Re: [-empyre-] question to Cecilia Parsberg and Susan Meiselas and to all others
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- Subject: Re: [-empyre-] question to Cecilia Parsberg and Susan Meiselas and to all others
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- Date: Wed, 13 Dec 2006 13:53:53 -0500
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hi Ana (et al.),
Your question about how we use or abuse others' pain as we represent
them goes to the heart of a longstanding discussion, eh? It's one that
I am certainly invested in as an artist who is engaged with the
subjects of spectatorship and mediation. It's not a discussion that I
see as simple or easy, and it certainly keeps cropping up in different
places, and on different occasions with different degrees of passion
and even vitriol!
I am interested and intrigued by your visceral, negative reaction to
the Swedish painter's expression of her desire to get close to the
situation, and by your ascribing a negative spin to the idea of her
painting/portraying people and scenes of devastation first-hand.
(perhaps I should ask first: is she an awful painter?! an opportunist
by nature?! just wondering...) Because the phrase "freaks to be
exhibited in a gallery" is a provocative one, and is meant to describe
something whose very nature suggests quite the opposite of
journalistic sobriety, and which is distinct from Cecilia's
photographs and from documentary photographs in general.
But then, mine and most people's experience of such photographs is
through the filter of the news media, where, disgusting as it sounds,
representations of people's pain must compete with photos of TomKat
and Britney Spears... and theorists have discussed the effect of the
delivery mechanism of mass media as one that produces a kind of
pornography out of representations of violence and suffering -- we are
all, to some degree and whether we like it or not, voyeurs, the
spectators in a crass and brutal system.
So, I find that the "shock" you registered so viscerally when you
encountered the Swedish painter's desire to go directly to the site,
very interesting: here was someone hoping to bypass the usual
mediation and filtering system in order to attempt a more "direct"
portrayal -- to discard the emotional and physical safety afforded by
distance by actually physically going to the site -- and her impetus
came from viewing Cecilia's photographs. Why would one immediately
impugn what appear to be heartfelt intentions? (even if one believed
she was doomed to failure for a whole host of reasons?) Is it just
about the medium she would use? Is it about our assumptions about what
makes different media tick and the baggage each medium holds for us?
Somewhere between asking "How should we act to be a part of it, to be involved
and not only spectators?" and expressing shock at the painter's desire
"to go to Jenin
and paint them, the destroyed houses, the people," there is an
interesting disconnect that illustrates the problem: there is a
conflict between the very detachment and supposed "neutrality" that
goes along with contemplating, recording and creating, and the impetus
to participate and experience first-hand. Detachment and empathy. When
the two conditions co-exist in an individual there is necessarily
conflict... is this not the internal conflict we speak of when we talk
Your statement about the Swedish painter presents an intriguing
provocation, and I think it brings up some of the more germane
questions about representation, and the assumptions and the perhaps
false distinctions we might make that pit the "documentary" against
"art" as categories of seeing/recording/reflecting/engaging; here are
a few questions that come to mind:
- Is there some profound and categorical difference between
photographing a scene of devastation and, say, drawing or painting it?
These are, after all, two highly intertwined technologies of
representation. Before there was documentary photography, there was
history painting; photography inherited the pictorial devices of
painting, its immediate predecessor and close cousin. And what of the
long history of art and its representations of war?
- What about the official "war artist"? -- there is a long tradition
of sending artists, sometimes combatants, into war to record and
portray what they observe or experience, and whose prime directive is
pretty much the same as that of war photographers: to be "objective"
or neutral, to record and to not interfere with the outcome of events.
As though that were even possible.
- So: aren't we being naive? isn't the notion of taking a neutral
position, in truth, an extraordinary oxymoron? Those on any side of a
conflict who are engaged in combat or enacting violence are often,
certainly these days, sufficiently politicized and savvy to "play" to
photographers and media crews, and the mere presence of a camera can
and does influence the course of events. To come full circle, perhaps
it is necessary to say that when present and recording such an event,
one is indeed very much a "part of it" but perhaps not in the way one
had hoped or intended... (I wish some seasoned photojournalist on this
list might describe to us how this aspect of their experience may or
may not have changed over the past several decades of shooting
pictures in war zones, as real-time media and the prevalence of tv
crews has increased... anyone?)
- Are we to accept this ideal of the "neutrality" of the
documentarian? or are we to understand it as perhaps a necessary myth
we all agree to uphold, since photography, including documentary
photography, is indeed art, and therefore a construct...
- One might say: oh, but painting is entirely constructed and
therefore unacceptable in this context: it is necessarily subjective,
loosely contextualized, a slippery slope of meanings and projections.
I suppose that such open-endedness could also be accurately applied to
painters and their representations of war from, say, Goya up through
Picasso's Guernica and onward, but does that make such work
exploitative in the way that is implied here?
- Is there not a complicated interaction going on always between
authors, the activity of portrayal (in art or journalism), and the
subject? There are varying degrees of interaction or detachment; in
any case, the "voice" that tells the story necessarily must edit, and
therefore it must omit; to omit is to re-write history from a certain
perspective (the author's). The making of art (including photographs)
requires editing things out, pruning things down, even when one is
being overtly inclusive; art (as well as the art of journalism) is not
an inventory; they are something quite other than inventories: they
have a shape, they have authors, and so right at the get-go a judgment
call has been made as to what to leave out while history is being
written (and re-written)...
- One last thing: if indeed it is the museum or art gallery system
that is the source of said exploitation, and necessarily imposes some
form of "circus freak" onto whatever is displayed there, then why
would so many photojournalists agree -- desire -- to show their work
in these contexts? I would suggest that, by contrast, the art context
might still be one that is contemplative, less crass and more serious
than, say, television... am I wrong here? Is the museum/art gallery to
be regarded only cynically now, due to the cynical and crass aspect of
the art market and the bureaucracy of museums? Or do such spaces
continue to offer alternatives and counterpoints to an indiscriminate
media circus, which banalizes as it circulates and makes ubiquitous
representations of the pain of others?
(Speaking of the pain of others: Regarding The Pain of Others, Susan
Sontag's last book, about representing pain and devastation, about art
and documentation and "neutrality" and constructs, discusses this
conundrum poignantly and pointedly... certainly worth bringing some of
those ideas into this discussion.)
best to all,
530 laguardia place #5, nyc 10012
On 12/13/06, Ana Valdes < firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
One of the most relevant questions I felt me committed to ask is this
one: when we, activists, writers, artists, meet and describe and
verbalize the "other's pain", the grief of the victims (Jenin,
Kurdistan, Nicaragua, New Orleans hurrican, etc.), how are we using
this pain? Are we a kind of emotions vampyres, using the "other's"
pain and sadness? How should we act to be a part of it, to be involved
and not only spectators?
I met once a Swedish painter, she was very moved by Cecilias pictures
from Jenin, http://this.is/Jenin. She told us "I want to go to Jenin
and paint them, the destroyed houses, the people". I was shocked, how
could she think to go there as a painter, sat up her canvas and paint
them, as they were freaks to be exhibited in a gallery?
"When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth
with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you
will always long to return.
— Leonardo da Vinci
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