Okay, I have a newsletter and this blog. What’s the diff? Well, both are about photography but my newsletter, HYPO, is broad-ranging, you subscribe and it gets delivered to your inbox. On the other hand drool. has longer pieces, is more political and, unlike HYPO, you come to it.

I say this because HYPO reader Souki Belghiti, from Morocco, sent along a question. It was pretty political so I’m responding here on drool.

Read on . . .

Here’s Souki’s question . . .

Ok, here is a question I’d like to hear your thoughts about.

Capitalism has created an aesthetics. Is that aesthetics so contaminating in and of itself that it invalidates any attempt to subvert it?

I am, for instance, puzzled, by the work of
Hank Willis Thomas. Yes it is effective, provocative, but then, something feels “bling” and “easy”, as if he is using a language we all know too well, of simple thought association.

Likewise I was making photographs of a mall’s aquarium- with a critical intent-how we are all drowning in this consumer’s culture and I saw almost the same shots in a commercial for that very mall at the airport. That really got me wondering how artists can produce any critical images now, (and showed me how contaminated I was).


I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. I’m not exactly what you would call a deep thinker, more of a gusher with ideas. That has its benefits though, because a lot of deep thinking in the art world is based on current group-think and is bullshit-by-design.

Anyway, let me begin by saying what I think Souki is asking: how can artists subvert the status quo when almost all the available visual vocabulary has been co-opted by, well, the status quo?

First of all, I’m pretty sure that the art system is not interested in anything more than paying lip service to upsetting the system. Too many paycheques and careers rely upon preserving that system.

But if, by some chance, something revolutionary strikes a chord that resonates with a larger public, the system will figure out a way to co-opt it and turn it into money. So, unless you want to be co-opted and make money, you’ll have to figure out a way to operate more or less outside that system. And, yes, it can be done.

I also think that if you want to cause some little ripple that might become a larger wave, one that disrupts standard ways of looking at and thinking about things, art must be recognizable. After all, you want people to relate to it, right?

So, to get to the bones of Souki’s question, specifically about the work of Hank Willis Thomas . . . Well, I find his imagery fundamental and completely lacking nuance. It’s so shiny!!!!! and revolutionary!!!!! and radical!!!!! Seems to me he’s just yelling slogans and that’s not going to change anyone’s perspective.

On the other hand take Dawoud Bey (chosen here because, broadly, they are thinking about the same things: let’s call it, again, broadly, African-American history and relationship to power and politics) . . . what Bey is doing is quiet work that gets under your skin and, thus, promotes reflection. And reflection is what will alter you.

Both these photographers use common approaches, their photos are not unlike those you have seen before. But one of them, for me at least, is more effective at moving his agenda forward.

So in the end it’s the intelligence of the creator, coupled with the context they situate their art within, that shifts how that art is received. And no matter what, your work will be used and/or abused by some people in order to bolster their view and/or cut down yours.

The best you can hope for if you are an artist with politics is to slightly alter how a person or two (or a handful if you’re lucky) thinks about things. There is no such thing as radical transformation, there is only evolution, and evolution is a slow, incremental process. Sometimes it makes things better, other times it makes things worse. It’s all a great big experiment. And, to quote Jack Kerouac, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.”
Here are links to a couple of recent drool. articles that are related to this:
The System
Photography and Politics

Author: Tony Fouhse

Tony is an Ottawa-based photographer.