PRINT November 1989


The friends who met here and embraced are gone, Each to his own mistake.
—W. H. Auden

TOWARD THE END of our 20th century, in a bleak public atmosphere of unremitting entertainment, many visual artists see themselves as locked in unequal combat with the smiling media. During its modern past, art has had to slip out from the grasp of decayed and repressive structures. It has pried open the grip of the salon or the academy, and of other, more recent state-sponsored cultural controls that have uncertainly continued to the present day, loosening in such traditional sites as Russia but tightening here. Simultaneously, artists have had to compete for social status within an explosive outreach of communications that almost literally atomizes all personal statement. Distanced by augmented technical systems, daunted by the massive publics accessed through satellite, artists have been hard put to treat of any subjects not already trivialized by the Western media. Like certain jeans preshrunk for sale, their world seems composed of spectacle that has been preexhausted of content.

If one happens to be an emergent artist of reformist temper, what is to be done to confront this environment? To speak out beyond his or her historical confinement has been a repeated mission of the concerned artist, and it has never been more quizzical than at this contemporary moment, which thoroughly inundates political critique in a confused space. An artistic signal is a specially privileged and also—to the extent that it’s highly professionalized-an abstruse utterance. One might try to enter the indifferent systems where art escapes notice, unless it fetches wild prices. Or, more often, one takes a safer route into an intensive art enclave that is sometimes perceived as a tainted context. Lacking impact upon the larger world, except when their work is judged obscene or blasphemous, artists also feel in danger of running aground in the shallowness of meaning in which the media swim. There is no sense, anymore, of an appropriate audience. During the Reagan years, the once confident dream of artistic power can be said to have waned, and with it, the prestige of the Modernist avant-gardes. Somehow the line between protesting and reflecting the status quo, in the galleries, has been blurred. It has become increasingly difficult for an elite culture to take a stand outside its own tradition of cultivated ambiguity, or the host culture’s amorphous passivity. This is a serious dilemma, and one must sympathize with anyone entangled in its net.

As for the media begotten for and by the host culture, they can’t, of course, be located at distinct points because they are pervasive, ingested as indiscriminately as the polluted air we breathe. At the same time that they become ultraslick in their presentation, they are inherently discordant in their messages. Mark Crispin Miller, repeating a plaint already voiced in the ’70s, writes:

It is possible that no contrast, however violent, could jolt TV’s overseasoned audience, for whom discontinuity, disjointedness are themselves the norm; a spectacle that no stark images could shatter, because it comes already shattered. TV ceaselessly disrupts itself. . .as a strategy to keep the viewer semihypnotized. Through its monotonous aesthetic of incessant change, TV may make actual change unrecognizable, offering, in every quiet living room, a cool parody of the Heraclitean fire.1

Given a TV atmosphere where presidents exchange greetings with apparently off-camera but actually nonexistent audiences, and where reporters harass a subject about his or her reaction to a pressure that they themselves have created, we are schooled to detach cause from effect, or, rather, to see around us only a contagion of effects. Miller observes about advertising that, like propaganda, it wants to “startle its beholders without really being noticed by them.”2 To do justice to these phenomena, especially their psychological impress, I would speak in oxymorons, of such states as . . . riveted noninvolvement. Who would take the trouble to expose the countless unexplained gaps and illogicalities in any TV story, since only its tedious excitement counts? Is an event represented because it has consequence, or is consequence limited to the representation? And what about the events that aren’t filmed? Because it is backed by multiple sponsors, affected by ratings, vulnerable to special interests, managed by corporate heads, and, above all, subject to its own formalized and proliferating conventions, broadcast narrative appears as a puree of artifice, of simulated activities that are interchangeable. In such charades, social reality is consumed by arbitrary and stereotyped images accompanied by judgmental texts.

