Thursday, November 15, 2007

in seeming contradiction and in a chase for beauty

I have been in an ongoing dialogue with a mentor of mine concerning the nature of photography and the responsibility of the artist. This is a portion of said dialogue which stemmed out of our reactions to the Richard Prince exhibit at the Guggenheim and Kara Walker's exhibit at the Whitney.

To begin to answer your questions because these are issues to which I have given a great deal of thought and most likely will continue to do throughout my life as they always need re-examining:

1. I begrudge what I see as Prince's white universal given the context of the show - I do not mind that it is distinctly white I mind that it is not consciously white. I don't think work needs to be explicitly political or didactic - I want things to be beautiful as much as I want them to be smart - but the way Prince leaves race hovering almost imperceptibly in the background feels insulting at best.

2. Moreover - have you ever read Langston Hughes' "Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"? He addresses these issues and I have always found that essay particularly inspiring - not without a hint of irony however given the closeted nature of his male-male sexual relations. In any case, I don't think that black artists have some sort of moral imperative or responsibility to create didactic art or anti-racist propaganda. I would certainly hope that you wouldn't situate me in that camp. I strive to create things of beauty that often elicit exploration of issues considered to be political....let me put this a different way. I think some of the difficulty I have had in trying to explain my work has come from the fact that I have been making a separation between emotion and intellect. This separation is artificial. Take my pictures of Mik for example - I photograph him because I find him remarkable, one of the most beautiful people I have ever seen. On an intellectual level - I know the two-sex model to be a construction, but I've seen and known many trannies before and not felt the urge to photograph them. It is my attraction to Mik that inspires my pictures not some desire to educate people on gender fluctuations. A million years from now, I would hope they still stand as strong images, inspired pictures taken by a lover - no matter what the current belief system is. I aspire to be like James Baldwin - the lush beauty of his prose is unparalleled and yet he was sharply political. I don't see any contradiction in that. Furthermore, I think that if you hit people with emotion, well crafted explorations of the complexity of human experience this is what moves people, keeps us connected. I don't want to teach anyone a moral lesson or show them that queers and blacks are people too. I would like people to first enjoy my pictures and then hopefully think about them and whatever my images may or may not mean to them is fine by me. Yes - I often have a point but I just as frequently take a picture because it is pleasurable to me, because I want to see what something looks like photographed.

Also - I think that being a person of color or a queer or working class or whatever will inform a persons work and they shouldn't run from it however it comes out. The best work is honest work I think. Whether it is didactic or not in my world is irrelevant. I just think that denying one's subject position is poison to an artist as it results in work that is sterile and detached. I think in your choice of subjects and the dignity with which you photograph them speaks volumes about you as a person - making a beautiful picture of someone that is not considered beautiful can be a strongly political act but at the end of the day we both want to make images that outlast whatever political relevance they may have, no? I am thinking now of a novel like "The Well of Loneliness" - what an important historical document but what a chore to read - I would never want someone to assess my work in that manner and I don't think you would either. Our thinking may be more in line than you realize...

You are right in your observation that these beliefs exist and they do merit additional exploration for sure. I have experienced it personally during my poetry performances it is often only during my pieces that are explicitly about "the black experience" that I receive hoots and hollers from brown folk and I do find that sad.

I would love to discuss these issues further if you have the time. I have to finish getting ready to leave the house now.

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