Art and Politics

Article main image

Walter Benjamin‘s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is frequently evoked in the world of photography. One of its key concepts is the idea of “aura”. In a nutshell, Benjamin argues that the psychological presence of an object disappears once it’s mass produced. Benjamin focuses mostly on pieces of art, but we could easily extend the idea to any object. in light of the fetishization of certain mass-produced objects, we could ask whether this is in fact correct: it is true that, to pick two examples, an iPhone is hardly comparable to a painting. But some consumer items — whether iPhones, Leica cameras, or other luxury items — derive part of their power from what we could call their aura, even if this aura exists in mass-produced form in many thousands of identical objects. But I digress.

There is a reason why Benjamin concerned himself with what he called “aura”. He wrote his essay in exile in 1935. Having lost his home in Germany after the takeover of the Nazis in 1933, Benjamin and most of his peers (associated with the Frankfurt School) lived and worked abroad. The threat of fascism that they had lived under for many years had become very, very real. Having spent considerable time trying to figure out why communism had not taken hold in Germany (which unlike Russia had been widely seen as the most obvious location for a communist revolution), they now also tried to understand what drove fascism and, crucially, what strategies might be available to deal with it.

You could understand Benjamin’s aura as the hook he needed to get politics into art. Before mass production, he argued, pieces of art had possessed an aura, which, in turn, tied them to what he calls ritual. This idea is probably easiest to see if you imagine a painting that hangs, say, in the Vatican. Mass production had severed art’s connection to ritual:

‘[F]or the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.’

After all, in principle it’s rather difficult to assign specific value to something that exists in the form of any number of clones (Benjamin didn’t live to see the world of photography’s embrace of “editions”, let alone “NFTs”). Consequently, with ritual severed, a possibility opens up. He continues:

‘But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.’

There it is, politics. For Benjamin, photography and especially film offered enormous potential, given the way they worked and given that unlike traditional art, they relied on machines and mass production. The machines served their purpose:

‘[F]or contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.’

There are many seeds in Benjamin’s piece why the potential of art that is mass produced might end up fall short. The writer did not get to see the day when this would become abundantly clear (Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would later write about what they called the Culture Industry). In 1935, photography (and film) still had potential for Benjamin. Addressing what he was witnessing in Nazi Germany (and elsewhere) and expressing the way out he wrote

‘Mankind[‘s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.’

Walter Benjamin didn’t live to see the fall of Nazi Germany. After the invasion of France, he died while trying to escape to the United States. Horkheimer had arranged for a travel visa for him, but Benjamin got stuck at the Spanish border and took his own life.

Almost 30 years later, it had become clear to Frankfurt School scholars that art would not be able to fulfill these hopes. In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse wrote

‘The two antagonistic spheres of society have always coexisted; the higher culture has always been accommodating while the reality was rarely disturbed by its ideals and its truths.’

And:

‘The works of alienation [pieces of art produced in opposition to the status quo — JMC] are themselves incorporated into this society and circulate as part and parcel of the equipment which adorns and psychoanalyses the prevailing state of affairs. Thus, they become commercials — they sell, comfort, or excite.’

Benjamin’s and Marcuse’s positions outline two extreme positions for art to exist in. Note that Marcuse’s position is more or less identical with what Adorno and Horkheimer had outlined earlier. The latter position appears to shut down the former: if, as Marcuse et al. believed, art ultimately will always only be commodified dissent (to adopt a more recent phrasing), then what is the point of being a political artist?

Philosophy is one thing, and one’s lived reality is quite another. I suspect that the world we live in now would look familiar to Walter Benjamin. Rampant economic inequalities, stagnating democracies, neo-fascist movements on the rise, dictators holding international partners hostage over whether or not they will invade their neighbours — he witnessed all of that during his life time. If there is one truly different aspect of the world, it’s the fact that now, we’re staring into the abyss of climate change, an abyss that — and here it’s not hard to imagine the Frankfurt scholars letting out a collective “of course!” — we have created ourselves (lest you wonder about the pandemic, Benjamin lived through one himself).

