I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...
Wednesday, 6 March 2013
Conceptual Photography, Tomato Ketchup and Boring Pictures
I enjoyed reading Jonathan Blaustein's review of Hans-Peter Feldmann's catalogue on A Photo Editor's site.
He touches on how conceptual can be a good thing or a bad thing. This is what he says about it being a bad thing.
I’ve learned that “conceptual” can be a bad word in the Photo World. Just last month, I was encouraged by a museum director not to even breath the term, if I wanted to have my work considered by the institution. Many times now, I’ve heard people confidently state that they don’t like any “conceptual” work at all. No matter what.
Why is that? I’d speculate that “conceptual” is code for the type of off-putting, intellectually narcissistic clap-trap that people see in Art Fairs run by condescending gallerinas who relish the opportunity to ignore. The exclusivity of the Art World makes almost everyone feel like a peon, and work that smacks of the “Art” vibe can bear the brunt of the understandable resentment. Especially as so many “concepts” described in art-speaky press releases are nowhere to be found in the objects themselves.
Blaustein goes on to say that, conceptual can be a good thing. It can be Enlightening, Experimental, Daring. Dynamic, Revealing, Intelligent, Irreverent and Fun.
On the negative side, in addition to possibly being Boring, Predictable, Pretentious, Earnest, Shallow or Self-indulgent, there are a few more categories I could add.
Plagiaristic ( 'I've got an archive and I'm going to use it')
Tomato Ketchup ( as in 'I know these pictures are boring, but if I put a bit of conceptual ketchup on, nobody will notice that')
Exclusive (as in 'you do not matter if you don't understand this')
Self-conscious ( as in 'I know it's bullshit but still if I can get away with it')
Derivative ( as in 'I know somebody did exactly the same thing better 30 years ago, but let's hope you don't')
Messy ( as in 'It's not a messy, it's multi-faceted')
Solipsistic (as in 'you don't like it because you don't understand the genius of my mind')
And I'm sure there could be a few more. One problem is that sometimes people feel they need to be one thing (I'm thinking earnest here) and really they don't. Something can be what it is without being spirit-sappingly serious or with an earth-shattering narrative.
Another problem is something might be Predictable or Earnest or Self-indulgent, but that doesn't mean it's bad. It might be really good. But only sometimes...