Tuesday, March 27, 2007

You’ve Seen it Before

Kundera rails on it (again) in his new book. I had to research its culture-consuming ways (a lot) when writing an undergraduate research thesis. Yet somehow kitsch and the related evil of cliché seem to be making the museum rounds this month. Kitsch is portraying what’s tacky as tasteful; cliché is the bloodletting of originality through repetition to reduce art, ideas, etc. to commonplace triteness. While Kundera and the rest of academe would flinch at these generalizations, they are sufficiently aesthetic for casual museum visits.

On one such visit I learned that Richard Avedon’s current show at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University is being touted as convention-breaking. Rather than showing the storied West of mythic landscapes and handsome cowboys, the images “In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon” expose a horrifyingly neglected West of underpaid, overworked, or unemployed Americans. Or so the claim runs. Yet, these overworked farmers, coal miners, highway drifters, and big-haired secretaries are the spiritual heirs to the farmers and migrant workers of Walker Evans’ and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. We have seen their rural poverty, laced with both despair and pluck, in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The dust in the creases of their skin has been floating in the Western air for the better part of the last century, long before the 1978-1984 timeline of Avedon’s series.

Clearly, Avedon has cliché covered. Kitsch comes in at the icky, exploitative nature of these photographs. Is it really high art to capture human misery, then stand back and wait for it to be shocking? This technique, banking on the poignancy of failed faith in the American way, doesn’t give its viewers much credit for having been previously alerted to “hidden” America by earlier artists.

De-mythologizing a self-aggrandizing nation is a mission also close to the heart of Dateline Israel: New Photography and Video Art at New York’s Jewish Museum. Twenty-three artists tackle the Middle Eastern nation’s heroic iconography and attempt to bring it, if not to its knees, at least back to reality. Among the Israeli artists are also foreigners, including the likes of Wim Wenders, who provides two large-format photos of Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, one depicting an ancient graveyard, the other a hillside strewn with trash. Beautifully captured, this juxtaposition of the dream-image of Holy Land with actual evidence of the nation’s social inequality--poverty is holding steady at twenty percent these days—nonetheless brings nothing fresh to the table. The inconsistency it highlights has been a point of concern for native artists for the last fifteen years at least.

In fact, the majority of the show’s clichéd works come from non-native hands, which is not surprising since locals are probably sick of this stuff. Brit Catherine Yaas’ 2004 film Wall follows the path of the eponymous barrier, the footage's visual monotony emphasizing the structure's threatening, bleak hegemony. Yawn. Drawing attention to the totalitarian tinges of Israeli rule is nothing new, and still a worthy message to be made, but need it be made in such a familiar, formulaic way? Similarly, Dutchwoman Rineke Dijkstra’s contrasting portraits of teenage girls in civilian clothing and their army gear feel as though we’ve seen them before, probably because we have, again and again. The tension between “normal” and military life and the effect of pervasive militarism upon the country’s youth are also long-standing preoccupations, and they are quite stale in Dijkstra’s conventional white-background, viewer-facing, “stark” portraiture. Their extreme ho-hum quality borders on kitsch, that is, the co-optation of the quotidian—in this case, common, common art—for the purpose of high culture.

A notable exception to all this been-there, done-that imagery is Sharon Ya’ari’s print Page 4. Four senior citizens walk through a grassy field towards a cookie-cutter apartment complex that sprouts perhaps a kilometer away and dominates the horizon. There are no further visual cues as to where the scene takes place or who the elderly pedestrians are, although a plastic bag toted by one suggests errands, while the kipas worn by the men indicate religious observance.

Born and living in Israel, Ya’ari witnessed the approximate 20% population growth over the 1990s, from under five million to just over six. The boom was fueled largely by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, mainly of them middle-aged or older, and this group heading towards their fresh, new housing is likely a part of this population. The geographic ambiguity of the image combines with its power of suggestion—that path is well worn; was the complex thrown up too fast for well-planned streets? The walkers have such a ways to go; do senior citizens have it rough in these new communities?—to provide a startlingly engaging and truly fresh image. From amongst the exhibits other emblematic works, including mystical and sunny olive groves, and the flashes of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox worshippers, comes the most surreal image of Israel, captured by eliding cliché.

