American Destiny?

AmericanDestiny

“From agricultural workers to those toiling on the factory floor,” write the editors of Aperture magazine #226, American Destiny, “from regional cities weathering years of postindustrial decline to refugee populations assimilating into the heartland, the projects in this issue are bound by an urge to explore the social and political landscape of the United States.” I cannot take offense at that for a variety of reasons. To begin with, as I have probably made clear on this site for years now, I very much think that exploring “the social and political landscape of the United States” is a necessary and worthwhile goal. What is more, I have the highest regard for many of the artists featured in American Destiny — they are at the forefront of American photography.

Still, there is a gaping hole. Having looked through the magazine a few times now, one group of people is completely underrepresented. It’s the group that most powerfully shapes all the various things on display: the wealthy. As far as I can tell, there is one photograph of wealthy people — Mark Neville photographed what looks like a wealthy couple at an art fundraiser (you want to keep that word in mind, fundraiser). Maybe there are more pictures of wealthy people in the magazine. I just haven’t found them, yet.

Indirectly, though, wealth is present through both the form of the magazine and its advertizing. The folks photographed by, say, Jim Golberg and Donothan Wylie or Katy Grannan are probably unlikely to go to Art Basel. They’re unlikely to use the services of Swann Auction Galleries, and I’m not sure how many of them will consider the Fujifilm X-T2 camera (which comes at a price tag of $1,599 at the time of this writing, body only). The ads in American Destiny, in other words, are aimed at a very different socioeconomic group, the one missing in the pictures.

There’s a lot of talk about privilege in the art world, for many good reasons. The way this usually is explored is to focus one’s camera, or (metaphorical) pen, or paint and canvas, or whatever else on other people’s privilege. In the world of photography, this is usually inverted by focusing on other people’s lack of privilege — hence all those photographers traversing the country with their expensive cameras to photograph underprivileged people who, conveniently enough for mental stereotypes, live in “the heartland,” and who are poor, or they live in “regional cities weathering years of postindustrial decline” etc. Again, I don’t really have a problem with that, because obviously, there are many stories to be told.

What I do have a problem with, though, is the fact that the wealthy tend to get a pass. The wealthy tend not to end up subjects on the walls of expensive art galleries, their depictions to be sold off to serve as wall decorations. The wealthy, in other words, either have the power or are given the power to get excluded from the critical gaze that is “explor[ing] the social and political landscape of the United States.” Given what cameras can do, that is tremendous power. That is tremendous privilege. And this is all the more confusing given that many of those going on those explorations are essentially liberals, where not progressives.

I believe that an exploration of “the social and political landscape of the United States” is essentially useless if it systematically excludes the most dominant group, the group whose economic and political power shapes the country.

I believe that an exploration of “the social and political landscape of the United States” is essentially useless if it systematically excludes the most dominant group, the group whose economic and political power shapes the country. That’s what this all comes down to. This statement does not deny the clear merit of the works assembled in American Destiny as individual projects. I have and will happily spend time with these photographs. But the collection, the magazine, does not represent a proper exploration of “the social and political landscape of the United States” as the editors want readers to believe.

The other day, I found and read an article about the art world trying to come to terms with the fact that Ivanka Trump, who previously was apparently considered a very good and worthwhile client, is now… well, not that any longer. This isn’t very new. Ever since her father got elected, artists have been grumbling about finding their works on Trump’s walls (here is another example; also don’t miss an article on Trump’s website about how to start collecting art). There’s just so much wrong with all of this, it’s hard to find a good starting point.

I’ll make this short. I find the idea that an artist can somehow decree who should be allowed to be her or his art disagreeable to say the least: if you agree to be part of the art market, trying to cherry pick your buyers based on ideological or political criteria is reminiscent of some the worst abuses art has suffered over the past one hundred years. Honestly, if you can’t stand the fact that the art market is frequented by a lot of very right-wing characters (for example, New York’s Metropolitan Museum has its own David H. Koch Plaza), then don’t be part of the market. It’s that simple.

What is more, if as an artist you lack the confidence that your art might change people for what you believe to be the better, then I might question what exactly your art is supposed to do: wouldn’t you want to sell your art to Ivanka Trump, hoping that it might guide her to realize something? I’m only partly facetious here, because at the same time, I believe that art ought to be able to change people, and it’s an artist’s responsibility to be part of that (however you want to define “change”). At the same time, I’m fully aware that the art market really only is a big bazaar for wall and/or room decorations, and many artists participate in it knowing full well their art will never be anything else for their buyers.

How is this connected, though? What does American Destiny have to do with artists and Ivanka Trump? The nexus obviously is money. It’s class privilege that allows the wealthy to funnel substantial amounts of money into the art world, to receive back wall/room decorations and/or nice magazines to look at. And that is a noxious problem, especially given there is so little public support for the arts in the United States. It’s simply not a good position to be in for many artists who can’t afford not to participate, but who also can’t afford to bite that very hand that feeds them.

In 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis looks at the issue at hand in detail: “In an era of trickle-down economics, policies that favor the rich have caused massive redistribution of wealth to the top. This, in turn, creates giant amounts of surplus wealth that can be channeled into art. And so, as income for average families has stagnated and inequality has soared, there has also been an unprecedented expansion of the art market.” (from the chapter “Art and Inequality,” Kindle Locations 1454-1457) And: “It is impossible to say whether the current unbalanced growth of the visual arts economy will produce some similar sea change or lead to new channels of artistic distribution—or even fresh artistic currents tied to social movements generated by the current instability of capitalism. What we can prophesy is that the sphere of the visual arts, buoyed by the developments of neoliberalism but also distorted by them and increasingly stretched and unequal beneath its patina of glamour and luxury, has created a situation that is highly combustible.” (ibid., Kindle Locations 1647-1651) How these economic inequalities then trickle down towards the issues the art world would rather talk about — such as the vast imbalances of male and female artists, say, Davis lays out in convincing detail in a different chapter of his book.

My point is that in a system that to a large extent is being bankrolled by one class, we simply cannot expect that that class is being treated in the same critical fashion as all the other classes.

So the economics of the art world (which includes vast parts of photoland) are incredibly problematic, and the power relationships inherent in the art market have massive effects beyond whose pictures get to sell for how much. Just to make this clear, my point here is not to claim that all wealthy people are problematic. They’re not. Some are, some aren’t. My point is that in a system that to a large extent is being bankrolled by one class, we simply cannot expect that that class is being treated in the same critical fashion as all the other classes. It’s just not happening. To pretend otherwise would be a futile exercise in attempting to kid ourselves. Wealthy people’s privilege essentially includes the privilege of not being subjected to the same photographic scrutiny as everybody else (of course, this is just a small part of the general lack of scrutiny that class is being subjected to).

As long as that is the case, any exploration of “the social and political landscape of the United States,” one of the most important tasks or our times, will be incomplete, lacking a depiction of by far the most dominant group — regardless of how artistically competent and/or morally well-meaning those aiming their cameras at poor people are.

You might be tempted to classify (or, possibly, dismiss) this article as yet another example of the kind of populism that is riding that big wave right now. To some extent, it is. I do believe for photography produced in photoland to become more relevant it needs to break out of its wealthy gated community (I suppose the preferred term these days would be “walled garden”). Feel free to call that populism.

But there is more. After all, what I’m really interested in is for photoland to have a good look into the mirror: what can we learn about ourselves when we look at the structures that underpin what we do? Who are we? If we like to bemoan other’s people lack of economic privilege while never even considering the considerable economic privilege this endeavour relies on — what good does that do?