"Pensive"

Last night I was reading a little more Barthes and a line really jumped out at me that I hadn’t noticed my first time.

Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.
– Roalnd Barthes, Camera Lucida, p.38

I would say that this is true of art at large, and not strictly photography. I have always been skeptical of work that seeks to become the spectacle through manipulative tropes. Shock, repulsion… there are many tactics that have been successfully used (if popularity is a measure of success) to force a confrontation, to illicit a response, no matter how base it may be. The work is made to intrude in the viewers world. This desire is understandable, but something about the methodology seems false when it more or less can be reduced to psychological smoke and mirrors. Making something that a viewer has to have a reaction to is not the same as making something that is worth having a reaction to. I know some artists thrive on audience manipulation, but I tend to value and lean towards what Barthes calls “pensive” work.

I would take this definition further and say that this means work that is in a way, self-existing: not needing a viewer to be completed. To restate the phrase “I think, therefor I am”, this work exists because it has inherent reason to exist. Admittedly this is more of a thought experiment than something that I feel I can produce on demand, but at least it can be a goal for my own work, and something to consider when I’m trying to decide why I do or do not like any given art.

As far as a goal for myself, if I can create the aura of pensiveness, I will have a certain amount of success. Tangibly I think this would mean when my work is approached, there is an instantaneous recognition that it is not capable of being digested instantaneously (which I feel is often the case with “shocking” art). I want my work to require and even demand time and consideration. Not necessarily that they viewer will stop and look for any certain period (though this would be ideal, it can’t be expected and never guaranteed), but rather that it will be embedded in their mind, and recall itself in the minds eye as something that is worthy of further consideration.

As an example, Bill Viola’s An Ocean Without a Shore, which I saw at PAFA last summer, had that effect on me (and I believe all those that were with me). This work which consists of 3 concurrent videos does require an immediate amount of time to take in, but it has taken up immeasurably more in my mind as it is recalled and reconsidered.

As it seems that digital culture is increasing the speed and immediacy of response, I believe I’ll find it more and more necessary to subvert that trend and demand time and careful consideration of my own work.

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