Category Archives: Art in Society
I’ve titled this image “Prominence.”
Every word has an infinite number of meanings that depend, in part, on the context of its usage and the capacities of the one who receives it. “Prominence,” for instance, has a physical, spatial meaning. It has a societal meaning. And it can, more uncommonly, relate to comparative importance or value in a more absolute sense.
“[The] notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.
“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
— William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Children in a playground at the edge of the vast and bountiful and mysterious and increasingly-dangerous sea (“increasingly” thanks to our stupidly-heedless “play”) — with glory stretching away, above and beyond. Given, in part, what is happening these days, and what we should expect in the year to come, I decided to put a print of this image on my workday office wall.
Recommendations in this context: Reread Moby Dick — skip the whaling-industry stuff, if you like — and watch Peter Wier’s The Last Wave. As profound and prophetic and poetic as you could want!
And here is a pertinent poem by the great, late (d. 1994) Norwegian poet, Rolf Jacobsen, translated by Robert Bly:
Sssh the sea says
Sssh the small waves at the shore say, sssh
Not so violent, not
So haughty, not
Say the tips of the waves
Crowding around the headland’s
They say to people
This is our earth
And, lastly, and particularly with Christmas in mind, a short poem of mine:
or not, the well
But you must fall a long way
And from there,
must draw you up.
I love to quote this from Tiny Tim on many occasions, but never more than on Christmas:
“God bless us every one.”
With President Obama’s imminent departure from office in mind, I thought of a photograph that I’d taken back in 2003, before I’d ever heard the name “Barack”: “Mr. Lincoln’s Sympathy Viewed with Suspicion.” If I’ve ever captured what Cartier-Bresson called a “decisive moment” (when “one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart [join] on the same axis”), this is evidence of it.
I was sitting on a bench in the Town Square of Stamford, Connecticut, waiting to see what the world would bring my way. Across from where I sat was the statue of Abraham Lincoln that you see in my photograph. Abe sits, leaning forward, forearms on his thighs, head tilted downward, thoughtful, maybe melancholy.
Slowly, another critical element came into view, crossing the square toward the statue: a heavy older woman with frizzy white hair glowing, backlit by the summer sun. She wore a tight, hot-pink T-shirt with a picture of Minnie Mouse dressed as Carmen Miranda. She lowered herself carefully onto the front of the concrete slab that supported the Great Emancipator. Then she set down beside her a couple of plastic bags and a cup of Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee. Certainly, this, too, was an American presence.
She looked around suspiciously, squinting at passersby with a wary disapproval. And I started to think, “Oh, please, please, please, let her look at Abe’s face in just that way!” I began, as covertly as I could, taking photographs of her and the statue — wishing and hoping all the while. At the twelfth exposure, not only did the moment I prayed for arrive, but something else, entirely unforeseen and felicitous, had happened in the meantime. Four pigeons had settled on the corners of the concrete plateau, surrounding Lincoln and his sour companion. So, at the moment when I got the desired image, it also featured those avian sentinels, witnesses to the less-than-happy encounter.
(For a better view of this photograph, see my website at: http://www.lawrenceruss.com/index/C0000HrILmRgUq4A/G00004_tcloQpRik/I00006jzaFm0FQaw
I voted for Barack Obama in two presidential elections. In my hopefulness, I’d been struck by his admiration for Lincoln, and by my sense, a sense shared by many other people, that Obama, too, had uncommon intelligence and uncommon concern for his fellow humans. In the end, I think that most of us who supported him are disappointed that his Presidency didn’t come to more. Yes, some of us think that he should have realized sooner what intransigent selfishness and malice he faced from Republicans, and that he should have confronted them with the central issues of “economic inequality” more directly and forcefully. But we can’t justly blame him for the ruthlessness and heedlessness of his opposition. Sitting on the sidelines, we can’t know if and how he might have accomplished more of what we wanted. And we can’t know the pain, frustration, and sorrowing disbelief that he must have suffered while trying to swim against a terribly cold and unrelenting tide.
What I do believe is this: that part of what thwarted Mr. Obama as President, in addition to the racism, the unconscionable greed, and the lust for partisan power, was that so many people are blind to honest virtue when they see it. They’ve strayed so far from it, and society and its media have cast it in such a disdainful and worldly light that when people meet earnest good will, they frequently view it as weakness, simple-mindedness, or deceitful posturing. Too many people just could not believe, given his seeming difference from them, that Obama did not wish to cause them harm. Suspicion and projected selfishness faced our all-too-soon-to-be-former President whenever he came to the public square.
[The ink painting above, by Sengai, pictures a scene from the famous Zen koan in which the Zen teacher, Nan-ch’uan, tells his students that he will chop the kitten in half if none of them can say immediately whether reality is (a) objective or (b)subjective. This picture and the one at the end of this post are from Zen Painting by Yasuichi Awakawa (Kodansha, 1970)]
The intellect is a tool with limited value, and without values. It’s a garden spade — it’s not soil, or water, or seed, or sunlight. As Zen Buddhists and others have tried to make us see, if you trust in the intellect, if you give it primacy, you’re simply inviting another emotional, spiritual desire, invisible to you, to control what you do to yourself and to others. You cut yourself off from feelings, sensations, and intuitions that might grow and feed life. To blindly trust in the intellect, to give it pride of place, turns you into someone like Lucky in Waiting for Godot, spouting nonsense that sounds impressive, but that isn’t connected to essential or fruitful reality. We see this in most academic and specialized writing on art, that drains and dries up the juice in its subject.
To give dominance to the intellect is like buying an alligator and giving it the run of your house, not understanding that the alligator’s actions will be driven by insatiable, individual appetite. That alligator will eat every other living thing and half of the dead things in your house, and, finally, you.
The earmarks of intellect when it isn’t the servant of more important things are arrogance, emptiness, and self-deception. We see it all the time. The categories used by the intellect – animals, Caucasians, neo-expressionism, modernism, enemy — are nothing more than provisional fictions, practical ways to get others to look in the direction of something that we want them to see, like pointing to a pastry in the cabinet when we don’t speak the cashier’s language. (Or, for that matter, as I am using “intellect” in this post!) To the extent that people take such terms for adequate descriptions of living reality, they usually do so for self-serving reasons, with sad consequences.
What’s important is the substance of the person wielding the garden spade, because the spade can be used to plant food or flowers, or it can be used to dig up and destroy what you plant, and what others plant as well. If you want to see how sterile and puerile the intellect can be when it rules, just consider most largely-conceptual art, in which the horse’s ass so often comes before the cart.
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.
This post concerns a rare sort of case in “big market” criticism, and a rare opportunity to see what often goes on behind the critic’s mask (even when that mask stays more firmly in place than it did in this instance). In this instructive case, the critic was Andy Grundberg, writing in Aperture (#199, Summer 2010) about the photographer Robert Bergman.
Mr. Grundberg has credentials to burn, including years of writing reviews for The New York Times and various awards, including the prestigious Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography. Part of what made this case exceptional was that Grundberg was being called upon to judge a photographer who did not himself come packed in the usual steamer trunk plastered with the names of recognizable schools, galleries, former teachers, commendatory reviews of past exhibitions, etc. As Grundberg himself was to point out in a lame and irrelevant defense of his critical misdeeds in this matter, Bergman didn’t come entirely out of nowhere: he had published a book of his work in 1998, with an introduction by the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, Toni Morrison, and, more importantly for an art critic, with an essay of praise from one of the greatest art historians and writers on the visual arts of the 20th Century, Meyer Schapiro.
Nonetheless, these were sparse pickings compared to the usual graduation from a trendy art school like CalArts, the usual history of representation by AIPAD galleries, and the usual list of solo exhibitions on several continents — the kinds of things that would almost always trail behind a photographer that someone like Andy Grundberg would be reviewing for a journal like Aperture. In Grundberg’s frame of reference, Bergman “spr[a]ng] onto the art-world stage like Athena from the head of Zeus.” Bergman, already over 60 at the time of the review, was only just then having his first major solo exhibitions, at the National Gallery of Art, the Yossi Milo Gallery in Manhattan, and the P.S.1 branch of MOMA. In relative terms, and in Grundberg’s estimation, Bergman’s resume left Grundberg naked in judging the work before him.
To understand my reactions, you’ll want to read the full text of Andy Grundberg’s review:
One of the curious things that will strike you about this review is that, in fact, Grundberg never gives his considered response to the quality of the work itself, and, therefore, also gives no substantive reasons for such an evaluation. But that central omission isn’t the major vice of the review. What Grundberg’s remarks remind me of is a common emotional phenomenon that we’ve all witnessed any number of times. A person does something hurtful or harmful to another person for petty reasons — of insecurity or jealousy or suspicion, or just for the pleasure of wielding power over another human being — and the perpetrator, consciously or semi-consciously, feels ashamed of himself for doing it. And then he resents the victim whose very presence now discomfits him so.
What we see in Grundberg’s review, I believe, is anger at the artist for “coming to him” with so little respectable baggage, “expecting” him to take a critical stand with little by way of badges or prior testimonials that might prop up the critic’s position. And so the dubious review, though void of genuine critical judgment, is full of petty sniping at Bergman for the crimes of asking to be praised without having climbed the usual rungs of career advancement, for achieving some notoriety only at an “advanced age,” for using less expensive equipment than do most current critical darlings, for photographing (and failing to label for Grundberg) people whom Grundberg regards as foreign to his own social circles and station. Sarcasm and scorn run through Grundberg’s piece like sewage through a drainpipe.
Grundberg disdains Bergman for his “ink-jet-produced” prints and for their being “moderately sized.” I expect that Grundberg would deny his haughty tone and intent, but anyone who reads his review attentively can’t miss it. He implies that no one who was any good could have escaped greater critical attention and approval for so long. Really? Melville after publishing Moby Dick? Dickinson? Kafka? Charles Ives? Eugene Atget?
Bergman has been on the scene since the 1960s and been taking color photographs since 1985. . . It seems a tad curious, then, that scarcely anyone had heard of Bergman before this show, much less seen one of his pictures.
Perhaps the photography world is larger than we think, or perhaps there’s still room for genius to emerge at a late age. Both are comforting thoughts. Nevertheless, there’s a temptation to dismiss Bergman’s pictures as latter day Bowery Bum photography.
Grundberg can’t even keep himself from insulting Bergman’s subjects, repeatedly. “For the most part, the people appear to be downtrodden, or at least on the outs with conventional society; more than a few seem afflicted with a wasting disease.” He talks as though they are a bunch of derelicts, far outside the pale, no doubt, of tony galleries and the holy precincts of monied Manhattan. Yet I would venture a guess that Grundberg himself has known more than one friend, relative or colleague with a wasting disease. And I would bet that he’s seen, as we all have, bitter, disappointed, addiction-addled, depressed people in every walk of work and life, including “the art world.”
(And, please, for heaven’s sake, anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of the arts should know how often the majority of contemporary critics not only have missed genius when it appeared before them, but have disdained it in proportion to the degree of its greatness.)
At the same time, the floundering Grundberg resents Bergman for not helping him out by labelling his subjects, by telling Grundberg enough for Grundberg to know what he should think about them. “Unfortunately it is impossible to verify any of the questions a viewer might have about these people, since Bergman calls each image ‘Untitled’ and provides it only with a date. No name, no location, no facts except those given by the lens. . . .”
Grundberg condemns Bergman in part because Grundberg himself apparently hasn’t considered the possibility that Bergman saw these people, or that someone like me would see these people through his photographs, as fellow human beings, as people with loneliness or disappointments or bitterness or sorrows like our own — not just pathetic victims of “foreign” wars or fates. Grundberg’s talk of Sontag and critical “issues” are quite beside the point. I would bet that, at least until the fashions change, he’ll think that we should all be applauding those “deadpan” portraits in which the living are posed to resemble corpses or cardboard cutouts.
In Grundberg’s view, it’s bad enough that a nobody like Bergman should want his work displayed prominently despite his age and his relative lack of social success. But Grundberg is equally incensed that a respectable institution like the National Gallery would put Grundberg himself in a position to have to use his own eyes and judgment and whatever humanity he possesses without the armor and aid of received opinion:
Is it any wonder, then, that Bergman’s professed ambition was to launch his exhibiting career at [the National Gallery], and with a one-person show no less? [Quelle horreur!] But the real wonder is that the museum collaborated [String the both of them up together!] in this willful and seemingly quixotic enterprise. [Hey, we can’t let people into the club when they haven’t played by the rules!]
Yeah, let’s flog this Bergman bastard in the public square, along with late bloomers like Julia Margaret Cameron and other mere 35mm-shooters like Cartier Bresson and Josef Koudelka. For that matter, how dare the likes of Munch or Goya ask us, from the grave, to concede their greatness after years of their contemporaries’ critical neglect?
My main purpose here, though, isn’t to pillory a particular critic in a particular instance, but rather to give a warning against blind concession to artistic authorities, a caution to be wary of the hidden insecurities, confusions and pretenses of credentialed experts . Let this be another call to careful and wary examination, to reading between the lines, to giving no due to mere uniforms and medals. Trust your own response to the pundit as well as to the art.
The comic bit, on which there’ve been many variations,goes something like this: A Hollywood pitchman addresses a group of studio execs, exhorting them, “I’m tellin’ you this project is box office gold! It’s like Godzilla meets Terms of Endearment!”
We’re supposed to smirk at the crassness of the agent’s tactic, at the “jurors'” implicit fear of the new. We disdain the smug moneymen who won’t sign on without warranties from market research and sales data, who don’t have time or tolerance for anything complex or profound. The joke mocks the workings of commercial pop culture.
But the same timidity and conformity holds sway in the halls of high culture, too, including the corridors of photography criticism, journalism, and judging. (“Wow, I love those Cindy Sherman sex photos! They’re like Hans Bellmer meets Bozo the Clown meets Joel Peter Witkin.”)
I wrote in a previous post how a famous poet warned his students that 95% of criticism is more harmful than helpful to our understanding and, more important, to our experience of art. What he then went on to explain was that most critics, most professors can’t really deal with the living reality of artworks, can’t perceive the life that’s in them, can’t illuminate how the artist generates that life in a reader or a viewer or a listener. And, he said, that’s partly because professional commentators, like other people, are afraid of the painful emotions, the inexplicable and uncontrollable realities, that great art lays bare. We’re often disturbed by what great art implies and what it seems to demand. In his poem about an “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rilke captured how all the parts of the statue, even in its headless state, blazed with undying vitality, seeming to say to its viewer, as Rilke wrote in his poem’s last line: “You must change your life.”
Ever since caveman-times, no doubt, people have tended to huddle around communal fires for warmth, for mutual comfort, for survival. We would all like the support and good will of our fellows. But if we covet those things too much, we betray ourselves, we fear being too original or honest, we shun certain people or ideas just because the group won’t accept them.
What many artists don’t realize is how much power such basic emotional cravings and fears have over the art world, including its leading critical writers, judges, gallerists, and curators. My early mentor in poetry, a famous and “politically” savvy writer who had worked as the poetry editor for prominent magazines and publishers, shared with me this insight into the editorial process: He said that editors, like other people, are insecure and afraid to step out on their own, nervous about exercising independent judgment that might draw the scorn of others in the literary food-chain.
Whenever you make a submission to some judge or judges — for an exhibition, a grant, for publication or awards — and whenever you see the results of such judging, you should keep this in mind.
That same mentor of mine also told his students, in the first session of his class on Yeats and Joyce, “I know that these authors can be difficult at times, and I know that no matter what I tell you, you’re going to read criticism about their writings. But when you do, I want you to remember that 95% of it is going to be pretentious junk that will muddy your experience of these works, not improve it.”
Some critics are more insecure than others, of course. But too often we forget to consider their flawed and frail humanity when looking at reviews or juror’s selections. Let me give you a couple of examples in which two of our prominent art critics displayed their fear and trembling when faced with the possibility of leaving the circle around the fire.
I’ve read pieces by these two critics that I thought were, in whole or in part, insightful or eloquent or gratifying. My point here isn’t to condemn them, but to pull back the curtain of people’s unwarranted deference to titles and reputations like theirs.
My first case involves Roberta Smith, a visual arts critic for The New York Times. With respect to two of the most notoriously successful and fraudulent characters in the world of contemporary art, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, she has, on more than one occasion, written refreshingly direct statements about what crap they’ve put on public display. And you feel, “Great. I’m glad that she’s telling it straight.” But then, as you go on reading her review, there comes a point at which she starts to take it back. There comes a disappointing “But” or “however.” And her resolve starts to disappear in smoke.
If she held her initial course, she would likely offend not only the owner of the gallery that represents both Koons and Hirst — Larry Gagosian, one of the richest and most powerful gallerists in the international art market — but the many directors of art institutions and the many rich collectors who have spent millions of dollars on works like Koons’ basketball floating in a fish tank or Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull (a kind of pornographic object for oligarchs). She would also be insulting the many foolish, albeit erudite, critics who have praised Hirst’s severed cow-halves suspended in tanks of formaldehyde or Koons’ ceramic renditions of a plastic inflatable dolphin or the Pink Panther embracing a topless buxom blonde. If you want a perfect, laughable, example of the profundity of Koons’ approach and accomplishment, follow this link to one of a series of his commentaries on his “works” (Koons provides only basic concepts, while an army of artists and art students “execute” his products), as published in the Times: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/07/03/arts/20090703-vogel_6.html
Okay, forgive me. I’ve “borrowed” and recast this title from the short poem that W.B. Yeats wrote for his tombstone: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!” You know, when you’ve been the greatest 20th-Century poet writing in English, there’s at least a decent chance that the epitaph you labored over will in fact be carved on your stone. But even in a case like that (and Yeats did get his wish), there’s no guarantee. And you might say that certain kinds of common and commonly-worthless guarantees (what you might call social signifiers of value) are my subject in this post.
Some of us were loved very little by our parents, some not at all. Most of us weren’t loved by them nearly enough to satisfy our needy childhood hearts. What’s more, most of us never fully wake up to that painful truth, because the things that it seems to imply about our worth, our ability to inspire love, and our chance of surviving are unbearable to us.
But the degree to which we won’t wake up to that gnawing reality will be the degree to which we go on “looking for love [and satisfaction] in all the wrong places.” Most of us, in self-defeating self-protection, project our futile desires and delusions onto the world around us. We want the approval of anyone who looks like a parental figure and we want to be vindicated in our projected delusion that we can trust them, that they care about us, that we can replicate our family home in our marriages or in our work or in our social group, but that this time we’ll have a happy ending. We’ll get what we want and what we really deserve.
And even though cynicism has grown from the revelations of scandalous misconduct everywhere from Wall Street and the Oval Office to the Vatican and the ministry of Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker, we continue, on the whole, to expect the holders of high office to be well-informed, worthy of their positions, and concerned about us and the general well-being. We expect experts to be expert and professionals to be professional. In our realm of photography and the other arts, most of us expect that prizewinners deserved their prizes, that prominent curators and gallerists know great art (and awful art) when they see it. We have to get over these assumptions. Yes, sometimes such people have indeed earned their honors and merited their good reputations. But only sometimes.
Though it places a greater grief and responsibility on us than we may want to shoulder, we have to do our independent best to look beyond the medals and titles to what lies behind them. I always feel a combination of rueful amusement and sadness when I hear a fellow artist puzzling in dismay over why some artist who appears to be meritless, even ridiculous, has been given a famous award or had one of his works sold for an absurdly grand sum of money. Hey, really, why, for instance, would Christie’s or Sotheby’s take out a full-page ad in the New York Times to show us the ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Chimp, produced by the Jeff Koons factory, on which the distinguished auction house placed an estimated selling price of $10-15 million dollars?
I have two things to tell you, for your benefit (I hope), from my fairly wide-ranging experience with different fields and with people at different “levels” within those fields: in academia, government, business, law, poetry and photography; with FBI agents, prize- winning authors, governors, and Teamsters.