Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Death, Disease and Misery


Deathbed #8



In the latest edition of Mslexia, Tracey Chevalier writes about the dilemmas of competition judging.

"I had to read, reread, and read again to figure out which stories I was happy to snack on any time of day. Was I in the mood to explore the effect of a child's death on a parent. (There were a lot of those.) Or did I have a hankering to read about fathers leaving their families? (Quite a few of those too.) And what about mothers dying? (Yup, lots of those, too.) So, the big topics, death and loss. Doesn't anybody write about love anymore?

....It's curious that of the thousands of stories submitted (yes, thousands) there were so few laughs to be had. If you listen to the conversations of people around you - on the bus, in cafes, outside the school gates - you'll hear lots of laughter... But somewhere along the way writers seem to have got the idea that short stories need to be sober and po-faced. Maybe people worry they won't be taken seriously otherwise."




There are obvious parallels in photography here where the Sickness, Alzheimers, Old Age and Death story are in the ascendant and the sound of photographic laughter (sychophantic genre chuckles not included) are entirely absent. Some of the sickness and death work is wonderful, has warmth, humanity, insight and even humour but most of it is generic, repetitive, grim and earnest. But due to the subject matter, it is hard and heartless to criticize. But do we really want another cancer story? It's nice for the personal memories and as a family project but have we not  reached saturation point? (That being said, have we not reached saturation point on absolutely everything? Er, no as it happens.)

Tracey Chevalier's article ties in with the comedy research (is that right?) of Sam Friedman According to his studies, middle classes prefer comedy they regard as complex, even if it provokes negative reactions, the working classes prefer observational comedy that guarantees pleasure. This is what some of his interviewees said:

Among the middle-class interviewees, ‘Mark’ said of Stewart Lee: ‘He makes me feel like I’m in an in-crowd of comedy nerds. You go in and you know you’re going to be challenged, you know a few people in the audience won’t get him. Overall it makes you feel a bit smug, and it’s an awful thing to say, but it makes you look down on the people who don’t get him.’

Brian added: ‘I don’t think laughter is integral. It’s really irrelevant for me personally. I know a lot of friends who go to a lot of comedy gigs that they say they don’t really laugh at all. I mean they’ll say that comedian was really funny but I suppose you’re taking in the artistic value rather than just purely making you laugh.’

But working-class Karen said: ‘My take on comedy is that it’s got to make me laugh, it doesn’t mean to say I need to think about it, except for that split-second in the punchline. I’m not looking for them to educate me.’

And Pete added: ‘To be honest with you I see enough shit in the newspapers and the news every day, I’d rather see things that make me laugh, that I get enjoyment out of. I don’t want to see anything too highbrow or too morose. I just want to be entertained in a light-hearted way.’

Does something similar happen in photography. Do we like all those obscure photographers with their off-kilter shots and joyless examinations/explorations and investigations because we have something of the snob about us. What is the photographic equivalent of going to a comedy gig and not having a laugh? Is it going to a gallery and having a laugh? And is that a good state of affairs for photography to be in? 

Now then, who enjoyed the Deutsche Borse Show? Really? 

7 comments:

f:lux said...

I caught the Deutsche Borse show last weekend, and some of the Anna Fox work I saw made me laugh out loud. However worthy/coherent/whatever all the other nominees seemed to me, I couldn't help thinking that Anna Fox should have won, because her work was less linear, more complex. Less arid. And funny. But then, I suppose I am working class...

Mark Page said...

What is it with photography being so morose? There's always plenty of humour in the wider contempoary art scene.

Stan B. said...

In the past (when I'd actually go around and show a portfolio on occasion), I started to notice a particular scenario- the reviewer would smile, call a few colleagues over, have a laugh, call the secrertary and a few others over and share a few more laughs and anecdotes. Eventually the laughs would die down, they'd remember I was in the room, and the porfolio would be handed back- Hey, thanks for coming... Comic lunchtime interlude.

Humor, no matter what the scope or flavor- is seldom taken "seriously." You can leave sporadic subtle traces here and there for flavoring and "ironic content." But it can't be a major component. The same in film- perhaps one of the very reasons why so many "comedies" made today are so damn bad. They go for the cheap laugh and the fast buck, because they know they can't ever be taken "seriously." So why try?

