It’s a recurrent discussion that makes a bundle out of art issues: why are art critics avoiding aesthetic criticism and, instead, doing critic of the art system, the nominal dimension and the historical value of the artworks, apparently neglecting the thing that makes an artwork what it is – the art aspect of it. Has conceptualism robbed art of a substantial dimension, to a point that now people just care about the concept, the social impact and so on? And why do artists insist on exhibiting their works in places that tend to go against the essential elements in their works?
This post could take several recent examples from the artworld (namely the case with one portuguese art critic who called a Miró collection of works “shit” without having seen them), but let’s talk about Antoine d’Agata, again. I adore d’Agata’s work, if and when I have the opportunity of encountering it in my own terms. When I heard his works were going to be exhibited in Lisbon, in a gallery dedicated to photographic art, I had mixed feelings: first, I got excited with the chance to see the works first hand, then I immediately thought that just might ruin d’Agata’s work for me. After that a friend told me the invitation he had received for the vernissage had a red mark (yes, like when the tv screans horror movies), suggesting the revelation of some forbidden dimension and I got even more reticent.
I’ll try to explain: I usually hate galleries and rarely see exhibitions in such a context. A lot of what happens inside a gallery prevents me from receiving/experiencing/encountering the artworks with the required openness, so my very rare visits to galleries are usually uncomfortable moments and none aesthetic experience comes out of it. Of course I realize that’s a condition of mine, one that is open to criticism and that may be recognized to function as a sort of freudian mechanism of defense. But, for now, I suggest we look at the example of d’Agata’s exhibition in Lisbon, starting from two articles (critics?) published in portuguese newspapers.
In one of the articles, the author, Alexandra Carita, begins with the following choice of words: “Obsessive, sick, demented, d’Agata, a member of the Magnum Agency, is or has been it all – a sort of maldito photographer, marginal and marginalized.” Further along the article she continues: ” A trump, as the dogs he incessantly photographs, he challenges addictions and goes beyond his limits” and, just to make my point, she adds “chocking, irreverent, controversial, polemic”. Throughout the entire article all that is said is about the author, not the artwork, as if what’s truly impressive about d’Agata is the man himself, as if hearing or reading about his life story would have the same effect. To my knowledge, the only words Carita uses that actually account for the aesthetic dimension of the artwork is when she mentions that his exercise (?) is at the same time violent and magnificent. Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Maybe my understanding that the author and the work don’t follow the same rules (and ethics) is wrong.
Either way, I just don’t get it. It’s like there’s absolutely no appreciation of the work – the originality, the truth, the autonomy, the colors, the dimensions, the dynamics, the play, the technic, and so on – as if art critic has now surrender to the description of an aesthetic experience that resonates from an idea constructed around the nominal dimension and not the artistic value of the works. It almost like we’re entering the realm of art brut, where it has always been more or less clear that what gets the market going is the authors identity and the crazier their biographies the more they sell. On the other hand, and although is no news that the nominal dimension is of great importance to the art world, there’s always been the ability to recognize new aesthetic values, so how has it come to this?
For those of you who follow this blog, it’s not surprising to hear me say these things. I study and teach photography, but what interests me is art and a LOT of what is promoted as photographic art is completely irrelevant as a work of art: it has no authenticity, no originality, no truth, mainly because it serves an exterior purpose, whatever that is. As I see it, what makes a difference in d’Agata’s photographic work is the way he does it and I recognize it can be fascinating. I guess the difference is that I think such artistic ethic is only present in the work, not through the author’s (human) and everyday actions. So we should be focusing on the work. What do d’Agata’s photographs tell us about a truthful way of doing art?
When I started showing d’Agata’s work in classes I remember thinking the reactions were unexpected. I guess I thought students would show some repulse, but most of them were very interested in seeing and discussing more, and not in a voyeuristic sense. I’m aware that my enthusiasm, as a teacher, can be the difference here, but the fact is that I consider his work to be a great example of how photography is a technic that one should use to express oneself, so I often present his work to address aesthetic qualities. What is implied here is an affirmation of the importance of the technical specificities of the medium. I think only once one recognizes, learns and experiments with such technical characteristics, will one be able to fully understand the potential of the photographic medium. In my opinion, d’Agata does just that. We uses the camera as an autonomous tool. Through the use of monochromatics, long exposures and the proximity of the lens, we enter the abyss of the lives he portraits.
In another article, one Teresa Melo identifies what she thinks makes d’Agata’s work exceptional: the fact that he is involved in the world he documents, with which he establishes an intimate relationship; the fact that he can attest to the reality he documents: “he’s seen it, he’s been through it”. But isn’t that the paradoxical nature of photography? How does that translate in aesthetic terms? What aesthetic elements would invite the author, Teresa Melo, to call the orgasms represented in d’Agata’s pictures superficial? I find it almost offensive to call something (whether the orgasms or the drug consuming) superficial in his work. But I don’t doubt her point of view, what irritate me is that nothing is explained, there’s no argument.
Let me be clear: I didn’t made it to the exhibition. After two failed attempts (bumping on signs saying we’re sorry, we’re closed) I gave up. No disappointment, I have to confess. What I could see from the sidewalk was difficult to comprehend: how could d’Agata’s work be put on display inviting people to call him (as the critics so rapidly have) polemic, without even acknowledging that after calling him “polemic Antoine d’Agata” they should go on to explain why they find him (and/or his work) polemic. Because he uses drugs? Because we looks for the darkest side of life? Because he addresses sex in a manner you find unethical?
David Nebreda is one author I think we can all agree to call polemic. And why is that? Because his photographs sometime beautify death and suffering; because he photographs his own pain. So what did his editor do? L. Scheer, instead of promoting Nebreda as a schizoid artist (which he is), protected him an his work from the vultures of the art world. But the following question goes back to d’Agata’s exhibition: how does that sort of display help SHOW a work like d’Agata’s? Meaning: how does hanging a bunch of photographs in a linear way, at 1,5m, against a dark grey wall help experience the aesthetic dimension of The Long Night? I’m sure for some people this opportunity was their way into d’Agata’s work and that is always a good thing, but I question whether the dynamics of his work can survive that sort of display. Can the dense quality of each of his photographs survive the comparison (against one another and the grey wall)? Can the uniqueness of his work survive the repetition syndrome that rules the gallery space? I don’t think so and this is also truth for Nebreda’s work. Would I go and see it if it were to be shown in such a way? I don’t think so, not only because I don’t see how it might add to the intimate relationship I’ve establish with his books, but also because I also find that such a disposition is disrespectful to his ethics an the content of the works.