About a year ago, an article was published in Quanta that caused quite a stir. The premises it put forward were not exactly new but are essentially extensions of arguments nearly 100 years old about the implications of developments in physics, specifically quantum mechanics. The gist of the article – if I may paraphrase – is that there is no ‘objective reality’ because at the quantum (subatomic) level, there can be no definitive knowledge of the characteristics of sub atomic particles, only probabilities. Taken to its logical conclusion, there is no ‘objective reality’ at all and the ‘reality’ we think we live in is a actually the result of a set of evolutionary strategies that allow us to cope with this uncertainty. It’s not actually a ‘snake’, it’s a shared delusion of ‘snake’ which allows us to identify a threat.
I get the quantum argument. I understand the science and I can follow the inevitable chain of conclusions. I even find it liberating – in a way – to entertain the idea that there is nothing but individual ‘reality’. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this or the first source I have heard it from.
But I have one problem – and it’s not Schrodinger’s cat. If everything posited by physics is true and if all the logical conclusions of quantum physics are inevitable, why does photography work? Let me ask that again – why does photography work?
I have already argued on this blog that the direct connection between digital photography and any objective reality is now broken but the basic principle still applies: photography – in either the antique meaning of wet photography or the contemporary meaning of digital photography – is always (initially, anyway) a process of pure physics. Silver responds to exposure to light. A chemical (physical) process fixes the result of that response and we have an image. In digital photography, sensors respond to light and the response is recorded. Oddly, what we see in the result of both stubbornly corresponds closely to our shared experience of the world.
If the evolutionary scientists and the physicists are correct, what we should see in a photograph is nameless, unrecognizable chaos – but we don’t. I find it extremely difficult to believe that humans are able to – in a 2 dimensional re-presentation of ‘reality’ created by a purely physical process – instantly reconstruct a massive, shared delusion. I find it even more unbelievable that animals can do the same – but some do.
It’s absurd to argue that we ‘created’ or ‘shaped’ photography to reflect our own vision of the world – a cursory familiarity with the early history of photography immediately disproves that. And even the adventures into deep spectra photography, infrared photography and high speed photography don’t fundamentally challenge our shared view of ‘reality’. Even weirder, some animals seem to be able to share our perception of those images. Just check YouTube for video of cats watching tennis on TV.
A process extrapolated from pure physics gives us images of the world that correspond very closely to the world all humans and even some animals recognize, even while physics insists that it doesn’t actually exist. I don’t dispute the premises or evidence of quantum mechanics, and I am not sure I even question the conclusions of the arguments. I just have this one question …
Mostly, we do art museums wrong. In general, we do it from the best intentions – we are visiting a place we don’t live in, there’s a great museum there and we want to see everything. But it doesn’t work. There are limits to how much you can really pay attention to, how long you can stay on your feet on hard floors, how long before you get hungry, tired of the crowds, sick of being inside.
We do this because we treat art museums as ‘education’, and each work of art within them as something we must learn to appreciate if we don’t already know and like it. So we’ll stand in front of some ghastly picture for 15 minutes because we are told the artist is important. Deep down we already know we are Philistines (the history of Modern Art has taught us that, if nothing else), so if we don’t like it, or ‘get it’, it is clearly our own fault. Kids are usually better about this – they like something or they don’t, they are interested or bored and don’t mind telling you – but kids are always the captives of their earnest adults.
It’s a terrible way to introduce kids to art but also a terrible thing to do to ourselves. You don’t have to like things, even if the label says ‘Picasso’ , ‘Warhol’ or ‘Twombley’. In fact, you don’t have to care one way or the other.
If you spend a lot of time in museums (I do) you’ll notice certain things about the way people behave there. These behaviors are reinforced by the layout and design of the galleries themselves. The center of the room is often a vast desert. There might be a severe looking, backless couch facing whatever the star exhibit of the room is but that’s it. That couch is almost always taken by either a bored child or people who are old enough to know you have to sit down now and then. So we walk into the rooms, turn to our right and start working our way around the walls – too close to really see the pictures (unless they are very small), but just in the right place to read the labels which tell us what we should like and why.
In an imaginary gallery of Impressionists on a Saturday afternoon, we read the first picture is a Monet. We know he’s important because we learned it in college art history. So we look. We can’t step back because there are 5 or 6 other people right behind us (including one explaining Monet’s importance to her sadly uneducated companion) and we are slightly uncomfortable having them peer over our shoulders. It takes a good deal of fortitude to stake out a good viewing position and hold it long enough to actually see the picture. We don’t stay too long in front of it, never get a good look at it and move on to the next. The entire experience is more about the labels and our own fear of cultural illiteracy than the pictures.
