Who is pointing at the Emperor?


General Photography

There are at least two accusations the art world has to deal with on a fairly regular basis: It’s “elitism” and “The Emperor is naked.” Now let’s assume that the group of people called “the art world” is actually as homogeneous as is assumed. Let’s assume that this homogeneous group is following a secret code of conduct, including, but not limited to, a master plan, a secret hand shake, and regular meetings in an undisclosed location that might or might not be a crypt and that - crucially! - might or might not contain at least parts of the skeleton of Mark Twain. Even if we make these assumptions, it should be pretty obvious that both accusations tend to be mostly rhetorical devices, whose overuse has rendered them so blunt that where they actually are appropriate they’re as effective as covering someone with kittens or puppies as a sign of protest (not that I would suggest such a thing; I’m opposed to any kind of animal abuse). (more)

That said, it’s probably not surprising that Nick Turpin’s The Emperor’s New Clothes had me scratching my head. Let me say the following first: I was unable to see the show in question, Alec and Carmen Soth’s show at the 2010 Brighton Photo Biennial, so I’m in no position to comment on its merits. There was a fair amount of buzz about this show, and I did read many of the articles (and watched at least one video). What I can say is that I don’t necessarily agree with Alec about the idea that everybody can take a great photo, which makes the “real” photographers’ work so hard. I’m paraphrasing this, so all misunderstandings that might arise are clearly a result of that. I published a post with some premature thoughts about this whole topic here, maybe I’ll get back to it, maybe not.

Back to what Nick wrote. I guess there are a few points that could be made about his post. The claim of “unique exclusion from art world acceptance that street photographers have long experienced” is curious. All those photographers roaming the streets of, for example, New York with their cameras who got vigourously promoted by John Szarkowski… I mean look at this or this, or maybe you’ve heard of this guy (the last one is obviously French). These photographers - and the many others in galleries and museums - don’t seem to support the idea of a “unique exclusion from art world acceptance” that street photography is suffering from.

But my main point is the following. I’m not the biggest fan of that whole “the Emperor is naked” accusation, because it has been overused, and it’s too broad an accusation to really work. But if we were to accept it as a useful rhetorical device, the first thing that comes to mind is that if anyone was in fact pointing a finger at the art world, exclaiming that the Emperor is naked, it is Alec Soth, or maybe rather Carmen Soth. Using a seven-year-old child’s photographs in exactly the same way as images taken by art-world stars - well, that’s really sticking it to the art world, isn’t it?

I don’t know whether that was Alec’s idea. I haven’t talked to him about it. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. As I said above, I don’t agree with the basic premise that the fact that everybody supposedly now can take a great picture makes the work of professional photographer infinitely more difficult. I don’t think it does.

But if we were to simply accept that as a premise, as something we might want to look at, then staging a show with photographs of a seven-year-old child as part of an otherwise serious art-photography festival to me looks like just the thing to do. We might as well, right? I actually find doing that compellingly subversive, regardless of how excited I am about the images themselves (not so much to be honest). It’s taking the old accusation - I forgot to add that to my list at the beginning - “my child could do that!” and transforms it into “My child can do what I do - producing art photographs that sell for some serious money.”

The production of a book and a limited-edition print is then just part of the game. In fact, if someone went to the show and really loved the images, why should s/he not be able to buy a book? Or even buy a print? What’s wrong with that?

There is a discussion to be had here. But it’s not whether Alec and Carmen Soth’s show was the latest incarnation of the naked Emperor. Those debates - they’re so trite and of so little actual interest; in general these resentment-based discussions don’t lead anywhere, not in politics, not in the context of art.

Instead, Alec and Carmen Soth’s show offers a great opportunity to have a debate about something that all those street photographers are interested in, too, namely first and foremost about the artistic value of images and about how images are made, by “serious” photographers and by “amateurs.”