Saturday, December 3, 2022

So What The Hell, Huh?

This is a set of hastily written notes responding, loosely, to Jonathan Blaustein's recent column which you can read here, and which includes among other things some angst about the lack of Big Wild Photography Projects.

Let's set the stage.

In the 1970s Susan Sontag kind of makes mainstream some fairly incoherent but very quotable notes on photography in which one of the few actual ideas you can discern is that photography might be kinda problematic. It might be kind of... acquisitive in an unseemly way. At roughly the same time Mulvey invents the idea of male gaze wherein we're seeing a kind of Marxist approach to criticism.

Through the next few decades, we see Marxist criticism applied more broadly, but especially to media. Photography is more than Art it is also Media, so it falls under that category, and is thus a victim of Marxist analysis. See also Stuart Hall. Marxist analysis is... what?

Roughly we can think of this kind of analysis as reducing everything to power relationships, and explaining everything in terms of those relationships. Call it "Critical Theory", call it "gaze", call it "Politics of Representation", call it "de-colonizing", in broad strokes it's all the same. Everything can be reduced to power relationships, and those explain everything.

Simultaneously we see a collapse of art criticism generally. In the present day the newspaper art critics are actually reporting news and gossip from the art industry. Only rarely do they actually stand in front of a piece of art and tell you something about it, mostly they're interested in the motions of money and people through the local museums.

Into this vacuum we see a bunch of people steeped in the aforementioned Marxist theory. Anything that is actually Criticism of an Art Thing rather than just gossip or news tends strongly to do little more than uncover the power relationships involved in making the thing, especially if the thing is not merely art, but media which is to say, photography. In the present day we are seeing almost nothing that counts as actual art criticism of photography, which is not just an indictment of whoever is perceived as having the power. It's basically all been reduced to working out where "up" is and then "punching up."

Well, not all of course, but uncomfortably large amounts of it are. Enough of it is.

This makes it very risky to do big wide-ranging projects. You'll be seen as "up" merely if you can pull that kind of budget and support together, and you're practically certain to fumble something or other and been seen as an oppressing colonialist dickhead whatever. The indictment might even be fair and correct! But once the indictment is made, that's all there will ever be. Success of any kind, even successfully completing all but the most minor work, paints a huge target on your back. Who the hell wants any part of that? You're much safer if you're a struggling artist who somehow can't get the big shows.

At the same time, photography has evolved over the last 20 years, evolved as a cultural entity. Jonathan recites, correctly, the truism that now everyone has a camera, and everyone takes pictures. It is, I think, clear to everyone that... something is different. Photos are somehow more ephemeral, more digital, less studied. As media they've become a different kind of a thing. To compare photography today to photography 50 years ago is to compare television to cinema. It's the same but.. different. The uses are different, the cultural impacts are different, the way they're made is different. They're the same, except for everything.

This lands in the middle of the shittiest era of critical apparatus ever, the "everything is power" tool is the only one left in the box, and it's fucking terrible. It leads nowhere and tells us nothing. Its only function is to punch anyone who accomplishes anything, more or less for the sin of accomplishing something (the only real utility of the tool is that it has a bunch of widgets you can use to justify your punching, but in the end it's just "punching up is awesome")

So we have a new photography, a largely useless critical apparatus, and a population of Fine Art photographers who are justifiably afraid to succeed.

I am not actually real surprised that nobody's doing big hairy-ass high risk projects any more!


  1. How wide is your sample, though? I don't encounter much (if any) photo criticism outside of a handful of enthusiast blogs, mostly run by academics and photographers that reach, maybe, dozens of readers.

    I don't buy, or read the books. JFC are you kidding me?

    You're right, the overall quality is bottom-scraping, with a few exceptions. Is there any kind of a viable demand or market for it?

    1. I dunno, really. I read some criticism? There's not *that* much being written, but I don't read all of it by any means.

      Certainly not all of it is just "punching up" but some of it certainly is. My thesis is that there is *enough* to spook the artists (and I have heard through back channels that at least a few artists are spooked)

    2. Those who have an axe to grind can generally find some hangers-on, which I suppose is sufficient reason.

  2. While there is no doubt than an amorphous Marxist influence lives in contemporary art criticism, I suspect that some, who like Blaustein fancy themselves informed photography critics, are not even aware of the ideologies they propound between the lines of their texts. How could they know? Long ago they eschewed reading for bloviating. At the risk of sounding like a flagging Marxist, note that nothing smacks more of bourgeois elitism than Blaustein's belief in a "massive decline in the fine art and photojournalism communities, due to the rise in photography's global popularity"

    As far as fear of nonconformity is concerned, that seems to be rooted in the human condition.

    1. I don't think you intend to roll Blaustein up with the Marxists, but I should remark that neither do I. His approach to criticism is idiosyncratic (quite different from my idiosyncrasies, and an approach I quite like) but definitely not mere Marxist power-structure analysis.

      To address your second point, I am pretty sure that Blaustein means to say that, as a way of getting a living, selling photographs to Art Collectors has taken a nose-dive in the last decade or so. I don't see him as claiming that photography, as a practice, is in trouble, only as a way of getting a living. The evidence seems to support him on this point.

  3. Actually, I do not associate Blaustein with any particular ideology other than one informed by ignorant, upper middle class first world White privilege.

    You are very generous with Blaustein who, a solipsist par excellence, devoted too many columns to superficial commentary, damning-with-faint-praise usually of photography books by women, and his bizarre "dark humor" remarks like his comparison of New York City rush hour commuters with the Chinese government's repression of the Uyghurs, "locked up in re-education camps, in Western China, where they’re forced to eat pork and renounce their God. ... Happy times!"

    Perhaps the art photography has contracted in recent years. No doubt what passes for art in photography has been reduced to tropes popularized by expensive portfolio reviews and competitions like the photolucida Critical Mass. If so, as a shill for these various events, Blaustein has only himself and his colleagues to blame.

    1. I have, obviously, a different view of Blaustein. On the one hand, I am extremely loathe to shut people down here (the one hard rule is that you can't attack other commenters, and since Jonathan has not weighed in, technically he's fair game.) On the other hand, I don't really want to turn my blog into a place where anyone can just go after whomever in the comments. It's a place for me specifically to attack people I specifically don't like, at length, sometimes with footnotes!

      You're making accusations that demand support, and comments on some rando's blog simply aren't a great place to make those more extended arguments. If you'd like to make a more extended argument and publish it here (for some reason) feel free to email me and we'll talk.

      As to your last paragraph, well, yes. Fine art (in the last century or so at least, Fine Art in the modern sense) seems to always be bunch of trash with a few nuggets of gold mixed in, but nobody can quite agree on what the gold is. I do see people who are, to my eye, doing solid work that is worthy of consideration who are talking about the difficulty of getting paid. Personally, I am on the fence about the validity of the whole enterprise, but I am also loathe to suggest that my friends be rendered unable to feed themselves, so there's a bit of a conflict here.

    2. Thanks for your reply.

      Absolutely, criticism demands justification. From his lens blogging for the New York Times to his weekly aphotoeditor column, over the years Blaustein has enjoyed a large audience. Believing that public figures have a responsibility to their readers, I have posted to my nascent blog ( a few responses to Blaustein's columns, including quotations, links, and the occasional footnote.

      I tagged Blaustein when I posted links to my substack commentaries on Twitter. I assume he read one or more my texts because he soon blocked me.

      Whether or not my criticism of Blaustein's writing is justified, perhaps it is all over the top. After all, in a few years no one will remember his contribution to photography criticism and my remarks will merit nary a footnote.