Photography in America – Bill Jay, 1980

Art and egomania

There is no doubt that art-photographers in America consider themselves a breed apart — one higher on the evolutionary scale of the medium — than photographers in other fields. I remember discussing a set of documentary photographs with a critic and an historian who ended the conversation, to his satisfaction, with the remark: ‘But, of course, they are not art’. I agreed, which rather took him aback. ‘No,’ I said ‘at their best such photographs are culturally, socially and historically more important than art.’ I realise I have opened a gigantic can of worms with this remark but the point is a lot less confusing than the Nature of Art. It is this: why should everyone assume that Art is at the apex of the cultural pyramid and, by extension, anything that is not art is therefore less important? Such intellectual fascism is based on a myth, not on reality. But the myth is wide-spread among the ranks of photographers.

Photographers, then, have a cultural and social inferiority complex that is manifested in adolescent belligerency, an egomania that threatens to destroy the medium. If this sounds melodramatic I would remind you that Hitler wanted to be an artist but was rejected by Fine Arts academia. (In an article published in 1938, called ‘My Brother Hitler’, Thomas Mann recognised in Hitler a kinship… a brother who possessed, whether one likes it or not… a kind of artistic vocation’ and lists the similarities between political fascism and the myth of the artist which included ‘the insatiable craving for compensation and self- glorification.1 Arnold Hauser in his book The Social History of Art wrote that Mann’s analysis ‘formulates the most dreadful charge ever brought against art’.) There is little time to expand on this idea in the present talk or even to justify the assertion. I would recommend three books which are relevant at this point and then move on. The books are: The Cult of Art by Jean Gimpel, On Moral Fiction by John Gardner, and Trousered Apes by Duncan Williams.

The assertion is this: one of the problems of American photography which has arisen because of the dominance of Fine Art attitudes is an intellectual fascism which deliberately obscures meaning and then taunts the viewer with his lack of understanding. This attitude in photography is well- illustrated in the following manifesto of ‘the Harvard Aesthetes’ taken from Malcolm Cowley’s essay ‘Dos Passos: Poet Against the World’ in After the Genteel Tradition – the italics in the extract are mine. Substitute art photographer for poet:

  • That the cultivation and expression of his own sensibility are the only justifiable aims for a poet;
  • That originality is his principal virtue:
  • That society is hostile, stupid and unmanageable; it is the world of the Philistines, from which it is the poet’s duty and privilege to remain aloof;
  • That the poet is always misunderstood by the world and should, in fact, deliberately make himself misunderstandable, for the greater glory of art;
  • That he triumphs over the world, at moments, by mystically including it within himself: these are his moments of ecstasy to be provoked by any means in his power — alcohol, drugs, ascetism or debauchery, madness, suicide;
  • That art, the undying expression of such moments, exists apart from the world; it is the poet’s revenge on society.

Since this attribute of much of art photography is a state of mind it is difficult to illustrate with concrete examples without them appearing petty and inconsequential. It is manifested in thousands of subtle ways — in an inability to suffer adverse criticism; a readiness to revenge a slight (usually, nowadays, by litigation); a sense that ‘what is right is what you can get away with’, and so on. A small example of each. ..

Due to my prior activities in photographic publishing I have made many friends among the editors of photographic journals. They have often remarked to me that it is becoming increasingly difficult to reproduce photographs with which to illustrate an article or essay. The reason is the photographer’s refusal” to allow permission for publication of the print unless they (the art-photographers) approve of the remarks about them, their work and — believe it or not — they often demand prior approval of the whole text. If the magazine publishes anyway, it is likely to receive a writ from the photographer. Such egomaniacal behaviour would be absurd among writers and their journals, where lengthy quotations are considered ‘fair use’ for critical purposes. No wonder there is such a paucity of intelligent dialogue in photography.

Immediately after writing the above remarks I was intrigued to read a column in Modern Photography (June 1980), by Julia Scully, which gives several pertinent examples of the photographer’s arrogance in this regard.

The threat of litigation is not an idle one, and I speak as someone who has been sued by photographers on several occasions! Without wishing to deny photographers their rights as individuals, the court-crazy Americans sometimes take their legal system to absurd ends. This was vividly brought home to me when I was travelling past a cyclist who was lying on the sidewalk having been knocked off his bike by a passing car. I suggested to my American driver that we ought to stop. He glanced at the cyclist and said: ‘No, he’s lying there wondering what to do with all the money he will get from suing the car owner.’ Photographers are not immune from this sort of financial revenge. I know a very famous American photographer who posed for a portrait by a friend, a younger photographer who was preparing a book of his own pictures. I was told, with a note of satisfaction, that the famous one waited until publication of the book and then sued his friend and the publisher, knowing that no model release had been signed. It was a cold, calculated ploy to increase income at the expense of a humanistic life-attitude.

Another well-known photographer had a more ingenious scam. She was hired by a large art institute to instigate a programme of photography. She divided her salary in half, and paid two students to teach her classes. She therefore pocketed half her salary for doing nothing.

It would be easy to accumulate masses of such anecdotes. They are symptomatic of a self-indulgent arrogance that sees the individual as the centre of the medium. The medium becomes merely a means of self-promotion; commitment to an outside, elevating meaning in life is substituted by the game called ‘beating the system’. 

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