I first heard about the exhibition in a story from ArtWeek LA. Here is the story: http://artweek.la/issue/october-7-2013/article/staking-claim-a-california-invitational
This post is more directly prompted by a wonderfully guided tour of the exhibit, given by a bright and knowledgeable MOPA curator. The show (I believe, but am unsure) ended a few days ago, but an impressive book is available from MOPA which shows all of the works. Here is a link to that. http://thephotobook.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/mopa-staking-claim-a-california-invitational/
The show is called “Staking Claims: A California Invitational.” In the promotional materials, as well as in ArtWeek L.A., it was called a “photographic arts” show; and the 16 artists represented were called “photographers.” .
Thus, not unreasonably, I expected to see photographs taken by photographers, with emphasis on California subject matter, or a California style. I have seen that style before at galleries in North County. But I expected to see even better and more stunning images. After all, this was an invitational, with an elaborate selection process involving consultations by the curator with photographers across California (and possibly beyond). Am sure these were done carefully, thoughtfully, and with much integrity.
But, I was surprised when I entered the “Staking Claims” show. Instead of California style photographs, by photographers, the show was short on anything identifiably California; there were many pieces which were decidedly not photographs (or where the photographs were incidental to the presentation); and many of the exhibitors were not photographers. A few were collectors, or assemblers, of other people’s photographs. Curators within a curated show?
Many people think it’s silly, and a time waster, these days, to try and define “photography” (or art). I admit to growing up stupid in Brooklyn (as John Travolta memorably depicted it), and in a working class neighborhood, with not much intentional art, soon to be demolished by one of Robert Moses’ bull dozers. But there was some art appreciation. I recall a friend’s mother boasting that her youngest child had just been accepted into a class for “artistic” children. It turned out (sadly, but still a little funny) to be “autistic,” not “artistic.” Would have made a great Emily Latella skit. (The term “autism” was already in use by the early 1940s).
Nonetheless, as my friend Kurt often says…ONWARD.
There were about twenty viewers attending the MOPA guided tour. I would not describe them as philistine or unsophisticated. After all, they were either members of MOPA or went out of their way on a beautiful spring-like day in San Diego to attend the tour.
Yet, I heard a lot of whispering and side bar conversations in the group, which reflected my own puzzlement. Amazingly, two or three intrepid, but tip toeing, folk actually asked” What makes this a California show? Are all these items really photographs? Is there a theme to this show? How many of these artists are actually photographers?
To her credit, the curator handled these questions with aplomb and respect. Her answers were thoughtful. The most interesting aspect of her replies was that she appeared genuinely puzzled that some of the viewers were puzzled. She was not putting on an act.
She made some interesting points about how diverse photography has become; how it pushes boundaries; about its integration with other arts, to become mixed media; its re-discovery of process; and, here is the key point, why it may not be suitable anymore to talk about “photography,” as such. I heard her to be saying that non photography was the theme of this photographic arts show
She is a bright and serious woman, so I withheld judgment. What I realized, or was reminded of, was that she and those puzzled viewers (myself included), occupy very different worlds. The curator, formally educated in photography and art, working for a top, urban museum, rubbing elbows all the time with other curators, high end art collectors, gallery owners, and art critics, and living in their echo chambers, have a view and taste that is distinctly different from (I believe) most of the rest of us; even most photographic artists.
Let me call them the 1% and the rest of us the other 99%; absolutely no left-right politics intended. Even though I want to keep learning and be stretched artistically, I still live on a very different plane than the curator.
As an economist, I was ready to call the 1% world in the photo arts an oligarchy, though not pejoratively. Economists and political scientists say oligarchy is a form of power where such power effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions, or influential associations, that act in complicity with, or at the whim of the oligarchy. Another non-poetic definition.
But the photographic arts oligarchy is different in one important respect from the ones economists talk about. It makes rules and defines what is worthy or not, but its central rule is that there are no rules. It eschews (even mocks) boundaries and definitions. It’s the other 99% that yearn for some structure, definition and standards. Sort of the economic definition of oligarchy turned on its head.
Go to MOPA. See some great photography (there is more than one show); and browse through the book if the show has ended.