Sunday, March 18, 2012

Race and Hip Hop

The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race

The readings for this week cover a lot of ground and ideas in regards to race, identity, and culture.  In his article The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race, Howard Winant points out two opposing, and problematic/reductive, views about race construction and formation and then offers an alternative to them. 

Beginning by writing about the history of race, Winant writes "before (roughly) World War II... race was still largely seen in Europe and North America (and elsewhere as well) as an essence, a natural phenomenon, whose meaning was fixed, as constant as a southern star."  (Winant, 51)

He introduces the concept of "race as an ideological construct," a position taken by "the prominent historian Barbara Fields."  In my own experience, this idea also circulates within a certain (primarily white) academic discussion of race.  Fields argues that the concept of race was created in response to certain social needs- namely, as a way to support and justify freedom and slavery.  However, Winant argues that "Fields effectively demonstrates the absurdity of many commonly held ideas about race.  But her position is so extreme that at best it can only account for the origins of race thinking, and then only in one social context."  (Winant, 53)  According to Winant, Fields ignores the ways in which race thinking changed in response to sociocultural differences and refuses to engage a more complicated understanding of race that is perhaps both based on ideological construction and on real social forces.  Fields suggests that we have full control over our current thinking about race, insinuating that a change in our ideological understanding of race would change the way race relations actually unfold.

She writes, "If race lives on today, it can do so only because we continue to create and recreate it in our social life, continue to verify it, and thus continue to need a social vocabulary that will allow us to make sense, not of what our ancestors did then, but of what we choose to do now."  (Winant, 54)

What would she make of our current state of institutionalized racism in America, and around the world?  Can it be changed simply by refusing to perpetuate the idea of race?  Where is the intersection between this kind of ideological thinking and the very real effects of race thinking, and racism, like the recent murder of Trayvon Martin?  (more info about Martin can be found in this video)  Or the inequality of the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex?

According to this article from AlterNet, "while people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. The prison population grew by 700 percent from 1970 to 2005, a rate that is outpacing crime and population rates. The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men." 

In response to the above assertion by Fields, Winant writes "one can only marvel at the ease with which she distinguishes the bad old slavery days of the past from the present, when 'we' anachronistically cling, as if for no reason, to the illusion that race retains any meaning.  We foolishly throw up our hands and acquiesce in race thinking, rather than...  doing what?  Denying the racially demarcated divisions in society?  Training ourselves to be 'color blind'?"  (Winant, 54)

He points out two failures of the "race as ideological construct argument":

"First, it fails to recognize the salience a social construct can develop over a half a millenium or more of diffusion, or should I say enforcement, as a fundamental principle of social organization and identity formation.  Second, and related, this approach fails to recognize that at the level of experience, of everyday life, race is a relatively impermeable part of our identities.  U.S. society is so thoroughly racialized that to be without racial identity is to be in danger of having no identity.  To be raceless is akin to being genderless."  (Winant, 55)

Clearly, whether or not you conceive of race (or gender, for that matter) as an ideological construct, it clearly has very real and very problematic effects in peoples' everyday experience.  Winant then continues to address race as an objective condition, pointing out the problems with the other extreme.  He states that "race in practice is often treated as an object fact: one simply is one's race; in the contemporary United States, we have five color-based racial categories: black, white, brown, yellow, and red.  This is problematic, indeed ridiculous, in numerous ways.  Nobody really belongs in these boxes; they are patently absurd reductions of human variation."  (Winant, 56).

Winant suggests a new critical theory of the concept of race with three conditions:

-It must apply to contemporary political relationships
-It must apply in an increasingly global context
-It must apply across historical time

He concludes by writing, "to our dismay, we may have to give up our familiar ways of thinking about race once more.  If so, there also may be some occasion for delight.  For it may be possible to glimpse yet another view of race in which the concept operates neither as a signifier of comprehensive identity nor of fundamental difference, both of which are patently absurd, but rather as a marker of the infinity of variations we humans hold as a common heritage and hope for the future."  (Winant, 61)

The proposition of a new critical theory of race, and the tension between ideology and lived experience, made me think of this poem by Letta Neely called "Crazy things white people say."



