John Wood on the Virus of Pomposity

April 8, 2011 § 3 Comments

From Steven Albahari, Publisher, 21st Editions:

21st: The Journal of Contemporary Photography served a purpose far greater than most realized. Unfortunately, no one seems to have taken the baton and run with it. The state of photographic criticism today is a sad thing. 21ST Editions editor, John Wood, sent me the following essay. Some will agree with it and it will piss some people off. Read and decide what side of that aisle you are on. We’d love to hear back from you!

The Virus of Pomposity:
Why So Much Contemporary Photographic Criticism is Pretentious, Pompous, Boring, and Unreadable

In a forthcoming interview with me in The Asheville Poetry Review the distinguished poet, literary critic, and scholar Daniel Westover asked me about my work as a photographic critic.  “You treat photographs as works of art—works that, like all art forms, require emotional engagement in order to be understood. . . . Can you say a little about your rather atypical approach to photography criticism? Does your work as a poet and literary scholar lead you to approach the discipline in this unique way?”  This is part of what I said in response:

Too much writing about all the arts today both avoids emotional engagement and intelligible prose.  Some critics appear to think unintelligibility means profundity. Here is a passage from an essay that actually may end up in a book I was recently asked to review as an outside reader: “But _________ knows and claims the sources and influences of her work, going as far as to seek the philosophical mortise and tenon of Bataille, where it would lead me to reread rather Michel Onfray, because it transcends, or at least tries to appease and pacify the old dialectic of sex and terror, relegated to the ideological backstore of unsold accessories.”

Criticism only exists in order to elucidate and clarify what otherwise might not be quite as clear.  It has no value in its own right other than in its ability to do just that!  Critics should be seen as little more than plumbers or electricians, in other words, as craftsmen who at times help us out with a toilet that won’t flush, a light that won’t come on, a complex passage in a poem, or a larger context in which to view a painting or a photograph.  They are not artists and do not deserve the respect we reserve for artists.  (The fact that the French have turned them into personalities in their own right makes one worry about the state of contemporary French culture.  One can understand how they could have turned Bridget Bardot into an icon but not Barthes or Baudrillard.)

There are only a few reasons why anyone would write the way the writer I quoted above wrote.  He or she could have nothing to say but may be trying to cloak that fact by using a few critical clichés, the names of critics, and meaningless phrases.  Or like a good many academics, the writer may simply have never learned how to write clearly.  He could be trying to get tenure and think that if his dean cannot understand what he is saying, then the dean will have to conclude that it’s profound.  Or she could simply be ignorant.  Having spent a lifetime in the academy and in two departments as a professor both of English literature and of photography history, I can assure you that I have encountered Ph.Ds who have read virtually nothing, a fact which has not kept them from publishing in so-called “learned” journals.

Writing such as that in the passage I quoted is an insult to a reader because it says nothing but assumes a great deal.  It assumes that both you and I are a couple of Barnum-style suckers born every minute.  It assumes we are too blind to see the grotesque, deformed, naked empress or emperor strutting about proclaiming such babble as if it were scripture.  But at a less amusing and far more serious ethical level, it assumes we cannot tell good from bad: good writing from bad writing; good art from bad art; good behavior from bad behavior.  It is an assumption founded on the corrupt and debilitating notion that good and bad cannot be distinguished from each other in art or in action—that it’s all in the eye of the beholder.  Yes, in an egalitarian society we are all equal before the law—or at least we are supposed to be.  But ethics, art, and writing are not founded on equality.  They are founded upon exceptionalism.  If all work and all actions were equal and neutral, then we would still be a bit beneath the apes. All acts are not equal before the courts of moral or aesthetic judgment. If they were, there would be no morality and no art.

Thirteen years ago when Steven Albahari founded The Journal of Contemporary Photography and asked me to become its editor, I tried to enlist my old friend Heinz Henisch, the founding editor of History of Photography and one of the great photographic historians of the twentieth century, to write something for us.  He wrote back saying he was an old fogey who still thought about art. I wrote him back saying, “But Heinz that’s what contemporary photocriticism needs–people like us who still think about ‘art’ and nothing about totems, icons, subtexts, been-ness, othering, indexicality, shiftingness, Benjamin, Barthes, and certainly not Derrida.  So you are perfect–the old fogier the better!”

