26 October 2005

Beauty & Photographs of Suffering, II

Elaine Scarry observes in her On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton UP, 1999) that critics often complain about the baleful political effects of beauty in one of two ways.

"The first urges that beauty, by preoccupying our attention, distracts attention from wrong social arrangements. It makes us inattentive, and therefore eventually indifferent, to the project of bringing about arrangements that are just. The second argument holds that when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object. ... The complaint has given rise to a generalized discrediting of the act of "looking," which is charged with "reifying" the very object that appears to be the subject of admiration" (58).

Scarry rightly points out that one cannot simultaneously endorse both of these criticisms - at least so long as one strives for a modicum of consistency. In the first place, in order to reify something we must attend to it in a way that is at least causally and perhaps conceptually incompatible with being indifferent toward it. Moreover, the first view clearly assumes that attention to some unjust or otherwise disturbing state of affairs (the sort of attention with which beauty somehow interferes) can be politically useful and beneficial while the second view insists that such attention (the sort of attention that beauty draws) is necessarily harmful or damaging.

Scarry also suggests quite plausibly that those who endorse one or the other of these two ways of attributing nefarious political effects to beauty actually disagree among themselves more than with those who promote beauty. "It seems that the two opponents of beauty have a greater quarrel with each other than with us and should perhaps be encouraged to press forward their claims, since they will together eliminate both grounds of opposition and leave us free once more to speak of beauty" (59-60).

Want an example from the realm of photographic criticism? Consider this pair of passages from Ingrid Sischy's (The New Yorker, 9 September 1991) notoriously uncharitable condemnation of Sebastiao Salgado's images of famine in the Sahel. She first advances the first complaint - the beauty in his images distracts us from unjust social conditions he hopes to portray:

"Still, it's tricky to unravel what is meretricious about his work, because it is so uncompromisingly serious. ... But often there is something else in his compositions: beauty. In fact, beauty is a word one hears a lot when Salgado's photography is discussed, and you can see why people respond to the formal beauty of his pictures. ... And this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action."

Sischy then almost immediately advances the second complaint - the beauty in Salgado's images objectifies and so damages the people in them:

"But what do his pictures really succeed in doing? In a photograph of people in a refugee shelter in the Sahel, two young figures loom in the foreground, one sitting the other slightly propped up. Salgado's perspective creates the impression that the viewer is close enough to touch the boy who is propped up: his elongated body and bald head stretch along the bottom half of the picture. His bone thin legs are spread apart, and his shorts bunch around the tops of his thighs, which have a much smaller circumference than the shorts are made for. Yet despite the sculptural image that he has become in Salgado's picture, this boy is made of flesh, not wood. The shock of what he looks like is strong, but Salgado's objectification of the boy's body make the image a setup - and, like most setups, it evokes reactions that are mechanical. ... It isn't fair to make Salgado responsible for how we do or do not respond to the content of his pictures, but there are certain gimmicks and attitudes in them that seem designed to trigger specific reactions and reflexes that are insulting to the people being portrayed."

Not fair, indeed. But let's leave to one side the fact that among her complaints about Salgado's photographs of the Sahel, Sischey neglects to mention that he could not find a US publisher because the images were deemed too disturbing. She seems considerably more intent on expressing her resentment at what she feels is the "bullying quality" of Salgado's aesthetic strategies then on expressing outrage at the conditions he depicts. I venture to suggest that the problem there hardly lies with Salgado. For present purposes, it is more important to notice that Sischy finds the beauty of Salgado's compositions simultaneously distracting and objectifying. One need not endorse Scarry's precise claims regarding the tight connections between beauty and being just (I hope to return to those claims at some point) to see that Sischy and others tempted to her views cannot have it both ways. Indeed, if Scarry is correct, and I think she is, it is not clear that they can have it one way. We simply must await the outcome of the disagreement between those who find beauty politically suspect, albeit for inconsistent reasons.