What opportunities and also what treacheries lie in store for any artist who would make this state of affairs a central theme! We are familiar, since John Heartfield’s photomontages, with the goal of laying open the distinction between what is officially and what is subliminally transmitted in public media. To intervene, agitate, displace, ironize: these are among the methods that would introduce a principled critique of media culture’s indefinite cynicism. At the same time, it has to be noted that the visceral and symbolic tools of public propaganda are simply more amplified and nerve-tingling versions of those employed by artists. How does one make clear that one is commenting upon the estranging effect and inauthenticity of the media when the project itself is to estrange viewers from their fondly regarded media culture?

These are matters of artistic exposition; they require that the subject be so framed as to imply the artist’s moral and conceptual distance from it. The Pop artists effected such a frame by accentuating the element of burlesque, deflating kitsch sources by a riotous exaggeration of their syntax. Much of these artists’ imagery of hard sell was flavored by the sense of a world in enthusiastic disintegration. Pop’s process was an enjoyable one that yielded sensuous dividends. As a measure of how things have changed twenty years later, pleasure is only likely to appear in today’s media-conscious art as a contraband element dissolving within a mood of sophisticated defeatism. Far from being a configuration of signs, as the Pop artists imaged it, the outer environment is now declared to be a layering of programs that cannot be framed from a distance because they provide the frame in which we stand. It has become an intellectual cliché of the ’80s for our cultural theorists or professors to speak of the mediation of sense data through an indefinite series of electronic filters as an effect that has made us vicarious even to ourselves. By this line of reasoning, memory, information, witness, indeed all sensory input from public event and culture are seen as digitalized and pixel-lated illusions. Though we have unprecedented flexibility, convenience, and transparency in the commerce of our images, contemporary theory, and the photography-based art that reflects it, insist that the forces that generate such phenomena are malign. It is not a matter of being ill-served, but of being deadened. Nowadays, to follow the argument, we are mere functions of our images. It is supposedly impossible for us to project any understanding of the world outside what has already been represented for us. We are indentured to shadows. As Vilém Flusser puts it, “Man forgets that he produces images in order to find his way in the world; he now tries to find his way in images. . . . Imagination has become hallucination.”3

If symbols had indeed virtually replaced objects, and if programmed scripts had usurped spontaneous behavior and actual events, then we could have no discernible relationship to a reality. All the more effectively because they are immaterial, the new codes of representation would have produced a closure upon us. Within such an image prophylaxis, human psychology would dry up from within, and feelings would be codified in robotic exchange. An artist convinced that such is the case is also convinced that impotence is our social lot, and illusion our natural state. Nonpictorial or iconoclastic arts have an easier time avoiding the political impasse implied by such a belief. Hans Haacke’s texts and Jenny Holzer’s homeless statements, flashing in dotted characters, further a political awareness undeflected by pictorial blandishments. As they stand clear of imagery, they exempt us from its illusory control. We come to painting, on the other hand, expecting the proposal of alternate worlds of metaphor and hypothesis; painting can visualize what happens in the media, but at an inevitable physical remove. Its distance from its subjects is inherent in its rendering.

In retrospect, it now seems predictable that artists could visualize their disenchantment with mass image culture only within its own territory of photographic forms. Like a fish that has been hooked out of the water to gasp and flip about in the air, photographic imagery has been plucked out of the media, estranged by artists in the limbo of its own artifice. Despite everything we know about the subjectivity inherent in the framing of photographs, and about the orchestration of photographs by powerful interests, we still come to them expecting them to confirm and verify, in their flattened form, the world that we perceive. Many new photoartists have paid lip service to that credibility in order to exploit it for their own ends. Counting on our recognition of photographs as technical and mechanically produced images, embedded in the media, these artists indulge the most painterly means. They have chosen the ontological base of one medium, but adopt the expressive aims of another. As a rhetorical maneuver, this one has a long history behind it. Now, however, the interest arises out of a dangerous flirtation between the bad faith and false statements of commercial forms and the freely created content of artistic forms . . . on the same ground.