The other day, someone felt compelled to tell me on Instagram that (I’m paraphrasing) art shouldn’t be political because it should concern itself with beauty. Politics would only ruin art. It’s a thought that Benjamin addressed implicitly in his essay:

‘With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.’

This for him was the enemy, an enemy that the medium itself had the potential (he might have phrased it as: the calling) to overcome. It’s not necessarily my idea to tell photographers what to do. In the end, every photographer has to come to their own conclusion about how to go about what they do.

I can’t help but think, though, that with the number of crises we are facing, an insistence on art being “pure” is increasingly looking like a luxury position, a position of extreme privilege. There obviously is no guarantee that one’s photography will change anything on a larger scale. But is remaining silent the better alternative?

If you look at the history of photography, it’s filled with artists being political. You could start with Robert Frank’s The Americans. If you look at those photographs as merely the outcome of a set of road trips, you’re likely to miss the various points that are very clearly being made. This is not a celebration of the country. The photographer’s disdain for what he encountered — inequality, institutionalized racism, phony opportunities — drips off the book’s pages.

Or look at Carrie Mae Weems’ The Kitchen Table Series. Its conceptual underpinning and the resulting formal structure are not intended to make you think about the table or about how people might sit at it. Instead, the specificity of the setting only points at the universality of its overall idea, which centers on domesticity, the role of women (vis-à-vis men), and Blackness.

More recently, look at, for example, Jess Dugan’s portraits. On a very surface level, Self-Portrait With Mom has a lot in common with selfies on social media. Ignoring the fact that it would be impossible to show these photographs on Instagram (the site’s so-called community guidelines express the company’s politics), there is so much more in these photographs that, again, speak of the world beyond the walls in which they were taken.

Possibly with the exception of The Americans (which already has been written about ad nauseam) each one of these examples deserves a much deeper discussion than what I’m offering here. What I’m after here is to point out that many artists have already put a lot of politics into their work, and that inclusion does not diminish the value of what they have achieved. In fact, the inclusion propels the work forward, confronting us with what many of us would rather not see.

Crucially, as has been demonstrated by Poland’s Archive of Public Protests, for art to be truly effective it has to leave the white cube (I wrote about this here). This is not to diminish the achievement of these photographers at all, but the idea of making free newspapers and handing them out in the streets is not super original. I think it says much about the state of photoland that a solution as simple as that is such a radical outlier.

If as an artist you insist on not having politics enter your work that’s fine. My question would be: what exactly would it take for you to change your mind? At what state would you realize that you might be an artist, but you’re also a member of a society, a society whose openness and freedoms to a large extent underpin what you’re able to do? After all, once stormtroopers are marching down your street, it might be a tad too late to speak up, right?

Polemics aside, I’m tempted to think that as much as we all enjoy the comfort of our own existences (some people obviously a lot more than many others), the idea that in this day and age art and politics are to be kept strictly separately not only speaks of privilege. It also points at an internalization of neoliberal thinking, which places the individual and her or his freedoms at the center or everything.

I believe that more of us should feel compelled to embrace the tradition outlined by the artists I mentioned above and by of all their other peers for whom the mix of art and politics has not been an anathema. The defenders of l’art pour l’art would want us to believe that inserting politics into one’s art automatically results in clumsy agitprop with vastly diminished value. That’s a convenient claim that, however, is at odds with the sheer power of art that does not shy away from being upfront about its makers’ politics.

Yaga

Article main image

Yaga is for me a loving manifesto,” writes Agata Kalinowska, “[i]t contains my ridiculousness. Ridiculousness is a language of friendship and intimacy. Sarah Silverman […] said that there is a gap in our lives which can never be filled. […] I think we need to do brave, stupid things in order for that gap in us not to go rotten.” (from the afterword of the book)

A little further down the text, the artist adds these lines: “When the desire for autonomy, for the freedom to choose and decide about our bodies and where we are going in life, encounters barriers in the form of fixed gender templates and oppressive cultural stereotypes, we witness the appearance of combative energy and violence, including economic violence.”

I suspect that these words resonate all over the world. But in a country in Poland, held in a double chokehold by a societally very dominant branch of the Catholic Church and by a neo-fascist government one of whose recent acts was to ban abortion, no doubt there must be heightened awareness of the very unequal power balance between straight men and everybody else.

