Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Transgression, Novelty, and Good Art

Jörg Colberg's most recent essay over on CPHMag has gotten at least one of my commenters a little baffled, along with me. His thesis seems to be that transgression is necessary to make Art, or at any rate good art. He does not say, note, that transgression is sufficient. Thankfully. At the same time, our old friend Ming Thein has a post up asserting that novelty is the thing. His claim is that novelty is what inspires us to make pictures, but he implies that it's also a driving force behind making them good pictures.

Both of them are, I will argue, wrong. Both of them have a sniff at the right thing, though. They're close, or in the right neighborhood.

Before we go any further I will point you to an example. It's a horrid despicable project which you can google if you're interested, I refuse to link to it. The key words are Cannonball Kids Cancer, No More Options. The conceit of the project is that people who have recently lost someone (a friend, a child) to childhood cancer are asked to write a letter to the dead child, and to read it out loud. Then, when they're good and weepy, the aptly named Dick Johnson, no, wait, he's actually named Rich, takes a portrait of the victim. The is, ostensibly, to raise awareness, raise some money, blah blah.

You're uncomfortable with this project, but perhaps you cannot quite put your finger on why. I mean, obviously it's exploitation, but it's all voluntary and for a good cause, right? Colberg would note, surely, that it's transgressive. It's bloody well abusive.

Well, here's the thing. These portraits don't actually say anything new, there's no artlike quality to them. They say simply that childhood cancer is bad, which we knew, and maybe they raise a few dollars which, while good, could surely be done without savagely abusing the people who have recently lost a loved one.

Obviously Rich is just trotting out award-bait. He's got a history of this kind of shit, if you poke around his aptly named (I am not lying this time) Spectacle Photography web site. He likes to trot out this kind of "confronting hard truths, raising awareness" thing, and it's obviously aimed to promote Rich's brand.

The trouble with Rich, other than "he's horrible," is that he's simply repeating the Official Narrative, to borrow from my previous remarks. It's chic and populist, and it will get attention and awards, but it's not Art, and it's not particularly valuable. Exploitation of this sort without any particular value is despicable. In fact, let me remind you that the setup is explicitly designed to make people cry, so that they could be photographed in tears, and that Johnson ran some little kids through his mill of horrors, and photographed them after they read their "letter to Nolan". Hang on one sec:

Rich Johnson, you're a fucking monster and you deserve the strongest censure for executing this ghastly idea.

Let's back up a bit and find the common thread that I swear is in here someplace.

Art, if it does anything, enbiggens us. It shows us something new, it opens our brains, it makes us rethink, revisit, reevaluate. It makes us grow.

In order for a photograph or a group of photographs to accomplish this, it has to have a message of its own, a new message, a new narrative. One we have not seen, at any rate. Colberg has it partly right, in that transgression is a way to accomplish that -- by elucidating a message that is counter to the Official Narrative(s), a piece of Art has a shot at saying something new, something which enlarges the viewer. Thein also has it partly right, novelty is a route to the same, or can be.

Both miss the point. The message, the narrative merely need be its own thing, its own enlarging vision. You can take pictures of apples if you can make them speak in a new way about apples, or fruit, or capitalism.

Rich Johnson shows us that merely being transgressive does not guarantee anything new. He's simply repeating the same "cancer is awful, please give money because death makes people sad" narrative that has been with us since before recorded history. Thein's novelty often shows us much the same pictures as everything else, because what is novel to him may not be novel to anyone else. Indeed, his illustration is perfect. We have all seen, ad infinitum, photographs depicting the sensual pleasures of inhaled narcotics. The fact that his friend has taken up vaping may be novel to Ming, but it's boring as shit to everyone else. More importantly, "Inhaling Narcotics is a Sensual Pleasure" is not exactly a new and exciting message. We're been hearing this from vendors of inhaled narcotics for 100+ years.

