Alessandra Rinaudo: The body changes as nature goes from plain affirmation to a negation of itself
Cara MacNally: Explorations of the deterioration of the Southeast Asian landscape
John Goto: A Brexit Fantasia
Katrin Joost: Heraclitean River Reflections portray extended moments in time through a series of panoramic views
Ken Cousins: Shooting Pains
Kim Shaw: Surveys the chaos next door
Paul S. Smith: Explorations of a climate change protest site
Sid White-Jones: Explores the subconscious through Pareidolia and the abstract
Simon Dent: A diary of (mis)taken paths
Essay Issue 31: by Ken Cousins
Well, here I am on page three. Anyone who’s familiar with printed UK news media will know that ‘page three’ has connotations with daring, risqué and questionable subject matter. It’s a place that has a dedicated army of followers, mostly male, and most of whom justify their scant acknowledgement of its ‘incidental’ existence by singing the praises of its experts discoursing on matters ostensibly ‘for men’.
But hold on – this is hardly a red-topped tabloid; this is a serious, specialist, broadsheet publication created, presumably, to extol the virtues of photography in all its forms, and far be it from me to reduce the creative merit of the still or moving photographic image to the unfashionable status of ‘cheesecake’. Mind you, it does perhaps have its place; any publication competing for readership in a vast array of frantically composed competing essays and images needs a hook. And so it is for anyone whose objective is to be first, noticed, and then read or studied.
And that competitive edge is, I think, what I’m uncertain about; what I love, and equally resent, about the creative arts. I’m passionate about the pen and the brush and the lens and what they do, what they give me. I’m fascinated and moved by what the photographer and artist is happy to share with me, a wholly personal vision, a glimpse into the psyche, an admission of doubt and fear and wonder. But it doesn’t half frustrate me sometimes, the way we go about it.
To start with, I’m no expert. I can paint and I can draw but I am definitely not a photographer. I can hold a camera. I can point a camera. But I can’t get inside a camera, not like Cartier-Bresson or Mapplethorpe or Godard. I can, though, get into their souls when they show me where they are, how they see, what they think. Demulder’s work insists I take a leaf out of her book. Leibowitz shows me flaws I haven’t seen before. They all contribute hugely to how I see the world.
But I am culturally challenged. I often find that I lack abstract sensitivity. No matter how patient and sympathetic and kindly, how articulate and eloquent and persuasive the explanation of a work is, I am unable to fully understand the rationale behind, for example, much of the work of Joseph Beuys, revered by many academics and intellectuals as a cultural prophet but to me a charlatan. I’m pained when I’m told I should admire deceit. Call me dense but it’s lost on me. And because it’s lost on me I’m looked down upon – unless, that is, I play along and pretend to understand.
The visual arts, though, are imperative. They record, they educate, and they enlighten; they instruct and deny, they frighten and amuse. They incite love and they provoke hatred. They are the lingua franca of the common man. Visual art can be, and often is, an immensely powerful and potent instrument of change. This power and potency is demonstrated in photography by the tension of Jeff Widener’s ‘Tank Man’ or the brutality of Eddie Adam’s ‘Saigon Execution’ and in painting by the honesty of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and the demands of Diego Rivera’s ‘History of Mexico’. Can we expect these exponents of their arts to be held responsible for what we see, what we look at, what conclusions we come to? Should their practice be bound by a sense of accountability? Surely not; surely we have no desire to rein in their informed and intuitive skills. But how can we be sure that they’re always being honest?
Whether it’s a contrived and staged abstract image or a spontaneously documented factual event, it’s the prerogative of the photographer and/or artist to select a criterion and compose a narrative and it’s here where any objective can take on a dual purpose, become confusing and, as a result, be lost.
As an art form photography is unique. It excites and irritates in equal measure. Visual capture is fleeting, ephemeral; it can be momentous and it can be irrelevant. But it holds on to that moment. That moment will never be again but it will be. It is. Simply by being, it shifts – it transports and in so doing, it transforms. That moment is moved to another place by the image and that other place is changed, transformed by its presence. But nothing moves. It becomes part of what is. And herein lies the absolute potential of photography.
Since inception it has recorded and shared and given. From Camera Obscura through to and beyond the first printed image; the introduction of colour; the age of the Polaroid; the onset of digitization and the ubiquitous ‘mobile’; all scattering truth and lies around the world. For all its changes, the function of the photographically recorded image, and hence the camera, remains constant.