Just down Fifth Avenue from Ya’ari’s tantalizing picture is a series of sad ones. Roman Vishniac, best known for his pre-war portraits of Eastern Europe’s lost Jewish world, also visited big-city Berlin in the 1920s and 30s. His impressions of the place then dubbed “Chicago on the Spree” are on display at the Goethe-Institut New York, showcasing the newly modern metropolis of bustling avenues, brimming cafes, and downtrodden Jews. Yes, sitting quietly alongside shots of the blithe bourgeoisie is picture of a disheveled man receiving advice at the Jewish Aid Society. He stares forlornly ahead, perhaps aware that it will only get worse.

By the mid-1930s, Hitler’s regime was already enforcing comprehensive antisemitic legislature and the lives of the Jewish community--that is, those who hadn’t already fled--were rapidly deteriorating. This makes the scene of schoolchildren smiling happily into the camera even more affecting; when one visitor writes in the guestbook that she was “moved to tears” by the exhibit, she is presumably speaking of this image and not that of the wealthy having lunch on Unter den Linden, hanging nearby.

The photographs displayed were only developed in the late 1990s, so whoever brought them to life was well aware of their poignancy, fostered by knowledge of the doom that would befall their characters. Yet, this awareness, or the fact that these heart-breaking “before” moments are ones we have viewed dozens of times previous, does not send the exhibit straight to the land of recycled cliché. Rather, it invokes familiar, well-liked cliché. And it isn't any worse off for it.

In fact, Avedon's exhibit may be verging on kitsch but it is also visually absorbing and quite impressive; it needs cliché to work its hypnosis over the fascinated viewer. This is especially so in Silicon Valley, where stupefied museum-goers can then contemplate what they've seen over a nine dollar organic-lettuce sandwich at the museum cafe. Similarly, Dateline Israel needs to invoke the well-worn conventions in order to provide a comprehensive look at the social concerns of contemporary society, thank you very much. As well, without the walls, soldiers, and olive trees, Ya'ari's image would be a lot less interesting, lost in the neutral no-context zone. In other words, Kundera and fellow cultural guardians can spend days, or more appropriately, novels and dissertations, condemning pretentious and cheap representations. The rest of us will just enjoy them.

In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford, California through May 6th.
Dateline Israel: New Photography and Video Art at the Jewish Museum, New York City, through August 5th
Roman Vishniac’s Berlin at the Goethe-Institut New York through April 13th

Avedon: Jimmy Lopez, gypsum miner, Sweetwater, Texas, 6/15/79. Edward Roop, coal miner, Paonia, Colorado, 12/19/79 . Loretta, Loudilla, and Kay Johnson, Presidents, Loretta Lynn fan club, Wild Horse, Colorado, 6/16/83. Sharon Ya'ari, Page 4, 1999. Roman Vishniac, Berlin, 1922.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

I think any analysis of a body of work must consider the era in which that body of work was created.

Regarding Avedon's "In the American West" portraits, the original exhibition was mounted in 1985. Avedon was not being "kitschy" nor "cliche'" in his depiction the raw reality of people in the West. In 2010 (or 2007, when this blog entry was published), the depiction of reality has over-saturated our senses. In 1985, our country was still carrying a Marlboro Man vision of the American West.

Furthermore, Avedon purposefully choose subjects that, "... are surprising--heartbreaking--or beautiful in terrifying way. Beauty that might scare you to death until you acknowledge it as part of yourself," to quote Avedon from his forward in the the book "In the American West." Yes, it's been done by Walker Evan and Dorthea Lange, but that work had a different purpose. Avedon perhaps was "De-mythologizing a self-aggrandizing nation," as the blog's author suggests, but that is precisely what America needed.