Why am I rehashing this seemingly dated criticism of Salgado? In part, because the theoretical issues remain important. In part too, I want to call attention to the fact that Salgado's photographs of famine in the Sahel - the very ones that so incensed Sischy - finally found a US publisher in 2004. They were originally published in France in 1988.

[You can find Sisichy's essay reprinted in Liz Heron & Val Williams, eds. 1996. Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850's to the Present. Duke University Press. The passages I cite appear on pages 277, 278 and 282.]

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Blogger dan said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks for bringing in this bit of criticism. Sischy’s piece is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the confluence of photojournalism and academic discourse (or elitist publications like the New Yorker).

I think you’re right to point out that these two claims are inconsistent. But more importantly, I don’t think that the second point even makes a whole lot of sense - that looking at the object does some damage to the subject. I don’t think that it’s bullshit (in the technical-philosophical sense) but I just feel like it’s been fleshed out sufficiently here...

But Sischy's first claim, does strike a chord, summed up in this sentence:

"To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it."

But here's a question I've always had: In Sischy's claim / accusation, what is the 'it' referring to? Is the 'it' referring to the tragedy that is being represented / documented? Or does 'it' refer to the document itself - this physical object, the photograph… I’ve been pondering this for w while now..

And I think that this is an important point, and one that gets glossed over too often, because it actually matters what form these photographs take. It's important that a photograph - be it from the Sahel or Hollywood - is not the same as some Platonic form (chairness) or like 'love' or 'beauty' but a real tangible thing in the world.

My point is that it matters whether that thing is used / displayed in the White House, a Chelsea gallery, the New York Times or some other place. Those contexts matter, and I think that Sischy, back in 1991, was too focused on attacking Salgado to properly address that point responsibly and fairly.

I also want to point out that the New Yorker profiled / lionized Salgado in an issue earlier this year. A testament to the staying power of his dedication.

27 October, 2005 14:12  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the reply. My own view is that the relationship between beauty & politics is complex. Hence my earlier post on this general topic as well as my review of David Levi Strauss (also posted below). In fact, the relationship between beauty and ART is (if we are to believe e.g., Arthur Danto, among others) is itself complex. I think it may well be, in some instances, that beauty can be politically distracting. So I am not wholly persuaded by the close link Scarry claims exists between beauty and justice. But we ought not assume the contrary, as Sischy does. And, you definitely are correct, that the context and use of the images (speaking here of photography) is immensely important. I guess what I hope to do on this matter is open up the conversation rather than foreclosing it as too frequently happens. I have another post in mind that raises the topic in relation to a different photographer and a different set of subjects. More later.

27 October, 2005 18:24  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

27 October, 2005 18:25  
Anonymous John said...

Disclaimer: I'm not a theoretician, nor a critic, so I may be taking too simplistic a view here, but I'd appreciate your help in my trying to sort your ideas out in my head:

Are you using/are you comfortable with using the words "beauty" and "aesthetics" interchangably? To me, beauty is a stronger term than aesthetic. They are clearly quite close in meaning, but aesthetic has always had a more technical semantic to me.

Can a piece of art be both ugly and aesthetically "correct"?

28 October, 2005 00:57  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

John, yours is a difficult question and I have not thought it through all the way; indeed, as a newcomer to this set of issues it is not clear that I CAN think it through all the way. But there are those like Arthur Danto (phislopher and art critic for The Naiton) who look at 20th Century Art as amounting (in part) to "the discovery that something can be good art without being beautiful" (he points to Andy Warhol, Duchamp and others as examples). So art can be abject, or disgusting or silly and still be "art." So beauty is not the sole criterion of artistic merit generally nor even a necessary one in particular instances. Part of the problem is that the term aesthtics had over time become almost synonomous with "beauty" - so that means we either have to broaden our conception of "aesthetic" or say that it too is not necessay to the discussion of art or artistic merit.

This whoe discussion involves art generally and so is broader than specifically photographic art. And it then raises whole other sets of quesitons re: politics.

