Thursday, November 5, 2009

I Don't Get It, I Never Will Get It, And Apparently I'll Never Be An Artist

I am following with moderate interest, the blog of one James Pomerantz, a student in the MFA (Photography) program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. My interest is moderated not by any failing of Mr. Pomerantz - who writes well and obviously cares very much about photography - but rather because it is mainly about being a student in a modern fine arts program and, well, "modern," "fine," and "art" to me largely comprise a tripartite oxymoron.

Here's his latest entry:

Roger Ballen in Conversation with Darius Himes Monday November 9th, 7pm

As might be apparent it is about an event where in a modern fine art photographer will be discussing his work with someone. In this case Roger Ballen, the photographer, will be publicly discussing his work with Darius Himes, an editor at an art press. It should be noted that both are quite successful in their respective fields, with Ballen having had a book recently accepted for publication by Phaidon Press and Himes being labeled as one of the 15 most influential people in photography publishing by PDN, the industry trade journal.

So why do I care?

Because if you read the post linked above, you will come across such gems as:

"His most recent work (to be published by Phaidon Press in the Spring of 2009) has pushed this further still, often eradicating the human figure altogether to create intense and loaded subjective spaces that produce intense arenas of disease."

What does that even mean? "Intense arenas of disease?" Used to describe black and white pictures of plates of apples and somebody's feet? (Said apples not being particularly unwholesome-looking, nor said feet particularly ravaged by pathology, just a bit grimy.) How much Kool-Aid do you have to drink to come up with that kind of stuff? Also, five demerits for multiple uses of the word "intense" in a single sentence. Somebody has Grammar Check turned off.

I hasten to add that Mr. Pomerantz did not write that - it was a quote from Robert Cook, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. And if I may wax stereotypical for a moment, how does somebody who can write things like that even survive to adulthood in Australia? Perhaps he's an immigrant. But I digress.

The point being, Mr. Ballen, who is certainly a fine technical photographer and beyond question more experienced and able than I, chooses to use his skills to produce things like photographs of people who look a little genetically questionable wearing scrap wire helmets and holding cats. And for this, he is celebrated, nay, lionized, in much the same way that Michelangelo or Bach might have been in an earlier, less sophisticated time. (Or, to tip the con, much the same way that Picasso or Pollack were not so very long ago.)

Now, here's the thing. I am well aware that a metaphor can be framed in almost any fashion. But if you do not use contextual elements to anchor the metaphor, you are not framing a metaphor, you are throwing things at the wall and hoping something sticks. To impose my own unsophisticated metaphor on the situation, any intelligent preschool child can tell you that if you have to explain a joke, it's not funny. Granted there are many things I might find funny (or insightful) that a preschool child would not. It's entirely possible that I am but a Preschooler of Art. But if so, that is a mighty high bar to set: I have two college degrees, a postgraduate degree, am ridiculously well read and altogether too clever by half, and I still look at most of these things and say, "Yes? And?"

I can go from dirty feet with apples to "arenas of disease," with a little prodding. But I can just as easily go from dirty feet with apples to "the dignity of poverty in epicurean repose." It's the Emperor's New Art: "Only a foolish person cannot see the idea inherent in the work!" Well, human beings are really smart and really good at rationalizing, so there's no pile of dreck that can't have some meaning tormented out of it ex post facto. However, at that point "art" becomes deliberate obfuscation: if you want to tell me something, use symbols we both associate with the basic concept you are trying to discuss. Making up new words when there is already a perfectly good word that means exactly what you are trying to say is pretentious at best and dictatorial at worst.

Now, that doesn't meant that abstraction or surrealism can't be perfectly valid artistic metaphors. One could create an "arena of disease" with a photograph showing nothing but smiley, happy people sitting round, say, a dinner table on which a young child has been laid out as the main course. (*eyes up and to the left*) But the key to such communication is the discontinuity. A picture of a feeble-minded person wearing a scrap-wire helmet and holding a cat is nothing but discontinuity. Other than, "The world is a strange place, innit?" it does not consistently communicate anything in a common symbology. (Not that that's not a valid observation, but it never stops there.)

I have Mr. Pomerantz's blog on my bloglist, but I tend to save up and read it every week or two rather than daily (he doesn't post daily, but I don't read as often as he posts.) This is because I have to be in the right headspace to deal with the topics that he discusses. Again, this is no disrespect to Mr. Pomerantz, who appears at times to have a bit of fish-out-of-water feeling about the process himself and who chronicles it with integrity and merit. In my normal mindset, as soon as such is put in front of me, I merely dismiss it with boredom. I need to be a little introspective - at least willing to grant the benefit of the doubt. So far the benefits are unclaimed, but from time to time it is good to stretch one's mind even on topics one finds intrinsically suspect.

More after the jump - click here!