Can we have an opinion?


General Photography

Isn’t it the role of the artist to brush against the grain? How can you brush against the grain when you’re trying to hide behind your work?

The other day, Dan Vercruysse, a reader of this blog, sent me an email reacting to something I had written here. In his email, Dan brought up a well-known photographer (the name doesn’t matter) and wrote “he is surprisingly neutral in his commentary about the subject matter he is shooting. How can this be? He is clearly shooting very explicit images and subject matter with an agenda.” (Dan kindly allowed me quoting him here) Oh, the a-word: agenda. There’s something many photographers would rather avoid talking about, an agenda. (more)

The way this is usually phrased, explained, or mentioned is that people would rather look at something from all sides, to leave it then up the viewer to decide (“We report, you decide”). Take it away, Dan:

“I suppose there is an air about the delivery that smacks of the artist’s right to remain silent… to allow the viewer to bring to their viewing their own personal baggage and perspective. I think that is bullshit. I work as an architect, and one thing that really separates that field’s creative review process from the general pool of ‘artists’ is their requirement for deliberate thinking and making. There is no way that a student could get away with silence during a critique. We would be slaughtered - explicit presentation of the process (idea, testing, presentation, critique, refinement, re-testing, etc. etc.) and product are a necessity.”

I thought about this for a while, and I ended up thinking that Dan has a point. In an art-school context, Dan’s description of the process of producing work is absolutely valid. I am surprised how often I run into the refusal to take a stand, to have an opinion when I talk with students. If you spend so much time and effort on getting an MFA, isn’t as much dissection of your work what you would really want? Where else, when else will you get that?

But even outside of an art school, the longer I think about it, the dearth of photographers with strong opinions or an open agenda is somewhat puzzling. First of all, if the work speaks for itself and very clearly presents something what might your silence say? Second, if your work is strong you could have an opinion and be very open about it, yet the work itself would not suffer at all.

Maybe it’s time to change things up a little and to get away from that idea that the photographers needs to present the work without any open, honest, obvious statement about an agenda. Maybe it’s time to say: Have an opinion already!

Of course, in reality things will be a bit complicated than this, because an agenda or opinion might work very well with some work and less so with other work.

A good way to approach the complex might be to look at some artists who are very open about their agenda and opinions, who are very passionate about the work and what they’re trying to say. I think what you’ll find is that the work only gains from having such an artist behind it. Take, for example, Brian Ulrich and his multi-year study of American consumerism. Or take Nina Berman and her work on our militarized post-9/11 state.

Isn’t it the role of the artist to brush against the grain? How can you brush against the grain when you’re trying to hide behind your work?

Needless to say, you might wonder why an artist should tell her or his audience what to think. But just because someone says something doesn’t mean that we have to believe it or accept it! We are adults, after all, and we can come to our own conclusions. I do realize that there is a lot of that around us already - people telling us about how things are - but doesn’t it feel weird to move to the arts to get away from that?

If some work brushes against our grain, the artist’s words might do even more so - and what better way to feel mentally invigorated than that? And might this not become ever more important as the technologies we are using for the internet are moving towards presenting us that which we want to see, conveniently removing that which we do not want to see?