Monthly Archives: January 2013

Irony and Fashion

Irony:  don’t let yourself be controlled by it, particularly when you are not actually writing.  In the moments when you are are, try to use it as one more means of getting at life.  When irony is used as a pure instrument of thought, it is pure, and there is no need to be ashamed of it.  But when you sense it is becoming too intimate, and distrust the growing friendship, then embark on great and serious matters, in the face of which it becomes puny and helpless.  Try to get at the depth of things – that is one place irony never goes down to. . . .

– Rainer Maria Rilke

When Robert Bly quoted this passage in his magazine, The Sixties (originally, The Fifties, and later, The Seventies, etc.), much of the poetry favored by the New York publishers, The New York Review of Books, and the Northeastern academics was dry, intellectual, allusive, ironic.  In the same issue of his magazine, Bly published his influential essay called “The Dead World and the Live World.”  He contrasted the favored poetry in English unfavorably to poems that breathed deeply, poems that brought us “news of the universe,” poems like those of the ancient Chinese and Japanese, or of modern Europeans and Latin Americans like Rilke, Trakl, Jimenez, Lorca, Neruda, Transtromer.  Poems with music, insight, imagination, tenderness and humility, passion and compassion.

The poetry he was challenging was ego-bound, rationalistic, showily cultured, culturally smug, and sometimes emotionally violent.

Well, we are, for instance, more multi-cultural (though not necessarily at any great depth) in the world of photography these days, but what I’ve just described from the world of mid-20th-century British and American poetry has its reflection in what is currently favored by the movers and shakers of Chelsea and the hipper centers of photographic academe:  the allusive or “sampled,” the post-critical and anti-“modernist,”  the self-consciously diffident and  “sophisticated.”  We have too many artists whose work and conduct seem to say, “Hey, I’m existentially and spiritually shallow — and damned proud of it.”

We see far too much work based more on so-called ideas than it is on anything else — ideas that frequently are thin to say the least, sometimes positively (or negatively?) sophomoric. Like the idea that to photograph yourself dressed up as a member of the “opposite” sex is to raise “important issues of gender and identity.”  Or the idea that to make a completely uninteresting photograph in superficial imitation of a great photograph is to raise important “questions” about values or culture, about the etiology of the image or the ontology of its author.  A few years ago, when my wife interviewed young photographers chosen for “25 under 25,” some of them were quick to tell her that  the ability to write a provocative description of what you claimed to be making was more important to success than was the quality of the images themselves.

We need to appreciate the implications of Rilke’s observations about irony and depth for our world of contemporary photography, just as much as the literati of the early Sixties needed to take them to heart and soul themselves.  Oh, forgive me, I forgot that those latter “concepts” are out of conceptual fashion.  As though fashion is ever anything but a passing breeze at which the frivolous and ambitious snatch.