And this piece by Kit Yan, a poet whose writing and spoken word often focuses on issues of race and gender:



The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop



Hank Willis Thomas, Black Power, 2008, from the series "Branded"

Krista Thompson's article The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip Hop was wonderful to read and covered a lot of ground.  She begins with a description of a spectacular high school prom entrance, in which a young African American woman hired six thousand dollars worth of photographers, not to actually document the event, but to act like paparazzi and make her feel like a star as she was entering her prom, highlighting an importance placed on being seen, and more specifically, on being seen being seen, within young African American culture.  Thompson argues that this case may shed light on the visual culture of hip-hop and the importance it places on visibility and being seen.  This specific prom example, she says, "demonstrates that black youth go further than just emulating what they see in the image worlds of hip-hop, they also articulate hip-hop's language of visibility- especially the fascination in hip-hop with generating the optical effect of being seen, particularly through the display of light.  The young woman who organized the elaborate entrance, hiring professional photographers to line the red carpet, did so not to have pictures taken but to create the effect of being photographed."  (Thompson, 481)  This also demonstrated the importance hip-hop places on "the moment of being made into a representation and its optical effects."  (Thompson, 481)

Thompson also writes of how art historians, curators, and critics have attempted to link the visual effects of hip-hop with its music, using techniques such as "sampling, mixing, and remixing" or "cutting and scratching," implying a sampling from art history (among other things) in the creation of new works.   

Thompson writes extensively about the work of Kehinde Wiley and Luis Gispert.  She starts by writing about Wiley's canvas paintings of "young black men dressed in the street stylings of hip-hop- bubble jackets, hoodies, and baggy jeans- assuming poses derived from existing works of European art.  Wiley would find his subjects on the street, with a small video crew in tow, adding to the element of being seen being seen, and ask them to pose for him in his studio.  He sought out "young black men who command 'a certain type of power' as they stride through urban space."  (Thompson, 482)  Once in his studio, they would look through art books and find a pose from art history that they would like to emulate.  Wiley then floods them in light, photographs them, and paints from the resulting photographs.

Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Andries Stilte II, 2006

Kehinde Wiley, St. John the Baptist II, 2006

Kehinde Wiley, St. Sebastian II, 2006

Linking the rise of mainstream hip-hop to capitalism and materialism, Thompson writes, "in the 1980s, as hip-hop gained visibility and commercial success nationally and globally, rappers increasingly turned their attention from politics to pleasure, a focus on earthly and bodily gratification, hedonism, and even nihilism."  (Thompson, 483)  Thompson attributes much of the focus on material culture to hip-hop coming out of the Southern United States, such as the Hot Boys, Ludacris, Lil Jon, and Soulja Boy, whose music was known as bounce or bass music, identified by its throbbing baseline.  Thompson writes, "visual manifestations of the genre- in videos, album covers, and print media- depicted an equally loud style and lifestyle, one that can be summed up in one word- 'bling!'"  (Thompson, 483)

The concept of bling, and the associations of wealth and power through the surface quality of light, is integral to this article.  The Oxford Dictionary Online defines bling as follows:  expensive, ostentatious clothing and jewelry, or the wearing of them.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "the expression appears to 'represent the visual effects of light being reflected on precious stones and metals.'" (Thompson, 483).  More simply, it refers to the imaginary sound of light hitting a shiny surface such as a diamond.  


Thompson writes, "bling calls attention to the moment when the commodity displays its opulence in the visual field, when it reflects a shimmering light from its luminous surface.  It captures the moment, so central in contemporary hip-hop, when consumption becomes conspicuous."  (Thompson, 483)


Interestingly, she writes about the state between hyper visibility and invisibility created by this phenomenon, another idea integral to the article, which she will eventually tie to black identity and black subjectivity. 


Thompson writes about how oil paint allowed painters to fully depict the surface shine of objects in a way they had not been able to prior.  In Hans Holbein the Younger's painting The Ambassadors uses shine in an interesting way, speaking both to power and prestige as well as to the inevitability of death and the fragility of things, as represented by the skull in the foreground.  Thompson states that the only surface in the painting not rendered with a shine is the white skin of the men, which sets up a contrast for her later discussions of the shine of black skin as a way to reduce people to objects or commodities.  


Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

Of this painting, Thompson writes, "the painting may be seen as an early art historical precedent of the fashioning of power and prestige through  material possessions, among them the work of art.  Holbein's anamorphic depiction of a skull in the foreground of the painting, however, also draws attention to what the world of appearance hides from view: the inevitability of death, the fragility of things."  (Thompson, 485)

By depicting objects with shine, Dutch painters helped firmly cement objects as commodities "in the face of ethical debates about consumption." (Thompson, 486)  Similarly, this treatment of light also made their white, male patrons appear ultra human, often taking on a quality of representation typically used for saints or religious figures, rendering them as being in the body but not of it.  In this way, the use of light, and shine, had implications far beyond simple representation. 

Thompson writes about an ad published in the popular hip-hop magazine vibe in 2000 that shows a version of the painting Portrait of King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, but the king's jewels have been replaced with a rapper's signature gold chains and diamond jewelry, "star-studded enlargements of the jewels he wears in the Holbein painting."  (Thompson, 487)  This ad suggests that "hip-hop is an extension of a much longer history of refashioning status and prestige through shiny jewels, tactile surfaces, and sumptuous goods."  (Thompson, 487)

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of King Henry VIII, 1536

The advertisement does not simply reproduce the painting, but instead reverses it.  Thompson writes, "the advertisement could literally be seen as a distorted mirror image, reflected through the logic of the visual in hip-hop.  In the spirit of Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, the embellished and reversed version of the painting draws attention to the king's bling, making the ruler's excesses more visible on the surface of the image."  (Thompson, 488)

Returning to the aesthetics of shine, specifically in relation to skin, Thompson expands upon the way in which shine denotes objecthood.  In regard to the painting The Ambassadors, she writes, "in marked contrast to the way the ambassadors' skins escaped representational inscription as 'object[s] in the midst of other objects,' as expressed by Frantz Fanon, the bodies of persons defined as black not only literally circulated within a global economy as commodities but also were visually defined as such through the visual logic of surfacism and the aesthetics of shine."  (Thompson, 488)

She continues to expand upon this idea, stating that the aesthetic treatment of black skin was integral to reducing African Americans to objects during slavery.  Slave traders would often grease the body of enslaved Africans to make them shine before they were put up to sell, and often, buyers would choose their slaves based on visuals alone.  The shine helped to reduce the slaves to objects, as opposed to humans, and was also in line with the connection between visual appearance and worth. 

Thompson writes, "bodily shine helped to increase slaves' worth, to heighten their assimilation and visual verisimilitude to the world of objects.  In this way, the reflective surface of the black body- what might be characterized as the visual production of the slave sublime- served to blind buyers, if you will, to the slave's humanity.  It sealed them, as Fanon so succinctly described it, 'in crushing objecthood.'"  (Thompson, 489)

Thompson engages the issue of visibility and the problem with gaining information from a visual surface examination.  She begins to suggest that high focus on being seen and on objects of value among hip-hop culture may actually be so blindingly visible that it furthers the objectification of black experience (she doesn't actually ask this question outright until the end of the article, but she starts hinting at the problems, or complications, of such overt visibility throughout her writing).  She writes, "inherent in hip-hop's surface visual economy is a critical reflection on how observing the surface appearance of things has been an obstacle to certain ways of seeing, a fact of visibility's limits that, historically, people of African descent have long experienced."  (Thompson, 489)

Thompson returns to Wiley and his portraits made of young African American men posing in poses taken from European painting.  "Wiley recognized that '[t]he history of painting has been the illusion of those [powerful] men trying to position themselves in fields of power that are very defined and codified as a type of vocabulary that's evolved over time...'  The painter scripted black urban youth into this history in order to ripple its codified visual field."  Wiley, she notes, "took care to represent his black male subjects in such a way that they appear both within yet outside these defined vocabularies."  (Thompson, 490)  Wiley paid close attention to the use of light in European paintings to give their sitters a larger than life, other worldly quality, which he also employed in his paintings of young black men.

Some paintings by Rembrandt:

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait as a young man, 1629-31

Just for fun, one of my favorite Rembrandts, and my photo of it, taken at the Harvard Art Museum in 2008:

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of an Old Man, 1632


Thompson writes, "in thinking about how to make paintings 'about the system of painting,' he recognized that the 'light [h]ad to be not only heightened but pointed to as a tool,'" which can be clearly seen in his paintings. 

