21 August 2010

Simon Norfolk on Art & Politics

Image © Simon Norfolk. "BlueGene/L, the world's biggest computer, at
Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, California, USA. It is the size of 132,000
PCs. It is used to design and maintain America's nuclear weapons." On
his website, Norfolk notes that the computer is used for "modeling physics
inside an exploding nuclear warhead."
(Caption from BLDGBLOG Interview cited below.)

I have posted on Simon Norfolk and his work here a handful of times, but never at any great length. Several years ago, he did this interesting interview with with Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG and tonight I was re-reading it because I am going to use some of Norfolk's work in a presentation I am giving in a couple of weeks. I thought I'd offer the following passage as part of my ongoing campaign against the tendency to try to sequester art generally, and photography in particular, from politics.
BLDGBLOG: It's interesting that, on your website, it says you gave up photojournalism to move into landscape photography – yet that seems to have coincided with a more explicit politicization of your work.

Norfolk: Yeah, absolutely.

BLDGBLOG: So your projects are even more political now – yet they’re intended as landscape photography?

Norfolk: I mean, I didn't get fed up with the subjects of photojournalism – I got fed up with the clichés of photojournalism, with its inability to talk about anything complicated. Photojournalism is a great tool for telling very simple stories: Here's a good guy. Here's a bad guy. It's awful. But the stuff I was dealing with was getting more and more complicated – it felt like I was trying to play Rachmaninoff in boxing gloves. Incidentally, it's also a tool that was invented in the 1940s – black and white film, the Leica, the 35mm lens, with a 1940s narrative. So, if I'm trying to do photojournalism, I'm meant to use a tool that was invented by Robert Capa?

I needed to find a more complicated way to draw people in. I'm not down on photojournalism – it does what it does very well – but its job is to offer all its information instantly and immediately. I thought the fact that this place in Afghanistan – this ruin – actually looks a little like Stonehenge: that interested me. I wanted to highlight that. I want you to be drawn to that. I want you to stay in my sphere of influence for slightly longer, so that you can think about these things. And taking pictures in 35mm doesn't do it.

So the content of photojournalism interests me enormously, it's just the tools that I had to work with I thought were terrible. I had to find a different syntax to negotiate those things.

BLDGBLOG: Ironically, though, your photos haven't really been accepted by the art world yet – because of your subject matter.

Norfolk: Well, I cannot fucking believe that I go into an art gallery and people want to piss their lives away not talking about what’s going on in the world. Have they not switched on their TV and seen what's going on out there? They have nothing to say about that? They'd rather look at pictures of their girlfriend's bottom, or at their top ten favorite arseholes? Switch on the telly and see what's going on in our world – particularly these last five years. If you've got nothing to say about that, then I wonder what the fucking hell you're doing.

The idea of producing work which is only of interest to a couple of thousand people who have got art history degrees... The point of the world is to change it, and you can't change it if you're just talking about Roland Barthes or structuralist-semiotic gobbledygook that only a few thousand people can understand, let alone argue about.

That's not why I take these photographs.

BLDGBLOG: Clearly you're not taking these pictures – of military supercomputers and remote island surveillance systems – as a way to celebrate the future of warfare?

Norfolk: No, no. No.

BLDGBLOG: But what, then, is your relationship to what you describe, in one of your texts, as the Romantic, 18th-century nationalistic use of images, where ruined castles and army forts and so on were actually meant as a kind of homage to imperial valor? Are you taking pictures of military sites as a kind of ironic comment on nationalistic celebrations of global power?

Norfolk: No, I don't think it's ironic. I think what I'm in favor of is clarity. What annoys me about those artists is that there were things they actually stood for, but what seems to have happened is their ideas have been laundered. They've been infantilized. I don't mind what the guy stands for – I just want to know what the guy stands for. I don’t want some low-fat version of his politics. And unless you can really understand what the fellow stood for, how can you comprehend what his ideas were about? How can you judge whether his paintings were good paintings or rubbish paintings?

The thing that pisses me off about so much modern art is that it carries no politics – it has nothing that it wants to say about the world. Without that passion, that political drive, to a piece of work – and I mean politics here very broadly – how can you ever really evaluate it? At the end of the day, I don't think my politics are very popular right now, but what I would like to hear is what are your politics? Because if you're not going to tell me, how can we ever possibly have an argument about whether you're a clever person, your work is great, your work is crap, your art is profound, your art is trivial...?

