Annie Leibovitz’s Capitalist Realism

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In the first chapter of his book Artists Under Hitler Jonathan Petropoulus describes how after coming to power, there was a relatively brief struggle over which direction German art was to take. As is widely known, the völkisch (nationalist) faction won over those who wanted to keep some of the country’s recent modernist art around. Nazi Germany’s art then embraced (or rather had to embrace — resisters were driven out) the pompous, overblown, outright tacky kind of realist form it is now remembered for, a type of art that on a purely visual level has strong resemblances to what artists in the Soviet Union had to produce. 

If Nazi art were only ludicrous, it would provide one of those curious blips in the history of art, its role in the larger Nazi endeavour notwithstanding. But that’s not the case. Sculptures by, let’s say, Arno Breker look like they had come out of an alternate ancient Greece without any knowledge of human folly and weaknesses. But the moment you look at the movies or photographs produced by Leni Riefenstahl, you realize that in the realms of the visual arts, where its makers tried their hardest to have their pictures follow the Brekerian model, the ludicrous isn’t so ludicrous. It’s also deeply appealing, at least on a very reptilian level, and it still has its appeals to many people today, regardless of their political orientation: the pathos very successfully shortcuts critical thinking.

Riefenstahl’s achievement is remarkable: her photographs and movies work because she took selected elements from the very modernism the Nazis had rejected and made them serve her völkisch purpose. Modernist photographs play with unusual angles was reduced to only those that would enoble a subject, to make her or him look heroic and dynamic. At the same time, this approach wasn’t entirely new, given that, for example, Hollywood had already been working with these kinds of ideas for a while (again, with a vastly wider visual spectrum than the one used by the German propagandist).

The obvious problem with talking about Nazi art and its appeal is that it’s Nazi art. You cannot disassociate it from everything else that happened at the time, in particular the regime’s murderous wars and, of course, the Holocaust. With that in mind, though, if watching a Leni Riefenstahl movie has a viewer admire its visuals and the way it manipulates its audience, that doesn’t make that viewer a Nazi (unless s/he is an actual one). Being aware of Riefenstahl’s mastery is an essential skill to have, given that it has never lost its visual appeal. Riefenstahl’s ability to manipulate an audience with well-executed, fairly basic techniques can teach us about more than merely what it supported during the Nazi era. This is especially important given that many of Riefenstahl’s basic photographic methods have been used ever since, in a large variety of contexts.

When I looked through Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016, my first reaction was experiencing a sense of shock over to what extent the Riefenstahlian spirit runs through most of the photographs. Before continuing, I want to make one thing very clear, though: what I’m talking about here are the pictures. Riefenstahl’s and Leibovitz’s photographs were made in very different times, by very different artists, for very different purposes. Pointing out that this looks like that does not mean that this is that. But if this looks like that, there are lessons to be learned, even when the general contexts are very different.

So here is what I’m after — think of this as the overall premise of this piece: given that Leibovitz’s photographs have become so successful and widely admired, looking at how they operate will tell us something about our times.  That looking will have to be done with historical models in mind — given the history of photography, it would be a terrible omission not to do so.

Such an approach to looking at photographs is not very common. Ordinarily, photographs are approached as saying something about their makers and, possibly, about whatever or whoever is being depicted. But especially for work that enjoys success on a larger scale, that is, in other words, widely seen and celebrated, that reception itself will tell us something about the audience and the times it lives in.

To begin with, we might note that many of the pictures in the book were produced for print publications. Leibovitz’s photographs appear regularly on the covers of the US editions of Vogue or Vanity Fair. Those aren’t niche publications. It might be tempting to point out that given the photographs were commissioned, we needn’t look further into them. After all, what can possibly be said about such commissions? But that’s really where and why it gets interesting. Given that editors of such magazines want these kinds of depictions of people on their covers, there is much to learn.

The first immediate property of the photographs in Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 is the sheer amount of post-processing that went into them, to the extent that some of the pictures almost look as if they were the results of CGI rendering. That part of their artifice is hard to ignore. But it’s also their least interesting aspect. That said, it also is the one part of Leibovitz’s work that brings her closest to the world of fine-art photography.

