It occurred to me just now (so this might not make sense) after thinking for a moment about Colberg's recent video, and some other remarks I've read, that the maybe the point of the contemporary photobook is its references to other artists and other books. Maybe that's why they seem so devoid of meaning in and of themselves.
It puts me in mind of Jonathan Swift, the satirist most known for Gulliver's Travels. That book is dense with references to current events and people, readers at the time recognized the characters as this politician or that, recognized the controversies as thinly veiled contemporaneous debates about this and that. The book survives because it's a walloping fun read even if you don't get the references, though.
He also wrote a thing called Tale of a Tub which is also a rollicking tale packed with references, but which is almost completely incomprehensible if you don't get the references.
Tale of a Tub has survived largely as an exemplar of Swift's talent as a satirist. Nobody reads it for fun.
To be honest, while I didn't like Schmidt's 89/90 I thought there was a lot more going on there than Colberg let on. There's repeated references to walls and barriers (duh), there's a fair amount of formal relationship one frame to the next, and so on. What got me going, though, is how Colberg ignored all that in favor of citing what he felt were references to other work, either by Schmidt or by other photographers.
It is as if he's understanding Gulliver's Travels in terms of its satire, its referential nature, and ignoring the story itself. Which, you know, is an approach. It's not an accessible approach, and it ignores a fair bit of the work. Swift actually did both, you know, he wrote a story and made it a satire. You can get at it either way and, optionally, attempt to attack it as a whole, if you want to make sense of it.
The example of Tale of a Tub ought to stand as a warning here. If your work, whatever it is, leans too heavily on its connections to everything else that's going on right now, then it will inevitably fail the test of time. You cannot rely on the structure surrounding your work to remain intact, indeed the opposite is true. Most of your references will fall away in to obscurity, and if you don't want whatever you just made to descend with them, it had best have some bones enough to stand up by itself.
If indeed I have correctly characterized the world of MFA Art here, it appears that it is — by design — creating bodies of disposable art, which is more or less the opposite of its stated goal.