Bleeding for Art

I’m a little proud of myself today. I actually bled for my art, or rather through handling it. But despite it being a small cut on my left thumb (cuts from glass are no laughing matter regardless of size) somehow it felt that I had “suffered” for my art. And as we all know, suffering is one of the great sources of insight, so I’m bound to produce something stunning in the near future.

All joking aside, I was reflecting today on the daily grind of art making: the slow, the tedious, the mistakes and the setbacks. Over the past couple months, following the completion of my MFA, I’ve realized how frightfully easy it would be to simply stop. To not produce, but simply maintain the title of “artist” as a parlor trick or an interesting side note on my resume. It is hard work, all the more when I can’t be a “full-time” artist (and I realize that the vast majority of artists are in this boat with me), and it feels like I have to slip in little times throughout my day where I can think, create, and dream freely.

And yet, it would not be easy for me to fully stop. Despite the daily difficulties, the situational inconveniences (to make not mention of the financial drain) there is something that draws me unto it. Is it capital A “ART”? No, I think not for there is too little to be gained. My only conclusion is that it is something inherently within myself that is in fact drawing itself out; something that cannot remain within and yet is one of my essential components. There is the desire, the need to face problems and dream up solutions, to find something new and unique, to dwell on something I’ve visited 1,000 times in a new way, to give fresh eyes to those around me, to dig deeper than the surface, and to search for “why’s” and “what if’s”. The words I’m using don’t quite hit the mark for what I’ve been feeling recently, I only know that I cannot stop, not in a compulsive or even obsessive way (not that it cannot be that) but rather in a way that recognizes that if I am not creating work, I am not being who this world needs me to be.

That all really went on a bit of a tangent, but I think I like it, and what is the creative process if not a string of tangents that have been given sense. What I really intended today was to pose a bit of a question, but I must set the scene first. I was making some work today (transferring images to glass, hence the cut) which is very directly related to much of my thesis work. I’m dealing with the same ideas, using some of the same images even to create a piece that has many similar characteristics of my previous work, but has some added sensibility that I feel the others were lacking. But I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I need to do something different, riskier, or unexpected. But on the other hand I know the value of creating a cohesive body of work and that there can be as much value in continually confronting the familiar as there is in facing the unknown.

I remember looking at some artists work ( I regret that I cannot remember her name) that all revolved around one image. She had found one image, “the” image in her perspective (Barthes might have said that the punctum in that photo so pricked her that she never recovered). Each piece she created was of that one image, approached and rehashed in an attempt to reveal to the viewer what she sensed. So then my question is, what is the balance between a slow and steady progression of work versus traversing the excitement of the unknown. Is one more mature than the other, or even simply easier?

In parting, I’ll leave you with one quote from Cartier-Bresson in the book The Mind’s Eye that recently resonated with me.

It is true, too, that a certain identity is manifest in all the portraits taken by one photographer. The photographer is searching for the identity of his sitter, and also trying to fulfill an expression of himself. The true portrait emphasizes neither the suave nor the grotesque, but reflects the personality.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye, p.31

Bresson’s First Leica, “for me the camera is a sketch book”

“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.

Classic Barthes

I was doing some more reading of Barthes’ Camera Lucida today, and though it has been shared by countless others, here is a rather crucial excerpt.

The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it revers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element which will disturb the studium  I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).
-Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 26

From this I am compelled to constantly revisit my work in light of it. Do my images allow for a punctum or are they pure studium? The studium would be my intention, process, rationale and message,  but the punctum remains beyond my control (and it must for it can only be determined by the individual viewer). It is that special something-ness that makes one linger at a particular image longer than the others, and recall it to mind when day-dreaming. I cannot consistently produce this any more than I can produce a rainstorm, but maybe my image making needs to focus on creating the conditions in which a punctum can make its mark.

my most recent compilation in progress, representing every one of my 91 Facebook “friends”

Disorder and Dilemma

Sometimes, Yes.

Then I decided that this disorder and this dilemma, revealed by my desire to write on Photography, corresponded to a discomfort I had always suffered from: the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical; and that the heart of this critical language, between several discourses, those of sociology, of semiology, and of psychoanalysis – but that, by ultimate dissatisfaction with all of them, I was bearing witness to the only sure thing that was in me (however naive it might be): a desperate resistance to any reductive system. For each time, having resorted to any such language to whatever degree, each time I felt it hardening and thereby tending to reduction and reprimand, I would gently leave it and seek elsewhere: I began to speak differently.

Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida; part 1, chapter 3

I started looking at Photography Professor positions today for next fall. Aside from the insane lists of qualifications they are looking for in a candidate (which no mere mortal has the chance of possessing in entirety) almost all of them make a point to mention a “strong understanding of contemporary critical theory”. This makes sense of course, a perfectly reasonable requirement, but it made me start thinking of my own troubled relationship with critical theory. Sometimes I wonder if the mandate to be making and talking about work in the scope of critical theory stems from Artists trying to justify to the world the value of Artists. That we aren’t just beautifying the world or enriching culture, we are tackling deep sociological and psychological issues that are crucial to society’s advancement.
But that seems slightly false to me, which is why I’ve always remained wary of the critical discourse. Not that there isn’t value (for it certainly does) but that it feels like that is the only lens through which to make or talk about art.But as Barthes said, it is a reduction. Maybe it is an important part of the artistic puzzle, but it is not the essential quality that it is often made into. When I look at the situation I see a certain amount of circular reasoning. Art is talked about in standard contemporary art theory terms, so contemporary art theory is taught to students, who in turn make work that is framed within that reference, and when it is shown, must be talked about on those terms… and the cycle goes on. I know there are a lot of artists that talk about being fed up with the “art world”, but at the end of the day it smacks of bitterness that they have not been on the receiving end of its collectors. Thus far I harbor no bitterness towards the system (of which I am barely in) but I do long for the freedom that exists beyond its reach. 
Another way of illustrating my frustration/realization is a story from last summer. One of our visiting artists was pushing all of us (as was his job), but it seemed to be towards the obscure or obfuscating (to use a word from my dad). He took us to several shows and it was clear that he most valued the work that was beyond difficult to “get”. As my classmate put it, “I think he likes to be confounded”. That is the complex which I think many artists don. If a viewer cannot understand it, then the work is inherently higher and therefor more valuable. But when I look at it all I see is something inaccessible that doesn’t draw me in. 
So what can I do? Maybe not much. But I can at least agree with Barthes and resolve to “speak differently” about my work at the very least. Its not that critical theory isn’t valuable and not that I won’t use it, but why must we always begin with a reduction of something that is infinitely broader?

Referent & Signifier in Photography

I began re-reading Barthes’ Camera Lucida.  I forgot how good it is. It talks about photography not as a part of the art world or a technology, but rather what specific qualities make a photographic image unique to photography. I was surprised that in the first chapter was discussing a the unique relationship between a photograph and its referent, which had I remembered, I probably would have mentioned in my thesis when I was discussing the unique relationship between technology and the referent.

A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent, or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent: it is not impossible to perceive the photographic signifier, but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection. By nature, the Photograph has something tautological about it: a pipe, here, is always intractably a pipe. It is as if the Photograph always carries its referent with itself, both affected by the same amorous or funereal immobility, at the very heart of the moving world: they are glued together limb by limb, like the condemned man and the corpse in certain tortures; or even like those pairs of fish which navigate in convoy, as though united in an eternal coitus. The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object: dualities we can conceive but not perceive… In short, the referent adheres. And this singular adherence makes it very difficult to focus on Photography.- Barthes

 I couldn’t have said it better myself.