The easiest method of consummating this affair is to invest the photographic medium with a variety of anti-realist esthetics. Accordingly, the route taken by a number of current photoartists has been to lessen the energy levels, dim the contrasts, and weaken the states of definition in ordinary photographic parlance. The atmosphere in their works has thickened almost viscously, and the tonal values have become murky. The intense local colors do not “breathe.” It is hard to identify any source of illumination. Any cluster of these works will immediately distinguish itself by a monotonous dankness. Vaguely translucent barriers seem to have been placed between the objects depicted and the surface of the print, and the light seems barely to have sieved through to selected passages in the dark fields. If it is asked why such artists as Stephen Frailey, David Levinthal, and Allan McCollum and Laurie Simmons occlude and densify the frame, the answer is most likely to be that commercial photo culture, their stalking horse, favors accessibility of display and transparency of effect.

The most recent case made for work like this was in an expensive show curated by Joshua P. Smith at Washington’s National Museum of American Art last summer—“The Photography of Invention.”4 Heavily framed, outsized in scale, elaborately processed, these works produced an effect at once turgid and lugubrious. Smith remarks that the exhibitors produce nontraditional photography (currently at the fore in our galleries) and are at the same time unaware of the history of their medium—without noticing that they couldn’t be knowingly “nontraditional” if they were ignorant of their background. Leaving aside the oddness of an argument that praises artists for being uninformed, one sees that Smith has also misread them if he thinks they are inventive. For it is precisely the jobbed and hackneyed content of their subjects that apparently fascinates them. “Inventive,” in this context, means reliance on any number of elderly hybrid techniques (such as multiple exposure) or new ones (such as printing on steel) that effectively cancel the dominant “purism” (Smith) of straight or documentary photography. One wonders how an observational stance can be “purist” if it accepts the material circumstantiality of the world, the violent, endless fortuitousness of things, as subject. (Try to tell a war photographer that he is a “purist.”) In modern-art talk, purism signifies the exact opposite—either a reduction of all appearances to a schematic order, or, less commonly, affirmation of a medium’s limits. By this measure, the photoartists are expansionist in process but reductive (purist) in content. They deflect their gaze from the external world, as if sensitively affronted by its realities, but they do not retreat inward—they do not discover any depth within their individual vision.

Admittedly, to ask such a thing would be to impose an inappropriate demand upon them, for they are unfriendly to the individualist canon of authorship, or to the phenomenon of aura, as it has sustained the work of their elders. Sherrie Levine’s framed rephotographs of Walker Evans images were of course meant to undermine not only the prestige of prints made from original or copy negatives, but the value of an artist’s way of seeing; they argue that the esteem enjoyed by certain images is arbitrary, and can be cheapened. Many of the photoartists—not all—hold that the human interior functions only as a receptacle stuffed with media deceits. These photographers never feel more at home in what they do than when their work targets something stale and hollow among easy prey in the image landscape around us. Richard Prince, for example, says that “sometimes I think all my work got sent away for. . . . At seems to me that trying to present something believable might be asking too much.”5 At first this sounds like Francis Picabia’s remark that one must change one’s convictions as often as one’s shirts. But Prince is not such a dandy. He’s casually assured that convictions aren’t possible.

Since the photoartists are generally about replacement of the vague dubiousness of public imagery with a dubiousness decidedly more acute, the question of their artistic distance from their subjects is basic to an understanding of their project. Two things we notice as conspicuous by their absence in such distancing are parody and wit. Do not ask Victor Burgin or Clegg & Guttmann to lighten up their sententious tone. Their takeoffs of hack imagery are very seriously intended. How far we are from the playfulness of camp, which implied an affectionate intelligence acting upon the motif from the outside. Photoartists, contrarily, offer us a puritanical embrace of comparable material, so as to emphasize a now rather abstract quality of fiction. They are enemies of snap, or incisiveness of any kind, and if their work pretends to send any message, it is usually blander, more wooden, than when it might originally have appeared. Some of them have taken it into their heads that a beguiling image is insidious because it heightens an illusion of truth—so the correct step is to debase the illusion.

