Thursday, February 4, 2021

Art as Art History

Let's make fun of Brad Feuerhelm, because it's so much fun to do that.

He wrote a review of Jörg Colberg's photobook, Vaterland which if you want to buy it you should probably buy it from Colberg himself. It is at least possible that he (Colberg) is earning out a pre-payment by selling books, so you should help a brother out. If you can't work out his contact info, touch base with me. I continue to not have anything I consider a coherent position on the book, so after I make fun of Brad I'll say some stuff about Art History, stuff that talks around the book without (I hope) confessing too much of a specific position on the book.

If you read to the end you will note that this piece appears to contradict some remarks I have made in the past on the lack of "schools" in photography. Yup. It sure does. Onwards.

Here's is Brad's Review of Vaterland. It is Brad in full Bradness, an amazing wall of gibberish. Let us select a few sentences.

Fascist architecture relies on the power of ages, of great empire to act as a catalyst for which it builds its own contemporary power.

Ok, so fascist architecture relies on something, sure. The power of ages, and either the power of great empire, or great empire itself, all of which are probably intended to be the same thing said different ways. What does it rely on it for? It relies on it to act as a catalyst. But wait, for which it... etc. The architecture is building its contemporary power for, on behalf of, a catalyst? So the ages thing is acting as a catalyst, and the architecture thing is building its power for the same catalyst?

I mean, I guess I could see that the architecture is building its own contemporary power for the power of ages, somehow, but what on earth the catalyst is doing in there is anyone's guess. Nothing is ever catalyzed in this mess, that's for sure. In the end, this sentence does not appear to mean anything at all, it's just mouth noises about fascism, architecture, and power.

This sentence introduces, by my count, five objects. The rest of the paragraph uses the pronoun "it" consistently, without giving us much help on which of the five things "it" refers to. Brad's favorite device, the floating pronoun, in full and glorious display like some sort of demented linguistic Betta fish. It does become sort of clear that Brad probably means "fascist architecture" eventually, if we read on.

It is a book that points to the historical while also raises the mast of concern for our present moment in which we seem to be back pedalling towards defensiveness, xenophobia and strong arm politics.

I just want to point out the phrase raises the mast of concern which Brad is using as if it were idiomatic. It is idiomatic, but it means "to have an erection" according to google. While I am concerned about these things, I am not, in fact, having an erection of concern about them and I don't think anyone else is. He probably means "flag" but who can be sure? There are some other problems with this sentence, but let us forgive a minor proof-reading sin or two in the spirit of brotherly love.

Obsessed with immigration and the right to German-ness, the AFD like most right-wing ideologies prevaricates its position based on fear-mongering and shallow platitudes about national character.

Here I merely want to point out prevaricates which Brad is using as a transitive verb, apparently under the impression that "to prevaricate" means something like "to base" or "to support" but wobblier. I guess you could argue that he's pushing the limits of language in creative and powerful ways here, but it just comes out sounding dumb.

Now, I could go on and on, but I'll stop now. Brad comes across like a non-native speaker of English, but he's from Wisconsin. He can talk like a perfectly normal human being, I've heard him. His trouble is that he writes well past his vocabulary, his own command of language. While there are no doubt obscure syndromes and injuries that could have led him here, the most likely scenario is that he simply hasn't read a lot.

He might be able, with some slight effort, to provide the definition of "to prevaricate" but he does not instinctively know that it's an intransitive verb. He hasn't read it in-context more than a few times. Ditto his weird "mast" non-idiom, and so on. He might be a fine artist and curator, and he could probably write perfectly well if he'd stop reaching for the stars of mighty lyricism.

Given that he presents as an unlettered dope, it makes it difficult to take what he's actually saying very seriously. Some random dope's ideas about how fascism functions are, frankly, not very interesting.

In this review, in particular, he is attempting to explain Colberg's book to us in terms of a kind of secret code of fascism embedded in architecture. He starts from the notion that fascism in these modern times is Very Sneaky, it hides itself. The near-continuous outbursts of fascist/authoritarian bullshit we see across the globe are, per Brad's explanations, both anomalous and merely the tip of the iceberg.

Fascists and fascism are many things, but sneaky is not one of them. Yes, some authoritarians do look like yoga teachers, but she tops the leggings and cozy sweater with a red hat and she posts videos on Facebook in which she rants QAnon theories. She's not hiding. Fascists are loud and proud, that's their whole deal.

Brad's ahistorical and slightly bonkers theory is offered as an explanation for Vaterland which is, we are to understand, revealing to us the secret codes of modern fascism as hidden in architecture. I guess? The only reason he postulates a secret code of fascism is so that Colberg's book can provide a key to it.