At the very beginning of Yaga, a young woman is seen as emerging from the sea. It is dark, and the water is clear and calm. With her arms being outstretched by her side, it’s hard not to think of religious imagery. Given the mastery of the book’s editing and sequencing, this cannot be a coincidence. Its makers have a story to tell, and they do it with pictures (Kalinowska co-edited the book along with Łukasz Rusznica).

Over the course of the following pages, the viewer encounters a world that initially is only inhabited by women. It’s a world that is filled with harmony, compassion, and care, even as there are a few surprising — and for some viewers possibly shocking — elements (such as, for example, a used, bloody tampon). But none of these elements actually disturb the order of things — instead, the book offers an alternative world where what now often is hidden and frowned upon simply is out in the open and accepted, where queerness is an accepted part of life.

At some stage, there is a photograph of a young woman lying on the ground who is being tended to by two others. This marks the transition into the next “chapter”, which is filled with partying and its consequences. Here, men make their first appearances, albeit only in passing here and there. The world still is overwhelmingly female, and it is uninhibited: expressions of passion and sexuality are being allowed to run their course.

This section culminates in a photograph of a naked woman who is lying in a bed that is surrounded by colourful balloons. The photograph would have been taken horizontally, but here it is used in a vertical form. As a consequence, a powerful feeling of freedom and sexual ecstasy is conveyed.

But then, upon turning the page, the viewer encounters yet another partying woman — she is pulling up her top to reveal her bra (while hiding her face). Next to here there is a man leering at her breasts while pulling up his own t-shirt to reveal a hairy belly that clearly has been nourished with too much bad food and/or beer. Thus starts a section of photographs of men and all things male, a veritable horror show of crass, unappealing, and violent types.

A bottle is smashed on someone’s head, a younger woman sits uneasily next to an older man who for possibly all the worst reasons has his sausagy fingers running over the back of her neck, and in the middle of all of this, there’s a photograph of a statue inside a church showing some male priest or saint (who knows), his hands folded in the type of fake piety that is all too common in organized religion.

It all ends with a photograph of a young woman with a black eye. Given the nature of Kalinowska’s photographs — they’re essentially snapshots, comparisons with Nan Goldin are inevitable. There are many parallels, this particular photograph being one of them. The most obvious difference I would see between the two artists is that unlike Goldin, the Polish artist does not rely on the seductiveness of her photographs.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a marvelous book. But I’ve always thought that the fact that the photographs often are visually so pleasing is maybe its biggest shortcoming. I truly love the book and its photographs, but I feel that it makes it too easy to appreciate the photographs because of their inherent beauty. In contrast, Kalinowska’s photographs look and feel a lot more like actual snapshots to me. Consequently, I personally feel the urgency of Yaga‘s message more than Ballad‘s.

The final section of Yaga circles back to its very first, and the book ends with a number of portraits of young women. Here, unlike in Ballad, the future is entirely female; and the idea that despite their many flaws, men are simply a part of the world is being negated: no, they’re not. Bravo!

In many ways, this is a spectacular book that deserves to be seen widely beyond its native Poland. I already mentioned its very masterful edit and sequence (it’s so good that educators could use it in class). There are a few other little tricks that are being used, such as, for example, photographs that would go across the gutter being cut into two separate parts (I’m obviously partial to this trick, given that I used it in my own Vaterland), or the orientation switch of the photograph I discussed above.

I’ve written this before, and I’m happy to reiterate my point: Poland currently is becoming one of the main powerhouses of contemporary photography in Europe, with a number of locations other than Warsaw being very active as well. Yaga comes out of Wrocław. If you’re at all interested in the world of photography, pay attention to photographers in Poland.

Highly recommended.

Yaga; photographs and text by Agata Kalinowska; 176 pages; BWA Wrocław Galleries of Contemporary Art; 2021

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.4

Eikoh Hosoe

Article main image

The first picture of (not by) Eikoh Hosoe in the recently released eponymous catalog of his work shows a middle-aged man one could easily mistake for a tourist who somehow had found himself in a very nerve wracking situation. The photographer is seen holding his camera tightly (and close to his chest), peeking at whatever he might be confronted with through the thick frames of his glasses, a bright cap adorning his head.

