On the front page of The New York Times for Saturday, April 21, 2018, there was an article titled “Over 700 Children Taken from Parents at Border.” It began:
On Feb 20, a young woman named Mirian arrived at the Texas border carrying her 18-month old son. They had fled their home in Honduras through a cloud of tear gas, she told border agents, and needed protection from the political violence there. She had hoped she and her son would find refuge together. Instead, the agents ordered her to place her son in the back seat of a government vehicle, she said later in a sworn declaration to a federal court. They both cried as the boy was driven away.
For months, members of Congress have been demanding answers about how many families are being separated as they are processed at stations along the southwest border, in part because the Trump administration has in the past said it was considering taking children from their parents as a way to deter migrants from coming here.
From The Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 19:
14 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
From The Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 18:
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
“[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.”
I drove by the site late one day and took a few photos for my final-stretch planning. After dinner, when I looked at the photos on my computer, I did a troubled double-take. In the few days since I got the property owner’s consent, the very tree whose “pose” I intended my wife to imitate had disappeared.
Perhaps the owner had thought that the trunk was so close to breaking that it would be a hazard for us. In fact, on the day of the shoot, as I was setting up, he came out to talk for a couple of minutes and warned me that the trees were not in sound shape and might have to be taken down, so we should be careful.
I have to say that my experience, and my trust in God’s will and the gifts of the Tao, give me decent equanimity about such turns, knowing that however they first appear, they can lead to something better than what I’d planned. As I believe this one did.
I got the idea that I might also try having my wife kneel in an attitude of prayer or supplication for the photos. After all, those were not exactly friendly-looking trees in that yard. Part of my sense of the desired image had to do with the brutish look of those trees, and the brutish nature of our world, which in turn made me think of Moses’ statement that during his exile in the land of Midian he had been “a stranger in a strange land.” It struck me, looking at the remaining trees, that a kneeling posture would more closely mirror their verticality.
The Unforeseen apparently took this as an invitation to make still further improvements on my scheme. Not only had I not planned on the alternate pose for my model, but I didn’t anticipate that when we tried the kneeling poses, a wind would rise to blow her hair sideways and to make her move her head and hands a bit during a few exposures, so that. Seeing them later, I would feel that those effects had given my wife’s appearance an added sense of urgency or distress, which I believed was affecting.
I also didn’t plan or foresee that during the kneeling shots that I liked best (with my wife’s palms turned pleadingly upward and the wind blowing her hair), an intensely-red sky would appear behind her. Without the emotional and visual force of that sky, my “final” image would not be nearly as compelling as I hope that it is. Here’s the photograph, “In the Land of Strangers” (please view it at larger size and better visual quality on my website, by using the following link – it’s Image # 6 of the “Marion under the Moon” portfolio within the “Fires in the Night” collection):
But there was a still-deeper element to the work of Mystery in making this picture.
While we were engaged in the shoot, I wasn’t consciously thinking about the fact, and my wife did not know, that about three weeks before that I was given news that caused a crisis in my life. I didn’t want her to have to suffer while awaiting its outcome, so I kept it from her in the meantime. In such a time, under other circumstances, I would have wanted her to pray for me.
Two days after our photo session, I was able to tell her what had been happening, and that there was no longer anything to worry about.
The next night, as I was intensely engaged in editing the new “Marion” photograph, I realized that by having her adopt the pose that I had, and having shaped the image as I had, I had essentially drawn her into praying for me without her having to know about it or the reasons for it – except insofar as she might have prayed for the success of the photographer’s present, complicated efforts.
And when I consider who and what gave birth to this photograph, I have to remember that part of my idea for “Marion under the Moon” is that each photograph in it should in some way reflect another aspect of my wonderful model-wife. If she were not as loving and caring, as spiritually profound as she is, would I have made this photograph as it now stands? Would I have thought to put her in the pose that I did? Was I unconsciously or half-consciously calling on her prayerful strength without having to disclose my troubles to her? If none of that had been the case, if she were other than she is, if she were a lesser or different kind of inspiration to me than she is, could I have made this photograph? I don’t believe so.
And did her posed prayerfulness contribute to the happy conclusion to my trial? How can I know? We live among mysteries. And sometimes we receive help, with our photography and more, without asking for it or even being aware of it. There are more things and allies in heaven and earth and art, in anything that “we” achieve, than are dreamt of in our philosophy or vanity, Horatio.
Photographers, or artists of any kind, are probably more aware than most people are of fortuitous coincidings, of happy or regrettable appearances and disappearances: “I could kick myself for not having shot that scene the first time I saw it, and now it’s gone!” Or: “I sure am glad I photographed that building with the graffiti last month, because they’ve knocked the whole thing down!” And, especially around Halloween, both great and popular artworks engage us with unseen forces, unexplained happenings, intimations of malevolent or benevolent magics.
Earlier this year, a bit of such elvish fortune occurred (as it does from time to time) in my photographic life. Certain friends of mine who know my work would not be surprised that it would happen, as it did, around evening, in the woods. (Evidence for such a view might be taken, for instance, from my website’s “To See in the Dark” portfolio.)
