I'm dying to ask...did anybody buy Kertesz, the book we were talking about back in July? If you did, I'd love to know what you think of it. Especially if you've actually read some of the text and not just paged idly through looking at the pics. (A few words about where you are and what stage you're in would also help—I mean, I would expect that an experienced ex-film-shooter would have a different perspective than a young recent convert who's always been digital-only.)
I've discussed before that Jean-Paul Sartre, who is actually a much more amenable philosopher than I used to think (I used to assume he'd gotten so famous by being deep and opaque, and he's really not that bad), has a principle he calls "engagé," or engagement. Cut to bone, his meaning is that you are who you are and where you are, so you might as well "own" your culture and your era and your government and do whatever you can to be forthright and committed with regard to living your values. (Traditional committed Christians shared this, although those types are thin on the ground now—these days, being Christian seems to mean what I was taught was "un-Christian." Which makes sense in a way, since being American now means what was traditionally considered to be un-American. I'll stop.) Although the concept is mainly applicable to politics, I find it easy to extrapolate the basic principle outward to what looks like a sort of zennish mishmash of self-improvement clichés: live your life, be in the world, stay in the moment, be clear about what you believe...most of all encapsulated in the old American macho code that seems to be extinct these days: "be a stand-up guy." (Where "guy" = person, of course.)
That quality is one that I used to admire in a lot of successful photographers. It still amazes me that Eliott Erwitt's commercial work is essentially indistinguishable from his personal work; some of the pictures can be mixed together and no one would be able to tell which was which. (His photojournalistic work is a little more obvious, in that Jackie Kennedy or Nikita Khrushchev aren't likely to appear in random grab shots.) That ethos gradually went out of currency and favor, to the point that the more exalted of the jobber professionals are now the mainstream model of what photographers ought to be: able to make a slick picture to any purpose, for sale like a mercenary to anyone able to pay. Kertesz, on the other hand, was true to himself when it was very good for him and also when it was very bad for him. His life story was like a beacon to me when I first encountered it, and still stands out to me among the photographer biographies I know.
Should art be good to look at, or no?
Speaking of books, I'm finally catching up with The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, which certainly does seem to pull the curtain aside to reveal the little man at the levers. (Although to center the argument on Damien Hirst might be, ahem, shooting fish in a barrel. I'm only part way through the book.) You really can see the contemporary art market purely in economic terms, if you consider that displaying status is an essential human need.
I'm going to have to ask my friend the Squid, Calvin Amari, what he thinks of this book.
Anyway, I am wending toward a point here: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark makes the point that it's definitely no longer necessary for art to be good to look at in order to be successful (and expensive). In fact, being visually appealing has become passé. In this sense, Kertesz is distinctly old fashioned: his pictures are almost all not just good but great to look at. I can drink them in, lingering on virtually any of them, as if they satisfy a human appetite more basic and essential than the mere scramble for status.
And yet I still haven't bought the book. Maybe I just know enough about Kertesz that it's more fun to imagine it being good than to actually find out whether it is or not. For that matter, imagine being able to read a review of Kertesz written by Jim Hughes. Yum. I'd pay for that. Maybe I should.
Back to where we began: I'd love to know what you think.
UPDATE: The Squid Speaks: "I see that Mike has summoned me, the creature with an ink sac six times the size of its brain. So, as is my wont, I mindlessly will spill some of that ink merely to note that there has been an near endless litany of nonfiction books along the lines of Stuffed Shark because the vast majority of the art of our time pretty much sucks. What is crucial to remember, however, is that the vast majority of the art of every era throughout history likewise sucked. A decent portion of contemporary art will be popular for the simple reason that at some level it reflects the times, and this has always been the case.
"I haven't yet read Stuffed Shark but I have read a good number of its predecessors. The problem, however, is that notwithstanding the plethora of valid targets, many of these efforts tip the balance towards anti-intellectual Philistinism which, if anything, is worse than an overindulgent attitude to the art of our time. I thought, for example, that Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton struck the nice balance, Painted Word reflected mere facile dismissiveness, and Pricing the Priceless: Art, Artists and Economics by William Dyer Grampp provided a good non-sensationalistic perspective from classical economics.
"But after you finish Stuffed Shark, Mike, I most highly recommend that you check out Charles Willeford's The Burnt Orange Heresy, a book which, to the extent it is known at all, is admired as a noir crime novel but deserves instead be recognized as brilliant commentary on the artworld." —Cal Amari
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.