16 October 2008

Context and the Consequences of Neglecting It

Photograph © Susan Meiselas (1979)

Painting from the Series Riot (2003) © Joy Garnett

I've just read this exchange of sorts that appeared in Harper's (February 2007) between a painter Joy Garnett and photographer Susan Meiselas. The exchange culminated a fracas that arose after Garnett based a painting (2003) on a fragment of an image Meiselas had made in Nicaragua in 1979. Each woman offers her own take on the way Garnett appropriated Meiselas's photograph.

I have to say that I side with Meiselas in this dispute. The reason is not the legal one of whether the way Garnett appropriated her image was somehow or other covered by the fair use exception to copyright. I suspect Garnett is right on that score. And from what I can figure from the exchange that is not actually what bothered Meiselas.

The artist's statement on Garnett's web page describes her paintings as "visceral re-imaginings of current events both far and near." In this instance, unfortunately, what I think we get is more accurately seen as a politically suspect re-categorization.

In her contribution to the exchange with Garnett, Meiselas focuses on the importance of context in understanding her photographs. Indeed, she has tried in a fairly systematic way to reinsert her Nicaragua images back into their (changed) context. And she acknowledges the various ways that Nicaraguans have appropriated the image. The issue seems not to be appropriating as much as it is mis-appropriating. As she succinctly notes about this image: "What is happening is anything but a 'riot.'"

Garrett notes that the "Riot" series of which her painting is a part, was "born of frustration and anger" caused by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It seems to me that it was informed by a considerable dose of self-indulgence too. That self-indulgence apparently blinded Garrett to the way that - in this instance at least - her frustrated "re-imagining" converged with the self-serving rationalizations of successive American administrations. The latter, after all, precisely have sought to portray any and all active resistance to our policies, or those of the repressive regimes we've sponsored, as senseless violence, terrorism, and so forth.

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