Aren’t Leibovitz’s celebratory pictures of wealthy, successful Americans and Gregory Crewdson‘s ominous depictions of anonymous, downtrodden Americans in effect obverse and reverse of the very same coin? In both cases, large amounts of post production are employed to arrive at essentially the very same result: pictures that describe the country’s very core, while refusing (or maybe being unable) to consider alternatives. This is the way it is, both artists tell us, this is who we are. And you can’t have one — the wealthy and celebrities in Leibovitz’s images — without the other — the armies of people who are very far from wealth and fame, existing in a barely concealed form of misery from one paycheck to the next, accepting their fate, waiting to vote for the next lesser evil.

One side couldn’t exist without the other. If this symbiosis of the many and the few hadn’t been shaken up so forcefully by Donald Trump (who is the subject of one of Leibovitz’s pictures), things might have gone on forever. As it turned out, there is an alternative, the Trumpian one: whipping up the bottled-up resentment of many into a frenzy, to maintain and sustain a political movement that on the surface is made for the many, but in reality only works for the few, while eroding the very basic democratic principles the country has been relying on. This raises the stakes of the game considerably: if Trump can offer an alternative, can we allow for it to be the only one? A recent piece in Politico Magazine details what this might lead to.

If we accept that Leibovitz’s and Crewdson’s photographs are obverse and reverse of the same coin, we might as well spell out how Leibovitz’s depictions of the wealthy and successful in heroic, vaguely fascist poses is related to Crewdson’s depictions of the rest in non-heroic, dejected poses. It’s the country’s underlying myth that sustains, no: necessitates the celebrity pictures. You cannot, after all, maintain the illusion of a country where you will enjoy success if you work hard enough without showing that this is in fact doable (the lottery operates using the same idea: your chances of winning are negligible, but someone does win, and you could be that person).

In other words, we need to see the winners to believe that we could one day be one of them. This is the role Leibovitz’s pictures fulfill. They provide the depictions of the country’s most basic myth, with those who enjoy wealth or success shown as the heroes they need to be for the whole system to work. At the same time, being able to buy Crewdson’s photographs at a blue-chip gallery helps the wealthy see the role they play, as those providing the (crucially) concerned pillars of society (Trump and his family, with their open disdain for the less fortunate, broke with this mechanism, too).

The Trump picture in Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 might serve as a good illustration for some of the details involved here. A heavily pregnant Melania Trump is shown on the back steps of an airplane. She is wearing a robe or thin coat of sorts that, however, has conveniently fallen off, to reveal her pregnant body in a gold bikini. There is a car with an open door to the plane’s side, in which the viewer can see Donald Trump, one hand on the steering wheel, the other (the one closer to the camera) on his knee. He is shown in profile, facing away from his wife whose gaze is directed at the camera (it’s that strange squinty gaze that Melania Trump appears to think is what you use when being photographed).

If you had no idea who these people are, you would still get most of its message: the man is sitting at the steering wheel (in the driver’s seat) of a very expensive car, the woman is little more than a sex object. It is mostly her heroic pose, though, that shields the picture from parts of such possible criticism: after all, pregnancy is a very important and powerful aspect of a woman’s life, and it rightly deserves to be celebrated. The fact that such a celebration serves to deflect all the other criticism is, well, a bit unfortunate. Needless to say, it would be conceivable to celebrate one aspect while criticizing another. For that to happen, we would consciously not allow the picture’s artifice to guide us towards the kinds of simple reads that are being invited here.

Leibovitz’s visual heroism is all-inclusive. Once you’re rich and/or famous enough, you will be celebrated in a picture, whether you’re Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Gary Cohn, Viola Davis, Barack Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranada, or whoever else. The problem here is not that some of those depicted in the book don’t deserve to be treated like heroes. The problem is the ubiquitous heroism, in which often vastly overblown and contrived poses are employed to make everyone look grandiose and deserving of endless admiration.

Of course, that’s not the photographer’s fault — after all, it’s her job. It’s what the job requires, a job done so that the covers of magazines can show the enjoyment of success and wealth that in principle is available for everybody if they just work hard enough. Then again, that was Richard Avedon‘s job, too, and yet he still made Nothing Personal in collaboration with James Baldwin (which, thankfully, is now being re-released). Just saying.