Photography as an art form can also, like other creative practices, succumb to unwelcome, extraneous influences. Status, value, exclusivity, commercial potential, notoriety, shock – all facets of the photographer’s armoury that can be used to enhance the work’s appeal and value. The commercialisation and commodification of the image are uneasy bed-fellows in both documentary and art works unless, of course, the sole objective of the practitioner is to embark on a purely commercial, money-making exploit. And why not? Just look at the work and worth of Cindy Sherman or Andreas Gursky – series of exceptional work that deserve the plaudits of any creative audience.
However, it is rare that a student of photography will embark on a sustained course of instruction as a potential source of untold riches. As a means to an end, maybe, but that as a secondary motivation, the first either to contribute to the public debate or articulate an expression of abstract ideas. Both honourable practices which can be judged by a level of proficiency based on a broad spectrum of expertise, originality, compositional awareness, variety, courage, and serendipity and more. And the last – serendipity, luck – can figure very much in a successful career. The right place, the right time, the right gallery, the right curator and the right critique.
And anyone who pursues a career in the visual arts soon discovers it’s a fragile and vulnerable occupation, relying to a very large degree on the subjective judgement of peers, professionals and the public. Sadly a small but significant number of those professionals – the critics, dealers, curators, agents and academics – feel they have a duty to safeguard their cultural, intellectual and financial influence in ‘the arts’, however they see fit. And what an exclusive influence it can be. Inevitably style changes, becomes passé, dull and uninteresting; who then sets the criteria for the next trend-setting specialist destined for the heady heights of creative celebrity?
To suggest that all of those professionals have a corrupting influence on photography and art could not, of course, be further from the truth, but that significant minority can dismantle the honourable aspirations of sincere, well-meaning exponents at the drop of a hat and deprive us all of the opportunity to make sound judgements based on our own honest criteria.
The art establishment is seen by some as an exclusively privileged and parochial coterie; the danger of creating such a powerfully elite body is that it can alienate some who could become valuable contributors. One could be forgiven for thinking that some members of that establishment conspire to exclude those practitioners of whom they disapprove by adopting an almost private language, with words such as ‘retardataire’, ‘mimeticism’, ‘individuation’ and ‘historicity’ – just a few used in recent art reviews written for mass consumption but targeted, presumably, at a very narrow audience. This contention is firmly underpinned by the assertion that “You’d have had to have been asleep for a hundred years not to recognise an Andy Warhol screen print for what it is…” – a naïve statement voiced by a leading intellectual during a broadcast conversation on ‘The Value of Art’, suggesting that everybody should share their sophisticated intellect, the implication being that if they don’t, they’re stupid. The words are legitimate and meaningful but hardly in common use and one is tempted to think that this language is used as a weapon to bludgeon the ‘uninitiated’ into submission and not trouble the elite with their unintelligent involvement.
Sadly, the supposed ‘uninitiated’ rarely have the courage or guile to confess their ‘ignorance’ for fear of being openly ‘identified’ and, as a result, increase the likelihood of being ‘disqualified’ from becoming part of that art establishment to which they desperately want to belong, henceforth perpetuating the myth that ‘real’ art is only for the ‘culturati’. Hans Christian Anderson summed it up best with his depiction of the admirers of the naked Emperor, many of whom can be found at the heart of the establishment, influencing those whose honest survival is threatened by their reluctance to question and their inability to embrace the honesty of their profession.
So, should practice be bound by a sense of accountability? Undoubtedly reportage and propaganda can be unwieldy beasts and, like all precarious pursuits, can be devastating in the ‘wrong’ hands and impossible to control. Where any message perceived as vitally important to the creator of the work is intended, it is certainly deserving of absolute clarity. Hence, any accountability in photography is due to whoever is behind the lens. In this day and age of easy manipulation it’s essential that that accountability is partnered by the practitioner’s integrity. Playing to a gallery of professionals erodes that integrity in very quick time and, more importantly, will fail to deliver a sense of any moral ownership. Thought-provoking as ambiguity is, it is also the enemy of total honesty. Ambiguity in art is fine; art for art’s sake is fine; bullshit for art’s sake is painful and dangerous and should be discouraged.