynich Manuscript isn't a collection of ribald jokes, I feel that Saye's pictures aren't just a cheap shot.

More importantly, nobody else seems to have any idea, and they mainly don't seem to care.

In contrast, I am currently working my way through this photo book, Firecrackers, which while by no means perfect does in fact manage to strike something of a balance between Artist, Process, and Meaning. It's a survey, and some of the work strikes me as better than other work, but in virtually all of it I am getting something out of the pictures. Supplied writing about the Artist and Process, while occasionally swerving dangerously near to the mire of Arty Bollocks, fills in the picture in interesting ways.

So, anyways. It can be done. Maybe not by the NY Times, but it can be.

1 comment:

  1. Dead on. A newspaper commenting on a Photo Fair, what else to expect but rubbish.