This is where we finally get around to Art as Art History.

Colberg's photographs, to my eye, say nothing — directly — whatever about fascism. What they are is fairly well-made tracings of other pictures from a school I have called "I hate Germany" which includes the Mahlers, Michael Schmidt, a tranche of the Düsseldorf school, and so on. Glum, flat, black and white pictures of distinctly European stuff and people. This is very chic in Art Photo circles. It has the singular advantage of being trivially easy to bang out.

(Note that this isn't a "my kid could do that," my kids most assuredly could not do that. But any competent technician with an eye for form, and an eye for tonal placement, can do it more or less on demand and in industrial quantities.)

Insofar as Vaterland's photos mean anything, they mean it because they refer to other photographs. There is a distinct tradition that Colberg is working in here, and this is how at least some Art is made these days. The meaning of this piece of Art is mainly derived from the references to Other Art. This mechanic is, I believe, explicitly taught in Art School.

The Mahlers made a bunch of pictures about how shitty German small cities are, so if you make a bunch of pictures that look kinda like that, you get a "Germany sucks" subtext for free. At least the vanishingly small population of cognoscenti that are the only people you care about will get it.

This is the construction of Art as Art History. Rather than messing about actually representing things or inventing things or whatever, and leaving it to Art Historians to work out where you ripped off all the ideas, you just make work that's entirely, explicitly, ripped off. The work itself is essentially an empty cipher, with just enough content to position it Art Historically, and most of that positioning is in the artist's bio and statement. You can tell who they're ripping off by reading all their "texts" (he said, bitterly) and you don't really even have to look at the pictures.

The only substantive part of Brad's review, therefore, is when he cites Arendt and Schmidt. The reference to Sander is absurd, and was stuck in there only out of some combination of ignorance and a desire to stroke Colberg's ego. However, Arendt and Schmidt are indeed influences that matter to Vaterland. I know this because I have read a lot of Colberg's "texts" (he said, bitterly.) The references are the meaning of the book, at least in large strokes.

This is, ultimately, why I don't care all that much about Vaterland itself (though I am apparently endlessly fascinated by what surrounds it.) I like photographs whose meaning is rooted mostly in their content. This excludes a surprising amount of photography, but among the genres are abstract photography, and photography of this sort. Photos which are not defined substantially by the real, recognizable, objects in the frame strike me as anti-photographic, as a re-interation of the Pictorialist Sin.

The business where Brad tries to connect the actual content of the pictures to something in the real world is not merely wrong, badly written, and idiotic, it is to completely misunderstand how this sort of project functions. It's not Art, it's Art History.

I think this disconnect is quite broad. It seems to me that photography, at least, is infested with people who simply don't have any notion of the many ways the medium works. These guys are analyzing it in terms of "leading lines" and these other guys in terms of content, and on and on. Sometimes the analysis aligns with the work, and other times it doesn't, but it seems pretty random.

It's like we've got diesel mechanics, watchmakers, and plumbers all running around. There's diesel engines, watches, and plumbing, but the diesel guy just uses his diesel knowledge no matter what he's working on, and doesn't even seem to know it's a watch, or plumbing. Ditto the plumbers and watchmakers.

From the outside, watching some guy trying to bleed the injectors of a watch, or calibrate the complications on a toilet, is both weird and kind of entertaining.


  1. "a school I have called "I hate Germany""

    I totally do not understand this. Germany has produced some really interesting and dynamic, modern artists. George Grosz and Joseph Beuys spring to mind, but there are many, many others (Sigmar Polke is a personal favourite).

    WTF is up with these photographers though? Jeesh.

  2. Deliberately banal imagery like this has its roots in a lot of excellent mid-century work - Michael Schmidt, Petra Wittmar, Heinrich Riebesehl, Wilhelm Schurman in Germany, and in America the so-called 'New Topographics' photographers and those who followed them. It's not easy work to love - early audiences found it boring, as do a lot of contemporary viewers - because it seems to cut against everything we expect a photograph to do, which is to present us with a slice of the real that we find interesting to look at.
    But to suggest that the only scaffold for enjoying it is some glassy-eyed adherence to the tenets of Art History (which isn't the monolith you might think it is) is a bit unfair. It's a legitimate way of seeing the world through a camera, and the fact that you don't 'get' it is fine, but it doesn't necessarily follow on that it can or should be dismissed with a sweep of the sceptre. I mean, I hate free jazz - for me, it is the musical equivalent of being beaten up - but that doesn't really justify dismissing it as tuneless nonsense made and listened to by pseuds who worship at the feet of Ornette Coleman.
    Colberg's book has some nice photos. He can pack a frame reasonably well and there's a nice calm sensibility flowing through it. Feuerhelm's writing, on the other hand, is widely accepted as nonsense (it's still really entertaining to read your attempts to parse it, though - don't stop!).