And if you think that’s bad, try getting a good look at the Mona Lisa.
Rinse and repeat for as long as it takes to work your way through the entire museum and you have a perfect recipe for an awful, exhausting day. There are better ways to do this. Before I get to them, let me point out that I have all kinds of problems with museums: their utter capitulation to academic art history, their collusion with galleries, auction houses, critics and prominent collectors to fix and manipulate values, and most importantly the crushing weight they place on contemporary art and artists, but all that said (and I will probably post about those another time), museums are still worth your time and even your money. How can you make museums a more enjoyable experience?
1. Choose the time for your visit wisely. Tues. or Wed. mornings are often the best but your mileage may vary. Avoid school tour days when possible, but I find kids better companions than pretentious adults so if that’s the choice I’ll take the kids.
2. Do a little research and choose exactly which galleries you want to see. If it’s a museum of any size you can’t see it all. Better to choose a few galleries you are really interested in and leave the rest. I rarely try to do more than 3. I used to go the Metropolitan in NY just to see one picture.
3. When you enter a gallery for the first time, go straight to the center of the room and look around. Which pictures call out to you? Which make you really want to look and learn more about them? Go to those and ignore the rest, at least at first.
4. Look at the picture first, not the label. Give it a good, long, relaxed look. Try to find what attracted you to it in the first place. You don’t have to be able to articulate or explain it. Then look at the label. Maybe make a note of the artist if it’s something you really like.
5. Feel free to dislike things – no matter who made them. Just because it’s a Picasso doesn’t mean it’s a good one – he made plenty of clunkers. And even if it is a ‘good one’, that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Pay attention to the stuff you like. Listening to your own response is much more important than reading the label and feeling an obligation. Here’s an example:
This is Boy With A Butterfly Net, by Matisse, in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I think this picture is awful in nearly every respect. The head is awkward and doesn’t belong on the body, the right arm and hand are grotesque, the legs are just clumsy. The path makes no sense (look between his legs), the folds in the fabric don’t follow the body – I could go on. I love Matisse but this wasn’t his best day. Why try to fix that for him?
6. Finally, when you get tired, leave. If you feel you must see everything, remember that at the end you’ll remember very little except for what an ordeal it all was. Leave while you’re still having a good time. That will make it much more likely that you’ll want to do it again even if you never get another chance to go to that particular museum. The world is full of pictures to see, you might as well enjoy it when you do.
We visited MIA today – mainly to look at a show of Neo-Expressionist German prints but we also dropped in on a few other friends while we were there. The show of prints is great and fun to see these guys again after many years – Penck, Immendorf, Baselitz, even a Kiefer lead book.
I am a big Baselitz fan – he’s a painter’s painter. In case you aren’t familiar with his work, for a period he finished his work upside down. If you’ve been to art school this will make perfect sense to you.
We also stumbled on a really lovely Nolde…
and the biggest Vuillard I’ve ever seen. I’m used to Vuillards being little – not this one.
Finally, spent some time with Berthe Morisot, who – in my opinion – was equaled only by Manet among the Impressionists. On her good days she was better.
Tons of other great stuff at MIA but we’d rather make frequent short visits and really pay attention to only a few things than make a full blown, all day expedition out of it. And since it’s close and free, we can.
The word “photography” was created from the Greek roots φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light”.
We no longer draw with light. We draw with pixels. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – I stress this – but it’s a completely different thing. Photography, as defined by the word, existed from 1826 or 1827 when the picture above was made by Nicéphore Niépce, until sometime around the late 1990’s. Not a bad run, really. In the history of art, however, photography is the only medium to have been born, reach incredible importance and evaporate – all in just over 150 years. It’s actually the first medium ever to disappear (movies are next).
For that 160 year period making photographic images was constrained by light, physics and chemistry. The Politburo and Jerry Uelsmann notwithstanding, there were limits to what you could convincingly do with a photographic image. A photograph had an aura of objective truth because of those constraints. Of course, anyone who made photographs in a serious way, or thought about them much knew all along that all photographs were lies. But because a photograph was – no matter how editorially slanted – precipitated by an actual event of light and physics, somewhere, somewhen, there was a universally accepted sense that it revealed something of objective reality. That was how we looked at them. That was what they meant.
