The End of Taste

I just got through reading Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which was suggested quite a while ago by Conscientious in his post on A Photo Editor's post on our post on a Salon post about “unliterary” and “literary” audiences. (Circularity, thy name is blogs.)

It’s a genuinely fascinating read — much more so than I would have guessed, since I have relatively little interest in music to begin with, and no interest at all in Celine Dion. What I was expecting is an attempt to make sense of “low” tastes from the perspective of “elite” taste. And the book certainly does deliver that. But what is also there, and what is even more interesting, is how thoroughly the book grounds its explanation of Celine Dion in class and ethnicity.

Part of this is going into Dion’s background, and into the demographics of her listeners — in essence, there are aspects of her music that would seem appropriate to US audiences in a black musician or in a country singer, but which can seem out of place in a musician hailing from the “null set” of Quebec, even though they’re present in Dion for much the same reasons.

But the second and even more interesting part is his discussion of schmaltz, which he identifies as more or less constituting Dion’s musical genre. Schmaltz, Wilson explains, has its roots in the contributions of immigrants to American music and theater (e.g., Irish nostalgia, Italian operatic melodrama), and derives its perishability in part from the process of assimilation.

Remember that “white” is a moving target: ethnic groups such as the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Portuguese, fancophones, etcetera, eventually became “white,” but initially, to their British-descended neighbors, they were not. A genealogy of American schmaltz would probably track neither-black-nor-white cultures through decades of semi-assimilation. (p. 54)

Schmaltz…is never purely escapist: it is not just cathartic but socially reinforcing, a vicarious exposure to both the grandest rewards of adhering to norms and their necessary price. This makes it especially vulnerable to becoming dated: the outer boundaries of extreme conformity, of uncontroversial public ecstasy and despair, are ever-mobile. Schmaltz is an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived, which social change can pitilessly revise. And then it becomes shameful, the way elites of the late nineteenth century felt when they wondered what their poor ignorant forebears ever heard in light Italian opera. Likewise, as a specialization of liminal immigrants in America, it can become a holdover from a time “before we were white,” perhaps dotingly memorialized, but embarrassing head-on. (p. 61)

Wilson also discusses the increasingly bifurcated musical production and consumption of the upper and lower classes in the US, starting from a comparatively mixed/unified cultural landscape and ending in one where there are sharp divisions between what people of different classes are expected to know and enjoy:

Through most of [the 19th century] opera was popular music too, sung on the same programs as parlor songs and beloved among both high and low economic classes in English translation…Operatic songs, full of melodrama and romance, were sung alongside parlor songs at home and parlor songs would be dropped into productions of operas (often when rowdily participatory nineteenth-century audiences yelled out for them). Swedish soprano Jenny Lind’s first mid-century American tour, sponsored by P. T. Barnum, was perhaps the first “blockbuster” event in American pop culture, and Lind would sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” between Mozart and hymns…The same held true for passages of Shakespeare, another popular nineteenth-century commodity. It was only in the later 1800s that a consolidating upper class became wealthy and populous enough to shut out popular treatments of classics in the name of “culture” and “standards,” by building ritzy exclusive opera houses, condemning English translations, and turning against “light” Italian opera in favor of “high” German opera. This brought to an end the mixed programs of Shakespeare, opera, melodrama, parlor song, comedy, freak shows and acrobats typical of the earlier nineteenth-century stage. As Walt Whitman, an enormous Italian-opera fan, put it in 1871’s Democratic Vistas, with “this word Culture, or what it has come to represent, we find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy,” meaning the snobs and aristocrats of old Europe. (p. 56)

As Wilson explains, Dion “aspires to the highbrow culture of a half-century ago,” in terms both of musical styling and of symbols used in her performances. And the tacky, schmaltzy nature of her music, its datedness, is not just about being out of sync with better contemporaneous music — it has ethnic and socio-economic implications. Wilson attributes Dion’s polarizing tendency to the fact that she taps into this kind of “before we were white” schmaltz material without appearing to middle American listeners as an ethnic performer. That pastward orientation is also in a sense a democratic orientation — although not necessarily a progressive or positive one: “[Dion] stinks of democracy, mingled with the odors of designer perfumes and of dollars, Euros, and yen.”

I have a hard time not jumping from this to photography — but I also have a hard time pinning down on exactly what terms to set up the comparison. Photography differs substantially from music in terms of its age as a medium and how its producers and audiences think about themselves. And while race and ethnicity certainly have their own (sometimes complex) histories in photography, they’re not really analogous to what Wilson is describing about the history of music.

What does stand out for me is the association of perceived illegitimacy with historical displacement/datedness, and the increasing isolation and class-segregation of production and consumption. These things are certainly hallmarks of photography over the last half-century or longer. (And of course photography has always been a medium defined by anxiety regarding novelty and originality.)

And I suppose these things might go some way toward explaining why I (as something of a class outsider or outlier) tend to gravitate toward photography of the past — up to around 60’s and 70’s, about a half century ago. The ease of my appreciation diminishes as art photography is fully adopted into the academic world and as the production and consumption of art photography becomes more and more the province of the rich.

