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Tag Archives: A.D. Coleman

I have long been a supporter of constitutional rights, particularly when it applies to free speech, freedom of artistic expression, and freedom to worship (or not) as one chooses. That’s why this post by photography critic A. D. Coleman caught my eye and why I though it important to share it with you.

Unlike Coleman, I’m not at all surprised that George Will would come down on the side of the U.S. Constitution. He might be considerably to my right on the political spectrum, but Will is an intelligent and thoughtful analyst. He understands that the Constitution’s First Amendment doesn’t say freedom of speech gets suspended because the country gets paranoid about terrorists.

Look, cops have a difficult job, a job I would certainly never try to do. It seems to me, however, that trampling on the my rights as a visual artist n the name of the War on Terror just hands the terrorists a victory because they’ve made America considerably less American.

I would not suggest that law enforcement be stripped of it’s power to protect the public safety just so I could go shoot pictures someplace. But if you watch the video in Coleman’s post, the one with the L.A. County Deputy Sheriff rousting a photographer exercising his legal rights, an exchange that includes both threats and outright lies, I can’t see any reasonable person not concluding that the cop is a fascist who has no right to carry a badge.

Sure, the photographer was looking for a confrontation, I can’t see any other good reason to travel with a videographer. It’s still scary to me that the activist clearly has a better understanding of law than the cop.

Look the the photograph below, taken by me last July:

The Journey Home: On Niagara Street (©2011 Richard X. Moore)

Careful reading of the sections of protocols for reporting “suspicious activites” would direct a police officer to bust my ass if (s)he thought I was acting in a suspicious manner with come connection to terrorism. Even though I think the possibility is absurd, I can make a logical argument for doing just that.

Think about it. Here in this photograph you can find telephone lines (the nation’s communication network), railroad tracks (the nation’s transportation network), and grain elevators (the nation’s food supply). The protocol permits the officer to decide that my work has “no apparent aesthetic value” and, before you know it, I’m reported to the Justice Department.

I doubt it would ever happen, in Saginaw anyway. But it makes me sick to live in a land where anyone with a camera is fair game for law enforcement harassment.

If we, as a nation, want to put certain facilities off-limits to photographers, let’s have that debate. Let’s not leave it to the discretion of people who clearly have none.

I read two things today that bring into focus the downside of the democratization of thought and culture that the internet has provided us. The first is yet another thought-provoking post from Mat Gleason at the Huffington Post. The second is from photo critic A. D. Coleman on his Photocritic International site.  To me, they approximate the opposite ends of an argument that catches us, we intrepid purveyors of art and culture, squarely in the middle and with no place left to run.

I read both of these guy frequently and like them a lot. They raise critical issues and invite the reader to think. They share a certain smugness and self-satisfaction but do so from completely different points. Gleason is an iconoclast, Coleman a member of that group which some have branded the cultural elite. Both are touchingly sure of the correctness of their own vision, but since their visions are inherently antagonistic, they can’t both be right.  Or can they?

At issue here is the supposition, increasingly popular, that anyone with a camera is a photographer, anyone with a PC a journalist, anyone with a point of view is worth listening to. I’ve commented on this disastrous trend before (in this post)and elsewhere. It’s an oversimplification to be sure, but I think there’s some merit in using it as departure point for discussion.

Sundown (©2010 Richard X. Moore) This is serious art because I say it is.

Gleason publishes the Coagula Art Journal, a very hip, very happening online magazine about the arts. I like Gleason’s basic premise that the Art World is exclusionary, hide-bound by tradition and dogma, and without much relevance to normal people, be they art practitioners or soccer moms or sales associates at Target. But in his haste to dismiss the establishment, he seems to replace it with a something equally tyrannical: the collective where no one’s opinion is any more valuable than anyone else’s. As an example, I give you this statement:

“Art is subjective. There inherently cannot be experts.”