In late winter, the ground was beginning to thaw. I was walking near twilight in a small wood near my home, when I happened on an abandoned livingroom couch. It lay at the edge of a dirt path, flat on a wooden pallet. I snapped a few pictures, as notes, thinking that perhaps I could have made something from it if at least I’d had a couple of flashes with me. Even so, I thought it somehow fell short.
But walking back that way a month later, I found that someone or someones had, whatever their intention, arranged a gift for me. The couch had been dragged about twenty feet from where it had been, onto sloping ground near the base of a tree. Its bottom raised up more, the bulky couch tilted at an angle had now struck a livelier pose. The biggest surprise, though, was my discovery that neighborhood spooks, vandals, or photography sprites had painted in big black letters on the fabric skirt below the seat this single word: “FLYing.” Had I missed it the first time? What did its author intend? No way to know, but it was certainly good fortune for me.
I hurried home and returned with three Speedlites and a couple of light stands. Dark woods, digital darkroom, and here it is:
The felicity continued. I wanted to submit the photograph for an exhibition, and the A Smith Gallery in Texas was soliciting entries for a juried “Habitat” show. What could be more homey than a livingroom couch? (Although, of course, mine was not in a comfy frontroom.) Almost without thinking about it, just recognizing that I needed a good title and didn’t want something as obvious as “Couch in the Woods” or “Flying,” it popped up as if from behind a tree: “At Home in the Secret.” (I hope that you like it, too.)
A little twilit magic in it all — which continued when the “Habitat” juror, Julie Blackmon, chose the photo for the exhibition, and the Gallery’s owner, Amanda Smith, gave it a Director’s Honorable Mention.
My friends and fiends, in case you don’t hear from me again before Halloween, I’ll wish you happy hauntings now and hope that you like my darkling photograph. And I won’t warn you not to walk in the woods at nightfall.
My unhappiness with my website provider had grown ever since it was taken over by an outfit specializing in wedding mementos. Of course, the new owners assured us innocent client-lambs that the quality its website services would not slip, but would, rather, reach new heights. They announced a plan to create new templates that would benefit us in ways that the existing ones never did.
At the same time, for some mysterious reason, the images on my site began suffering from cases of the jaggies, visible pixelation at the edges of objects and in human flesh tones. The tech support people denied that what I saw happening was happening. Not only did that “nonexistent” problem never get solved, but it got harder and harder to get responses from tech support to any of my questions or pleas for help with the trial version of the new templates. In addition, the wonder-templates were plagued with problems.
Finally, an immediate circumstance made it critical that I show my art off to better advantage. So I fled the broken pixels and promises. After researching other website providers, I packed my domain name and moved to PhotoShelter. So far, I’ve been delighted with almost everything about it: its templates’ many features, its speedy and useful tech support replies, its online help files — and, most of all, the great leap upward in the resolution and size at which my images are now displayed. So I hope that you’ll feel moved to explore my new site, at the same URL as my old one: www.lawrenceruss.com .
If you do, you’ll find that for the first time, I’m displaying in public a portfolio (in two parts) of my oldest, longest-running photography project, comprised of images taken at Devil’s Glen in Weston, Connecticut. The place is a kind of sacred site for me, despite its name (though the name’s not irrelevant to my feelings about it or to some of my experiences there). I’ve exhibited a number of my photographs from the Glen. “The Power That Builds in Solitude,” for instance, accompanies the July 20, 2011 post (“Summoning the Genie’s Power – Part 1” of this blog, was published as a Merit-Award winner in COLOR Magazine, was selected for juried exhibitions in Oregon and Vermont, and has been written about as part of an “ideal bachelor pad” — not the way I ever saw it, but there it is — in an online design mag called HOUZZ. Until I launched my new PhotoShelter site, however, I’d never shown a group, much less a portfolio, of images from the project, as I have here: in “God and Nature in Devil’s Glen,” Parts 1 and 2, in the PLACE AND PRESENCE collection tabbed on my site’s home page.
Yes, I know I’ve laid out more territory on the current site than anyone is likely to explore in one visit, but I hope that you’ll get lost in it for a while, and that you’ll want to return to it more than once for further adventures in various kinds of forests.
I wish you all for thanksgiving what, in a sense, but only in a sense, we already have — a world of wonders. Or, rather, I wish that we would all enter into it more wholly. I wish that everyone, and certainly all photographers, knew and loved the following poem by Thomas Traherne (ca. 1636-1674). (Forgive me, Thomas, for having lost your indentations in printing this here! See how it should appear.)
How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among his works I did appear
O how their glory me did crown!
The world resembled his eternity,
In which my soul did walk;
And ev’ry thing that I did see
Did with me talk.
The skies in their magnificence,
The lively, lovely air;
Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The stars did entertain my sense,
And all the works of God, so bright and pure,
So rich and great did seem,
As if they ever must endure
In my esteem.
