Photography in America – Bill Jay, 1980

The failure of art

Most of the problems inherent in American photography stem from exactly the same source that has provided so many assets — the acceptance of photography as fine art:

Prod any beginning student carrying a camera on any American campus and the response will be: ‘I am an artist‘. This was quite a shock when I first arrived in America. I had always thought the term ‘artist’ was like a distinguished award bestowed by the individual’s peers after a life-time of struggle with a medium. It seemed scandalously arrogant if not downright stupid for the student to proclaim himself an artist, particularly as he was having trouble loading a camera. So, no longer is the student striving with photography as a long-term goal for the revealing and communicating of a personal life-attitude; he is proclaiming a present state of mind. By declaring ‘I am an artist’ the person is its meaning. And the meaning of the word Artist carries with it an immense number of connotations which are manifested in living style, speech patterns, appearance of images and career goals. When a young American photographer states ‘I am an artist’, the implications of the words have no reference to history, to a thousand-year tradition of value-seeking and sharing, to a striving transcendent view of life. They are here-and-now adoptions, grabbed in passing from a rag-bag of notions and fallacious assumptions about what an artist is and does. Of course, they can be as quickly jettisoned as they are adopted. A student sees no discrepancy in being an artist one week and a business major the next. Being an artist is tuning into one TV channel — if it is not instantly rewarding, amusing, or profitable, then it is simple enough to instantly switch channels! I am not being facetious. The young photographer’s notions of what is worth doing are drawn from the immediate cultural Zeitgeist. And since the culture (not only in America, but in all western societies) is sick, so are the arts, and that includes photography. When the culture promotes banality under the guise of significance, anxiety as a sales-aid, and instant-gratification in place of striving towards long-term goals, then human values are lost. And without values art itself is lost. As Abraham Maslow has succinctly stated:

But in recent years and to this day, most humanistic scholars and most artists have shared in the general collapse of all traditional values. And when these values collapsed, there were no others readily available as replacements. And so today a very large proportion of our artists, novelists, dramatists, critics, literary and historical scholars are disheartened or pessimistic or despairing, and a fair proportion are nihilistic or cynical (in the sense of believing that no ‘good life’ is possible and that the so-called higher values are all a fake and a swindle).

Certainly the young student coming to the study of the arts and the humanities will find therein no inspiring certainties… And which well-known artists or writers today are trying to teach, to inspire, to conduce to virtue? Which of them could even use this word ‘virtue’ without gagging? Upon which of them can an ‘idealistic’ young man model himself?

Photography in America has been dehumanised. Without values, and a life meaning, photographers merely reflect the superficiality of the surrounding culture and, particularly, the banality of much of contemporary art. Last month I attended a lecture by Marcia Tucker, ex-curator of the Whitney Museum and founder of the New Museum in New York City. She is the doyen of contemporary art in America, with the power to make or break an artist’s reputation. When asked what was the most significant factor in ‘good’ art, – she emphasised perversity as the quality she most admired. Later she added that she ‘like(s) the idea of the artist by-passing skill, who avoids preciousness by not finding out how to learn’. ‘Being an artist,’ she said, ‘is a state of mind only. Skill, craftsmanship, doing-it-well, are all irrelevant.’ She told the story, with a tone of approval, of the artist who shot his own dog and filmed its death throes because he needed the film for his Art.

And photography follows … I was sitting with a group of well-known photographers on a balcony overlooking the western plains, talking about commitment, when it dawned on me that we were not meaning the same thing by the word. For clarification one of the photographers told the following, purportedly true, story. A photographer was in bed with his wife when the telephone rang. He picked it up, listened for a while, and then asked the caller to hold on for a moment. He got out of bed, found his camera, focused on his wife, and said: ’It’s for you.‘ When she picked up the phone she was told the news that her mother had just died. Meanwhile her husband, the photographer/artist, was photographing her reactions. Practically everyone approved of his actions and could not understand my rage.

Art, and photography, is self-absorbed. The artist’s ego is so gargantuan that every petty emotion, every trivial twinge in the imagining, every tiny concern becomes an excuse for art. Once and for all we must reject the notion that self-expression is any justification for art. The best art is always centred on problems external to the artist. Then, in a much more potent way, it will also be self-expression. In Maslow’s paper Self-Actualizing People, A Study of Psychological Health, he observed that all self-actualisers are creative (not necessarily in the so-called ‘fine-arts’). This is probably linked with other characteristics such as a capacity to enjoy the same experience time after time with a sense of newness. They have a sense of optimism and a perceptiveness which leads to an ability to detect fakes and phoneys and a sharper perception of reality, whether in art, music, politics etc. They dislike having to dwell on negative aspects of life, especially in situations where people are hurt, embarrassed or made to feel inferior. They have a desire to correct bad situations rather than simply to observe them. The self-actualisers are not interested in artificiality, style or straining for effects. They resist enculturation. They tend to centre on problems external to themselves. They do not dwell on their feelings and emotions but are much more likely to be absorbed in impersonal, abstract ideas. I leave it to the reader to determine how far removed much of contemporary photography seems to be from the expressions of self-actualisers.

An interesting analogy was offered by William Gass, the poet/philosopher, in his book On Being Blue. ‘A flashlight held against the skin might as well be off. Art, like light, needs distance. . . ‘ In other words, art that is concerned solely with the artist is meaningless; objectivity is required; an outside-self reflector, is essential for art to illuminate. Much of contemporary American photography is concerned with petty subjectivity, the glorification of the banal, the lauding of the trivia of everydayness, and for these reasons is lifeless and meaningless.

This is the central point. The failure of contemporary photography is a failure of the human spirit. The photographer is defeated, swamped with trivia and merely a passive reflector of cultural norms. Petty personal problems are the compositions of his concerns, and therefore the real subject of his imagery. When life fails, the effectiveness of the photographer’s art also faiis.

There is the problem. Great photographs, like most important values, are obtained obliquely, not directly. Viktor E. Frankl, the founder of the concept of logotnerapy, wrote an intensely moving and intellectually stimulating book called Man’s Search for Meaning in which he states:

If the meaning that is waiting to be fulfilled by man were really nothing but a mere expression of self, or no more than a projection of his wishful thinking, it would immediately lose its demanding and challenging character; it could no longer call man forth or summon him.

I have dwelt on this ‘crisis of the spirit’ in contemporary photography because I believe it is the central problem in our medium, and in our culture. I will return to my own subjective answer to the problem later in the talk. Right now I want to examine a few manifestations of this problem in the more visible social and political fabric of photography in America, all the while bearing in mind that the crucial failure of any system is the failure “of spirit of the individuals engaged in the activity.

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