This is the purest form of bullshit. The statement is designed for mass populist appeal and to challenge it is to risk self-identifying as one of the dreaded elitists. It is, however, false on it’s face. For one thing, there’s a body of research that at least suggests that there may be a biological basis for artistic expression and appreciation For another, there is a rich history of art, the study of which gives rise to an understanding of what artists of different historical periods were expressing and how some art movements lead to others. To say that these things are irrelevant is to display a monumental ignorance of cultural development. If Gleason said “experts don’t know everything,” I’d agree wholeheartedly, but he didn’t. And his smirking, adolescent contempt for the educated shines through in other statements, particularly where he intimates that art professors are bad at sex, the basis for which knowledge he doesn’t share with the reader.

Still, it was the Art Establishment that elevated Warhol to a deity and, by way of example, proclaimed Sherrie Levine’s plagiarism as brilliant and visionary, so there’s clearly some truth in there somewhere. Oh, wait, Levine is an appropriation artist, not a plagiarist. My bad.

A Photograph of a Walker Evans Photograph by Sherrie Levine, passed off as somehow original in some way.

Coleman, on the other hand, takes his role as a critic very seriously. He has high standards of scholarship and has never been afraid to take on the sacred cows of the medium of photography (his surgical destruction of a very pompous Minor White in his book Light Readings ranks among my favorite critical essays ever) . He respects knowledge and dedication to craft. He is one of those elitists that Gleason and his ilk talk about, and his work has shaped my own appreciation of photography more than anyone’s.

Coleman published an interesting essay this past year about. among other things, the decline of scholarship and quality in the cultural press. He laments the replacement of critics with specialized understanding with “culture reporters” who know very little about anything in particular. The content is dumbed down to the point that anyone with a probing mind will invariably find it, to be as kind as possible, utterly without depth. He sees, as I do, a continually downward spiral toward mass ignorance and obsession with trivial nonsense. To wit, the rise of the internet and its effect on print journalism has:

… led {print publications}  to a more reader-driven relationship to content, with  the result that, in a steadily dumbed-down culture, Amy Winehouse, Kim Kardashian, Bruce Willis, Ashton Kutcher, and Demi Moore share front-page headline space with Arab Spring and the European financial crisis.”

I blame both the readers and the press for this and the result is clear: as a society, we care about nothing of consequence and often ridicule those among us who still practice what is known as “critical thought.”

If the elites gave us Sherrie Levine, the anarchists have given us something equally disquieting: “great” artists lacking in craft consciousness, originality, or even a message worth paying attention to. This happens because in the post-internet world, everyone is just as good as everyone else and we don’t need education and experience to say something meaningful. Everyone has an opinion.

In a world where accountants have replaced scholars, we have the likes of Damien Hirst becoming a multimillionaire because enough of the right people simply said he’s brilliant. He sells dead animals in formaldehyde and “paintings” of rows of colored dots that he himself did not create but rather delegated to assistants. He’s been called the Warhol of his generation, which is not a compliment in my book.

LSD (possibly not) by Damien Hirst

This is true, the opinion thing. But every opinion isn’t equally valid, no matter what the egalitarians what to tell you. Some opinions are flat-out wrong, even stupid. That’s Coleman’s premise, and I totally agree. We now live in a world where everything is art, just by applying the word.

These are thorny issues. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that both points of view will be found in whatever answer eventually emerges from the ruins. I don’t want to exclude anyone, but I don’t want to accept vapid garbage as art as a prerequisite to my admission to the collective. There is a place for scholarship, there is a place for critical thought, there is a role that history has to play. Yet these things do not need to define us, to limit the roads that we creatives can or should take.

I no longer place much faith in the marketplace to decide what is good art and what is tomorrow’s landfill. The market gets manipulated by both camps (camps is really a bad word since it’s more of a continuum than anything else, but you get my meaning). Replacing one elite with another, albeit more inclusive one, isn’t productive. I just leads to more counterproductive puffery.

My faith lies in the people who view my images and who read my words and on whether or not I move or inspire them, or even piss them off. I’m not asking anyone for credentials, but I would appreciate the engagement of the brain in all considerations of my work. I will defend your right to express your opinion, regardless of content, so long as you will defend my right to tell you you’re a moron if the situation requires.