    1. It is not my intention to dismiss banal photography. I know about some of it, and I "get" some of it, though it's not my favorite.

      My contention is that if you stick a normal human with normal western cultural baggage in front of a bunch of New Topographics prints, they have a fair chance at working out what the artists are going for. "I think these guys are pretty mad about them ugly houses" or whatever.

      If you stick that same human in front of Colberg's photos, he'll come up with "soothing" or "that one's witty" and "she's very pretty" but I do not think they'll come up with Colberg's intended meaning: a critique of fascism.

      Brad is right about the answer, he's read the tin same as I have. He's wrong to go looking for it in the photos, because it ain't there.

      To extract Colberg's intended meaning you have to read the outside of the tin, and to "get" it you have to -- I postulate, because I am certainly not going to do it -- become familiar with the Art History of the "I hate Germany" school of banal photos, and it probably wouldn't hurt to read Arendt.

      This is, I think, by intention.

      Colberg is working in a hermetically sealed world with its own visual language, its own codes, which is among other things designed to exclude dumbshits like me. I'm ok, because the hash and hot girls are all out here.

      To "get" New Topographics, a reasonably well educated westerner can just look at the pictures. The intended meaning is there. To "get" Colberg's photos, in the same way, is an Art Historical exercise, and that is Brad's error.

      Now, authorial intent isn't the be-all and end-all, if you find Colberg's photos to have a "calm sensibility" well, that's nice. I see that too.

      Colberg intends them to be unsettling, which suggests that there's at least a slight disconnect (and I see the unsettling, as well, but I think because I have spent a *little* time with the "I hate Germany" school, and also I read the outside of the tin).

      Photos are generous, much more generous than jazz, to my mind. There's usually something to like.

      But Brad and I are both referring to the authorial intention, here, in this case. I probably could have made that more clear in the original remarks, but the whole "so what *meaning* am I talking about here?" caveat is kind of exhausting, so I tend to wing it and hope people can follow along.

    2. I hear you. But let me bring up another analogy here - colour field painting, for instance. To the 'average' observer, aka my Dad, they represent something that he could easily have done on a Sunday afternoon with a few leftover tins of house paint. But conventional ideas about painterly 'skill' weren't the point. Certain American painters in the 1950s (Newman, Rothko, Noland, Frankenthaler etc.) were battling out some ideas about painting that weren't all that easy to understand if you weren't part of their Sunday afternoon coffee club. Put simply, it wasn't just about what the result looked like, it was about the decisions (structural, aesthetic, technical etc.) that were made on the way there. And those battles paved the way for some really interesting and significant developments in painting that followed - for some, they validated a move away from representational art; for others, they were the touchpaper for a total rejection of institutional/elitist art and all its trappings and they laid the groundwork for later developments in Pop Art and 'postmodern' art practices.

      And 70 years on, plenty of people without an art degree know more or less what abstract painting is, even if they don't really like it. The same goes for the New Topographics stuff - it's legible in the present partly because we've got enough distance to look back and see the anxiety in those images. At the time, most people just thought they looked like real estate agent's photographs.

      Now, to get back to Colberg's photographs ... I'm not sure he rates a place next to Rothko or Baltz in the pantheon of the great and the good, but he's doing something similar. The fact that his work is 'somewhat opaque' [cough] without a detailed artist's statement and a copy of the Coles Notes to 'The Origins of Totalitarianism', is problematic. I'm not a huge fan of work that comes bundled with a 75-page instruction manual. However, I could be wrong about this (I don't know him personally) but I don't think he intends his work specifically to make anyone feel like a dumbshit. The suburb of photoland that he inhabits is a bit of a gated community (or a circle jerk, if you're feeling mean and cynical) but the idiom he's working in I think has a broader reach than you might imagine. In a way (and I'm being pretty generous here) it's the colour field painting of photography - it's not necessarily about being as generous with the visual end of things as, say, Henri Cartier Bresson. Some refer to it broadly as the 'new topographics' aesthetic, which is to say - work that deliberately sets out to understimulate the eye. Work that doesn't delight, and may even perplex and annoy.

      Like Michael Ashkin, for instance - who I note is another favourite of yours. His stuff is not for the faint-hearted. Check out some of the work that South African photographer Jo Ractliffe shot in Angola between about 2008 and 2013. It's the banal aesthetic at its most sublime and powerful best - I might be wrong but I don't think you need to know much about the context to feel terribly unsettled by her work, in a way that Colberg's doesn't come close to.

