I'm back in the saddle! Thanks for tolerating my absence last week. I went back to Milwaukee to see my doctor (three times) and my dentist, as well as about a dozen friends along the way. It turned out to be an absolutely lovely trip. Everything went right.
About that thing with Bob Everest...er, Dylan...
So here's why I'm uncomfortable with the Nobel Committee's decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan. No, not that Dylan Thomas, whose first name Dylan borrowed as his last, never got one. No, not because I don't like Dylan's music, even though I've never been a big fan—he wrote the transcendent "Like a Rolling Stone" and a dozen other truly great songs, and made a handful of great albums. I even own a couple. No, not because lyrics aren't poetry, an incredibly tiresome argument I've been getting roped into since college. And finally—although this is admittedly kind of a big one—no, it's not even because Dylan appropriates/plagiarizes others—including copying other peoples' photographs just as if he thinks there was zero creativity on the part of the photographers.
My reason is very organic with me, and I've been very consistent about it over many years. I just don't like it when celebrity in one field (or subfield) trumps or marginalizes honest, hardworking accomplishment in another.
A few examples. I once reviewed a group show of unknown and emerging photographers at a major museum in Washington that was curated by one friend and included another. One of the photographers whose work was shown was a top fashion photographer then at the apogee of his fame. In my published review, I objected. I just felt he was out of place in an art photography show at an art museum, included because be was famous and "cool" within his own world, which is very different from the art world. It's not that it's wrong to consider fashion photography as art—a few practitioners have straddled the fairly large divide—it's that the rest of the photographers in the show were struggling artists who had sacrificed a lot in their lives to do their work, and a glamorpuss famous for his astronomical day rate was just pushing aside another up-and-comer who could have really used the exposure. The inclusion of the fashion photographer was, on the part of the curator, a cynical sop to popularity, meant to help with publicity; on the part of the fashion photographer it was just to burnish his cred as an artist for marketing purposes. Bah, on both counts.
Another show on which I trained both barrels in a published review was one curated by a major name in the photography field at the time. Some corporate donors had lavished a small fortune in grants to sponsor a landscape show, I think of a specific patch of wild land that had something to do with the corporation—I forget the particulars. Instead of using the opportunity to reward actual landscape photographers—you know, people who worked authentically in that genre, had done something with it, and knew something about it—the curator instead dumped the money on the heads of the usual suspects—anyone who was then hot and famous, talked about in the right cirlces, big name brands in the fine-art world—many of whom had never even turned their hands to landscape before at all. Because, you know, it's so edgy and hip to see what a guy known for photographing naked models will do with mere land. Yeah, right. When I heard about the show, I snarkily wondered (in print) how one particular high-society photographer was going to manage to photograph landscapes without getting her no doubt exquisitely fashionable boots soiled with real-life dirt. When the actual show was unveiled, some time later, I discovered to my great amusement that she (okay, it was Annie, and yes, I know I'm too hard on Annie) had hired a helicopter and photographed from the air...that is, she actually did find a way to be a "landscape photographer" without getting her shoes dirty. Funny, I admit—but, one more time, with feeling: bah!
So anyway, all the earnest dopes I used to argue with in college just won the argument, decisively. I lose, retroactively. I get that.
But here's the thing, the reason I don't like it when celebrity gets the palm and hogs the plum: it shuts out all the people who really do work in that field—in this case, actual writers who labor and toil and yes, manage to create real accomplishments in the field of literature. And who could really use the exposure, the money, and the acclaim, rather than just adding a bit more of all three to an existing pile. Giving the literature prize to a songwriter was supposed to be edgy and hip (concepts which, incidentally, are woeful clichés and diametrically opposed to anything edgy or hip) but it's also akin to saying that no real writer deserves it.
That's what I object to. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of passionate, dedicated landscape photographers out there, all but a handful of whom get too little recognition and are chronically short of support. There's nothing wrong with Annie Leibovitz snapping a few forgettable aerials from a chopper and calling it "landscape photography," except that it shunts aside some more deserving photographer who cares about that kind of work and has spent a lifetime devoted to it—someone who can fairly stand for many others who are similarly devoted, and, similarly, are too often ignored. I don't fault Annie for taking the money, but I do fault the curator of that long-ago show for giving it to her. And about the show where the hotshot fashion photographer took up a space despite not needing it, well, maybe I identified too closely with whoever might have gotten that slot but got shut out.
Whoever is most famous, wins
I don't feel strident about this—I can understand people who have the opposite opinion and are delighted about Dylan getting the honor. I'll bet they don't read much, though. (They might even go all the way the other way and feel, along with Leonard Cohen, that giving the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is "like pinning a medal on Everest.") I'm just explaining how I feel, not saying anyone else needs to agree. So I'll look forward to Jennifer Lawrence getting the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, because, you know, she has such good chemistry onscreen, and Dr. Oz or Barry Sears getting the Nobel Prize for Medicine, and so on.