No, no surprise why it's all so "morose." And yes, one of the great joys of going to an art gallery is having the work make you smile- and laugh...

colin pantall said...

Thanks flux, Mark and Stan. Cockroach Diaries makes me laugh (wasn't the book they were selling the cheapest thing ever made though).

Not sure there are that many laughs in the wider art scene either - it's like the advertising equation where the more prestigious the product, the more miserable the models in the ad. Same with art most of the time.

f:lux said...

I read somewhere about the advertising thing - the explanation forwarded that one reason smiling and laughing are so taboo in the Finer Arts is that it's so commonly found in advertising (and gods forbid that Artists should be seen to be enticing anyone to acquire the products of their endeavours in such a way).

It kind of makes sense. But then, by the same reasoning the whole moody, beautiful youth thing ought to be an equally strong taboo in serious Art because it's also very prevalent in advertising. And porn...

Anyway, to get back to Tracy Chevalier, one thing she seems to suggest is that the people entering the competition she judged self-censored, producing entries of the serious sort that they perhaps thought more likely to appeal. I suppose something like that can happen in photography too, a shaping of trends from bottom up, but reach a certain level and it feels more like there is pressure from above to comply with a demand for gravitas, whether you agree or not.

As an example, a short while ago I had some of my work reviewed by the photography curator of a national museum. He told me he liked it but I'd be unlikely to ever exhibit it (and not just in his museum but anywhere at all), because there's too much humour in it. I'm still trying to digest that... like I've been given a straight choice - adapt and conform, or languish in the art historical equivalent of a giant oubliette until the kingmakers catch up with actual trends, or rejig their own trendsetting criteria, or I die stubbornly waiting for one or other of those in which case there's an outside chance that my miserable death will be the thing that allows for the consecration of my otherwise hors piste chuckle inducing 'oeuvre'.

While in London I also forked out a tenner to see the Irving Penn at the National Portrait Gallery. When Penn was working, did he wonder if it was a bad idea to photograph people smiling, or with their eyes closed etc, or did he just get on with it? Would it have bothered him to hear me laugh in that exhibition (because I did a couple of times)? And though it might be significant that Anna Fox was successfully nominated for Deutsche Borse, how surprising is it that she didn't get the prize?

When did the 'contemporary' in photography come to actually mean 'conventional'?

Sorry about the waffly comment...

cheers, Lucy

colin pantall said...

Thanks Ruth. Supposedly high-status advertising doesn't have smiles, low-status advertising does - there's a post on this on the blog somewhere.

I think the right person won the DB, Lucy. Narrow but deep and influential, especially academically.

I think you do need to adapt and conform whatever you do - refusing to do so is an easy excuse for failure, but at the same time you do have to be a total arse to be good at the marketing/networking/exuding of self-confidence/really wanting success thing. It also helps to be seriously minted - more so now than ever before.

The only answer to that is the just making work for it's own sake, or making smaller, more localized paper-based non-digital works - which is happening. There is a certain grace in that, in not wanting it too much, in being non-desirous and Buddhist about it all. (Mmm, that's my excuse anyway. Not sure it entirely works.)

When did contemporary come to mean conventional? I don't know, but it's a fabulous question. I'll borrow it.

f:lux said...

Expressing my person preference for winner of Deutsche Borse doesn't mean I have no esteem for the other nominees. Arid and linear are also fine by me. On Mondays.

I heard John Davies speak a few months ago, and he said that though he didn't win when he was up for the prize, Deutsche Borse did buy his work at the time - and they still spent the equivalent of the actual prize money on his stuff, but it was a purchase so he didn't see all of that because his gallery got its usual cut. The way he told this story was much funnier, but you get the idea hopefully. Anyway, just being nominated is hugely beneficial in more ways than one, but isn't it interesting, at this particular point in time, that such an important photography prize was awarded to the one nominee who conceptually - or academically, if you like - prefers to distance themself from photography?

Sorry for having been so boringly anecdotal here. I have my own bloggy space for that kind of crap, shouldn't be clogging up your comments with it.

As for the contemporary/coventional thing, you like? It didn't occur to me till I started writing here so thanks and you're welcome.

cheers, lucy