Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Remarkable Sentence

In Jörg Colberg's latest in which he reviews a book that concerns me not in the slightest, he includes this startling sentence:

All of this prevents the viewer from ever getting to the “Oh, I get it” that’s marring so much archival work.

I do not know what to make of this sentence. Is there a typo somewhere I cannot mentally unwind? Does he mean that this applies only to picture books drawn specifically from archives? Is he referring only to a sudden sensation of "getting it?" Does he perhaps mean some sort of sense of "Oh, it's just that. That's stupid?" All these strike me as possible.

What is also possible is that this is a clue to a larger philosophy, namely that art should not be comprehensible. It suggests that if you arrive at a point of understanding, the work is marred.

This would certainly explain why Jörg seems to have a genuine fondness for books that appear to me to be incomprehensible trash. It would also explain his singular inability to articulate in any meaningful way why he likes one thing and dislikes another.

Regardless of what Jörg actually means here, this has caused me to put on my thinking cap. I have, for quite some time now, felt that the entire point of Art is that it is from time to time comprehensible. I judge everything from picture books to symphonies based on whether I can develop some kind of understanding, whether I "get it." When I don't, on good days, I am charitable and assume that perhaps it's just me, and on bad days I dismiss whatever it is as unmitigated trash.

It never occurred to me that there might be some other criteria upon which one might judge these things. I am by no means convinced that there is, it strikes me that absent meaning all that remains is the technical details, the formal details of the construction of the thing. I am certain Jörg does not mean this, here. Worrying about balance, or leading lines, is far too bougie for any proper academic, I suspect. It's certainly too bougie for me.

So.. what else might there be? If we postulate that when Jörg says something is good he does not mean that he gets it, or that it has elegant formal qualities, what on earth could be (or some notional other critic) mean?

Maybe there is something here. I don't have all the answers, that's for sure.


  1. First time I read the sentence I guess I put a mental comma after it" and it seemed to be saying the opposite of what you are reacting to, i.e., saying that there's this something that is preventing viewers from 'getting it' in most archival work these days (a bad thing). But then I went back and read it again, without the comma, and I see your point: it's a good thing that people don't 'get it.' I suppose in context I would have got that.
    I used to read Jörg some years ago but haven't for some time. He reminded me of the Village Voice movie critic Andrew Sarris whom I read many decades ago in order to seem knowledgeable about The Cinema. I'd get the general points, but it was a hard slog.
    By the way, I am having a problem with your blog in that the technical fundamentals you're calling bougie are often the very qualities that move me. The political, pornographic, newsworthy, etc connotations are for me the phony, sentimental aspects.

    1. You are, of course, welcome to like whatever you like about photographs! That is OK!

      This blog is, however, about what *I* think is important about pictures.

      I agree that a heavy hand can come across mawkish and/or stupid. There is a middle path in which meaning is expressed, but with ambiguity and grace. The point is not to say THINK THIS, FOOL! not to say merely LOOK AT THE PRETTY PICTURE! but to provoke the viewer to think for themselves a bit.

    2. ..." to provoke the viewer to think for themselves a bit".... OMG, are you advocating _thinking_?

    3. I would not say that I am advocating it. But there are freaks and weirdos in the world who "think" and we should treat them kindly, to their faces.

  2. Replies
    1. I doubt it, although all things are possible. Jörg's usage is a little off occasionally, but he's perfectly fluent.

    2. I've encountered more than a few 'interesting' constructs sprinkled through his scrivenings.