Now, I usually chalk this up to my near-total lack of formal training of any kind touching on art — which is certainly not wrong, but maybe it’s not complete either. Quite possibly I’m drawn to photography’s past not just because I never got an introductory course on it, but because I relate to some aspects of the medium better before it was “white.”

I suppose that begs the question, since we’re on an analogy to Wilson’s Dion, whether I am drawn to photographic schmaltz. It’s not a taste I would probably have thought of myself as having, and I’ve been pretty harsh in the past on photographic “porn” or what @vossbrink identifies as “kitsch,” which overlaps pretty well with Wilson’s definition of schmaltz.

But I wonder if what Wilson has to say about schmaltz doesn’t bear somewhat on my feelings about Roy DeCarava — especially in contrast to my feelings about certain other examples of well-known documentary photographs. I’m thinking particularly of how Wilson frames the opposition of schmaltz to irony:

…songwriter Stephin Merritt argued that “catharsis in art is always embarrassing.” It’s a common belief, though seldom so drolly expressed. He was partly drawing on Bertolt Brecht, who held that the purgative release of catharsis can defuse social criticism. But like many of us, Merritt transposed that political caveat to a personal one, a matter of style. His enjoyment, he claimed only half-joshingly, depends on having the embarrassment built into the art, as irony, which allows him to register emotion without the shameful loss of self-control involved in feeling it. (p. 130)

While it would be completely unfair to imply that there is anything at all unsophisticated about DeCarava (quite the contrary!), there isn’t a surplus of irony in his photographs, and certainly no attempt to defuse or diminish or sanitize their emotional intensity — and no attempt to provide either DeCarava or the viewer with any kind of safe distance. And those are the most powerful and important American photographs I’ve ever seen.

Of course, as justly as I can point to DeCarava’s work as offering catharsis which need seek no refuge in irony, it’s still obviously a bit of an evasion on my part. In no sense would it be fair to point to his work as “schmaltz.”

No, if we were going to pursue an analogy to Wilson’s Celine Dion, we’d really have to go for it, wouldn’t we? Really, if we were being honest, we’d have no choice but to go full Geddes. And I simply, honestly do not have it in me to do that. At least, not this week.

You’re welcome.

More on “Literary” and “Unliterary” Photography

Earlier today, Rob Haggart at A Photo Editor put up a nice post referencing Laura Miller’s “Why We Love Bad Writing,” and the post I made in January applying one of Miller’s observations to the world of photography. (Okay, to fairly represent the chain of citation, the observation originally belonged to CS Lewis.)

Rob is optimistic about the possibilities for building bridges between the realms of what I referred to as “literary” and “unliterary” photography. He writes,

…There’s a lot that can be done to create bridges across the chasm and I wanted to point this out to photo editors, because I’ve been in those arguments about photography with editors where factual trumps sophisticated, but I’ve never thought to turn it on them with a literary example. The two articles I’ve linked provide plenty of ammo to do that. I’ve always believed the only way to engage readers is to challenge them. High dollar advertising will always prefer engaged readers over hits.

Which is heartening. It’s easy for someone like me (i.e., a filthy hippie) to think of market forces as intrinsically inimical to virtue, but it’s good to remember that that’s not actually the only way for things to play out.

As a result of Rob’s post, we got a bunch of new eyes looking at 1/125 (welcome, folks!), and there are some meaty new comments both here and on the post at A Photo Editor.

I particularly liked this one, from Moya McAllister:

If challenging a reader literally requires a dictionary or a master’s degree, that’s one thing. But I truly believe that all viewers, regardless of education, respond viscerally to images. They may not notice “bad photography” if the content is there but they recognize good photography when they see it. A good or even great photograph can convey bigger concepts behind the story or a theme that reaches the reader on a different level than the text. Therefore, the response to the story is more complex and engaging.

I absolutely agree, and I think it’s important to try (where possible) to separate out the question of quality from the question of qualification. Doubly so because making qualifications or resources a prerequisite for the appreciation of “good” photography is virtually the same thing as equating good taste and judgment with socio-economic class, which I consider to be a serious error.

That being said, I would still say that there is a substantial amount of photography in the world which possesses a greatness that will be entirely non-obvious to a lay observer. But I would agree that an attentive, patient viewer (even if untrained and unpracticed) will be able to see that there is something important there and will probably be able to hazard a guess as to what it might be. (This is the process by which I have come to appreciate most of the photographs and photographers I like.)

But in order for that to happen, the person must first suspect or be persuaded that there is good reason to be attentive and to spend some time in careful looking at the photograph. And once they have caught on to the presence of that something, they will probably be able to gain a deeper appreciation of it by spending further time learning about why the photograph was made and in what context (historical, social, critical, etc.) it was made. In photography, we need more places where people can get that kind of initial nudge, and more places that help them figure out where to learn more about what they’ve seen.

I also like this comment by Juanita:

My take on the good vs. bad photography debate is directed at those who are framing what is available to the public. The army of museum and gallery gatekeepers and curators; the stable of photo reviewers and editors; the crowds of print and online media tastemakers. It’s their version of what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that informs what we get to see and what gets picked up as cool or thought provoking.

I’m tired of the sameness of it all: e.g. the legions of photographers pursuing constructed reality, the poseurs trying to put out their version of “conceptual” photography— just look at “500 Photographers” and tell me it isn’t 90% the same. But of course it all looks the same, because Pieter Wisse is reading the zeitgeist through his lens of what young, new, edgy (dare I insert the word “good” here???) photography currently is, and that’s what is being highlighted.

It’s not my aim to throw sticks and stones at artists… Everyone is on their own journey when they pick up that camera–including me. I want to make a dent in “da Machine;” hope that nuance comes through in this post.

This is extremely important. The task of bridging the gap is one that has to be pursued by people who put work from various photographers in front of the eyeballs of viewers.

I think is something I was insufficiently clear on in my original post. I wrote, “To provide opportunities for everyday people to expand and improve their photographic tastes without making them feel like they are being sold something they have no use for at a price they do not wish to pay is one of the more important frontiers in photography at the moment,” which I think some folks took to mean that I thought certain photographers need to make work more inviting to unfamiliar audiences.

That’s not what I meant at all; what I was referring to is a deep and largely unmet need for venues (publications, websites, blogs, physical installations, retailers, etc.) which operate in the space between the “literary” and “unliterary” communities in photography.

I should also probably say why I keep referring to “literary” and “unliterary”, instead of using terms like “good” and “bad.” I do this because the issue is not one of absolute quality, but of different and potentially conflicting contexts for evaluating quality.

"Literary" does not simply mean "better" — it denotes something more specific and less value-laden: it means you have to really read it, and that reading it is rewarding. An “unliterary” work is not necessarily bad, but it does not require or reward deep scrutiny. What you need from it you can get casually, without effort or preparation. (There are many, many photographs that are deeply “literary” that I also regard as total wastes of time.)

What worries me about photography is not that there is too much unliterary work, or too little literary work, but that people are too likely to only know and enjoy one kind or the other. That’s why I say that creating venues for breaking down that dichotomy is a major frontier in photography right now.

You know, I will often say, “I like this image.” And Indrani will say, “Well, what is it that you like about it?” And my answer will be, “Well, I just like it.” That’s an egotistical perspective, and she points out that it really doesn’t matter what you yourself like. It’s important to analyze who you’re trying to reach with the image.

— Markus Klinko, in Pop Photo, via A Photo Editor

When I read this quotation, my initial reaction was, “Yes! That’s very much a problem I’ve been mulling over lately.”

Then I opened up the source link, and my reaction at that point was somewhat similar to the first commenter on the post at A Photo Editor.

Then I thought it about some more, and thought about the fact that, yes, A Photo Editor had decided to post it, and obviously thought it was still worth posting and worth reading.

My conclusion than was that I still rather like the quote (as I like any piece of writing that quickly summarizes a big amorphous problem). Still, it does lose a lot of its interest for me when it becomes clear that the underlying message is not “It’s hard to articulate the nature and limits of aesthetic virtue in photography,” but rather, “Don’t photograph hot chicks for straight dudes, photograph them for women and gay dudes.”

Or, more accurately, the kind of interest it has changes.

It’s your creativity. It’s what sets you apart from every other photographer; it’s the distinguishing value that is added to any great image you create. Without it, you could be replaced by a machine.

Carolyn Potts, via A Photo Editor

I’ve seen a lot of statements like this lately. By which I do not mean there is necessarily a sudden upsurge in this sentiment out in the world; I just mean I am seeing more of it. (One of the places I’ve recently encountered discussion of “creative” photography was a 50’s-era essay by Berenice Abbott.)

I have to say, I do not agree. I think the most important qualities of a photographer are the most important qualities of an observer, and creativity would number fairly low on the list of important qualities of an observer.

Like good writing, good photography is primarily distinguished by clear and concise description. Of course this does not mean mere mechanical reproduction of the subject (although it does entail just that) — each photographer’s perception and judgment are peculiar to him or her and highly personal.

The difference between a good photograph and a bad photograph is not generally that the good photograph is more creative, but that the good photograph is based on a clearer perception and superior insight. The best photographers see more clearly and the best photographs enable us to share in that clear seeing.

Often the worst photographs are the most “creative” — because they bear the heavy-handed mark of the photographer as creator, as sculptor, piling bravura technique onto an uninteresting subject or an uninteresting portrayal of an interesting subject in order to redeem them.

Of course, in saying this, I am revealing a certain bias of my own. The quotation above is from the ASMP — in other words, it is meant largely for advertising photographers — and advertising photography tends to be more unavoidably concept-driven and thus “creative.” This is a type of photography I find comparatively tedious.

So, it is perhaps unfair of me to criticize Potts’s advice; I do, however, think that it should be confined to its proper domain…

I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.