Recently profiled on Luminous Landscape we find the artist Jessica Eaton, yet another Canadian doing fairly safe and not very interesting photography. No surprise there. While I am not here today to bust Eaton's chops, let us anyways begin with a discussion of her methods which, I assure you, will be relevant to what I am going to say later.
Eaton has done a bunch of different things, all cut more or less from the same cloth, but her most recent series of work is a bunch of color photographs made in the same way. She has a large collection of boxes, all painted neutral grey, which can be nested in to one another. She loads a sheet of color film into her camera, and starts in making many many exposures on the same sheet of film. First she might expose a big box through a blue filter. Next she might place a smaller box inside the big box, and expose the pair through a green filter. The outer box is now colored from both the blue and the green exposure, while the inner one is merely green. Repeat for, well, quite a long time. She gets a composite picture of a bunch of nested squares, all different colors.
The results, which you can look up by googling Cfaal, all pretty much look the same. A bunch of colored, nested, squares. Classic abstract art, produced by willfully difficult and capricious means.
If you poke around to see what has been written about Eaton and her art, it is mostly the same. Breathless discussion of her methods, and the money quote from Eaton which is Sol LeWitt's idea: "you find the most beautiful unobtrusive object that can be used over and over again until it disappears, and the idea becomes the subject" which seems to be the totality of her philosophy of art. It begs the question, what idea is is that's becoming the subject? Is it the idea of the idea becoming the subject? Because that's stupid.
Eaton, apparently, has no ideas, she is merely making attractive, marketable, objects and blathering around the edges to create the impression of something deep. In this, to be sure, Eaton is not alone. This is SOP in her industry, and I will say that her objects are really very attractive.
Putting on my proper critic's hat I more or less immediately observe that Eaton is engaged in a process known as "photomontage" which has a rich history dating back to the early 20th century. A reasonable critical approach might be to note that, and then to sketch out some of the prior Art as it were. Early photomontage was often very political, there was a lot of work on representing, say, the plight (or the nobility) of workers, that sort of thing. There were a lot of pretty robust ideas in play here, which may be why nobody drags out this line for Eaton -- her complete dearth of ideas becomes hideously apparent in this comparison.
But again, this is not particularly Eaton's fault. The vast majority of Art made today is done without any ideas. There do not appear to be any philosophical schools of Art any more. There are no Cubists, Impressionists, Precisionists. There is no analog of Classical or Renaissance art today. It may be simply that the art historians haven't got around to categorizing things, but I suspect this isn't it at all. We appear to be in a period of free-for-all, where artists simply pick and choose whatever they like, defending all with a shrill cry of "well it's all just subjective, innit!!!11!!"
It is naturally in the area of photography where I am perhaps least unqualified to speak. In the Victorian era we had strong philosophical bases, drawn from painting initially and then Emerson trundles up with his basket of ideas (lifted, at least in part from still more painters - the Impressionists). A little later on we see Sadakichi Hartmann leading (?) a charge for straight photography which meets up with Modernism and spins off a bunch of different things each with fairly firm ideas about what is good and what is not. You get Clarence White's school, you get Stieglitz suddenly having a love affair with Paul Strand, you get the f/64 people out west. You see the Europeans doing all kinds of crazy stuff (highly political photomontage, in particular).
I think it is not really a coincidence that the wheels fall off this train right around the time post-modernism rears its profoundly ugly head.
While there are I think more subgenres of postmodernism and related ideas than there ever were practitioners, and the whole mess is infernally complicated and subtle, what seems to have gotten taken away as practical advice is a set of useless bullshit like: there's no such thing as truth or beauty, everything is relative, historical context is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is the text, everything is subjective.
As a basis for a philosophy of art, this sort of thing just turns into an excuse for self-indulgent idiocy.
Even if two people did get together and say "wow, you and I have some of the same ideas about Art, maybe we should work together" it would get torn down, I suspect, by others. Two people sharing an idea sounds a bit absolutist, doesn't it? Sounds a bit like you're trying to shove your dogma down our throats, eh? One person with an idea is just getting in touch with his feelings, two people is a school. Schools are dangerous, bad, and not at all in line with getting in touch with your feelings.
Your average bloke with a camera, of course, doesn't cite postmodernism. Still, he tends to become very grumpy if you say "look, what you're doing is Pictorialism, and there's a whole body of thought on that you might want to check in to before racing off too far down that road." No, he's finding his own damn way, thank you very much, and he doesn't need your help to produce his hopelessly naive and derivative pictures. He is justified not by his own research into postmodernism, but by the whole environment that is informed by postmodernism (I think).
Perhaps this bloke reads the profile of Jessica Eaton. It may not occur to him that she hasn't got any ideas, or any underlying philosophy, but he certainly isn't going to learn anything like serious artists work from an underlying philosophy from a profile of Eaton, or really of most other serious artists working today. So, he will see no need to have such a thing, and attempts to supply him with one will seem pointless and kind of egg-headed to him. Also, of course, a baseline philosophy of do whatever the hell you want, it doesn't matter is pretty much always going to sell well.
However, it turns out that one of the distinctions between second-raters and first-raters, even today, is a doggedly persistent attachment to an idea, or ideas. Whether you love or hate Sally Mann, Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson, if you have anything more than a very slight familiarity with them you would have no trouble articulating a few lines on what underlying ideas seem to be informing their work.
It is this essential feature that, to me, seems to illustrate the difference between the bush-league artist, the second-rater, and the first-rater.
I have spent quite a lot of time in museums filled with second rate art, and quite a lot of time in museums with the other sort. There's a difference. The former is usually incoherent and, when something like an idea peeks through, it is generally whiny, derivative, and un-nuanced. One-note might also apply. The latter feels quite different, whether or not you can articulate the ideas on the spot you feel them, and if you're interested enough and take the time you can later articulate them pretty clearly.
Having ideas is of course no guarantee of success. Even dogged and singular attachment to one or more ideas doesn't seem to be much of a guarantee. The converse, however, is true. The top tier artists tend to have ideas, and to stick to them. Even in the cruel light of postmodernism, they are distinctly different, distinctly better, and people want their art more.
What we lack in this era is the kind of schools that used to turn up. Around a Cindy Sherman in 1920, we'd see a crew of enthusiasts who share her ideas on "male gaze" or whatever, more or less, and they'd rent a house together and start bashing out photographs at a mad pace, photographing one another and writing angry screeds and getting drunk and fighting. Out of this maelstrom you'd get a handful of very strong artists, and a larger handful of hangers-on making shabby (but at least still idea-rich) copies of the better ones. Sherman's work would have come out quite different, because it would have been informed by late night conversations with peers who were willing not only to drink with her, but punch her, and who were in the end just as good at this as she is.
Somehow this doesn't happen any more. Is there some cult of individuality in Art Schools? I think there is at least a frantic desire not to be seen as doing the same thing as someone else, which can be a gigantic handicap, and really prevents the kind of wine-fueled collaboration and cross-fertilization that from time to time has happened in the past. Can I somehow construct a labored indictment of postmodernism out of this, as well?
Not so far! But I do kind of want to launch a school of photography, except I don't know how.
I like drinking, and I could probably manage a little fighting, so I'm set.