We’re familiar with traditions in art and photography that have fastened on humble or nondescript subjects the better to make us see them freshly, through an exhilaration of form or concentration of gaze (from Monet to Lewis Baltz). Here, in contrast, synthetic motifs are ostentatiously diluted with the hope of introducing a new lowering of experience. Though the removal of visual nutrients may once have been didactic, it works more practically now as a stylistic mark. Hal Foster has suggested a prototype for such negativism in the work of the painters David Salle and Thomas Lawson, who “contrive an art that plays on our faith in art to cast doubt on the ’truth’ mediated by it, a ‘dead’ painting that saps conviction in painting, that undermines its own claim to truth, authenticity, consent.”6 By a kind of customized anesthesia, the photoartists numb the vibrancy of their sources as if to establish a distance beneath and within the depiction.

More specifically, that distancing operates on three, sometimes interconnecting levels: images are mutated, figures are objectified, and symbolism is rendered inert. All these practices are proposed as varieties of pictorial dysfunction, as if viruses had migrated into a computer network. Nancy Burson, for example, has long been interested in the resources of computer-generated imagery in averaging (mutating) the faces of public personalities or different racial types into new, nerveless amalgams. These smudgy distillates no longer represent flesh, and are certainly deprived of their media currency. The artist perhaps takes a swipe at the iconic value of overcirculated faces, like George Bush’s, but not against the stereotype itself—she brings off the sanding of contours, the blending of differences, with a dispiriting bravura. It’s as if she were intimating that no one can properly “tune in” anymore, or find the right command, a feature that is also evident in Robert Heinecken’s crossbreeding of television anchor people, who smile on without knowing that he has afflicted them with some indeterminate form of lupus or leprosy.

As for objectification, it is the common coin of photoartist imagery, immediately manifest, say, in the substitution of toy dolls for people as actors in chintzy minidramas. Laurie Simmons, an artist known for such usage, states that “the danger of photographing real people is simple literalism.”7 One would have thought that the metaphor of toys was a much more literal—and limiting—device for the dramatic representation of human behavior than the mysterious presence of real persons. But the fact remains that depreciation of affect is everywhere perceived as an ideal among artists who nevertheless look with understandable coldness upon the media’s exploitation of affect. Instead of countering such phenomena, however, they invite unfavorable comparison with their models, as Levinthal does when he alludes to John Ford movies with toy cowboys, or pastiches Edward Hopper in the series “Modern Romance,” 1984–85, w here “lonely,” faceless dolls are photographed from video monitors. Joshua Smith, the curator of “The Photography of Invention,” misreads such outlooks as Levinthal’s when he comments that in them is mourned “the loss of authenticity, shared experience, history,” etc.,8 as if we were dealing with resurgent humanists who simply couldn’t help the minimalism in which they were invested. On no account should the esthetics of objectification be interpreted as regretful. And it is not simply regret that is ruled out; psychological interaction is also stunted.

The photoartists’ view of the world is lorded over by depicted objects, among which are sometimes stationed thinglike people. It is true that in their earlier work Cindy Sherman and Eileen Cowin depicted tense romantic situations, with real players who pretended to have a history and a future. But Sherman has gradually added strange plastic parts to her body, and now tends to show us only dead fingers peeking from chaff and muck. As for Cowin’s actors, they have shrunk to miniatures in black fields. Even those late-’80s photoartists who are still concerned with figural action, such as Bruce Charlesworth, Nic Nicosia, Sandy Skoglund, or Patrick Nagatani and Andrée Tracey make sure that it is especially congealed. Skoglund and Nagatani and Tracey drive home their point by guying objects with string, or apparently spraying them among hapless figures in artificial storms.

