Friday, July 15, 2011

My reaction to a post about high-brow vs. low-brow photography

I always enjoy reading Conscientious because there is clearly a lot of thought put into the posts. I just finished reading the post "High-brow vs. low-brow?" which begins with the following teaser:
With images having become so ubiquitous online, the old distinctions between the elites and the rest are fading away rapidly. Anyone can look for images online and do something with them.
 The high-brow/low-brow debate, however, is a a tricky one—one that often leads to a "no-brow" synthesis or some sort of Jamesonian  (Frederic, that is) post-modernist critique of cultural pastiche, and so forth. I find the debate both fascinating and frustrating—fascinating, because the high/low debate forces you to tackle subjects such as the limits of institutionalized power, and the nature and/or existence of "class," and frustrating because, well, you'll see...

By the height of the 80s postmodern (and poststructuralist) mass hysteria, French departments across the country were enjoying the fact that everyone had to turn to them to figure out what the hell Derrida or Baudrillard was saying. Financially, this was a good thing. It meant that French departments were relevant and professors could ask for higher salaries. Morally, conservatives saw this as the beginning of the end, the deconstruction of all values, the complete disintegration of sincerity.

But the pendulum eventually swings back. Academia, too, has fashion (just not the kind that leads to good sartorial choices). "Theory is dead," one of my professors proclaimed after I had spent 4 years trying to master  the stuff. "History is in."

So let me be a fashion snob for a minute. For a brief and enchanted moment, France was ahead of the game, but post-this and post-that was already so "last year" to French departments while English departments were still waiting for the translations to come out (pity the soul stuck with translating the French intellectual). And Art programs? Well, call me a hater, but (most, not yours, fuming reader, but most) art programs were so entrenched in boring questions of genre and provenance that they were a good 10 years behind. So, did the French go on and invent the next big thing? Nope. And that, my friends, is how the big raises for French faculty quickly died out.

Oops. Didn't mean to make it all about money. Or maybe I did. One of the many problems of the supposed dissolution of boundaries between the elite and the rest of us is that it's so hard to identify the elite. Is it, for example, the rich American couple shopping for an investment at Paris Photo (Oh, look at that one. It's so big. How much is that? Oh that's a better deal than that tiny Laaarhteeg photo.—yes, I really heard that. More or less.) or is the art dealer clenching her teeth in a forced smile while cursing the fact that money talks (and that it isn't particularly eloquent)?

If you're still reading, thanks for indulging me. I'll psychoanalyze myself and then get to the point.
Back to my childhood....
I was in grade school. I still remember quite vividly attending some cocktail party my dad took us to (why?), somewhere near campus. When an adult would condescend to speak to me, they would still condescend: What are they teaching you in school about American Indians? At age (9? 10? I don't remember that part so vividly) I knew that the whole point of the question was to secretly mock public education. Children are not stupid. I knew at that moment that I hated elitism. I don't hate education, obviously, but I hate the pretentious BS that makes people ask condescending questions.

So now the point:
Sorting through plebian Flickr photos to make art is fine by me, but let's say that you're targeting cheesy sunset photos (as in the example in the original post to which the post I read responds--how very pomo meta we are getting here). Are you doing it from the point of view of a martini drinker asking a 9 year-old about how their teacher covers Thanksgiving? Was your point really to learn something or was it just a form of self-congratulatory assertion of intellectual superiority? If it's the latter, then what your Flickr sunset collage is really doing is in fact trying to reassert the high/low divide, not dissolve it. I can't know what was really going on in the artist's mind, and I wasn't at the Rencontres d'Arles to see "Suns from Flickr" (which actually looks pretty cool) and witness the reactions of the public, but if there's one thing I've learned from too much time in academia, it's that the high/low divide never really disappears (Marie Antoinette liked to dress up as a shepherdess, but that doesn't make her a revolutionary after all) and (oops, that's two things) that devoting time and energy to questions you really care about is the antidote to detached, sterile cynicism.

2 comments:

Michelle said...

I remember attending those parties with you....there were many over the years. I remember listening to all of the slightly-inebriated intellectuals trying to one-up each other. You should start throwing some of these parties yourself - have your kids sit by and observe. It's educational.

michelle said...

Hmm. I'm curious about whether or not the high/low divide never really disappears. With the average blogger learning more about photo styling, it's damn hard to distinguish their food shots from those in magazines...