In reality, it's not like literature is so threadbare that it has to cast around to other fields to find someone worth feting. Alex Shephard, the News Editor at The New Republic, wrote a speculative article a week and a half ago called "Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature?" in which he named seventy-six potential recipients. You can argue about the names, but most of them have at least spent lifetimes working as writers. (And writing is hard work, by the way.) The 76 names did indeed include Dylan. But—and again, I do appreciate the humor—the article was subtitled "Not Bob Dylan, that's for sure," and in the body of the article he wrote, "Bob Dylan 100 percent is not going to win. Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize."
I'm sure Alex is a bit embarrassed now by his prediction. But he can take solace in this: he should have been right.
Counterpoint: I have a friend who is very well qualified to speak to this subject from both sides. Jim Schley (full bio here) is a poet and a longtime lover of, facilitator of, and educator about poetry and literature, and he's been involved in publishing literary authors for decades. He has been an editor for several different publishers, is a former Director of the Frost Place in New Hampshire, and is currently Managing Editor at Tupelo Press where he helps oversee their poetry publishing program. He's also putting the finishing touches on a new book of his own, co-written. And he's a longtime Dylan fan. I invited Jim to comment and here's his reply:
"Mike, I really appreciate your thoughtful post and the analogy of fashion photographers. Though I don’t agree. He didn’t win the Nobel as a page-poet, specifically—he won as a maker of some of the most complex songs of our time. And I feel like his albums of the '00s are fantastically good.
"The most ardent academic scholar of Dylan’s work is Christopher Ricks, and I also appreciate his response to the news.
"I also like this piece from a younger poet, and a formalist.
"I wish I had time to write you a more ample response to your good words, but I don’t have time to pounce. I’ll just say that last year’s choice was almost equally unorthodox, and also very welcome: Svetlana Alexeivich is another sui generis genius."
(Thanks to Jim.)
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Nigel: "Leibovitz's brief dabble in landscape photography is analogous to Dylan's 50-year engagement with the lyric form? Whatever you might think of him, or it, that is not much of an argument. A decent case in favour. The most deserving name on Alex Shephard's list is probably Ursula Le Guin—who'd probably get dismissed for similar 'genre' reasons."
Mike replies: "Dylan's 50-year engagement with the lyric form" is not analogous to Leibovitz's 46-year engagement with editorial celebrity portraiture, which she all but established as an accepted art form? A form in which she created several acknowledged masterpieces and of which she is one of the most well-known practitioners? Why ever not? Has Dylan ever published a standalone book of poems that are not also song lyrics? (I can't find one.) If he has, how would that not be analogous to Annie "brief dabble" in a genre she's not known for?
Yvonne: "I'm a Dylan fan, drawn in actually by his later stuff ('Time Out of Mind,' etc.) in which there are many songs about aging: 'Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer/It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.' I was shocked when Dylan won the Nobel for literature, and I'll bet Dylan was as shocked as anyone."
Stephen Scharf: "Sorry, tl;dr."
Mike replies: You're just mad at me for ditching Fuji and buying an A6500. :-)
Jim Meeks: "NPR last week replayed an interview with Dylan from the early 2000s in which he stated he think awards and accolades for him just get in the way of his music. I've heard the same thing from successful, established artists who stated being given awards was great, but it was the up and coming crowd that needed the money and acclaim."
Geoff Wittig: "I could not agree more, Mike. I can remember feeling more than a little annoyed by all the media attention accorded celebrity/photographers (including in glossy photography magazines) like Bryan Adams and Kenny Rogers, when their main gifts appeared to be access to other celebrities and armies of sycophants. As you note, it crowds out genuinely good work by folks actually devoted to the field. I see it as a corollary to the pernicious trend in literature, whereby very attractive writers are given a huge leg up by the machinations of publishing firms' publicity campaigns. Just look at the author's photo on the jacket of most novels these days. Brilliant authors who happen not to be physically beautiful don't stand much of a chance."
Peter Wright: "When someone already famous in another field is awarded a Nobel prize, (like Obama getting the Peace prize some time back—and I like him a lot, by the way) perhaps the committee is really just 'recognizing' themselves? Simply trying to boost their own image by their somewhat controversial, selection of a person everyone knows, and most respect, so they can bask in the reflected limelight? Seems to have worked in this case."
Gordon Lewis: "A contrarian point of view, which I mention only to acknowledge and not necessarily to endorse, is that awards and exhibitions that are consistently given to obscure artists run the risk that the awards themselves will become obscure. Famous people often decline awards for this very reason: They have little interest in awards from obscure organizations and institutions. Obscure artists are happy to take what they can get—but if they share billing with people who are more famous and glamorous at least some of the light of that fame gets reflected onto them. Again, I'm not saying your position is wrong, I'm just saying there's more than one way to look at it."
kirk tuck: "I'll disagree on Dylan but not on your general premise. In my estimation Dylan was the lyricist equivalent of Robert Frank (in the context of Frank's work in The Americans) and deserves the recognition for making poetry the way Frank made photographs. It's rough and edgy but honest and ultimately accessible. He encapsulated the era with his genre in a unique way and connected with a disaffected generation. But then I also like Billy Collins so...."
Mike replies: Speaking of whom—Robert Frank, I mean, not Billy Collins—have you seen his Steidl book Paris? I missed it when it came out (in '08) but man, I really love it.