When we consider portraiture, we see that it, too, has attained extremes of impassivity in the art of Thomas Ruff and Neil Winokur. Nothing disturbs the serene, sensuous transparency of their description, certainly not the wrinkle of a brow or a thought in the head. Though they may be given their individual names, the sitters in these pictures are visualized as only interchangeable pawns of an artist’s style. Winokur flanks his subjects by separate photographs of objects with apparent biographical interest, yet the human being is photographed in the same iconic spirit as the belongings—they are all of equal status. Toys or ventriloquist’s dummies are simulated people in small scale; in the portraiture of the photoartists, we see real people represented with an emphatic vacancy of expression.

The impetus of the objectifying glance obviously takes a wide variety of forms, with the one common element that given a choice, the artist will prefer immobile presences to sentient human behavior in depicting social relations. Modern art, particularly in its mechanistic phases, offers precedents for this development. But it is more likely that the photoartists are inspired to their new prodigies of fermentation by the remorseless enthusiasm of faces in the media. They had officially taken their stand against narrative charades in the media that everyone recognizes as only display setups. The next obvious move was to reduce the narrative display to still life.

There remains the question of ordering the elements or units within the allocated space. Instead of choosing grid or sequence, the photoartists often prefer the rebus, a puzzlelike matrix of scattered signs, images, and words. In page spreads, newspaper layouts, the incessant lamination of commercials and features on television, even the endless roll of data columns on computer screens, the matrix presses onward. The proximity of disjunct materials on the same surface or within an allotted interval reflects shared usage of finite space; we graze within these storage areas, fetch what we want, and turn the page or switch the channel. As is well known, Modernists from the Cubists on to Robert Rauschenberg have been visually attracted to rebuslike forms, and have made them melodious. For a number of photoartists, however, there is no information-storage area that is not also a field of perpetual disconnections. They have contaminated the artistic and empirical attitudes toward the rebus so that its deployment of images can mean anything, and therefore nothing in particular. Sarah Charlesworth, for example, has explored the possibilities of a layout of few units in which trivial readings are multiplied by indifferent options. The rebus no longer functions as a puzzle (though it’s hypercryptic), and it doesn’t look good, but at least it now labors conspicuously as a strategy to amplify the distance between concept and motif.

Were they to have led to a critique of corporate image culture, or had they achieved a poetic resonance, these strategies were worth following. Indeed, one of the theorists from mission control implies that much recent work is involved in a critique of past and present art practice: Abigail Solomon-Godeau writes that such practice "specifically addresses the conditions of corn-modification and fetishization that enfold and inform art production.”9 (The remark refers to imagery by Sarah Charlesworth, Louise Lawler, Prince, and James Welling, among others.) It is hard to know what practitioners can do about this thankless market process. By and large, the theme has been dropped from current photoart.

No, the real predicament stems from the way art internalizes the pathologies of the media within an independent context that only makes sense if they are turned upon themselves. The media are essentially amoral; lacking respect for individual integrity, they objectify their subjects, with a particular weight that continues to bear down heavily on women. So where, for example, is the consciousness of women artists who enhance the objectifying stare in their work, as if it imposed no penalties on subjects or viewers of either gender? It won’t do to argue that the stare brings home the malevolence of our image culture. (The intended art audience would hardly be edified by what it already knows.) In too many instances, the hand that is thought to point to a cultural deficiency is the thing looked at, not the deficiency. Faced with the overwhelming popular impact and high production values of the mass media, artists have taken precisely the wrong move by rendering their own work ineffective, presumably in contention with what it mimics. Whatever the aim of the internalized distancing system, it breaks down. The effect achieved is at the artist’s expense, not the media’s.

