Photography as Art: Be Careful What You Wish For


A Print of Someone Else’s Art. (Not in Show, but Exemplary)

I first heard about the exhibition in a story from ArtWeek LA.  Here is the story:

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.   

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?

scripps (1)

A Non Photograph (Not in Show but Exemplary)

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.


2 thoughts on “Photography as Art: Be Careful What You Wish For

  1. Gerry O'Keefe

    I had a life changing experience at that Musée de Picasso in Barcelona that seems appropriate to share.

    I went in thinking Picasso was a charlatan who had fooled smart people into adoring art that was primitive and pointless. Cubism, in particular, I found insulting.

    So I wandered through and extraordinary chronological exhibit that showed Picasso’s evolution from a gifted “classical” painter through his abstractions.

    Here’s the mind blower: cubism resulted from Picasso’s exposure to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and it’s colliery the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Hold your Breaking Bad riffs. Heisenberg used the mathematics of relativity to prove that at any given instant of time an electron could occupy any of an infinite locations around an atom. One can’t be certain where it is at any moment.

    Picasso’s genius was to show the visual manifestations of these mathematics through Cubism. His painting evoked to show a subject from multiple points of view in a single rnedition. Whoa.

    Ever since, I’ve tread carefully judging the merits of “art.” I ask a lot of questions about context before I deciding what I think.

    Now, I often end up nowhere in this exploration: 100 percent perplexed about what the idea is that an artist is attempting to communicate. But I do give the benefit of the doubt at the start.

    When I read your piece, Irv, I fully related to your feelings of confusion. But I also wondered if your docent/curator was doing an adequate job conveying context. Human nature can be impatient with those appearing “not to get it” especially when it’s threatening to a status elite. My dad referred to folks like this as “educated beyond their intelligence.” This was always fair, but it did (and does) make me chuckle.


    1. Irv Lefberg Post author

      Hi Gerry,

      Great comment. I wasn’t even aware of typos till you mentioned them. Substance completely trumped form, the way Seahawks demolished Broncos. 

      You make great points about (1) Picasso’s early career (and how it might influence our view of cubism and his later work and (2) the importance of context. In fact the latter – the story of how the works came about – was explicitly discussed during the Tour, with the curator.

      I recall that when I first became aware of Picasso, I was skeptical. I asked myself, is he a “real” artist; “or is he just trying to cover up the fact that he can’t “draw” by doing this weird stuff?” So, I checked him out. I viewed some of his early work, which looked like that of a “real artist,” and that changed my view. I said to myself, “OK, I get it, he can do great realistic work if he wants to, but he made a decision to do this weird stuff, so there must be something to it.” That pause, made me do some more research on “context,” and caused me to look very differently at his work, to understand what he was doing. I eventually did that, and did a 180 degree turn. I love his work today, and I absolutely see not only what he was trying to do, but I experience it as great, beautiful art, that required a huge amount of talent. And it stands alone as great art, for me, even without the story.

      But, I haven’t had that same experience with all art which I initially thought was weird, a hoax, or a con. Warhol Soup Cans, for example. I did the same there – went back and looked at Warhol’s early work. My reaction was “ehh” – “some decent comic book style illustration, not as good as my Superman comics.” I even read a story about how the Soup Cans were conceived, and I thought there really wasn’t much to the story than “hey, lets do something different funky and funky that will shake up the establishment.” Of course by then, Picasso, and other great abstract expressionists, were already in the establishment. So what were the Soup Cans adding? I agree with one of my photographer friends who says that “the Soup Cans are the greatest art hoax of (at least ) the 20th century.” And, I (still) don’t think it required much talent to create that work.

      Now – for the “context” part, as you called it, and the curator. One of the people on the MOPA Tour actually said (am paraphrasing): “This show doesn’t seem to really be about the images, but about the story behind them – i.e., why the “photographer” produced this work, what he was trying to say, and how he did it (process).” “The story (context)”, she said, “is more important than the piece.” “That bothers me” “And I don’t even believe most of these stories.” “And, I don’t even think it takes much talent to do most of these works,”

      Whoa!! I agreed with most of that. And all of that is different from Picasso, I think. I experienced the Soup Cans as a hoax the first time I saw it, and still do. I thought back then, it didn’t evidence talent, and I still do. I think most of the pieces in the MOPA show were better, and marginally more authentic, but still not great art (or photography), to me.

      Also, very insightful question about whether or not the curator was making the effort to explain context. Actually she made a major effort to do that. So much so, that it evoked the question” Is this show about the works, or about the stories behind them?”

      Two differences, I think, between the MOPA pieces and Picasso: (1) the stories/context behind most of the MOPA show pieces were a lot less interesting than the Picasso (Einstein/Heiseberg) story. Actually, they are trivial in comparison. And (2) the Picasso work stands on its own (certainly today), as visually compelling; even w/o knowing the context. I would be flabbergasted if any of the work in the MOPA show will be highly compelling on their own after the passage of time. Except perhaps a couple of pieces that were more traditional and realistic, which I thought were exquisite.
      Great discussion.



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