Monday, September 29, 2014

Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Touching a nerve.

When James Franco showed at Pace several months ago, a great many precious people in the "fine art" photo world were highly agitated. In certain quarters Franco's work met with anger, derision, and mockery. That reaction, however, pales in comparison with the criticism that is being leveled at Sandro Miller's collaboration with John Malkovich.  Words like "stunt," "pointless," "total rubbish," "trash," and "barfworthy" are being bandied about.
(c) Sandro Miller

A great many aesthetes minimize the images by pointing out that Miller is a commercial photographer. That criticism is nasty, ignorant, class-based stupidity, implying as it does that a commercial photographer is necessarily incapable of fine art. Here's one word for you who think that this is a reasonable criticism: Avedon. He worked for a living, using his camera, to sell expensive things to and for rich people.

The criticism that Miller's work is "self-promotion" is facile and disingenuous. Any artist who puts work out there is engaged in self-promotion. Every artist wants her images seen by as many people as possible. Here's one word for you who think that self-promotion is a fair basis to criticize a work: Warhol.

I know of no photographer who would not want the kind of exposure Miller has had. All the people sitting in the stands, bitching about how this project would have gone nowhere without Malkovich, don't bitch about a movie "succeeding only" because it has a great actor in it. That would be stupid, no?

[Another argument that is raised against Miller's work is that it violates copyright.  Though I am a recovering lawyer (12 years "sober"), I'm not going to hold forth on whether this constitutes "fair use." Suffice it to say that one could raise a myriad of strong arguments that this work does not violate the copyright of the original artists.]

Miller has clearly touched a nerve. That nerve ought to be examined, rather than used as a justification for heaping epithets. But self-reflection isn't popular in the "art" or any other kind of world.  Heaping derision is so much more pleasurable than reflecting on why one is bothered by the work in the first place.

So what is the problem?

Here begins my speculation: The success of the Miller work threatens both the gatekeepers of and aspirants to the world of "fine art photography." They resent that it is has briefly captured the popular imagination. They resent that they had no hand in deeming this work worthy of praise. They resent that it conflicts with their sense of what kinds of images -- and artists -- ought to be celebrated. How dare Miller, in emulating or paying homage to the greats, get more traction than the "greats" he purports to celebrate?

They are annoyed that the Miller piece is getting some of the most fundamental images of the 20th Century canon in front of the world, when for years they have strained mightily to get anyone to pay attention to art photography. If any denizen of the fine art world were to gather up all 35 source images for the Miller project and put them out into the world as a blog post, no one, and I mean no one, would give a shit.

Miller's "silly stunt" has far potential to induce people to look at the original photos than 10,000 lonely MFAs waxing poetic about Arbus.  
Miller's images have now been seen by more people than will ever look at Arbus. Outside of the the insular and rarefied world of fine art photography, who could even name the all 35 source photographers?

All of those source photographers are giants, true geniuses who strode the earth. Now here comes Miller to demonstrate that, in this day of Instagram and social media, he can capture the public imagination, using just a faint shadow of the original source material. That, my friends, is a raw nerve.