Monday, March 17, 2008

Anti-art is the new art

In her essay "America, Seen through Photographs, Darkly," Sontag introduces the democracy of photography, the "generalizing" of beauty. The concept of a "beautiful" photograph no longer corresponds with what one might call beautiful. Keeping in mind what Dr. Wesley said, that "you want people to read what you write, so it must be art," is there a place for "art" in war or disaster photography? Must a photographer rein in his or her aesthetics? (For points of reference, look back at the Salgado essays and the Sontag photos).

In Regarding the Pain of Others , Sontag discusses the anti-art aesthetic in modern photography. “Pictures of hellish events seem more authentic when they don’t have the look that comes from being ‘properly’ lighted and composed, because the photographer either is an amateur or—just as serviceable—has adopted one of several familiar anti-art styles. By flying low, artistically speaking, such pictures are thought to be less manipulative….” This is art as devilish compromise: The artist can convincingly create the illusion of artlessness, but you have to unquestioningly buy it. Anti-art is the new art; it’s just exchanging one aesthetic for another. During the panel discussion last Wednesday, Andrew Lam addressed the question of Art vs. Socially Engaged Writing as a false dichotomy. The same could apply to photography. As Dr. Wesley said, “it must be art.” The only question is, do we want to see photographs of death and destruction at all?

Sontag argues that although some viewers may become inured by images of suffering (the Parisians in particular it seems), by and large images of suffering—artful or otherwise—do good work toward keeping us thinking about the pain of others, rather than living in an artificial state of innocence (I think here of Baldwin’s semi-ironic use of that term in his “Letter to My Nephew”). Sontag believes the production and viewing of war and disaster photographs keeps us honest, and I agree. It’s not necessary to look further than Jet’s publication of the image of Emmitt Till’s mutilated corpse to find real-world evidence to support her argument.

I also find myself thinking about the (antiquated?) question of beauty v. sublimity. Kant talked about how the beautiful was associated with pleasures derived from the forms of things, but the sublime was something caused by the perception of limitlessness and formlessness. I think this is part of this question, too. A beautiful picture of war is something I associate with many of Chris Hondros's images, like the young warrior from Sierra Leon leaping through the air, or his pieta-like images of the wounded and dead. These images are ego-affirming; their Christian genealogy and beauty remind me of Hemingway’s depictions of war. Painful and stark, yes, but appealing to my western (macho?) sense of what war should be. Hondro’s picture of the screaming, blood-covered girl at the roadside checkpoint, however, seems more sublime, and more suggestive of the limitless, formless threat of chaos and war.

On second thought, in the case of the Sierra Leon warrior, I think there was some irony in the beauty of the picture. How triumphant the boy looks, and yet there he is, an emissary of death, perhaps soon to be one of the dead. The dissonance between the image and the meaning we bring to it carries its own weight. To further complicate the divide between beauty and sublimity, Sontag quotes AndrĂ© Breton proclaiming, “Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be.” If, as Sontag indicates, Breton’s idea of beauty has become commonplace, then the sublime is increasingly inaccessible, and even images intended to be sublime work on us as beauty should.

So, maybe thinking about this in terms of the beautiful vs. the sublime is not so useful. The question of “the meaning we bring to it” sticks with me, though.

I have a photograph at home of an Indian holy man, a sadhu, standing inside a small white-washed temple on top of a hill. His forehead is marked with the three red and white horizontal lines that mark devotees of Shiva. His long gray hair falls in thin locks over his shoulders, which are clad in a long white robe. His eyes are expressive of great patience and otherworldliness, and he is framed inside the double-curve of the ogee arch that forms the entrance to the small temple where, we assume, he meditates. It is one of the most beautifully composed photographs I took while I was in India, and everyone who sees it (it’s tucked away in an album with the rest of my India pictures) loves it.

Personally, I can’t stand this picture. What no one realizes when looking at this picture is that I passed this sadhu along the way to another temple, one that is a popular tourist attraction. This sadhu, with his long white robes and beautiful framing, who begs for his living, set himself up as a prime photo opportunity. After I took the picture, he held up a small brass plate into which I was intended to give him alms. I was fine with giving a beggar some money. I was even OK with paying for a photograph. I was, moralistically, not OK with the forces that commodify cultural and religious traditions in developing nations. I was absolutely not OK with having accidentally become an agent of those forces.

So, when I see this photograph, which seems beautiful to some people, I see myself, outside of the photograph’s frame, converting culture into commodity. It is, to me, a photograph of me from which I have been cropped. I framed it that way.

I think what I’m getting at here is that the style with which a photograph is taken—artfully, anti-artfully, beautifully, or with the sublime in mind—matters less than frame and substance, and that matters less than how we view the photographs. It’s a tricky matter made trickier by the privileged status and authority that viewers grant to photography. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in “Picture Problem,” Colin Powell showed America photographs of something--no viewers knew just what, and Powell even admitted that he also could not personally tell just what the photographs depicted. But, he said, there are experts who do know. And based on their testimony (in absentia), we should go to war.

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