Three pages later, that same man is depicted in hot pursuit of a person in a kimono running across some field: his camera is now in front of his face, and he is being captured in mid-flight, his right leg high up in the air, as if to clear an invisible hurdle.

On the following page, the timid man is back, here in the company of some of Japan’s most celebrated photographers of the 20th Century: in a picture from c. 1974, Daido Moriyama looks like an aging hippie who is wearing a floppy hat indoors, Nobuyoshi Araki exudes his usual degree of perviness, Masahisa Fukase seems ready to get into a fist fight with the person taking the photo, Shomei Tomatsu and Noriaki Yokosuka have clearly seen it all and hide behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, and with his white shirt and dark tie (the typical salaryman’s uniform) Eikoh Hosoe looks like a bank teller or middle manager who somehow has stumbled into the company of this motley crew.

Who is this artist whose work is presented in expansive form in this groundbreaking catalog that has been edited by Yasufumi Nakamori, senior curator of international photography at Tate Modern?

Taro Okamoto, Artist, 1965

“A single bomb had killed tens of thousands of people,” Hosoe says, remembering the time when at age 12, he spent time in the countryside, to be safe from Allied bombs during World War 2, “my youthful bosom was filled with a powerful fear and hatred toward atomic bombs, with their capacity to concentrate such enormous force in a single bomb. Those feelings have remained, to this day, settling deeply in my heart. […] In 1968, I published the photobook Kamaitachi, a record of my memories from when I was evacuated during the war. That work, too, reflects at a deeply psychological level the impact of Hiroshima.” (p. 21) Who would have thought that what looks like a piece of dance-performance art in a very traditional Japanese rural setting had its roots in the photographer’s trauma, caused by World War 2?

Fittingly, Eikoh Hosoe begins with a chapter that contains the artist’s work in and around Hiroshima, showing, for example, photographs of peace demonstrations near the Atomic Bomb Dome (please note that here and in the following, the name in italics refers to the book). Hosoe’s life work would play out differently than Kikuji Kawada’s. But the beginnings speak of the shared trauma that both artists would weave into their work. In 1970, Hosoe would turn his photographs from Hiroshima into Return to Hiroshima, a book coauthored with Betty Jean Lifton. A Place Called Hiroshima followed in 1985. The books, he notes, were “written with young Americans in mind as our audience”. (p. 21)

Here, and in the following chapters in Eikoh Hosoe, the selection of the photographs evokes a somewhat different feel than the original books. In part, this is because any selection from a larger whole can only hint at how the work might function in its own context. Thus, the catalog’s viewer will arrive at a different impression of any of the different parts than when looking at the original books. I would argue that the selection and presentation in the catalog is more photographic than the books. By this I mean that more focus has been placed on the particular qualities of individual images.

Kamaitachi #14, 1965

Consequently, a very clear picture of Eikoh Hosoe as a photographer emerges that, however, somewhat obscures the impact of the photobooks, whether it’s Return to Hiroshima, Kamaitachi, or any of the other ones. I do not intend to have this observation seen as a negative criticism of the catalog, though. To begin with, photobooks cannot be accurately presented in any other form as their totality. What is more, drawing out connections between separate bodies of work by an artist often is a lot easier when working from the photographs themselves. Anyone who is more deeply interested in Hosoe would be well advised to study both the catalog and his photobooks.

After a chapter entitled Early Work that showcases photographs taken in the early 1950s — charming work that betrays a competent photographer who has not yet found his own voice, the catalog moves on to Hosoe’s first claim to fame, Man and Woman. This was the first project that involved butoh dancer and frequent collaborator Tatsumi Hijikata, the man he is depicted as chasing after in the photograph I discussed in the beginning. After meeting Hijikata, Hosoe decided to “create a photographic drama” (his words, p. 87) in his studio, involving him and a number of other dancers. “However tiny a gesture”, the artists writes, “it constituted my only transgression against the era. […] a response to the shouts of protestors heard outside the studio: ‘Down with AMPO [the US-Japan Security Treaty]!'” This seems rather implausible, maybe even to Hosoe himself. He continues that “[m]ore than anything, I was consumed with a burning desire to explore ‘sexuality.'” (p. 87)

Man and Woman #20, 1960

Roughly ten years later, Hosoe would return to the theme depicted in Man and Woman with Embrace, inspired by Bill Brandt’s Perspectives of Nudes, the appeal of which has largely escaped this writer. Where Man and Woman manages to sizzle with transgression and sexuality, Embrace is little more than a very competent exercise in form, ultimately as limp as Brandt’s nudes.