28 October, 2005 09:16  
Anonymous John said...

Let me try a line of reasoning: again, it's probably overly simplistic.

Photography, especially photography with a political content, is a form of communication. As such, it is either effective or ineffective. Effective communication implies that the "speaker" (in this case, the photographer) is able to induce the "listener" (the viewer of the photograph) to feel a certain emotion, to focus their attention on a certain element or set of elements, and/or to derive a particular meaning from the scene. Ineffective communication, it follows, fails to do so, to the extent that the listener may completely ignore the content.

Photographers utilize certain aesthetic guidelines in order to make their photographs into effective communication. Salgado is definitely a master of this aesthetic, driving the viewer to see and understand a scene.

Now take the view of a critic, well educated in the photographic aesthetic. Looking at one of Salgado's photos, they will observe and understand the tools he is using to guide the viewer. They will observe, for example, the tension created by the directions of the gazes of the mine worker and the policeman, or the rhythm carried on human backs. They will view his mastery of the form as precisely what it is: a form of manipulation.

I'd argue that these critics have anesthetized themselves. By studying and understanding the aesthetic, they are distracted by observations of the form. They are like literary critics reading Shakespeare's sonnets, too attentive to syllable counts to attend to the imagery. To a naive viewer, unaware of the manipulation, the photographs will have an impact closer to what Salgado intended.

To me, the conflation of aesthetic and beauty arises not in the photograph, but in the viewer. Appreciating the form distracts from the content, but the alternative is to abandon form, depriving the photographer of effective communication mechanisms.

There are photographs that disturb me, in which beauty is found in horrible things (e.g., Kuwaiti oil well fires or chemical spills), but that's more directly related to the content.

28 October, 2005 23:34  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

John, Again you have raised a set of difficult issues. Here are some not entirely well formed thoughts.

First, if photography is a means of communication, which I think is right, what are we to make of that? Is all communication manipulative? Is all communication simply assessed in terms of effectiveness? Or do we need to ask about ends - effective for what purpose? For instance, we need to make a distinction between the sorts of photographs Salgado makes (or Nachtwey, or Kratochvil or Lange or Evans or Koudelka ....) on the one hand and various uses of photography in propaganda or advertising. And if we can make some such distinction in a plausible way, do we assume that uses (or abuses) of beauty are manipulative?

Two things that Salgado says in discussions of his work seem pertinent. The first, in response to criticisms of his use of beauty, is to ask the critics what alternative they suggest. The second is that he hopes to prompt discussion and debate. He is not offering answers but raising questions. That is the start of a distinction between the uses to which he puts his work and the uses to which advertisers and propagandists put photographs. The latter do not want you to question, they want you to accept their message. And here, I think, the way Salgado uses beauty creates a tension in his photographs of famine, war, dislocation and so forth that allows him to use them to raise questions and, thereby, to encourage dialogue or discussion or debate. The tension that allows him to try to do this (and attempt does not imply achievement) may be distracting for some. But it, I think, creates room for reflection.

29 October, 2005 19:26  
Blogger James Lomax said...

This is one of the most disturbing photos I've ever seen:


The conjunction of horror (human remains) with a beautiful landscape occurs seamlessly, such that you cannot avoid blending the two things - raising interesting, but disturbing questions. Also related to the nature of photography itself.

I dont think this 'anaesthetises', indicating that those assumptions might just be assumptions. Its too easy to develop learned theoretical expositions, invariably located in terms of a wider acadmeic and political context; that what you end up with is two kinds of discourse: the theory, and the image-based phenomenology. Of course there are other examples; for example, I find the images of Leni Reifenstahl beautiful, in such a way that I *am* anaesthetised to her Nazi politics. So in the first case its seamless but also critical, and in the second case its seamless, but non-critical - and therefore offensive - by presenting Nazi politics as an attractive aesthetic. Of course, thats just my subjective response...but even if someone else's is differnet, what that does is act as a reminder of this personal phenomenology.

30 October, 2005 16:20  

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