RXM

Last night I finished reading American Gothic by Stephen Biel, a nice little book about the painting of the same name. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants a quick read about an art topic by someone from outside the Art Historical community (Biel was, at the time the book was written, Director of the History and Literature Program at Harvard). I think the insights you get are useful in that the “outsider’s” approach examines art’s social and cultural context and, at the same time, the critical and academic environment that created that context. I think this second point is the more important one, although many in the critical and historical community would never admit it because to do so would be to make themselves at least partially responsible for the trajectory of art trends through the ages rather than mere observers and recorders of it.

I was most disturbed by a passage near the end of the book, where Biel was discussing how, shortly after Grant Wood’s death in 1942, the critics were falling all over themselves to dismiss his work, especially  American Gothic in the harshest terms. They went as far as  comparing it with the propagandist art of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which was a powerful allusion in the mid-1940s. This is unsurprising, since art critics, led by Hilton Kramer, were busy singing the praises of Abstract Expressionism, but these words, where Biel is parenthetically talking about art historian H. W. Janson,  really took root in my mind:

“Janson…went on to write the popular and influential textbook History of Art, first published in 1962,which, not surprisingly, made no mention of Wood in the chapter on twentieth-century American painting. A few lines on Regionalism,  without naming Benton,Wood, or Curry, were added in third edition in 1986.”

You’ll find this on pages 128-29 of hardcover edition, just in case you’re curious. What strikes me about this is that omitting Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry from a book alleging itself to be a history of art sounds downright criminal to me, akin to fraud, and a blatant violation of whatever code of ethics art historians subscribe to. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think they suck, what matters is that their place in American Art History was/is substantial. American Gothic is probably the most recognizable American painting in our history. Whoever this Janson dude was, he had no right calling himself an Art Historian.He was a well-educated enthusiast.

This whole thing reminds me of a eerily similar passage I read in a book called Depth of Field by A. D. Coleman, which, if you’re a photographer, you should have read already. Coleman’s essay on William Mortensen ends with an exchange between Coleman and Beaumont Newhall where the latter defends his decision to leave Mortensen out of his seminal (but obviously deeply flawed) History of Photography because is was HIS book and he could “disinvite” anyone he cared to. Assuming that this happened as Coleman reports it, and I’ve never seen it refuted anywhere, I can now pronounce Newhall a dishonest fool rather than a scholar and must read everything he wrote with a suspicious eye.

Taken together, these incidents make me skeptical of all academic and critical writing on art in general, because scholars tend not to identify their biases for the reader but rather pontificate as if their opinions and conclusions were gospel. This school or movement or artist is good because of A B C and this school of movement or artist sucks because of X Y Z. And God only knows who and what has been ignored over the years because it wasn’t thought to be good enough to be praised or horrid enough to be vilified. What we, the readers, are left with is a heavily redacted but nonetheless endless collection of the opinions of generation upon generation of critic and scholar without the periodic fact-checking that comes with the critical view of outsiders.

In the main, this is the biggest benefit of Biel’s book; the exposure to the ephemeral nature of critical and public opinion on the arts. The winds shifted so many times on American Gothic that even its creator got confused about its meaning. Between the lines you’ll find that both those who praised Gothic and those who condemned it were both committing the same sin. Both sides howled that they, and only they, were right and that the others were morons lacking in refinement. The critical elite from the East coast treated the Midwest as if it were an intellectual prison to be escaped from. The Midwesterner described New York in the same way, as a latter day Sodom and Gomorrah from which the sane and righteous should immediately flee. By clinging to such extreme positions, they both demonstrated that they didn’t know anything.

Grant Wood returned from Paris and repudiated the Bohemia that he has been in such a hurry to find. He painted what he thought he knew about the good people of Iowa, in a way that I find almost a little over-dramatized. Whether he was attempting to hold these people up as the sole exemplar of what’s good about America is debatable.I admire his commitment to his work. I think what’s good about America is ALL the art we produce, even the art which I find vapid or dishonest or plain stupid, which includes a lot of work over which the art intelligentsia fairly wet itself with glee and approval.

The goal is to create. Everything else is mere sideshow.

RXM

Return from Bohemia (Grant Wood, American, 1935)