Yukio Mishima, an incredibly talented and multifaceted artist who also happened to be a rabid nationalist, wrote the Preface for Embrace, which appeared after Mishima’s suicide. Eikoh Hosoe includes it and a large number of texts written by people directly involved in the work. These added texts contribute massively to the value of this catalog.

In Hosoe’s work, Mishima detects what he calls “an undercurrent of darkness.” “This darkness,” he writes, “is a characteristic element of Hosoe’s photographic artistry, as well as an isolation born from a rejection of salvation.” (p. 123) One cannot help but think that Mishima might have in part projecting his own thoughts onto his fellow artist’s work:  could not his cartoonish pseudo-putsch and subsequent suicide in late 1970, many years after it had become obvious that Japan had embraced its democratic order, be seen as a similar rejection?

A few years earlier, Mishima had found himself in front of Hosoe’s camera for Ordeal by Roses (this is the English title used in the catalog; Killed by Roses is used just as widely). Hosoe photographed the writer in a number of settings with a large number of props, often verging into surrealist territory. “One day,” Mishima writes, “Eikoh Hosoe stopped by and whisked me away to a mysterious world. I had previously seen magical works produced by the camera, but Hosoe’s works did not suggest magic so much as they displayed a quality of mechanical wizardry, as he used this civilized instrument of precision to its utmost against civilization.” (p. 199)

Ordeal by Roses #32, 1961

Thus, the writer finds himself cast into a world that was “alien, contorted, derisive, grotesque, barbaric, and dissipated”. (p. 199) These words can serve as good criteria to divide Hosoe’s work into the artistically successful bodies of work (such as Man and Woman or Kamaitachi) and the ones that, like Embrace, while well crafted are little more than formal exercises. For me, Ordeal by Roses somehow unsteadily wobbles in between these two poles, which might be an editing problem more than anything: curiously, the more straight photographs are visually powerful, while the surrealist abstractions feel overwrought.

And then, of course, there’s the magnificent Kamaitachi, another collaboration with Tatsumi Hijikata that finds both men return to the area they were from to inflict photographic mayhem on the countryside and its unsuspecting inhabitants who ended up playing along (because it was, one must assume, the polite thing to do). Mishima called the work “humerous yet also cruel” (p. 123), and it’s not hard to see why. “I had a hunch,” Hosoe writes, “that if we went to his hometown in Akita I would be able to shoot his butoh as it had never been seen before.” But the photographer also describes the photographs as “a ‘record’ of my own ‘memories,’ both nostalgic and sad, of having been evacuated as a schoolchild during WWII.” (p. 155)

For Tatsumi Hijikata and Yukio Mishima, two such incredible artists in their own rights, to not only submit to Eikoh Hosoe’s lens seemingly without doubt, to afterwards praise the resulting work in the highest terms (“Eikoh Hosoe made me famous,” Hijikata wrote in 1969, p. 351) must mean that, no doubt, this particular photographer is one of the great Japanese photographers of the 20th Century. One can only hope that this catalog will serve to establish and cement that reputation outside of Japan as well.

Highly recommended.

Eikoh Hosoe; photographs by Eikoh Hosoe, edited by Yasufumi Nakamori; essays by Yasufumi Nakamori, Christina Yang, Eikoh Hosoe, Nobuya Yoshimura, Yukio Mishima, Shuzo Takiguchi, Tatsumi Hijikata, Donald Richie, Satoru Yusawa, Mutsuo Takahashi, Mamoru Maruchi, and Kenji Hosoe; 400 pages; MACK; 2021

Full disclosure: MACK is the publisher of my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism