No, No, No Jonathan Jones

Like a crashing bore at a birthday party Jonathan Jones has set forth more of his tedious thoughts on art – to be more specific: the funding of exhibitions. Along with practically everything else Jones seems to have a problem with the Royal Academy of Arts’ decision to use crowdfunding to pay for its Autumn Exhibition.

Unlike many large and well known institutions the RA receives no public subsidies, so in order to hold a major exhibition by acclaimed Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, it has decided to turn to Kickstarter as a means of raising the £100,000 needed. In return for a donation an individual will be rewarded with a limited edition print, private tour and otherwise unavailable online content etc.

None of this sounds controversial to me. But, according to Jones this is a crime of almost unspeakable proportions. Bizarrely, Jones turns to the concept of the wisdom of crowds’, presumably because it has the word crowd in it, to suggest that nothing good can come of what he describes as essentially being “mob rule”. He goes on at length about “crowd wisdom” being mistaken for democracy, the baying mobs that killed Jews during the crusades and the Gordon Riots (how many people have heard of them, but then, I imagine that he chose them as examples precisely for that reason), and the Arab Spring, which failed because of a lack of leaders and because it was ruined by those unruly mobs. It’s small wonder that he didn’t mention the Holocaust or at the very least the Nuremburg rallies or Kristallnacht. He obviously has no understanding of what a proper mob is. The Gordon riots I ask you?

Speaking of good crowds: What about the crowd of brave Tunisian hotel workers that formed a human shield to protect tourists from the marauding individual gunman? Or the London crowd that, in May this year, lifted a double-decker bus off of a unicyclist.

In his final paragraph Jones states: Crowds cannot appreciate art. Only individuals can because it speaks to our inmost feelings and perceptions. Only if we all saw with the same eyes would the crowd know best. But to see the same we would have to be a single programmed entity – a generation of robots. And I don’t think robots need art.

It is the individual versus the crowd dichotomy that takes the centre ground of Jones nonsensical argument. Only individuals can appreciate art, he claims, thus Pope Julius II is referred to as the greatest patron of the arts to have existed, while Charles Saachi is deemed, by Jones, to have been the most “daring” champion of the 1990’s Young British Artists. Today, he indignantly claims, all we are left with is the crowd friendly Grayson Perry.

But what does Jones think a crowd is? It is, and always will be, an aggregate of individuals. Yes there are times, like riots, when a crowd becomes a mob, given over to the influence of a seeming external malignant hand. But, has there ever been a case where this can applied to art exhibitions, or even more unlikely: their planning and fundraising? I’m sure we’d have heard of the Turner prize riots or Tate St Ives funding committee pogroms.

What Jones is doing, and it is a sign of his condescending snobbishness at its worst, is tacitly equating the crowd with, what are in his view: the common, uneducated masses. In an act of phony self deprecation Jones claims: I have no feel for the intricacies of music – I really do flit between Handel and Led Zeppelin – and I gladly defer to the knowledge and sensitivity of people who know their Reich from their Riley. I’m surprised that Jones can admit to need help in such matters. But, in doing so he betrays his actual intentions by declaring the necessity for a guiding hand – a sage – who can lead the culturally illiterate through the otherwise un-navigable land that is: The Art World. Someone just like him, perhaps?

It is surprising that Jones, someone who clearly sees himself as being a cut above the rest, has managed to trip himself up in such an obvious way by making such absurd claims regarding crowd funding; Frank Spencer couldn’t have done it better. If he is such an astute thinker as he imagines, surely Jones should have realized that essentially all exhibitions are essentially crowd funded. Just for Mr. Jones: all of those individuals that queue (a long thin crowd) and buy a ticket for an exhibition – are paying for the exhibition – the only difference being that the crowd funding is being sought retrospectively.

And it’s not as if the crowds are even choosing the art, something that Jones imagines to be happening or about to happen. It’s obvious of course that he would deplore this, because only the selected few, the council of elders is worthy of doing such a thing. It’s equally apparent that Jones is happy to see himself as a part of this elite – and this is the problem with Jones and many like him. He is nothing more than an opinionated snob who thinks that he has the right to dictate what is good taste to other people. He naturally takes any line that allows him to launch brickbats at those he feels are inferior, which seems to constitute the entire population of Great Britain. Anything that smacks of populism is to be beaten into extinction; if the plebs can understand and appreciate it he can’t stand on his self-erected high altar and preach at us; and if that happens what will happen to his sense of smug superiority?

There isn’t much information about Jones online – but given that he has been a member of the Turner Prize and BP Portrait Award judging panels and has written a number of books on art, he must posses a great deal of knowledge on the subject, enough at least to allow some people respect his opinion. How unexpected and pleasing, not-to-mention worthwhile it would be if instead of beating people over the head with his opinions, Jones actually took the time and effort to put his knowledge to good use by educating them. But instead of encouraging people to engage with the arts, Jones does the exact opposite; in reality he fills the role of the fatuous, tiresome uncle, the one who is wheeled out at Christmas only to stupefy his victim with his utterly tedious, outmoded and myopic thoughts. What a crashing bore.

So Called You Know Who

Last week in the House of Commons (perhaps it should be The So-Called House of Commons, given the number of former public school boys and millionaires it contains), David Cameron gave the BBC another salvo of Tory distain. His gripe, this time, is the BBC’s use of the term ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Or so-called ISIS, as the corporation would have it. It seems that the name given to this particular group of largely illiterate, mass murdering, child raping, torturing, imperialistic maniacs is what really matters to the British government, and addressing this vital point is the centre point of its fight back.

In raising this rather trite point, Cameron is showing us that he is doing something about the fiendish brutes. Presumably this is part of the “full spectrum response” he mentioned after the massacre in Tunisia. “Full spectrum response;” its sounds very menacing when spoken by a US president in an action movie, and is followed by a montage of the all-powerful and, not to mention, huge armed forces in their preparations to bomb the shit out of the bad guys. But when the phrase is followed by an assault on the BBC over what it calls a bunch of homicidal religious fanatics, it seem so far beyond pathetic that pathetic is a mere shimmer on the distant horizon. The only thing he achieved with his ridiculous speech was to add to all of the other parliamentary time wasting.

Cameron’s justification for his attack was that ISIS is neither Islamic nor a state. He prefers the acronym: ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) – I wonder if he has noticed that the Islamic State bit is still there? Both of these terms, though, are as open to interpretation as Islam itself. All religious beliefs are based on a large degree of interpretation by the believer and the contradictions that arise out of this are, and always have been, what fuel the many internecine conflicts that have plagued believers and nonbelievers alike. They are a guaranteed product of the system – just look to the history of any religion and the evidence will present itself. So I’m sorry to have tell you David, but ISIS, ISIL, IS, Daesh, by all means, choose which ever name you wish to call it, but it is, without doubt Islamic. Even if the shadowy former Ba’athist that created ISIS and, from Iraq, control the organization, aren’t necessarily devout, their faithful henchmen are. They are Muslims, Muslims who choose to interpret their religion in the most medieval of fashions: a feat that is made all the easier by the Koran itself, a book that sets forth plenty of helpful (holy) precedents.

There is a long history of unrecognised states, ISIS is just another to add on to it. I absolutely agree that it should not be recognized in any way, shape or form; however, it is an entirely different question for the people who live under ISIL rule. Some deplore it and some praise it. Again is a matter of perspective. And, I would argue as I have on the religious point that it is a state, because the people who form it believe it to be one. Whether other governments or news channels refer to it as such is again, in the some ways, rather trite. I doubt if ISIS care about whether western media and politico’s refer to them as a state or not; and I can guarantee that they are not going to pack up their guns, stop beheading infidels, give up crucifying children and stop throwing gay people from the top of tall buildings simply because a government in the despised West does not grant them official recognition as a sovereign state. I fully appreciate the symbolic point – but I think we’re passed that now.

Having said that, I don’t expect that there will be any genuine response to ISIS from any western country, especially Britain. There simply is not the will to do what needs to be done. But arguing over a name and a status, even if it scores some symbolic brownie points, really does show the depth of this government’s apathy and impotence.

I recently saw one of the Harry Potter movies on television. In it the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, would only speak of “you know who” in reference to Lord Voldemort, as if the name itself could do harm. All the while Lord Voldemort is out there and well on the way with his latest killing spree. Who’d of thought, on such a serious matter, life would imitate Harry Potter. Surely David Cameron – should stop ‘Fudgeing” it and ask himself: What’s in a So-Called name? Then, if he had any clue of what he is doing, he would realise how utterly pointless his name obsession is and do something worthwhile instead.

Why Anthropology Matters: Part Two

There has been a definite resurgence of feminism of late. Most media outlets now feature feminist issues with a degree of prominence and seriousness that quite possibly has never been seen or felt before. What strain of feminism you subscribe to depends largely on each individual personal disposition and experience. There are those who lean-to the more militant variety, for want of a better word, who see all men and quite a number of women as the enemy, while at the other end of the spectrum are those who are perhaps a little more lenient with regard to the other sex and may even welcome the support of men in overcoming gender prejudice. As can be expected there is much dogma in support of and in opposition to every shade of feminism, both of which are used by feminists against feminists, as-well-as by those who would attack the “movement” as a whole, which goes a long way to explaining why genuine change has been so elusive.

It is possible that things could very different though. If more people knew about what is, quite possibly, the most powerful of all feminist arguments, which was developed, ironically, by a male anthropologist. Employing both social and physical anthropology in his book Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, Chris Knight suggests that the creation of culture was the product of a social revolution by our female ancestors.

It is most likely that our early ancestors had developed a social system akin to those found in high order primates, such as chimpanzees; the harem system allowed the most dominant alpha male to jealously monopolize sexual access to ovulating females. Given that only a few females with a group would be ovulating at anyone time, this was a relatively straightforward task, he could with a high degree of confidence ensure that any offspring produced in the group were his; that this suits the dominant male is obvious, it is, however, not so good news if you were a subordinate male or especially if you were female. The development of our large brains meant that certain physical concessions had to be made: in order for females to give birth our brain must develop after birth. The result of this is that our offspring are far more dependent on their parents than those of other animals. This put our female ancestors under huge pressures – it is virtually impossible to forage for food and carry a baby at the same time. The only way for both mother and offspring to survive was an increased investment from a male. It was paramount that the alpha male system be smashed; to achieve this our female ancestors employed landscape-wide solidarity, at the centre of which was a revolutionary strategy, what Knight terms: the sex strike.

As a result of living in close physical proximity female reproductive cycles synchronized, this enabled them to deny dominant males the chance to guard and mate with females as they began to ovulate, he simply could not mate with all of them at once. This strategy, therefore, did not only benefit females but also the subordinate males, as they were now afforded the opportunity to procreate with the unguarded females, so it was in their interest to cooperate with the females, to support the sex strike. Initially this would have all relied entirely on actual physiological signals: real menstrual blood. However, Camilla Power, a colleague of Knight’s, has extended the theory. She realized that women did not always need to physically synchronize their cycles or display real blood. Once the groundwork had been laid, once that the signal was recognizable and the system accepted, women could fake menstruation using red ochre and elaborate symbolic display to state their intentions, displays that showed that while they bled, or pretended to bleed, they were also not human and male. The act of “becoming” another species and another sex only serves to make the messages even more unambiguous. There could be no mixed signals, no mistake in what is being asserted: an emphatic NO!

We can glimpse what may be recordings of this type of ritual action. Cave paintings in various sites in southern Africa show female figures with penises and horns; while samples of red ochre suggest an explosion in its use dated to between 100,000 and 120,000 thousand years ago. This combined with detailed analysis of female initiation rituals amongst various traditional African societies (the Khoisan for example), many of which feature neophytes dancing as if they were the male Eland (a large antelope), while the other women of the camp move as if mating with her. It is most improbable that this striking similarity is coincidental – there are far too many examples of rituals at the time of puberty which link menstrual taboos and hunting for that to be the case.

Having broken the shackles of the alpha males’ system of domination the females had to ensure that the males would stick around and provide the food that both they and their children needed. It was vital that they continue to act collectively: in doing so they could force the males to hunt and bring home the precious spoils. In playing their part males had to police their own and each others behavior through what can be seen as peer group pressure. Thus any infringement of the new social rules by any male, especially in relation to the food they were responsible for supplying and/or the temptation of illicit sexual relationships, would result in the sex strike being reinstated – in short if one male were to break the rules all males are punished. What is perhaps most important here, is that it was in the majority of male’s interest to support the action of the females; for in doing so they greatly improved their chances of mating, thus improving their own reproductive fitness. The crucial point of this theory is that society benefits when females are in full control of their bodies.

This may sound farfetched but in 2009, during a period of political instability, various Kenyan women’s organization organized a sex strike to force a resolution to the troublesome situation (Even prostitutes were offered financial compensation to join in). While the sex strikes’ impact has not been scientifically examined, Kenya did have a stable government after one week of the strike. There was also a call for a sex strike in Belgium, in 2011, after no stable government could be formed.

Perhaps if the work by Knight and Power was more well-known, or, dare I say it taught as part of a compulsory anthropology course in British schools, we may begin to see, not only genuinely empowered young women but also young men who could, and I’m sure would, act in solidarity with them. Why? because it would be in their interest to do so. Rather than today’s sham “left wing”, with its fragmented self-interest groups and divisive identity politics, there would be a united front of groups who realize that they have more in common with each other than many in their ranks would think or care to admit too, if only they could see past the dogma. First and foremost it would be clear that they are all the subject of social repression largely by the same groups. With this realization and the creation of a true, critically thinking – rather than purely reactionary – opposition, perhaps there would be a genuine chance for real and meaningful social change that benefits the many, not the few.

The Importance of Anthropology: Part One

The vast majority of people have no idea what anthropology is. I know this through personal experience; I hold two degrees in anthropology, and have spent considerable time, when asked, explaining the subject. Before asking the question, many people offer a speculative stab at what it might be. Oh, that’s the study of ants isn’t it? That’s to do with dinosaurs, right? Wrong.

Of course I don’t begrudge people their ignorance. Anthropology isn’t one of those disciplines that has a prominent position at most universities much less the media, unlike physics or astronomy, both of which have been featured heavily on the BBC, thanks to Brian Cox, who is now something of a nerdy sex symbol. I had never heard of anthropology while I was at school and I would back myself in stating that not too many of today’s students will have heard of it either. What a shame that is.

Anthropology is the study of what makes us human – it looks to explain our physical evolution as well as our cultural practices: their origins, development and interaction. It has been described as the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. Anyone who has studied anthropology or has any familiarity with it will understand how incredibly important it is. This is especially so in an era where populations are more fluid than they have ever been and there is so much more contact between people of different cultures.

It would have been easy to mention race in the previous paragraph, I did not do so for one simple reason – it does not exist. We know this because anthropology (along with biology and the study of genetics) has taught us so: that there are physical differences between humans is obvious, that some of these differences can be shared by groups of humans is also plain to see, but, the notion that these physical variations can be used taxonomically to discern various subspecies within our genus and that these can be placed in a hierarchical system is without any scientific basis. As is the idea, at the very core of racism, that the variations in human physiology can be connected to behavioral traits both positive and negative. As Anthropologist and Geneticist, Jennifer Raff, in her critique of Nicolas Wades’ preposterous book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, makes very clear:

‘Humans are incredibly similar genetically. We only differ by about 0.1 percent of our genome. Compare that to chimpanzees, our closest relative. Individual chimps from the same population show more genetic differences than humans from different continents.’

As does Agustin Fuentes, Primatologist and Physical Anthropologist:

There are no genetic patterns that link all populations in just Africa, just Europe or just Asia to one another to the exclusion of other populations in other places. If you compare geographically separated populations within “continental” areas you get the same kind of variation as you would between them.

Just think if anthropology were taught in schools, this genetic knowledge along with that of the human fossil record could be used to destroy any glimmer of racism before it even had the chance to take hold in the minds of the young. If children were taught this then surely in time the very breath that feeds racism would be stifled to nothing.

If that wasn’t enough, then think of the benefit of teaching children more about different cultures. The emphasis here being the very human need for culture; that culture doesn’t only relate to that which is in a gallery or a section of a newspaper; but that culture lives and breathes in each and every one of us. It is inevitable that future generations will interact with a variety of increasingly diverse cultures and that this contact will lead in turn to a more culturally diverse population, as members of groups marry and raise mix cultured (not race) offspring. We should be careful though not to fall into the trap of cultural relativism, which in some quarters has made something of a comeback. Respecting different cultures is one thing, but being deferential to any of the barbaric practices that are forced onto people in the name of culture is unacceptable. Any cultural institution or practice that is used as a tool of oppression must be fought at all costs.

Over the last few years there has been a resurgence of feminist thinking. I have my problems with identity politics, but one cannot argue with the notion that women are, in far too many areas of life – in far too many cultures, a distinct underclass. While some of those calling themselves feminists argue the finer points of dogma and seem intent on only creating further inter and intra-group schisms, many women (and men) are totally unaware of the powerful role anthropology could play in not only gaining social equality, but, more importantly emancipation.

Part two will follow shortly.

Why Hitchens Matters

I must confess that up until last year I was largely unaware of Christopher Hitchens and his writing; something that seems absurd to me now. He was recommended to me by an acquaintance; I subsequently looked him up and was immediately enthralled by his rhetoric, use of language, commitment to fearless honesty and ability to debate without giving quarter while expecting none in return.

I feel, as do many people it seems, dulled and disinterested in much social commentary mainly due to its abject willingness to maintain the consensus. Perhaps this is not entirely the fault of those calling themselves journalists; they after all are reporting on a dull and dreary political landscape, where most of our plastic politicians have the dingy parlor and personalities, of a not to recently exhumed corpse.

Britain was recently in the arthritic grips of a general election; one couldn’t call it election fever, more an election sniffle, maybe a head cold. When watching and reading the coverage of this event I was reminded of the cartoon Charlie Brown. Anyone who knows it will remember the poor teacher. While Charlie and his pals sit fidgeting and talking in class, all that could be heard of the teacher a muffled “Whah whah whah whah, whah whah, whah”. Her whole presence is reduced to a monotone background noise, which did nothing to distract the children from their own, far more important, business.

So it is for our politicians – “Whah, whah, whah, whah, whah”. What is worse is that too many of the political press go willingly along with this. How cushy it must be to earn a living from regurgitating rubbish. It seems that too many lack the ability, or rather, the fortitude to ask difficult questions, not only of their subjects, but also of themselves.

This is where Hitchens was different. He took up the mantle – or followed in the footsteps – of George Orwell. In doing so he took it upon himself to speak the “truth”, his truth to be sure, but one derived from a great deal of research, experience, intellectual rigor and concerted introspection. As he was fond of saying: It is not what you think – but how you think that matters.

But why is it the case? In one word: authenticity. And with this the knowledge that any conclusion arrived at was done so with freely and with rigor. Free from influence, not of the inspirational variety but the insidious and destructive type that comes with intellectual and moral sloppiness and self-censorship. One only has to think of the recent story of News International writers being ordered by Rupert Murdock to hammer Ed Miliband.

Orwell states: Political writing in our time consists almost entirely of prefabricated phrases bolted together like pieces of a child’s Macanno set. It is the unavoidable result of self-censorship. To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. That was written in 1946. Has anything changed?

One thing is obvious to anyone who knows his work – Hitchens was far from politically orthodox. His was not the crass and provocative posturing for the sake of attention, but the deeply held opinion of someone who stood, at times, at odds with, the main stream. For much of his life he was a committed socialist (Trotskyist), but as the time passed and the immorality of the anti-Stalinist left became more apparent that committed political stance was found wanting:

…there came a time when I could not protect myself, and indeed did not wish to protect myself, from the onslaught of reality. Marxism, I conceded, had its intellectual and philosophical and ethical glories, but they were in the past. Something of the heroic period might perhaps be retained, but the fact had to be faced: there was no longer any longer any guide to the future.

It began with his disgust at the lack of support Salman Rushdie received from the left after a fatwa was issued against him by Ayatollah Khamenei and slow burned to his support of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s vile regime, by a Republican administration, of all things. His well aired break with the left put, to understate the point, put many comradely noses out of joint. This “treachery” led many of the old guard to act like nothing more than petulant children. In effect, because Hitchens dared to move away from leftist flock, because he dared to look past the dogma, and criticize their apparently antiwar stance, he was deemed by many to be a heretic.

However, he saw that Hussein was another in the long line of tyrants that leftists would look to placate simply because he was the opposite of their old and intertwined enemies: the USA and capitalism. It was a case in other words of the enemy of my enemy being my friend no matter what horrendous crimes Saddam’s regime had committed, but then the left we’re used to making excuses for Stalin, so it must have come easy.

By taking this line the leftist and so-called anti-war movement opposed Hitchens, on the grounds of the immorality of regime change. While vociferously doing so they failed to account for their own bilious and obvious hypocrisy. If the removal of the Hussein regime should not have taken place – what credible alternative was there to protect the people of Iraq? Why was it okay, by virtue of legally enshrined and guaranteed freedom of thought and expression, for the appeasement brigade in the west to debate ethics and morality, while through inaction, denying the same to the Iraqi people? By what measure is that fair and proper?

Hitchens was never a supporter of the manner in which the war was prosecuted; in fact he called for legal action to be brought against those who had acted criminally. For Hitchens the moral crux of the issue sat in concept of universal freedom – all else was subservient to this. Those who erroneously called him a turncoat or neo-con, have missed the point that he always opposed totalitarianism in all forms; it was something that lay at the heart of his beliefs.

What the arguments against Hitchens centre upon is actually the denial of freedom. As is the case with so many apparent intellectuals who blindly and dogmatically follow a particular doctrine, there is a need to deny others, even if they are in the same camp, the right to exercise free thought and free speech as and when they choose. To show that you are a committed member of the group one must maintain the established consensus; never think freely and never ever criticize the leadership. To act against doctrine, is the ultimate crime, for it denies any appearance of legitimacy it may posses.

It is ironic that Hitchens, a man who, I don’t believe, wished to be a leader actual became one, of sorts, to so many. That he may not have wanted it that way is one among many reasons why he was (and through his writing still is) a good one. Surely, it is better that a freethinking and anything but bland individual hold such a position, rather than those who actively seek it and then do nothing more than churn out the same old rubbish or those who blindly repeat it.

Does Yellow Run Forever? by Paul Graham

I have admired Paul Graham’s work for a number of years now, so I was delighted to find a copy of his newest offering in the tiny Soho branch of Donlon Books. Since buying it I have greatly enjoyed exploring its themes, which are presented with Graham’s always intriguing and enjoyable obliqueness.

Any fan of Graham’s will, I think, greatly appreciate this new work, and those, who are not quite as familiar will I’m sure be beguiled by this golden treat. The newbie’s also have the joy of using this as a starting point to look through his back catalogue, something I wish I could do afresh, but then with an artist as visually eloquent as Graham there is always the opportunity to discover a heretofore-unseen detail, which is sure to delight. I would have to say that Graham is one of the few photographers whose entire oeuvre continues to excite and challenge.

For anyone who is unfamiliar Graham, he is one of those photographers that belong to that loose confederation that introduced British Photography to colour in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He is a master of the type of work that can be described, for want of a better description: oblique social commentary, (I don’t particularly like the labeling of photographers and their work, but sometimes it is useful). He has added his voice to the chorus of artists who seek to bring our attention to various forms of social inequality and hopefully challenge the assumptions that they, all too credulously, rest upon. As the term oblique would suggest, Graham eschews that which for some has become problematic, namely the language of photojournalism and documentary photography that is most often associated to this type of subject matter. Instead he has developed a language that often incorporates various functional elements of the photographic act – a strategy that is most notable in the so-called American Trilogy: American Night (2004), A shimmer of Possibility (2007) and The Present (2012). The results of this are images that slowly burn their way into the consciousness of the viewer; rather than ‘simply’ presenting something, they take the viewer on a journey, you have to work to get into images, rather than letting them lay it out on a plate.

Does Yellow Run Forever is no exception to this. The first thing to note is its size; it’s small, much smaller than his previous books. It is immediately a very tactile book, covered in gold suede with no photograph, but a debossed title. The next detail one notices is how far the pages, which are edged in gold leaf, are indented from the edge of the cover – 5mm instead of the usual 3mm. It’s subtle but it makes a difference, almost as if you are being made to dig a little deeper for the treasure at the end of the rainbow; which leads one past the gold fly page to the first photograph.

The photographs follow three themes rural landscapes from Ireland, all of which feature as the central feature an arching rainbow; next are those of a sleeping woman and finally the frontages of various gold shops.

Taken separately these thematic threads seem to be unrelated, but in the hands of Graham, they are woven into a contemplative narrative about the nature of human desire.

In the Irish images we see delicate rainbows floating above the verdant countryside. For many a life in the country idyll is itself a dream, but the rainbow suggests more, bringing with it another dimension: the mythical bridge to other worlds, the land of the gods, the physical manifestation of the rainbow snake or the location of a leprechauns’ gold. In the literal sense as an optical and meteorological phenomenon the rainbows reveal the constituent parts of visible light, that which allows for the existence of the photographs themselves. But it is in the mythical capacity that Graham employs the rainbow – they act as the medium by which the other images are connected. As a testament to his attention to detail, along with his commitment to creating a distinct world within the confines of the book – the rainbow photographs sit higher up the page, the most intangible, ephemeral of the three narrative elements. We can see them clearly enough, but, like so much of that which make us truly happy they are ephemeral, they are not of this world, we can never physically grasp them and yet they cannot but fill us with joy.

Then there is the sleeping woman. Herself an enigma – who is she, where is she, what is she dreaming about? Questions we can only imagine the answers to, which allow her to be whom we desire, where we desire her to be and dreaming about what we desire her to dream about. These photographs show her surrounded by white or pastel coloured walls, there is a tenderness to them, making Graham unusually present in the image, she seems to be safe and dreaming, not having nightmares. The tenderness of Graham’s gaze reveals his fillings for her fore she is his partner – and so we are presented with another intangible: love, art’s eternal muse. Again the details are telling; these photos sit in the middle of the page, lower than the rainbows, associating them and her physically with this world, yet her slumber renders her in a liminal space, somewhere perhaps between a version heaven and hell and leads us to the final set of images.

The gold stores: they feel like the most earthly of all the images and so sit at the bottom of the page – the diametric opposite of the rainbow photos. Like the rainbows’ gold has its own mythic quality: its eternal lustre and very real rarity and subsequent value. Possessing it could make your dreams come true, but equally coveting it, like all obsessions, can be the stuff of nightmares. These images are perhaps most in keeping with Graham’s earlier work. The stores look to be in less prosperous areas, indeed one of them shows a man who looks to be laying out goods on the pavement to sell. It isn’t difficult to imagine neighborhood people going to the store, seeing their wedding rings, along with anything else, to make ends meet. One wonders if those with financial concerns can sleep as soundly as the woman features in the book.

This, I think is the core of the book. So many of our “dreams” are excessively materialistic in nature that perhaps we forget, or in many ways are prevented from fully appreciating what is really important, namely, those intangibles that makes us memorably happy.

Photographically speaking Graham has pulled off a very difficult balancing act. He has pitched the structure and content of this work precisely; what looks like ‘straight photography’ is imbued with just enough concept so that neither one dominates the other, which allows both to breathe and the full complexity of the work to be appreciated. He also manages to face up to some of photography’s clichés; what serious photographer would honestly photograph rainbows? – without them being cringing. One doesn’t feel the need to look over both shoulders for the photographic thought police when looking at these photographs. It’s nice to think that this can be done – at a time when there is so much pretentious nonsense dominating photography at the moment.

Does Yellow Run Forever? By Paul Graham MACK 2014

 

Should the Moving Image be considered part of Photography? No!

I was going to leave it at that, as it says it all really. But then I thought I should write a little more.

I have been to a number of exhibitions recently, all of them photography exhibitions that featured moving image pieces. I’m not against the moving image as an art form at all, far from it. In an art gallery or other venue/context the moving image can be as wonderful and exciting as any other art form. But should it be included in a photography exhibition? Once again, No!

While there are obvious similarities between the moving image and the still image: the use of a type of camera, the use of light and composition, there are two fundamental and even more obvious differences: one moves, while the other doesn’t. I have immense respect for cinematographers and cinematography, but it simply is not photography.

One of the magical qualities of photography is that it renders the moving world still. A photograph shows us something that the photographer wants us to look at – really look at. Once frozen on the surface of a piece of film or saved to a memory card, that moment is preserved, allowing the viewer to look at it again and again allowing them to explore the details that in the moving image, may otherwise, go unnoticed.

In a world where human activity takes place at an increasingly fast pace, where unthinking and often unblinking consumption of everything is king; where some people can’t stop, sit and think for fifteen minutes at a time, the photograph is literally a pause for thought.

Some people like to cite the currently fashionable term: lens based media to justify the moving images inclusion in photography exhibitions and discourse. Here we see not so much the denial of photography as a unique art form that is prevalent in the wider art world, but more a dilution of photography. Surely the curators, gallerists, academics and critics that largely, through their choices, control the photography world, should respect the essence of photography and in doing so should promote what is so special about it. Instead we are witnessing the devaluation of the photograph and photography to that of just another image produced by just another generic lens-based media.

A photographic Call to Arms

I first became interested in photography about fifteen years ago. I had studied anthropology at university and so was initially attracted to the photojournalist/documentary end of the photography spectrum. I had seen a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Europeans and not only marveled at the beauty of the photographs, but saw a very clear anthropological quality. It was one of those moments, a light bulb appeared above my head, or perhaps it was a flashgun. But I saw then the way I wanted to go. I wanted to change the world, armed only with my camera and my anthropological know how.

Over those fifteen years my goals became a little more realistic, you could say limited. But what did grow was my understanding and appreciation of a wider range of photography. My tastes have shifted, I still appreciate what is seen by some as the traditional photojournalist mode of Magnum Photos, but I have come to like the more oblique social commentary practices of Paul Graham; the poetic subtlety of Alec Soth; the unhinged reality of the Provoke era Japanese photographers, the ‘topographical’ architectural surveys of Donovan Wylie, along with many more.

But as my knowledge of photography has deepened I have grown ever more frustrated at some elements of the medium. It’s not about a particular way of working, although, as with everybody I have my preferences. It’s about the peripherals, for want of a better term, the labels, tags, boxes and restrictions that photographers and photography are forced to adopt and be squeezed into that bother me so much. And, what’s worse is that by and large these restrictions aren’t placed on us by us. We have come to accept them, and define ourselves by them as creative beings because we have been all too eager to fit into the pre-existing order of things.

Despite initially being written-off by the art world as inferior and lacking in genuine creativity, mainly due to its mechanical nature, (the fact that ‘anyone’ can push a button enough times that they will eventually get lucky) which apparently reduces the creative process to almost nil, photography has slowly gained a small measure of acceptance in the art world, albeit I believe, a grudging one.

Anyone who saw the National Gallery’s first photography exhibition could only walk away with that impression. Just look at the title: Seduced by Art. Implying of course that photography is anything but art – that it is something other, something lusting for the status of art – a medium that can only ape the work of the Masters. The exhibition itself was something of an embarrassment to anyone familiar with photography. From the childish text about how cameras work, to the constant references to photography’s relationship, or debt to painting. And then there are those who like to call themselves ‘Artists that use photography’. These ‘real artists’ feel the need to explain their photographic endeavors with this tag presumably because they are unable to lower themselves to the level of a mere photographer. The artist who uses photography has to explain to their audience that they are doing something really creative, that there is a self initiated, visible and historically accepted process at work; that they aren’t one of the fluky chancers who get lucky every few thousand clicks of the shutter. But why can’t they see that the camera is just another tool? That this device allows truly wonderful things to happen? After all, a painter isn’t an artist using a paintbrush. A sculptor isn’t an artist using a chisel. So why do so many ‘Artists’ feel the need to explain away the photography in their art. As Paul Graham so adroitly states:

‘…photography for and of itself -photographs taken from the world as it is– are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag.’ (Graham, Paul: The Unreasonable Apple, 2010).

Now, this isn’t a rant against the art world, or artists who wish to make photographs. Far from it! As I said, photography’s stock in the art world is probably at an all time high. Tate Modern has a full time photography curator, exhibitions attract record crowds and images sell for more money than they ever have. Great! But I still feel that a bit of that prejudice still exists. Photography that illustrates a concept is fine, but photography in and of itself in the eyes of the art world is the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives, allowed a seat at the top table, but only thrown a few scraps and then patted on the head and told to let the big boys get on with it. It’s an issue of identity – for too long we have let others determine who we are.

The problem I think is two fold: in the past we have allowed ourselves to be held up to the ‘traditional visual arts’ as a measuring stick, when in fact this rule of measure is not really the most suitable stick for photography to be measured against. It’s an obvious choice – but one I think ultimately restricts our individual creative possibilities. Of course this is partly down to the fact that photography was created when, in visual terms, painting was king, a king that wasn’t about to be usurped by a mechanical frivolity, a passing fad. Thankful photography has stuck around, but by following the existing models of the art world, where artists are lumped into schools, movements and worst of all forced to have a style etc., we have shirked the opportunity to be free to create as we wish to and control the destiny of photography. Of course the art world includes a far greater array of creative mediums, so some grouping together is inevitable. But all photographers use cameras, all are subject to the unique opportunities this affords as well as the limitations, and by dint of this, we are a group unto ourselves.

How many photographers agonize over their ‘style’ – wondering if it is ‘fresh’ or has ‘been seen before’, or if they in fact have one at all? We have allowed others to pigeonhole us according to their own inappropriate criteria. And once that label sticks it’s mighty hard to lose it, fore in the case of photography it seems to be almost impossible to alter how you work without raising howls of derision. The same type of thing happens in the commercial world too. While at times it is seen as the antithesis of the rarified art world, the commercial world has its own equally damaging set of descriptive terms: advertising photographer; editorial photographer, product photographer, what really is the point – other than to allow editors to organize their address books. Hmmm we’re doing a feature on Britain – get Martin Parr on the phone!

Of course if a photographer is happy to work in the same way over the course of their careers then I’m happy for them. Really I am. But I think there should be room for those of us that don’t. Why can’t a photographer change the way they photograph to suit their chosen subject matter. What is wrong with that? Surely it allows us to maximize the impact of our work – to really articulate our points of view, because after all, photography is a subjective medium and that subjectivity is malleable, it is complex like all things human. So why choose to stifle it?

I can fully understand the search for legitimacy as a creative medium that was felt by the earliest practitioners. But we now have history on our side – photography has stood the test of time. We need to assert our independence and establish our own rules and labels, or as I would prefer our own lack of them, after all chaos is good for creation! We must celebrate all that is unique about this medium, regardless of what we choose to photograph and unite as photographers. Not as artists, or artists-that-use-photography, but as creative people, as: photographers!

First published in Tonelit 1st Anniversary Edition

The Old Lady and Her Gatepost by John Bulmer

I first saw John Bulmer’s work in a copy of Hotshoe magazine a few years ago. While I liked all of the images featured in that issue, one in particular has stayed with me.

The image was made in the town of Nelson in Lancashire while Bulmer was on a commission for Town Magazine in 1960. Shot in black and white it shows us an old lady, in threadbare clothes and leather boots that look so heavy I wonder how her stick thin legs can lift them. She is hunched over, at her feet a bucket peeks from behind a wall; with a brush in her right hand she scrubs her gatepost.

Screen shot 2014-03-14 at 13.44.34©John Bulmer.

 If I were forced to list my top ten all time favorite photos, I think I would have to put this one on the list. I always think of it when I visit my hometown. I’m not really one for nostalgia, I’m sure the past was never as rosy as people like to make out – but when I think back to my childhood – my memories of where I grew up are distinctly different to what it is like now. Of course everywhere changes in one way or another, but I walk the streets of that town and am saddened by how little care people take of the place they live, the place that I lived. Many of the houses look uncared for, people dump unwanted furniture: beds, sofas, tables on street corners, gardens that were once filled with flowers have been concreted over – to be used as driveways, overflowing bins spill out onto the pavements and there are cars everywhere, far more than there used to be. There were always decent sized gaps between the cars so that my friends and I could play street cricket after school. Now you hardly ever see kids playing in the street. Anyway, that’s enough of the Wonder Years.

I just wonder why it is that some people seem to not care about, or take pride in the environment that they and others live in. Does it really take that much to consider those that live around you? Just think how nice a lot of places would be if all those that lived there took care of their small patch, just for the sake of others, if not for themselves. I guess it’s a reduced version of act local think global. And lets face it, as my grandmother used to say ‘soap, water and elbow grease don’t cost very much’. Which takes us back to that old lady in John Bulmer’s photo. She was out scrubbing her gatepost.

Image courtesy of John Bulmer

Agism in Photography

Why is ageism so prevalent in the photographic world? Why do emerging photographers have to be aged between 18 and 35, as so many competitions and initiatives demand? What is so critical about those years? Why does a persons’ work made within those ages require more attention than someone who is 10, 16, 39, 54 or 90?

It seems that, for those who run competitions and initiatives etc., youthfulness equals, and I hate this term so much I can feel the bile rising even now, freshness. When will it be realized that youth does not guarantee innovation! We, photographers, are supposed to exist in a creative world, where communication of a point of view, an idea, or a particular event, a story, what ever you want to call it, in an intelligent and eloquent manner is paramount. Yet, despite this, we persist in allowing rampant ageism to flourish. If a ninety year old picks up a camera for the first time and produces something wonderful, why should they be excluded from so much because of their age?

I always thought, or hoped that people within in the creative world would, more than any other group, lead by example in the fight against prejudice of any kind. It astounds me that collectively, people who are supposed to be the enlightened ones, people who should be fighting against prejudice, allow this to happen. Would we accept competitions etc. that excluded certain racial groups, or women?

Read this carefully: It is the work that matters. Get it.