All that happens, in fact, is that physical filters are added to the theatrical filters already in place. It is difficult to understand this as anything but a reflection of the artists’ own esoteric passivity and devitalization. The slackness of their project, in fact, opens up the question of whether they are aligned with the media, by imaginative default. The token Marxism in their theory evaporates in their practice. We have to reckon with a pseudo, not a real, artistic distance from the commercial content; and instead of an unmasking, we are offered only a coarsening of illusion. That is why this art frequently oppresses us without challenging us. Much of it perhaps deliberately gives the impression of wanting to fulfill Jean Baudrillard’s pronouncement that "if the entire cycle of any act or event is envisaged in a system where linear continuity and dialectical polarity no longer exist, in a field unhinged by simulation, then all determination evaporates.”10 With their unearned skepticism and a languid metaphysics, photoartists are zealous to determine nothing. They have souped up photography without retaining its credence, and they have imitated painting without achieving its sensuous presence or its pictorial freedom.

Curators often promote this kind of work as relevant to our era because symptomatic of a widespread malaise. This is like saying that cynicism should be endorsed because so many people are afflicted by it. Luckily, a few corrosive minds among the photoartists demonstrate an activist temper that turns media material around within an inflammatory context. The art of Barbara Kruger, for example, stands out from that of the raging sheep around her. Rarely since Heartfield has advertising or reportage been so aromatic of conspiracy as when she gets her hands on it. The same applies to Dennis Adams, who blows up still photos on Duratrans (illuminated by fluorescent) of such subjects as the Rosenbergs, South African blacks at an antiapartheid funeral, and Nazi regalia. He usurps sites usually given over to commercial signage in locales likely to be frequented by hostile publics.

In a similar spirit, the team of Elizabeth Sisco, David Avalos, Lewis Hock, and Deborah Small has used funding from the San Diego Municipal Arts Council, obtained through tourist revenue (a hotel bed tax), to indict their city’s tourist image. Last April, moving about town on the ad placards of regular buses was to be seen their message: “Welcome to America’s finest a) city; b) tourist plantation; c) convention center,” accompanied by photographs of dark-skinned hands washing dishes and cuffed behind backs. This sort of presence is inappropriate to boosterism but conducive to the memory of inequities at unprepared moments. Instead of infecting the image with some sort of pictorial disease, such art provides correction to the double standards that are a disease of the society. It assumes that artists and viewers live in the same historical continuum. Using rebuslike forms that offer genuine puzzles, or appropriating press material in rephotographed guise, Kruger and Adams inject a palpable aggression into familiar techniques. They are unhesitatingly clear about the need to be effective and to hit hard. Elsewhere, viewer response may be treated as a matter of indifference, and the artists are alien. Here, we feel that they are on our side, oddly enough because they imply that we are worth shaking up.

But the turbulence is also mysterious. As it sometimes indicates a specific reference, it also has a generic import. There’s no telling where and when these artists will strike again, undermining the public hype with a guerrilla abruptness. And in that prospect, with exemplary tension, their pictures keep us alert to the world of awful consequence-—the real storms-beyond their frames.

Max Kozloff is a writer and photographer who lives in New York. His latest book, The Duane Michals Story, will be published by Twelvetrees Press, Altadena, next year.


1. Mark Crispin Miller, Boxed in: The Culture of TV, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988, pp. 13-14.

2. Ibid., p. 11.

3. Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Göttingen: European Photography, 1984, p. 7.

4. With a catalogue of the same title, essay by Joshua Smith, introduction by Merry A. Foresta, Washington, D.C.: The National Museum of American Art, and Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1989. The exhibition ran from 28 April to 10 September 1989.

5. Richard Prince, “An Interview by David Robbins,” Aperture no. 100, Fall 1985, p. 9.

6. Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Seattle: Bay Press, 1987, p. 52.

7. Laurie Simmons, quoted in Anne H. Hoy, Fabrications: Staged, Altered, and Appropriated Photographs, New York: Abbeville Press, 1987, p. 47.

8. Smith, p. 15.

9. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Photography After Art Photography,” in Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Boston: David Godine, 1984, p. 80.

10. Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” in ibid., p. 264.