Monday, 15 July 2013

"Criticism is Cancer"

When asked what I've spent the last three years studying, I often reply with "art history", but in actual fact the course is called Criticism, Communication and Curation. Even just this evening when someone asked me that dreaded question there was an awkward pause as I nervously replied with my default answer before my friend stepped in to correct me.

Those three 'c' words evoke such a huge topic of conversation, one that I rarely have the time, or maybe energy, to divulge in. The name of this course runs the risk of coming across as one of those 'made-up' courses that post-modernism has allowed for such as Harry Potter studies (definitely no disrespect to those studying it, it's a bloody great book). Perhaps it comes across so as each of these words lacks a definitive definition that I can spiel out at any given moment.

Having successfully avoided any real intense discussion over the use of words that equal the name of the course, today, this avoidance was broken as the tweet below popped up in my twitter news feed:

"Criticism is a Cancer - the biggest reason an artist gives up art is criticism."

Ouch. Not the 'c' word? But yes, the gallery that tweeted this used the 'c' word (cancer) and a sudden sense of obligation came over me to defend the word criticism as comparing it to cancer, which kills 7.6million people a year, seemed a bit harsh.

So firstly, i sought to finding out exactly what this tweeter meant by the term criticism- who is an art critic? After finding a video via the twitter (which I now can't find) entitled "Sick critic", that question was definitely cleared up: so apparently it's a person who can't make art and decides to slag off other people's work. This in itself is a very disrespectful assumption to make about those studying art theory/history and opens up a large topic of conversation that the tweeter didn't seem willing to partake in (I tweeted them back...)

Now is this not a very narrowed and outdated understanding of an art critic? 

I can sympathise with the idea that some people just like to moan about art un-constructively, and this makes the artist feel insecure, but it still doesn't bring me any close to agreeing that criticism is cancer, and as one twitter user remarked to the idea of artists insecurities: "If you can't take the heat..." Isn't it all part of the arts? A voice for everyone? And doesn't Central Saint Martins explain that one of the entry requirements is thick skin?

Many of my lectures were spent discussing critical space, the need for it, the role of criticism and the tangible nature of it. One person's criticism may be another persons compliment. Preferences in art are subjective, should anyone be apologising for saying to an artist "I don't like that piece"? Criticality helps us evolve and learn, put things into perspective or make things seem more valuable. Surely this process should not be described as cancerous.

I suppose what has irritated about this comment the most, is that what the tweeter was referring to was not criticism itself, and cancer is not a word to use lightly...

Clearly art criticism has existed for a long time...

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A Life of War

Don McCullin is a documentary photographer that I have long been aware of, in any basic history of photography lesson his name arises as one of the great 'war photographers' of the 20th century. 

When mentioned by others, his subject line is often "his photo's are so depressing" or "his images are too upsetting". Once or twice I had googled McCullin, and each time been too scared to confront the reality that his images portray. So, it was a long time coming to watch a documentary about McCullin's career, and really delve into his works to understand why he photographs the things he does...

Imagine...Don McCullin

Following the documentary on Vivian Maier (as mentioned is a previous post) Image- BBC4, are showing an episode about McCullin's life works over the last 50 years, presented through the wars that he has photographed.

Initial questions posed to such a photographer as McCullin usually revolve around why he entered into war photography. As he explains throughout, it became a 'sort-of' addiction to always be in a war environment, he refers to himself as a "war junkie". Aside from that, is the more obvious reasoning that grounds most social documentary work, that his images bare a truth of the horrors that others suffer, bringing that to light to those more fortunate or simply unaware. Even today, when war is plastered all over the news and media, I was still horrified by some of the things McCullin shot, being oblivious to the fact that such horrors actually happened and are happening. 

The word that sticks with me in a description of McCullin's work is harrowing. At times, his images are even unbearable, and I could not look for too long.

Which then leaves the viewer with a disturbing realisation that McCullin has seen these events happen, over and over, even worse than a photograph- a lived experience. McCullin has no shame in admitting that he is haunted by these memories, and that his life of war ruined his marriage.

However, what they brought to photography is the possibility of being a tool for change, and what they represent for the people in the images, is the strength and dignity they maintain despite their unimaginable pain in the unfair circumstances that they have lived.

What sets McCullin above many other photographers is the consistency of quality, humility and near-perfection that each of his images embody throughout his vast career.

Biafra, 1967

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Curious Case of Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny's Pictures? Documentary by IMAGINE, narrated by Alan Yentob (who's great.)

'Photographer' Vivian Maiers story has absolutely enthralled me since first discovering it. I refer to her a photographer in inverted comments, as none of her work became accessible/viewable to the public until after her death.

The documentary (linked to) above is essentially trying to uncover her life and her works.

What's unbelievable is the amount of photographs she took on a daily basis. Maier worked as a nanny throughout the 50s and 60s in various parts of America including Chicago. According to some people that 'sort of knew her' she was never without her camera.

The body of her work that was found in storage is incredible. Heaps, and heaps of images: street photography, self-portraits, images about family, relationships and places.

Her self-portraits are chilling, they leave the viewer with the uncertainty that the image may be a truthful portrayal, or a construction of herself. Continuing the mystery that is Maier...

Seeing her work first without knowing her story about two years ago, I couldn't believe I'd never come across it earlier. Her images capture the zeitgeist of the places she travelled, they're iconic yet original, classic but obscure. Maier can be compared to Arbus or Cartier - Bresson, the difference being however, that her photography was private.