This is no longer the case. That connection between ‘objective reality’ and a photograph is irretrievably broken. This is not to say that there aren’t individual photographers whose integrity is beyond question, it’s simply to point out that no longer can anyone presume to prove anything with a picture. It’s gone.
David Hockney wrote in Secret Knowledge “Computer manipulation means that it’s no longer possible to believe that a photograph represents a specific object in a specific place at a specific time – to believe that it is objective and ‘true’. The special position, even legal position, that photography once had is gone.”
My students used to get very upset with me when I talked to them about this. Photography is not dead, they insisted. Just look at these great photographs by this guy on Deviant Art! When I replied yes, they are great images but they are not drawn with light and they have no connection to objective reality the students remained sullen and resentful.
But it’s true. It’s a different medium now. It’s great. It has fantastic possibilities. I use Photoshop nearly every day. But the days of Brady, Watkins, Bourke-White, Evans and Frank are gone forever. I am, honestly, surprised there isn’t a ‘Robert Frank’ filter in Instagram, or have I just missed it? And it doesn’t even matter if you go back to shooting film – the unconscious connection to the physical world and real time cannot be restored. Shooting film is just another strategy now, and a slightly pretentious and niche one at that.
I don’t know what this new medium should be called, but ‘drawing with light’ is clearly a misnomer.
The painting that made Manet famous. Rejected from the Salon exhibition of 1863, it was accepted into the Salon des Refuses where it got lots of (mostly negative) attention. We all know the story. The painting is now considered ‘the departure point for Modern art‘ and we now think of those who laughed in supercilious terms. I’m here to defend them.
The problem with the painting is that it’s internally inconsistent, but not convincingly so, and that was the point.
Anytime you make anything, from your first move (stroke, shot, whatever) you are establishing the rules of the universe in which the piece lives and which the viewer must enter. It can be anything but it must be consistent even if that means consistently incoherent. You can establish the rule that there are no rules – the basic precept of collage – but you still have to either remain consistent or break your own rules so confidently and convincingly that it rewrites them.
Le Dejeuner does neither. Keep in mind I am speaking in purely pictorial terms here. I am not referring to the sexual or gender politics, only how it works as a picture. Neither am I saying that there is something inherently ‘wrong’ about a picture being internally inconsistent. I am saying that when that is deliberately done – when you can’t tell whether an illusionistic ‘error’ is deliberate or not – it is no longer a ‘painting’. At that point the piece becomes conceptual – more about perception, established pictorial mores, social and art politics than about painting itself. I think Le Dejeuner was a brilliant piece of conceptual art and branding but a painting which – as we now take its ‘disruption strategy’ for granted – ages less and less well. It never was a ‘good picture’. It wasn’t intended to be. It’s now a political artifact.
There are 3 elements: The figures in the foreground, the landscape itself and the bather in the back. The foreground figures don’t appear to belong in the landscape – they are handled completely differently and there’s no compelling pictorial logic to it. It looks lazy. Then there’s the woman in the water, who looks as though she was cut out of a magazine and pasted in. Her scale is wrong. The trees on the left and the landscape beyond them tell us she should be farther back. In fact, the more you look at it, the more obvious it is that the left side is a completely different painting from the right. It all looks awkwardly cobbled together. The ‘shock value’ of the picture when shown at the Salon des Refuses lies in the irritation of the contradictions – did he mean to make a bad painting or was he incapable of making a good one?
In retrospect – and in the light of Manet’s entire body of work – we see Le Dejeuner as the first indicator of his genius. That may be true – not as a painter but as a marketer.
For me, this is more like it. Very few painters can use paint like Manet – in which it is equally and simultaneously both pigment and illusion. Frans Hals, Berthe Morisot, John Singer Sargent, Lucien Freud – not many.
The one camera I always have with me is my phone. I use it a lot and post many pictures to Facebook. It’s like taking notes. To me it’s the contemporary equivalent of an SX-70 but it’s even more fun to have an instant audience. Just like polaroids (and everything else), phone cameras have limitations. There’s nothing wrong with that. To do anything good with any camera you have to learn to see the way it does. Often, the cameras with the greatest limitations do the most interesting things, just ask Nancy Rexroth.
At some point soon, there will be a Facebook counterpart to this blog and that’s where they’ll go, but in the meantime here are two.