18 June 2011

On Gustav Metzger and the Uses of Photography: Times Critic Misses the Point (Again)

"Frankly, I am mystified. How does it happen that the international art world intelligentsia has rallied around such punishingly obvious, politically banal, morally bullying and aesthetically enervating work?" - Ken Johnson

"Assuming that the critic writes a lucidly as he can, what is the proper subject? . . . What is the artist trying to do? Does he do it? Was it worth doing? . . . To put this another way, our best critics have the courage to take what seems to the the biggest risk: To forget themselves." ~ Robert Adams
*****

To Crawl Into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938 (1996).
Photograph © Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images (2009).

Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, April 28 1943, (1995/2009).
Photograph © Linda Nylind/The Guardian.

Ken Johnson, the fellow who passes for a photography critic at The New York Times, is risk averse. This is the second time I have commented on his work. A couple of years ago I posted this longish response to an especially obtuse and mean-spirited review he published of a retrospective exhibition of work by Susan Meiselas. Now he has written this review of two exhibitions of work by Gustav Metzger that are on in NYC. And, once again, Johnson has placed himself, his spleen and resentments center stage.

Let's start from the ground floor. I generally am not a big fan of art world taste makers or the institutions they inhabit. So, I am not here to defend the curators and impresarios from the ire Johnson spews at them. I am more interested in Metzger, his work, and Johnson's sheer, seemingly willful inability to even attempt to take it on its own terms.

Johnson describes Metzger's work as "blunt, heavy-handed and trite" and as "unusually overbearing." Here is his reaction (an appropriate verb) to one of the pieces:
"A yellow tarp is laid out on the floor in the middle of the room. I asked the helpful young museum guard what it covered. He said that the artist wanted people to crawl under it to find out for themselves and to experience “public humiliation.” Under I went and discovered a big photograph of people on their knees, scrubbing a street in Vienna in 1938 under the direction of members of the Hitler Youth. Yellow, you may recall, was the color of the armbands that the Nazis forced Jews to wear. I am sure that I felt less humiliated and terrified than the people in the photograph did."
Johnson, of course, succeeds here in talking about himself. And that seems to be his concern more generally - he poses as the representative, however unauthorized, of all those New Yorkers whose refined historical awareness and aesthetic sensibilities will be assaulted by Metzger. Here are his concluding queries:
"Is the New Museum’s audience really as dim as this show implicitly assumes? Is it a European thing to think that any art about the Holocaust must be important?

Finally, I wonder, what purpose and whose interests are served by an exhibition that treats its viewers with such contempt?"
Johnson attributes responsibility for this assault mostly to those denizens of the art world he seems to resent so much. He pays scant attention to Metzger or his intentions or, indeed, his work. He is more intent, it seems, on venting his disdain. So let's diverge from Johnson's script slightly in hopes of seeing clear of his resentments.

Metzger is in his late 80s. His formative years revolved around the rise of Nazism and the extermination of the Jews. His parents and brother were shipped to the camps and killed. He escaped to Britain, a refugee. As he said of his early childhood in this interview with The Guardian* occasioned by an earlier exhibition of his work in London: "I recently had this clear thought, that those 12 years totally dominate my life, and will do to the last moment of my life."

Johnson addresses this experience brusquely: "The son of Polish Jews who died in the Holocaust, Mr. Metzger escaped from Nuremberg, his birthplace, to England in 1939." And he then moves on. Surely, none of this biographical detail insures that Metzger's work is "important," uniformly or as a whole. But it suggests that we might at least consider that possibility, that we might take it seriously. Johnson seems unable to do so. (Ironically, he ends up treating potential audiences with contempt, assuming they are equally incapable.)

As I read Johnson's review I could almost hear him sneering impatiently: 'Come on Gustav, get over it! You are bumming me out.'
__________
* The two images I have lifted above are from a slide show that accompanies the interview. They depict two works that, in his review Johnson, mentions as especially objectionable.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Kevin Bondelli said...

"I am sure that I felt less humiliated and terrified than the people in the photograph did."

This line raises a serious question regarding what Ken Johnson expects from such a work. Unless he has a unique phobia of yellow fabric and supine body positioning, there is no way that he would be as terrified as the people in the photograph. No matter how compelling and emotionally evocative a photographic piece, it is unreasonable to expect a reaction comparable to the subject captured in a mortally terrifying situation. Eddie Adams's Saigon Execution photograph should not be dismissed because the viewer did not feel the horror of imminent death.

I personally find Metzger's marriage of photograph and physical interaction extremely interesting. Putting the viewer into the same body position of the photograph's subjects could emphasize their shared humanity. Perhaps it is this identification that Johnson unreasonably expected more from.

Johnson, as a painter who is seemingly relegated to reviewing photography solely because it is lumped in to his beat, appears in his reviews to negatively view works that are not dripping with allegory and metaphor.

19 June, 2011 04:47  
Blogger Kevin Bondelli said...

"I am sure that I felt less humiliated and terrified than the people in the photograph did."

This line raises a serious question regarding what Ken Johnson expects from such a work. Unless he has a unique phobia of yellow fabric and supine body positioning, there is no way that he would be as terrified as the people in the photograph. No matter how compelling and emotionally evocative a photographic piece, it is unreasonable to expect a reaction comparable to the subject captured in a mortally terrifying situation. Eddie Adams's Saigon Execution photograph should not be dismissed because the viewer did not feel the horror of imminent death.

I personally find Metzger's marriage of photograph and physical interaction extremely interesting. Putting the viewer into the same body position of the photograph's subjects could emphasize their shared humanity. Perhaps it is this identification that Johnson unreasonably expected more from.

Johnson, as a painter who is seemingly relegated to reviewing photography solely because it is lumped into his beat, appears in his reviews to negatively view works that are not dripping with allegory and metaphor.

19 June, 2011 04:49  
Blogger tim atherton said...

Jim,

I know you have a very well considered comments policy. And I value the time you've taken to craft a very thoughtful response to Johnson's review.

And maybe I'm just being boorish, but sometimes American English just doesn't have the same broad range of succinct responses to such reviews that, carefully crafted over a millennium or so, Anglo-Saxon rooted British English does.

Wanker, tosspot or pillock would be three that immediately come to mind... :-)

19 June, 2011 19:52  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Tim, I usually try to take the high road. But welcome comments that are more direct. Thanks, Jim

20 June, 2011 12:23  

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