For instance, I'm doing a lot of work these days on Paul Strand – and Paul Strand is a much more interesting photographer than most people think he is. The keepers of the flame, the big organizations that hold the platinum-plating prints and his photogravures, or whatever – these big museums, particularly in America, that have large collections – they don't want the world to know that Strand was a major Marxist, his entire life. He was a massive Stalinist. That just dirties the waters in terms of knowing who Strand was. So Strand has become this rather meaningless pictorialist now. You look at any description of Strand's work, and he was just a guy who photographed fence posts and little wooden huts in rural parts of the world. If you don't understand his politics, how can you make any sense of what he was trying to do, or what he photographed? These people have completely laundered his reputation – completely deracinated the man.
The rest of the interview is actually quite funny, in addition to being interesting. The point here though is that it is nearly impossible to understand the current practice or the history of photography without considering how it intersects with politics. Seems right to me. One other thing to note is that Norfolk finds the conventional categories (e.g., art/landscape vs. photojournalism) that structure how photographers ply their trade to be stultifying. He is right about that too.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Stan B. said...

Thanks for pointing out that Norfolk interview, I was completely ignorant of Strand's politics. Interesting how his work and legacy have been conveniently Disneyfied.

The "art world" will promote, glorify and at the very least publicize any artist whose work stretches the boundaries of any social taboo in fashion, sex or lifestyle- but it will quietly (and not so quietly) quash any art that dares question or challenge the political power structure. Little has changed in this country since the day of Diego Rivera and the Rockefellers. Why didn't every professional photograhic institution scream bloody murder when that landscape photographer had his photo essay on the Alaskan wilderness (that exposed the Republican lie that the proposed area for oil drilling was anything but a total wasteland) transferred overnight from the main gallery to the loading dock at the Smithsonian when mentioned in the hallowed halls of Congress?

22 August, 2010 12:03  
Blogger Public Squalor said...

Another great post, Jim.

For those interested in Paul Strand, his film, "Native Land" if you get a chance.

After receiving both a BFA and MFA in photo - I had no idea about Strand's politics until a few years later. I remember sitting in a photo class where Strand's image "Wall Street" was discussed. Only the formal aspects of the image were in play. Someone raised the class aspects of the photo but the instructor dismissed the idea wholesale. Unbelievable.

- peace

22 August, 2010 14:20  
Blogger Public Squalor said...

Another great post, Jim.

For those interested in Paul Strand, his film, "Native Land" if you get a chance.

After receiving both a BFA and MFA in photo - I had no idea about Strand's politics until a few years later. I remember sitting in a photo class where Strand's image "Wall Street" was discussed. Only the formal aspects of the image were in play. Someone raised the class aspects of the photo but the instructor dismissed the idea wholesale. Unbelievable.

- peace

22 August, 2010 14:20  
Blogger Mark Curran said...

...thanks for that Jim, a great post...

23 August, 2010 14:56  
Blogger Mark Curran said...

...thanks for that Jim, a great post...

23 August, 2010 14:56  
Blogger Joe Zammit-Lucia said...

Jim, I am surprised by your comment "the tendency to try to sequester art generally, and photography in particular, from politics." It's not clear to me that this is the case. There is certainly a vast amount of art that has no concern with politics and artists who, by choice, do art for different reasons. But it seems to me that art has been a central protagonist in the political debate for centuries. Murray Edelman's book on this subject is a good read. So it's not clear to me who is attempting this sequestration or that it has any chance of ever being successful.

23 August, 2010 15:37  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Joe,

I think that you could read any of a handful of influential critics in NYC who regularly deride artist and photographers who seek to integrate their art and their politics. I think Michael Kimmelman and Ken Johnson at the NY Times and Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine. all fall into that category. A way subtler view, with much the same implications, appeared in a post Ed Winkleman made on his blog a while back.

I think that these fellows all make a set of pretty basic errors like reducing politics to activism or confusing it with this or that moralistic stance. But they each recently have criticized the artists working at the intersection of art and politics.

I can give examples (and indeed have done so in past posts) of artists who deny their political views are expressed in their art. Robert Motherwell who produced a large number of canvases entitled "Elegy for the Spanish Republic", for instance, denied explicitly that there was any political implication of the works.

There are a slew of smart folks who adopt a different (a list of comments appears in my sidebar); but they, I think, write in opposition to the standard view that art and politics don't mix.

Jim

23 August, 2010 22:27  
Blogger David F said...

Thanks for pointing out this interview Jim. I agree with Norfolk that art, especially photography, is inherently political. I would be a bit more empathetic towards the ‘art for art’s sake’ crowd though as some artist don’t necessarily want to be seen as political. I feel that Norfolk’s frustration stems from people looking at the formal aspects of his work rather than the politics involved or dismissing it for being political on the other hand. Also, perhaps the level of attention that ‘a picture of their girlfriend’s bottom’, as Norfolk put it, receives can be quite frustrating (it frustrates me too). I would hold the view that what is going on in the world is the most important aspect to include in your art and even though I work a bit with staged photography I always try to do this.

David

24 August, 2010 02:27  

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