Photography in America – Bill Jay, 1980

Art and criticism

In my opinion one of the more serious abuses of the art-attitude in American photography is the obfuscation of ideas, issues and meanings. The meaning (and I presume there is one) is so encoded with complexity piled upon sheer perversity that no viewer has any hope of understanding it. If the viewer is audacious enough to ask for clues as an aid in decoding, the artist’ is affronted, as if everyone must be desperately interested in and minutely aware of every tiny tinkle in his mental machinery. Personally, I could care less. If someone has something to say to me I presume he will communicate as clearly as possible in a common language. If he must address me in Chinese, but refuses a translator, I can only presume the message was not worth the effort of communicating. In the case of much art- photography I am convinced that the work which does not communicate has nothing to say and that there is, therefore, no meaning derived from a picture which might be stylistically brilliant but – is intellectually dead.

Much critical writing not only reflects this obtuseness but feeds it with the correct veneer of art-jargon, which sustains the photographer for another spurt of nonsense, which is then lauded by the critic, which is gobbled up by the artist’s ego, which is then… and so on, ad absurdum.

I have a file full of photogobbledygook culled from the pages of photographic and art journals. The sheer quantity of quotes attests to the fact that verbal perversity is spreading through the medium like a cancer in the body photographic. For example, here’s a choice one about the photographs of Jerry Uelsmann:

Accompanying the substantiation of archetypally motivated and monistically identified reality, where fractionalism is supplanted by poIysynthesism, Uelsmann’s work provides trenchant evidence of a concern for configurative- imagistic continuity and relativity.

It is not only a desire to confuse that prompts such silliness. Often the aim is to clarify by interpreting photographs with the tools of another cultural subsystem. As in the following case where Robert Heinecken’s work is seen in a Jungian role. The article is headed ‘Space-Time and the Syzygy’ and begins:

Three is the number of the dialectic, the tension of opposites striving for balance. The Jungian archetype of this opposition is known as the syzygy — the strife between a masculine element and a feminine one. Out of this polarity comes the hermaphrodite which unite the creative forces released through this struggle. The synthesis produces unity. The bisexual primordial being becomes a symbol of self.

One more will suffice. Describing the works of artist Roy Fridge, a critic wrote:

The diaristic works . . . incorporate photodocuments of the artist engaged in pseudo-ritualistic performances and nostalgic self-histories with cartographic references to physical location and texts on metaphysical and mystical speculation.

All art-photography journals pander to this need to confuse, as if direct communication was less intellectual. Again these magazines and writers express their inferiority complex by imitating the critical style of Art Forum which has the dubious honour of publishing more unintelligible rubbish per square inch about photography than any other magazine.

The tower of psycho-Babel has been built. No wonder that students in art colleges throughout the country are anxious to live in its ivory peak. The young art photographers mouth the words that are acceptable to the Art Forum-fed instructor until a peculiar, meaningless, jargon replaces any attempt of instruction, encouragement or constructive criticism.

A good example of this type of post factum justification for photographers occurred in the last graduate reviews of the university where I teach. A student had driven into the desert with a large- format camera and had brought back about six prints of trash half-buried in sand. This was his 15-week production, and looked as if it had been (and probably was) shot in an afternoon. The pictures were indescribably boring. The other photography faculty members could not think of anything to say – until the student was asked: ‘What do they mean?‘ His brow furrowed in seriousness as he said: ‘Well, you see, they are explorations of ritual in charged spaces.’ At this, the faculty members perked up. This sort of language they could deal with.

Within seconds the pictures themselves were forgotten and the conversation was animatedly revolving around ritual, pagan rites, tensions of space and time, and all the other word- talismans of modern art, each photographer competing with the previous speaker to be as incomprehensible and even more obtuse. After about -20 minutes of this nonsense my patience was running out and I (diplomatically, in my opinion) said: ‘That’s all very well, but the photographs are still boring.’ it was fortunate, for me, that lynching is prohibited on university property. By now, everyone had convinced themselves that the pictures plumbed the profundity of the student’s soul, and that they were destined for enshrining in the inner sanctum of art — with the proper ritual of course.

I play a game at all lectures and critiques – it is called collect the cliches. A few of the more common of the species picked up in the past few months inciude the following justifications for uniformly boring, bad photographs:

  • ‘I’m exploring the edges of the frame.’
  • ‘I’m opposing the tyranny of the rectangle.’ [For any picture not rectangular.]
  • ‘It’s about time and space.’ [What is not?]
  • I’m redefining light.’ [Indeed!]
  • Tm working with the tension between time/space/light/edges of the frame/ form/content/process etc.’ [Pick any two to complete the sentence.]
  • ‘You don’t understand – it is a meta- paradigm.’ [Meta-, in front of anything, is a big word right now.]
  • ‘I feel an empathy with that line.’

And so on.

It is very important for young photographers to learn these acceptable phrases in order to be a fully paid-up member of the art photography fraternity. It often seems to me that the prime purpose of education is to teach this language, because it will elevate any piece of mediocrity into Art.

The critical language of photography has become useless, and its currency devalued in the exchange of ideas, as a result of art turning totally inward. As Ingmar Bergman put it:

Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his objectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other. . .

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