The French have certainly had a terrible influence on criticism written in English—initially in literary criticism; that influence eventually metastasized into other critical areas.  Camille Paglia, one of the most profound art critics I have read wrote,

There is no true expertise in the humanities without knowing all the humanities.  Art is a vast, ancient interconnected webwork, a fabricated tradition.  Overconcentration on any one point is a distortion.  This is one of the primary reasons for the dullness and ineptitude of so much twentieth-century criticism. . . . Criticism without learning is futile.  It produces lightweights, poseurs, triflers. . . .The followers of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, far from being political and intellectual sophisticates, are the real fossilized reactionaries of our time. . . . They have no idea that in French you can form sentences that are virtually content-free, that are merely rhetorical flourishes echoing, reversing, or sabotaging prior French sentences (from “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders” in Sex, Art, and American Culture, pp. 208-210, 215).

She is certainly correct about art’s interconnected webwork; however, I question whether one needs training in photographic history or criticism to be able to address photography deeply, movingly, seriously, and profoundly.  As I also said to Professor Westover, “Because photography is omnipresent in the world today and is today’s major art form, because everyone alive grew up with photography and most everyone even carries several photographs secreted away in wallets like tiny paper icons, I don’t believe one has to be trained in the history of photography to have original things to say about photography’s power, persuasion, and deceitfulness.”  I explained that I wanted The Journal of Contemporary Photography to have the best possible writing on photography, and that I didn’t think many of the so-called “best” writers on photography were at all that good.  So I went to the best and smartest writers I knew for essays, short stories, and poetry about photography.  In the six volumes of The Journal I published Edward Albee, Ann Beattie, Robert Olen Butler, Morri Creech, Annie Dillard, Amy Fleury, Dana Gioia, Susan Ludvigson, Ann Patchett, John Stauffer, John Stilgoe, R. S. Thomas, Frederick Turner, Michel Tournier, Edmund White, Richard Wilbur, and a great many other brilliant writers.  It’s my belief—and it was constantly borne out—that any good writer can tell me amazing things I’d never even thought about within a field I know more of the factual history of than he or she might.  That’s what’s amazing about photography.  We all know it intimately and we can bring unique perceptions, memories, and fragments of ourselves to it.

The Journal of Contemporary Photography

The Journal of Contemporary Photography: Volumes I-VI

So what should we do when confronted with bad critical writing?  We, the consumers of criticism, must become tougher voters.  When we pick up a new book, even if it is on a photographer whose work we might love, and we find inside it three or four passages of pomposity or unintelligibility, then we must put it back on the shelf.  This is not an easy thing to do.  I know.  I admit that I have photographic books in which I have scribbled profanities throughout the text, texts I knew were awful before I even bought the books, but I gave in to the imagery.  However, in the process of thinking about this little essay, just yesterday for the first time in my life I decided against buying a book on a contemporary photographer I admire because of the critic who wrote the introduction.  And conversely, last week I bought a book on a subject that is not of particular interest to me, documentary photography, because of the brilliance of the writing.  It’s Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance:  Photography and Political Violence.  This book, too, has my scribbling throughout the text, but the scribbles are those of my thrilled excitement at the brilliance of Linfield’s thinking and the clarity and beauty of her prose.  It is some of the best writing on photography that I have ever read.  There are not a lot of pictures in the book, but her words are worth thousands of pictures.  Wouldn’t it be nice if all critics on photography cared enough about their subject and their readers to write like that?

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§ 3 Responses to John Wood on the Virus of Pomposity

  • Ah, clarity. I’ve bought in too many times to the fact that I might be a philistine in regard to the modern. On most of those occasions I cared only so much, knowing even then that aesthetics were only a part of the whole. I love great ideas, and frequently find it to be a small miracle when great ideas produce amazing works of art. It’s unfortunate that so many people seem to think that a great idea is the only requirement for the creation of a work of art, or strong enough to pas it off as something other than mediocre.

    • Simon King says:

      “It’s unfortunate that so many people seem to think that a great idea is the only requirement for the creation of a work of art, or strong enough to pas it off as something other than mediocre.” – couldn’t agree more!

      I really irks me ( just being polite) that so much photographic ‘art’ which is utterly banal visually, completely uninteresting, is lauded by critics on the basis that it has some great idea attached to it, as if the image being the idea’s ‘avatar’ (in its modern, not traditional, sense) alone is enough to raise the image itself to the level of art.

      It isn’t.

      On the other hand I am just as sick of the ubiquitous snaps of sunsets or bad weather being praised as great art.

  • PT Barnum~esque critiques these days leave me wondering about the sanity of those doing the critiquing.

    Bullsh*t baffles brains as I have heard said on many occasion certainly rings true.

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