Thursday, 11 April 2013
Apologies in advance: what follows may come across as snarky. Insofar as "snark" is a form of sublimated anger, the charge may be justified. I plead provocation, your honour.
A while ago, I observed that much contemporary photography is, well, boring. Of course, what strikes a 59-year old straight white male as dull may not be the best guide to current fashions, it's true. I'm very aware that my mid-period boomer sensibility is gradually becoming as historic as, say, the use of a Claude glass. But, although it is only natural that one's tastes and influences are gradually pushed to the periphery by new things, a lot of the work that gets the attention these days is pretty uninteresting, isn't it?
Why? Well, I think photography's primary strength -- its essential passive verity -- has become its main disadvantage as a medium. It has become a lazy way to achieve that "hands off" approach so sought after by those who -- for art-historical and philosophical reasons that have never felt convincing to me -- experience a horror at the thought of being held personally responsible for anything so unironic and downright earnest as a well-crafted aesthetic object or experience, or who reject the very attempt to express something of what it is like to be alive in the current moment.
The realisation of the existence of multiple selves within a single body and multiple realities within one world, not to mention the constructedness of our perceptions and social conventions -- gasp! -- seems to throw some people into a guilty panic. Add in a degree of complicity with the suppression and exploitation of The Other, and various category-error confusions (speech is really a form of writing, didn't you know?!) and you have the Perfect Storm of the post-modern-lite sensibility.
The panic and the guilt need not be genuine, of course. A show of existential, epistemological confusion is a fashionable move, seemingly taught in all the best art-schools. "Feel the fear and get the project award, anyway", you might say. Consider this puff for a photo-book: "Writing about X's work, distinguished art historian Z notes: 'X has learned that all observation, including the seemingly most objective, is always subjective, selective, slanted, focused, blurred, disconnected, or somehow interrupted.'”
Well, jolly well done, X! Now you've learned that the best pictures are always subjective, selective, slanted, focused, blurred, disconnected, and somehow interrupted, you've got the all-important attention and approval of the aesthetic gatekeepers! Milk it while you can. But doesn't the word "illustration" springs to mind? Aren't you just making pictures that illustrate an approved sensibility? Shouldn't they be struggling to explain you, not the other way round?
Ironically, that hands-off, affectless, non-expressive approach has become a style in its own right. It's everywhere. It's a look, a sort of visual executive summary of some really quite tricky philosophical territory. Well, let's be honest: a style is something far more readily understood and appropriated by the aspiring young artist, typically someone for whom the study of boring, difficult, and contradictory texts was always going to be challenging.
Cameras are innocent: they have no ideological baggage, and no commitment to suspect grand narratives. Excellent! With photographs you can have your aesthetic-philosophic cake, and eat it, too. Rather than express your problematic self, you can "curate" images created at one remove by an impassive recording machine, and yet still take the credit. The less skill the better. Why, you can even appropriate work made by someone else.
Perfectly contemporary! But very, very boring.