It baffles me how a person can create such wonderful images, and so many of them without the inclination to share them, or if not share, at least show them off. Why did she do this? What were her thoughts on photography? Who were her family, her friends? All these questions left unanswered that in the documentary people are so desperate to uncover.

However, an acquaintance in the documentary highlights, anything we now present about Maier is a construction of someone's else's Maier, who they thought she was. In truth, we cannot know, that lack of knowledge will forever leave a sense of mystery around her photography. However, what I feel is absolute is the greatness of her talent and the lost years of appreciation for her practice that is now being made up for. 

Self portrait, September 10th, 1995 New York City

More Men Are Definitely Doing it...

"Are men doing it?"

"Doing what?"


"Oh, are they getting involved in Feminism and gender equality? Well..."

Tuesday the 26th of June I ventured from SW to Bethnal Green to attend a night called "Are Men Doing It?" It was hosted by Bethnal Green Working Men's Club and organised by East London Fawcett ( #eastfawcett ).

Despite potential misconceptions (not by me) of it being a night of angry women slagging off men, it was in fact the very opposite.

How can men feel more involved in feminism? Answers were posed by a panel such as: stop branding the term feminism as it has too many unwelcome connotations, and instead, referring to the pool of thought that is feminism as 'gender equality'. However, who can be a feminist? Writer Martin Robins explained that feminism comes as a natural act of Humanism- who wants wants their mother, sister, daughter, father, uncle etc to be treated equally regardless of their sex and gender? If your answer is, "yes! That's what I want" then guess what, you're a feminist.

The current discourse on feminism can be classed as Third-Wave Feminism. Like 'Post-post-post Feminism', it's an extenuation and development of previous discussions and values as to what it is, taking into consideration the 'rights and wrongs' of previous feminist movements and actions. Ideas have developed further since Germaine Greers' text The Female Eunuch. 

As discussed by the panel, feminism has actually done more for men's rights than some may be aware of, so to quote the TED talk mentioned in my previous post (again), it isn't a battle against the sexes, we're in this together. But seriously, we are aren't we? It's an unfair statement (and one i've heard) to suggest that feminists are looking for a world without men.

So one analyses that was brought up was the notion of just saying "i'm a feminist" and how it's easier to say than actively do. Comedian and compere for the night James Mullinger gave an example for active feminism as arguing against a misogynist comment when one is made, highlighting that it's not okay. And I truly believe that bit-by-bit stereotypes and judgements can be unwound but it's everyone's responsibility to actively be part of that. 

It was wonderful to see a broad range of people there, but as  comedian John Robins pointed out, is it broad enough? Although it's healthy (and fun) to discuss such topics with those who share a value, were we not preaching to the choir? How can others who aren't even aware of what feminism IS be made aware? And perhaps more importantly, who's roll is that?

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Misconceptions surrounding Feminism

"It isn't a battle AGAINST the sexes. We live in this world together."

Utterly fantastic video from Ted speaker Jackson Katz stating the incredibly important things that all men and women should consider when engaged in the fight for equality.

Monday, 22 April 2013

My Growing Obsession with Kafka

Who is Kafka and why are there photographs of him everywhere?

This was my first encounter with writer Franz Kafka, as through reading various photography theory (Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes) this one photograph of Kafka kept popping up...

Often referenced by various writers, naturally my first reaction to Kafka was "why are all these really good writers referencing a child?" Thankfully after a quick google search I realised this is a photograph of him as a child and that he passed away in the early 20th Century and has a huge bio of literature...

Attempting a read at one of his most famous texts Metamorphosis, 1915 left me even more confused about the relevance of his work as it's certainly got nothing to do with photography (I presumed it did from reading Benjamin). 

My next experience with Kafka was reading What is a Minor Literature? in Deleuze and Guattari's profound text Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, 1986. I can safely say that when I first read this text i was NOT ready...And already being highly confused about Kafka it left me literally baffled. This was not a good period for my intellectual progression and I'm inclined to blame Kafka...

So after forgetting about Kafka for a few [university] units I returned to Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature some months later. And read it again, and again until it finally made sense. It's now one of my favourite texts- I often find with philosophy (especially writer Guattari) that at first I'm frustrated by it and sort of angry that i "don't get it" and I curse the words as being mumbo jumbo. But after thorough reading and understanding there is a sense of reward for just simply "getting it". 

Understanding this and reading a fantastic interview with Guattari (Click here for interview) made Kafka make more sense, so I returned to Metamorphosis and his other texts with a understanding of what a minor literature actually is: literature existing without a pretext of cultural language and a body of references that is generically recognisable. 

It took me a long time to discover that Kafka remains of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, and i am still finding out exactly how. Through this, my obsession grows.

Currently reading Conversation with Kafka by Gustav Janouch, 1971.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

This is Not Carol Mavor...

As recommended by a friend, I bought Carol Mavor's text "Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion". The text was a perfect contribution to by dissertation but it developed my realisation of the style of writing I wish to undertake: informed, academic, personal and poetic.

Mavor responds directly to Barthes' Camera Lucida (one of my ever favourite books) but she touches upon a very subtle, nuanced aspect of a theme that runs throughout the text; bruising.

I'm yet to read the whole book as I haven't even really touched the surface of it. But the best part is that I know i'm going to enjoy it. Perfect font, good paper, interesting and poetically named chapters, everything you gain from printed books.

Buying a printed book is like embarking on a life-long relationship. For that reason I am still averted to the Kindle...

This image is on the cover of the book, and FYI this is not Carol Mavor...