Kehinde Wiley, Female Prophet Anne, 2003
The halo-like quality behind the young man in Female Prophet Anne, as well as the beautiful, dramatic light on his head, neck, and arms further the other-worldly like quality of his subjects.  Engaging with hip-hop music videos and the way they image "male prestige not only through material possessions but also through the shiny economy of black female skin, a projection of male power that, at its worst, was sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic."  (Thompson, 494)

His subjects sometimes chose to assume poses of women, and Wiley was also interested in how they were essentially cross-dressing for the painting, which added another layer to their finely tuned performance of masculinity.

Thompson writes, "his almost homoerotic encounters with his potential models on the streets are the artist's flirtation with these representations of black masculinity, his attempt to possess and depose hip-hop's visual construction of masculinity.  That his subjects often assume the poses of female figures or take female names- that they, in effect, cross-dress by taking on personas in art history- further destabilizes the cool pose of hip-hop's masculinity."  (Thompson, 494-95)


Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Andries Stilte, 2005

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Andries Stilte as a Standard Bearer, 1640

Installation view of Wiley's paintings
Wiley is also keenly aware of how framing and presentation affect the interpretation of a work, namely by giving it importance and designating it as something worthy of being looked at and beheld.  He uses elaborate frames, as can be seen above in the installation shot.  Thompson writes, "Wiley's paintings as such critique picturing practices, or what might be described in the art world as 'enframing,' the process by which certain subjects and practices are reified as powerful through art, forestalling other representational possibilities or forms of revealing."  (Thompson, 493)

Thompson asks several poignant questions towards the end of her writing about Wiley: "do conceptualizations of the sound of light, buolding on Moten, highlight alternative formulations of black subjectivity and redefinitions of value?   Might Wiley's portrait of light-reflecting diamonds and the visual world of bling point to what might be considered the material value of light in black urban practices?  By this I mean: Is it possible that black bodily shine, once the most explicit visual manifestation of the commodity, now has its own material value?"  (Thompson, 496)

Thompson writes of Luis Gispert's cheerleaders.  Gispert "creates artwork that speaks of and through the hypervisible language of hip-hop culture to reflect on the history of art and contemporary pop culture representations of blackness."  (Thompson, 497)  Gispert's cheerleader photographs depict cheerleaders of various ethnic backgrounds "sporting the accoutrements of bling."  Wiley's paintings depicted his subjects somewhat removed from gravity and floating in space, as he did not fully paint the legs of his subjects, but Gispert takes it even further and depicts his subjects against a green background like that used in video to place the subject into any context.  "Gispert, by placing figures against a monochrome bright green backdrop, literally pulls the ground from the representation, highlighting the organizing structure, the erasive illusion, of oil painting."  (Thompson, 497)

Luis Gispert, Untitled (Girls with Ball), 2000

Luis Gispert, Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess), 2000

Of Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess), Thompson writes, "the figure's pose is also reminiscent of other religious and pop cultural representations of levitating figures.  One could characterize the bejeweled female cheerleader as a sacred embodiment of hip-hop's secular culture, one who also brings the heavenly figures of Baroque religious paintings down to earth.  But Gispert's Baroque juxtapositions, like Wiley's, are not simply a contemporary restaging of an art historical representational script but rather a Brechtian unveiling of of the visual effect of canonized modes of artistic production."  (Thompson, 497)

Gispert is interested in the illusion of gravity.  In Untitled (Girls with Ball), two girls appear to be jumping to reach a bowling ball that has the word "bling" engraved on it, as well as the word "mirage."  The bowling ball is the focal point of the composition, and the image seems to be in defiance of gravity, calling attention to the means of producing a visual illusion. 

Thompson also talks about the work of Paul Pfeiffer, whose images also show black men in rapturous light, but ultimately, they seem "weighed to the ground, unable to escape their earthly and bodily confines."

Paul Pfeiffer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 2004

Thompson also references the work of Hank Willis Thomas, a "photo conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to identity, history, and popular culture."  (Thomas's website bio)

In his image Branded Head, Thomas depicts a black male head that has literally been branded with the Nike symbol.  "Glowing with the shine of sweat, depicted in the heat of harsh light, the photograph literally focuses on the shiny surface of the black body as the site of objecthood...  In Thomas's photograph, however, the sweating black body appears unable to transcend its status as object, much like Pfeiffer's and Gispert's figures, which, despite being based on poses and pictures of transfiguration, remain confined to the material world."  (Thompson, 499) 

Work by Hank Willis Thomas:






Thompson ends her article with several interesting, and poignant, questions, that tie together her investigation:


"What possibilities of black subjectivity lie att he interstices of hypervisibility and disappearance?  Might the hypervisibility of bling be another instance of the disappearance of the black subject, a new form of emblazoned invisibility?  Wiley, Gispert, and the new producers of popular images of hip-hop capture the complexities of this contemporary moment of hyperblackness and the new politics of representation and aesthetic practices that it brings to light."  (Thompson, 501-502)


Multiculturalism, token shows, and postblackness

These readings were timed perfectly with our visit from Lorraine O'Grady.  I found her discussions of being postblack to be really interesting, though hearing her struggles (and the struggles of other people of color) to be recognized within the art world was, while not news to anyone, depressing.  It was interesting to have a conversation with her about the 1980's show at the MCA and how it reclaims a certain part of the forgotten culture, but of course not all of it, and it favors a reclamation of queer artists rather than artists of color.  

The New York Times article "Beyond Multiculturalism, Freedom?" raised interesting questions about artists working with issues of racial, sexual, and ethnic identity.  Multiculturalism, it claimed, "carved out discrete areas of high visibility but kept those areas self-contained."  On the one hand, artists of any minority rally for inclusion, often only to find themselves in shows or spaces defined by their identity.  The article raised an interesting question:  "the real question may boil down to a personal one: what, after all, can identity politics really be expected to mean, in any gut-level, go-for-broke sense, to an art establishment that is overwhelmingly white and middle class?  For most of its members, race and class are a comfortable given, not a problem." 


For artists interested in working through and around constructs of identity, how to engage with the art world of course raises a tricky problem.  The article ends hopefully:  "one can envision- this is a hope, not a prediction- individual artists, many of them, pushing beyond multiculturalism's territorial constraints, moving freely among identities and affiliations, deciding to be both insiders and outsiders.  This isn't just a 'black' story or a 'white' story; it's a 'people' story, a story about freedom of choice.  Everyone has a tremendous stake in the outcome.  It could produce a new American art on a truly cosmopolitan model and render contingent, culture-war like labels like postblack and postethnic obsolete." 


While writing this blog post I came across an article about the exhibition 30 Americans, which is related to our readings and is worth a look. 


And another artist worth a look who I didn't manage to write about, but whose work came to mind throughout the readings:  Todd Pavlisko


And some work by Triiibe, who also came to mind throughout these readings, though they do not deal with race explicitly in most of their work.  The use of art history and elaborate performance and staging made me think of their work many times.







And a few more articles I came across: As Black as We Wish to Be (NY Times), A Painful (yet familiar) Ritual (Huff Post), Re-Nigging on the Promises, #JusticeforTrayvon (The Crunk Feminist Collective).



Sunday, March 11, 2012

Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique

In Mark Reinhardt's introduction to Beautiful Suffering, he addresses the challenge of representing images of pain and human suffering and questions what end this representation serves.

The article begins, interestingly, with a black photograph, representative of images either not taken or not shown.  It is particularly interesting to think about what images were and were not allowed to be seen in American media outlets during this last decade of war.  Reinhardt mentions that photographs of dead American soldiers were especially absent, suggesting that images do hold significant power to sway public opinion, despite arguments that we as viewers are immune to and unaffected by photographs. 

There was a man in my neighborhood in Boston who lost his son in the war, and partially in response to this lack of visibility, created an elaborate memorial on his pickup truck with a flag-draped casket, political signs, and many pairs of combat boots.  He drove this truck around, seemingly all of the time, and often parked it in public places, calling attention to the unrepresented loss of American soldiers.  Here is a bit more about his story and the truck (though the photo does not show it fully decorated).  It was amazing how effective this was, as his truck became a recognized part of the community.  I often saw it on my way to the bus, out to get coffee, etc- moments when I was simply going about my day and not watching the news or intentionally engaging with thoughts of the war. 



The idea of what is or is not permissible to photograph and distribute, and the reasoning behind these decisions, is at the crux of this article. 

In addition to a dearth of images of dead American soldiers, Reinhardt also wrote of a lack of images that showed the suffering of Iraqi citizens.  In reference to a blank image, he writes, "this 'image' stands in for the reluctance of the news of the United States' media- widely noted by critics of the American occupation of Iraq- to present photographs that would reveal the death and violence that the invasion of 2003 visited upon ordinary Iraqis.  It is not that such photographs were never taken, but that American media outlets typically declined to show them, even when they were available."  (Reinhardt, 15)

This inquiry brought to mind the work of Nina Berman, whose project "Marine wedding," in which she photographed Marine Sgt. Ty Ziegel who "was seriously wounded by a suicide car bomber while serving in Iraq."  Her images document his return home and his relationship with his fiance, who he married and then later divorced.

I remember being very affected by these images the first time I saw them.  It is a very different engagement to see the effects of the war on a human life than it is to simply hear about them or read a description of them.  Yet, after reading this article, I have reservations about even posting them here.  What is the proper engagement with this work?  How can we, as viewers who will likely never go through what Ziegel went through, sufficiently acknowledge these images?  Are they a call to action?  A call for awareness?  Simply one person's difficult story?  Is the re-posting of these images simply "adding insult- another kind of injury- to the injury that is pictured?"  (Reinhardt, 14)  What kind of response, exactly, do/should these photographs inspire in us as viewers?






Granted, the dynamic of consent in these images is different from photographs such as Nachtwey's "Sudan," as Ziegel clearly consented to sharing his story visually, well after the moment of initial injury or suffering. 

Reinhardt questions whether our difficulty in defining what should or should not be shown, and to what end, is simply because of the severity of what is being pictured or if it has more to do with the very fundamental nature of representation itself.  Is it possible to make a photograph of pain or suffering, which by its very nature must be aestheticized on some level, that functions appropriately, provoking a productive response rather than a self-congratulating empathetic response?  Or that doesn't simply extend the suffering in a way that is humiliating to the people in the photographs?

Reinhardt writes about the photographs taken of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib and how the camera functioned not only as a way to document abuse, but as an actual tool of torture.  The act of photographing was a part of the torture and humiliation being carried out.  He points out that of course torture could have, and did, exist without beyond documented.  The photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib are even more horrifying in that their making was integral to the torture, and the torture to their making. 

Reinhardt writes, "torture in prisons could, of course, have been carried out without the aid of photography, as it has been on countless other occasions throughout history, but the cameras that were, in this instance, ubiquitous did not merely record what happened: they were instruments used to abuse and humiliate prisoners.  Nor was that use exhausted in the initial encounter.  In many pictures, the faces of the tortured stare out at us in a moment not only of fear and pain but also of shame, as we, by looking, prolong the shaming.  Viewing and disseminating these pictures thus complete the rituals of degradation, first enacted in the prison."  (Reinhardt, 16)

Of course I remember seeing all of these images when they were first released, but when I did a quick google search for photos to post in this blog, I was horrified all over again by how many of these images exist, and how readily available they are.  I actually do not think I will post any here in this blog, on account of them being awful and most people having already seen them.  Somehow it seems like an unnecessary insult to post them all over again for an audience who is already familiar with their horror.  It was interesting how Reinhardt tied the outrage over Abu Ghraib to the fact that people could see the torture being carried out, and that later accounts of even worse that were not accompanied by images did not inspire the same outrage.  Is it true that we (the majority of Americans who have not witnessed war directly) need to see the effects of war and torture to believe it is happening?  And then the question remains: what is an appropriate response? 

Reinhardt also addresses the issue of aestheticizing a moment of pain or suffering at all, especially when appreciating something aesthetically has often been linked to beautiful imagery, such as still lives or landscapes. 

"When photographers approach real human beings in their moment of affliction, however, things may get trickier.  If such a circumstance becomes the occasion to produce an image offering pleasure, and only pleasure, through an exclusive focus on the work's formal or internal properties- so that not only the causes of and responsibility for suffering but also its meaning and implications are wholly obscured while being used as resources for gratification- then the aestheticizing work of photography would obviously be an especially unproductive, indeed pernicious, response to the world's calamities and injustices."  (Reinhardt, 21)

Reinhardt continues to question whether most viewers believe that the formal qualities of an image prevent viewers from engaging critically with its content, suggesting that photographs can be simultaneously formal and socially powerful.   

He references James Nachtwey's photographs, specifically "Sudan."  Reinhardt writes, "the formal satisfactions- if one may speak that way of a picture that is so difficult, indeed excruciating, to look at- are directly reliant on the bodily ravages and contortions that signal the man's afflication."  (Reinhardt, 22)  He also questions whether this image is effective to inspire social change- is it possible to see this person as a fellow human or do we see him reduced simply to his condition?  Further, do we feel that we have appropriately acknowledged the situation simply by feeling empathy?  Ultimately, no amount of empathy alone (without action) could actually help people who are suffering, which raises questions, again, about what an appropriate response would be to such an image.  



The issue of text's role in relation to photographs of this kind is raised again.  Is text a more effective way to tell a story than an image?  Can an image ever actually transmit enough necessary information to inspire action and not simply empathy? 

Reinhardt writes that "Sudan" exemplifies a "'too-thin' and confused humanitarianism, in which the 'intention is to acknowledge the outcast as a human being' while the 'effect is to treat the human being as an outcast.'"  (Reinhardt, 32)

These images, and this discussion, called to mind Nick Nixon's photo series People with AIDS, which he made relatively early in the epidemic.  Accompanied by text written by his wife Bebe, the project shares photographs and information from the last few months of each of the subjects' lives.  To sit with the book, to read the stories and look at all of the pictures, is heart-wrenching.  Again, the context differs from war photography in several ways, but importantly in the issue of consent.  Nixon was photographing people during the moments of their suffering, but the subjects were certainly willing participants in their suffering being documented and seen.  This work was met with great criticism and controversy when it was first shown, particularly within the gay community, who were in the midst of experiencing an enormous loss.  It is an interesting dilemma to think of how to represent such a tragedy.  Did it inspire action to show the devastation of the disease that was taking place in a very real way?  What response did this work hope to inspire?  Does the role of the maker to the subject affect our reading?  Certainly, in this particular case, many people thought that it did, and still does, affect the work and by extension, the desired response to the work. 

Unfortunately I don't think there are easy answers to any of these questions.  







Reinhardt writes about several different photographic responses to the 9/11 attacks, contrasting the work of Joel Meyerowitz with Thomas Ruff. 

Joel Meyerowitz, The base of the North Tower, looking east toward the Woolworth Building (Fall 2001)


Thomas Ruff, jpeg ny01

Neither of the works actually depict human bodies or discernable suffering, though Meyerowitz's was clearly taken after the initial attack or moment of tragedy, while Ruff's shows the moment in which people were actually dying inside of the building, though we cannot see them.  Reinhardt argues, though, that Ruff's photograph is effective partially because it calls attention to its own aesthetics and uses those aesthetics to make the viewer engage more critically with the representation of tragedy or suffering.

"It is precisely through its aesthetic strategies, however, that this remarkable photograph invites both critical engagement and a kind of metacritical reflection on the mass-mediated character of disaster, the fascination such spectacles tend to inspire, and the confidence they tend to invite in their reality- a confidence undermined by the image's flagrant distortions."  (Reinhardt, 27)

The work of artists Curtis Mann and Krista Wortendyke also engages with how we experience tragedy or war through images and the media.  I know everyone is familiar with this work but I'll post a few examples:

Curtis Mann

Curtis Mann

Curtis Mann
Krista Wortendyke

Krista Wortendyke

Krista Wortendyke

Reinhardt seems drawn to work that actively acknowledges its own aesthetics, or perhaps questions its own aesthetics, as it raises questions about the very nature of representation.  The Ruff photograph, as well as Mann's and Wortendyke's work, certainly do this. 

Before closing, Reinhardt cites a few more examples of work he feels engages these issues (work by Shimon Attie, Alfredo Jaar, and Alan Schechner).  All of these artists interestingly engage issues of history and representation, though it does not feel necessary for the sake of this blog post to summarize each one.  

In addition to ethical issues regarding what a photographer chooses to represent, and in what way, Reinhardt adds another layer to the discussion by addressing the complexities that are inherently a part of photographic representation as a medium.