CAPITALISM and CONTAMINATION

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).


Wow.

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.”
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Here are links to a couple of recent drool. articles that are related to this:
The System
Photography and Politics

LOOKING AT PEOPLE

Before we get to the Looking At People thing, a message from HYPO . . .

Posts on drool. will be sporadic, usually longer, image-intensive things. If that’s your bag, drop by from time to time or look for the new-post notices on my Fb, Ig and Tw feeds.

If you want to escape the algorithm and get photography delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to HYPO. It’s different. (Sample HYPO here.)

We now bring you . . .

LOOKING AT PEOPLE

Everybody looks at pictures of people, most of which are in our line-of-sight because some corporation wants you to consume their goods or services. These are standard, or cliché-edgy, representations whose purpose is to get you to aspire to something and then buy it. Because of that they are, in a certain way, quite telling.

If you are interested, though, in representations of people by artists, the images you seek and consume will be a completely different animal. There, generally, the most interesting images of people are, in my opinion, created by artists who are slightly bent, or at least very curious, their viewpoint, to some degree, abnormal. That’s what makes the work interesting and different from images (commercial and artistic) that support the status quo.

But in these extraordinarily reactionary times (the reactions coming from both the right and the left) the very idea of being bent, abnormal, or curious is abhorrent to many. And each group and faction will have their own idea/definition of what is abhorrent (views that don’t mesh with theirs) and what is acceptable (views that do mesh with theirs).

And I get it. After all, we all filter everything through the prism of our experience, what Jack Kerouac calls “the stress of out lives since birth”.

Now, I’m a non-censorship kind of guy. I believe the world is best understood by considering it through varied perspectives, assuming, of course, you are seeking understanding. Sure, some points of view presented by artists are problematic and discussion must ensue. But an art world without irritants quickly becomes innocuous and, then, redundant. I leave it to the critics to flesh all this out. Me? I’m just a photographer who believes artists should do what they do and let the chips fall where they may.

Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is because I’ve been thinking about two small publications that look at people, or, in the case of Lindzine, a person. Both point to aspects of their creators’ bent and curiosity, their voyeurism and obsession. They are ways of looking at people.

Lonely Boy Mag No. A-1, by Alec Soth, would probably be considered highbrow, the other, Lindzine, by The Wormholes, the opposite. I like them both.

THE SYSTEM

This week’s post, The System, will begin after this important message . . .

HYPO

I’m shifting my attention from drool. to HYPO, a newsletter. (I’ll still be posting to drool, but the posts will be less frequent.)

HYPO is not, like a blog post, public. It will be delivered directly to your inbox. The only way to see/read it is by subscribing. You can do that using the handy form, there on the right. If you are on a mobile use this direct link or scroll to the very bottom for a subscribe button.

HYPO will be different from drool. I’m excited about getting out of the blog box, escaping the social media giants’s algorithms, shaking things up, experimenting. I want to see what my newsletter can be, what I can turn it into. Come along for the ride . . .

We now bring you The System . . .

THE SYSTEM

Recently I was asked to sit on a couple of arts juries, to decide on exhibition proposals and acquisitions. I gave it some thought, weighed the pros and the cons and, in the end, declined.

Well, you might be thinking . . . You, Tony, seem to have all sorts of complaints and/or thoughts about the arts system, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and use these invitations to, you know, change things from the inside?

Good question.

The answer is: I don’t believe the system can be meaningfully changed from the inside. The first rule of systems is to do whatever is necessary to perpetuate the system. If you put emphasis on being accepted, buying in, you get co-opted, no matter what.

In the case of an arts jury, sure, I might have enough persuasion power (or whatever you want to call it) to get something included that would not otherwise have been considered. But I still see this as, essentially, token.

Furthermore, it would feel to me, somehow, like collusion. I’d rather remain, as much as possible, outside the system. That way I can retain what I like to think of as my “observer” status. By remaining as independent as possible I have more room to move and critique.

You might also be thinking . . . Well, Tony, you participate in and reap some rewards from the system. Aren’t you being hypocritical here?

Another good question.

Yes, it’s true, I do participate in the system. I pay my taxes, stop at red lights, hold doors open for people, and so on. And, yes, I’m engaged with PhotoWorld™, after all, you’re reading these words, are you not? But one can be engaged, participate, from a position outside the system. What’s the alternative? Giving up? Becoming a hermit?

And I do reap some rewards. Get the occasional show or mention, make a print sale from time to time, and stuff like that. But that’s not a complete definition of success. The fact that I don’t feel I must conform or suck up to prevailing attitudes and systems leaves me free to be critical. It also leaves me free to see the world in way that’s less mediated by the prevailing systems of thought, politics and group-think.

Not that my work is radical or anything. I believe that to be effective expression must remain recognizable. But trying to see and render the world in a way that’s independent from how the powers-that-be want (demand) it be seen usually results in a more dimensional understanding.

But sure, I live in this world so am, by definition, a hypocrite.

But, you might wonder . . . What’s the point of being a serious photographer, putting in all that time, money and emotion, if you don’t get adopted by the establishment, if your work doesn’t get seen?

Well, my work does get seen. Perhaps not as much as it would be if I spent more time (and money) promoting it to the blue-chip movers and shakers of PhotoWorld™. But every book I’ve published has sold out, my two most recent exhibitions have been in art (as opposed to commercial) galleries in Groningen (Holland) and NYC (USA). So there are ways to penetrate the system without falling for it.

Besides, I do photo projects for myself . . . to learn, to get out of the house. Any other “exposure” is only a side effect of that primary impulse.

As to getting a pat on the back from the establishment: Fuck that shit. I choose to spend my time and attention on the periphery because it’s more interesting there.

(I also spend some time monitoring popular culture, trying to decipher that. Without understanding the status quo it is impossible to critique it. I want to occupy a space where I’m close enough to the system to see what’s going on, but removed enough to have a longer perspective.)

And, yes, I understand that the system will absorb, render effete and/or monetize any irritant it can. I understand that, until we get closer to the end, the system is pretty much unassailable. The edge either gets pulled to the centre and used, or is ignored.

So I’m not sure where choosing to operate and remain on the periphery leaves me, vis-a-vis having/building a career in photography. But this is the choice I make. I’m happy to let the chips fall where they may because, in the end, not only do I have to live with the system, I also have to live with myself.

(All images above are out takes from Official Ottawa.)