Back to these pictures, though. Again, the fact that some of those in the book did (and still do) work hard is besides the point. Given that those who didn’t work very hard still get the same treatment erases whatever distinction could be made. Plus, any actual heroes, such as someone who ran into a burning building to save a child, say, are completely absent from the book. It is, in other words, ideology more than anything else, an ideology that cannot be sustained without a heavy reliance on photographic effect, a celebration and re-affirmation of capitalism, which is the driving force behind the country’s myth.

As such, both Crewdson’s and Leibovitz’s photography can be seen as belonging to Capitalist Realism — our hypercapitalist world’s equivalent of Socialist Realism, which initially was developed under Stalin. As Boris Groys outlines in The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, Socialist Realism was a bit more complex than its seemingly tacky realist aesthetic would hint at. At its core, it shares its main characteristics with Capitalist Realism, which really is just the application of the ideas of Socialist Realism to a capitalist world.

A key quote from Groys’ book might shed further light on this: “The art of socialist realism […] is not realistic in the traditional sense of the word; that is, what it provides is not a reflection of the worldly events in their worldly contexts and motivations, but hagiographic, demonological, and other such depictions of transcendental events and their worldly consequences. It is not for nothing that socialist realist aesthetics always speaks not of ‘portraying’ positive or negative heroes but of ‘incarnating’ them by artistic means. In and of themselves the positive and negative heroes have no external appearance, because they express transcendental demiurgic forces. However, to demonstrate these forces in a manner that is ‘intelligible to the people’ (the ‘people’ here meaning not actual consumers of art but mortals who lack transcendental vision), they must be symbolized, incarnated, set upon a stage. Hence the constant concern of social realist aesthetics with verisimilitude.” (Boris Groys: The Total Art of Stalinism, Verso, 2011; loc. 1057 in the Kindle ebook edition)

Leibovitz’s photographs are “not realistic in the traditional sense of the word”, beginning with their excessive post production. And they are clearly hagiographic, with every subject heroically depicting “transcendental demiurgic forces.” These forces can easily be as problematic as what is on view in the Trump picture, but as I outlined above, the photograph attempts to shut off any critical entry points. This understanding of the pictures as expressing “transcendental demiurgic forces” allows us to understand Crewdson’s pictures as being the same thing, their seeming difference in subject matter notwithstanding. In particular, it makes clear why I think of Crewdson and Leibovitz as obverse and reverse of the same coin.

Much like Socialist Realism, Capitalist Realism aims at visually overwhelming the viewer, to celebrate its underlying ideology, while preventing a viewer from considering any alternative. Aesthetically, there are many similarities, while the underlying ideologies couldn’t be any more different. But as I noted in the very beginning, the key is that a clever application of the right aesthetic can easily work towards bypassing a viewer’s critical thinking, regardless of what political system a viewer lives in. As we have learned over the past couple of years, there simply is no guarantee that in a democracy tools will only be used only to further democratic progress. That’s why even in a democracy we need to carefully look at how pictures are made and used.

There are many very urgent problems still to be solved, whether it’s prevalent racism or sexism, or large — and steadily growing — economic inequalities. With the world of visuals having become ever more important, we have to interrogate how these visuals work. As the pictures in Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 make clear, even the depiction of progressive forces can ultimately serve to preserve the very status quo these forces are fighting against. In part, it is seeing the same aesthetics applied to Donald Trump and, for example, Lin-Manuel Miranada that makes it clear that those who commissioned these pictures (as part of the larger corporate interests they serve) have little, if any, interest in these two men as anything other than being beautiful illustrations to bolster the status quo.

This is not to say that there’s something wrong with the status quo per se. It does work very well for those very few, some of whom are included in the book. But it doesn’t work so well for those many unfortunate ones who are excluded, and whose belief of the system working towards a better world for them as well is being — somewhat cruelly — toyed with. With Capitalist Realism relying on showing us heroes (Leibovitz) or people too dejected to do anything (Crewdson), it tells us: resistance is futile. But with the underlying system having now delivered a President Trump, it might have become obvious that resistance is not just not futile, it’s also necessary.

Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016; photographs by Annie Leibovitz; essay by Alexandra Fuller; 312 pages; Phaidon; 2017

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