A native health and innocence
Within my bones did grow,
And while my God did all his glories show,
I felt a vigour in my sense
That was all spirit. I within did flow
With seas of life, like wine;
I nothing in the world did know
But ’twas divine.
Harsh ragged objects were conceal’d,
Oppressions tears and cries,
Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes
Were hid, and only things reveal’d
Which heav’nly spirits, and the angels prize.
The state of innocence
And bliss, not trades and poverties,
Did fill my sense.
The streets were pav’d with golden stones,
The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appear’d to me,
And every thing which here I found,
While like an angel I did see,
Adorn’d the ground.
Rich diamond and pearl and gold
In ev’ry place was seen;
Rare splendours, yellow, blue, red, white and green,
Mine eyes did everywhere behold.
Great wonders cloth’d with glory did appear,
Amazement was my bliss,
That and my wealth was ev’ry where:
No joy to this!
Curs’d and devis’d proprieties,
With envy, avarice
And fraud, those fiends that spoil even Paradise,
Flew from the splendour of mine eyes,
And so did hedges, ditches, limits, bounds,
I dream’d not aught of those,
But wander’d over all men’s grounds,
And found repose.
Proprieties themselves were mine,
And hedges ornaments;
Walls, boxes, coffers, and their rich contents
Did not divide my joys, but all combine.
Clothes, ribbons, jewels, laces, I esteem’d
My joys by others worn:
For me they all to wear them seem’d
When I was born.
I don’t know how many “favorite” photographs I have, but I know that one of the frames in my sanctum of photographic love holds Imogen Cunningham’s “The Unmade Bed.” It’s clicheish to say that you could look at a particular artwork every day of your life and never grow bored with it. In fact, though, I can pretty much say that truly of “The Unmade Bed.” A postcard of it has been pinned to the corkboard that’s hung in every office I’ve occupied since I got my last diploma. Whenever I see that card, it draws me away, into its lyrical silence.
Why do I love it? What our conscious mind grasps and can tell about such things is only the fractional edge of an ocean that stretches out endlessly, through our experience and emotion and ideas and who-knows-what-other-kinds-of-causes. Still, I’ll try to describe at least some of the features and factors and facets of my ardor for “The Unmade Bed.”
Its atmosphere is the first thing that absorbs us. The contrast in the print is moderate, like music turned low. The scene feels private, intimate. Most of the bedroom is dim or dark, and the light is softly diffused. There are plenty of curves, but no right angles or sharp-cornered shapes in view. And we’re alone in the room. We see no person, just clues to who was there and what may have happened before we looked in.
As our view moves outward toward the edges of the frame, the light diminishes gradually, the bedsheets and blanket grow darker. What we see most clearly, the folds of the upper sheet and especially the flat sheet below, are like the space inside the periphery of attention in a loving gaze or in making love; everything outside tends to blur or vanish.
The smooth transitions between shadow and light evoke a feeling of gentleness and, in this case, even tenderness. At the same time, the curving folds of the upper sheet remind us of sexual movements, of the curves of the female body that we imagine has recently lain in this bed, where a woman has left a few hairpins on the sheet.
Those hairpins, though small, are the center of our attention. The waving folds of the upper sheet surround them as hills surround a small cluster of houses in a valley. The pins are the most sharply-defined objects in the scene, showing all the more clearly because they’re placed on the brightest area in the image. They make us think of a woman unpinning and taking down her hair, for sleep or for love. The number and size of the pins imply (at least to a “layman” in matters of female grooming) the luxuriance of the hair that they held. And their lying together as they do suggests the care that the woman must have taken in laying, not tossing, them down. Our response is subtly affected as well by the pins not lying dead center in the scene, but “modestly” to the side, cradled by the upper sheet that surrounds and rises behind them.
All of these things make for an experience of sensuousness, not sensuality; of savoring, not ravening; of grace and quiet and attentiveness.
You feel, indirectly, the loveliness and gentleness of the woman who was in this bedroom just a while ago.
In part, I love this photograph because for me it’s a mirror in which I see my wife’s reflection. When it comes to why we love certain works, we can’t overlook their reach into the personal particulars of our lives and our selves. In a poem of mine (“The Wedding Poem”) that was first published in the year after my wife and I were married, I quoted another artwork that I love, a poem by the 9th-Century Chinese poet, Chang Hu (translated by Witter Bynner), that’s the literary kin of Cunningham’s visual image. Both works are sexy without being showy, and both embody an irresistible tenderness of spirit in the artwork’s maker as well as in its subject.
And beneath your talk I could see
the woman of that Chinese poem that I love:
When the moonlight, reaching a tree by the gate,
Shows her a quiet bird on its nest,
She removes her jade hairpins and sits in the shadow
And puts out a flame where a moth was flying.
I’m gratefully moonstruck, as I have been for years, by the lovely folds, dim light, and loosed pins in Imogen Cunningham’s photograph; by Chang Hu’s compassionate heroine, removing her hairpins by a moonlit window; and by the glorious, unpinned hair of my own gentle beauty, pictured below, glowing in a new scene of moonlight and shadow:
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.
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.