    3. I guess there's a handful of ways work can "acquire meaning" and it's always some mixture of the artist's fiat, the Art Historical tracings of influence, and the work itself. Probably some others. Anyways.

      For sure dense Art Historical readings do leak out into the world. Some of these ideas make the leap and become part of that "pretty normal western cultural baggage." It's possible that the Art History that drives Colberg's work will be commonplace and well known in 100 years and lots of people will say "oh, yeah, critique of fascism, obviously."

      I think there remains a distinction. In this case, and arguably in the case of New Topographics, it's a private language becoming well known, the way slang can enter the common lexicon. The meaning assigned to the word "homeboy" is a construct, whether only a few people know it, or whether everyone does.

      This is different, at least in degree if not kind, from meanings which derive more from content, "Migrant Mother" says something like "sad women, probably poor" based almost entirely on content. No private, or public, constructed visual language needed. A cow might miss the meaning, but merely being human will get you over the hump to the basics.


      Colberg doesn't personally intend to make me feel dumb, but he is working in as you say a suburb that is a bit gated. The sealing off from guys like me is a side effect of other activities, but I think it's generally seen as a benefit.

      First of all, I'm kind of a pain in the ass, and second of all, the obscurity stands in for a sort of seriousness and depth.

      Let me re-iterate though that I don't think there's anything objectively wrong with this. It's a little like writing Star Trek fanfic in Klingon, obscure, insular, and kind of weird, but there's no reason it can't be excellent when taken on its own terms. If you read Klingon and are a Star Trek fan, then you're inside, and if the story is superb, then it's superb.


      As for Ashkin I can't stand that guy's photography, but I do respect his "fuck you" attitude. He's made two books (that I know of) both basically shot in an afternoon, wrapped up in some conceptual bullshit that appears to be just as lazily slapped out. He's got a firm grasp on "look, I say it's Art, and I have authority, so it's Art, screw you."

      Which doesn't make it *bad* per se. I don't like it, but I have absolutely slapped out things I like very much indeed, and which I think are excellent, in less time. The fact that it's fast says "fuck you" to the overthinkers, and that's good. The fact that it's of banal shit with no conceivable point, well, I don't like it much, but that's just an opinion.

    4. I think you'll be interested (or disgusted? or amazed?) to learn that he actually takes quite a bit of time with his work. He's got three books out that I know of, and I can state with confidence that none of them were shot in an afternoon. I actually love his work but as you may have guessed I've got a soft spot for that kind of stuff.

    5. My memory, possibly flawed, is that HORIZONT was shot on a single day trip in Berlin. Which does not, of course, preclude any amount of effort after the fact.

      Were It Not For has the same sensibility, and you can in fact see that at least some pairs were shot as "click-click" moments which certainly opens the door to "well, maybe the whole thing was just clickclickclick for a day or two"

      Regardless, if there is more structure and depth to this work than meets the eye of a more or less regular jerk like, say, me, I think that supports a "hermetically sealed world of meaning" model. If you need a secret decoder ring to see why it's not just a bunch of random snaps, then ultimately, who cares? It's just for the cognoscenti, and they're welcome to it as far as I'm concerned.

      For further commentary on this, I suggest a quick examination of the PREVIEW available for one of my projects.

      You can skip the opening essay if you like, but you should probably read the remarks at the end, to make sense of it.

    6. Anonymous here - didn't mean to walk away from the discussion, I just got undertowed by work. will resume anon.

  3. "the tenets of Art History"

    What tenets? Art history, properly understood, encompasses everything anybody ever made, in every culture from the beginning of time. Or did you read the Coles Notes?

    Far from being a monolith, art history is a vast, sprawling, chaotic mess!

  4. Yeah, David, I read the Coles Notes [eyeroll]. Thanks for microfocusing on one semantic misstep and using it as a springboard for an insult. I'll look elsewhere for adult discussions.

  5. Anonymous says "Feuerhelm's writing, on the other hand, is widely accepted as nonsense." I agree that it's nonsense, but I'm not sure how widespread that view is. I actually think many people take his writing pretty seriously. But its influence is hard to gauge. In any case, like Anonymous I enjoy your attempts to parse its meaning. To me it's just a blank firehose of big vocabulary words, maybe closer to abstract impressionism than logic?

  6. The Unbearable Bradness of Brad

    "All options are on the table in most cases and it will be hard to separate the magnets of my thoughts into the categorically frustrated appeal of your disappearance."