My initial thought was that, in order to be interesting, the "Narrative" in your art had to defy the conventional, the standard, narrative(s). Upon reflection, I came to the conclusion that it need not. It need merely diverge from those Official Narratives, and find its own way. This, conveniently, allows my own pictures to be awesome, but I think also makes a logical sense. To enlarge the viewer you need not overturn the Official Narrative, although you may, you need only say something different from it.

Which doesn't exactly lead us around to the last bit, which is Colberg's weird comment on portraits.

"if you want to make portraits for an art context, there can be no collaboration when the portrait is made"

Honestly I spent some time trying to imagine some innocent typo that could have produced this, but I cannot find one. Colberg appears to genuinely think this, which makes absolutely no sense. Cindy Sherman's work consists almost entirely of collaborative portraits, and while you might not like her, it's pretty goddamned hard to deny her claim to be making Art.
I think he's just gone slightly off the rails pushing his theme of transgression as a necessary component of Art Photography, and can't quite wrap his head around collaboration plus transgression? But even if we stipulate that he's right about transgression, this still makes no sense, and he does not elaborate on it. So, I am just plain lost at this point.

I do see what he's reaching for with transgression, though.


  1. This, combined with your murmuration musings, is starting to chime. Please keep going thinking this stuff through, it is interesting and helpful.

  2. "if you want to make portraits for an art context, there can be no collaboration when the portrait is made"
    I know next to nothing about philosophy/logic. - In the above quote, photography is not mentioned, so Colberg is saying that if you want to make a portrait and call it art, there can be no collaboration with the subject. Now I realize he probably means a photographic portrait and not a painting, drawing or sculpture, but that's not what he is saying. But, if he is saying that this statement only applies to photography, but concedes that photography can be art, is he implying that each medium in art making has its own rules concerning what constitutes art when that particular medium is used?
    I must admit that I am even more confused now then when I first read the post.

  3. Determining exactly what constitutes a transgression can be a tricky thing, because one person's ethical dilemma is another person's non-issue.

    This is because transgressions come in many forms, ranging from mild to wild, and the difference between them is often down to a matter of degree, which in turn is open to interpretation.

    For example, some people believe that my nighttime urban photography, wherein I photograph around my neighborhood late at night, is highly transgressive and inappropriate. (This obviously includes those who find it to be so great a transgression that they call the police on me.)

    Whereas I don't consider it to be a transgression at all.

    And most people don't have an opinion either way because they're asleep when I'm out photographing and have no idea what I'm doing.

    Which raises an interesting question: Can a photo be a transgression if only the photographer knows it was taken?

    1. "...Can a photo be a transgression if only the photographer knows it was taken?..."
      Hey JG - my off the cuff response would be that to me at least, any photo taken of people where 'only the photographers knows' is doubly transgressive and amounts basically to surveillance, and if we buy the definition that: "...Surveillance can be understood as a violation of privacy..." then it follows that such photos are a big 'no no.' Now I know that within the world of art photography there are bodies of 'surveillance' work, but I don't necessarily buy the argument that 'he or she did it' so it is ok for me to do it.

    2. I think what Colberg is saying, if you want to parse it out in these terms, is that he wants to *perceive* a photo as transgressive.

      So in theory you could have a photo that's totally ordinary, shot it in me kitchen, but if it looks transgressive, Colberg might like it.

      I think I'm on pretty much the same train: what matters, really, is the way the picture communicates with someone who looks at it. If it was made by a dog knocking the camera off the table, that doesn't matter.

      The whole interplay with your neighbors is so fascinating to me. I might well react the same way -- who is that guy and what the hell is he up to? But then, once I knew, I would feel significantly MORE secure, knowing that J was out there keeping an eye on things for us.

      All of which is silly, becuase 99.9 percent of people wandering around a neighborhood after midnight are perfectly benign. I've done my share of nocturnal wandering about in suburbs.

    3. I just don't see that Andrew. It seems to me he pretty plainly and forcefully says "...there can be no collaboration when the portrait is made.." He does not say there can be no appearance of collaboration or any other modifying thing like that. However, even if he did, I would have a problem with that. I think there is a very long list of "you cannot do..." in art, and I can not think of one instance where any of these pronouncements survived.