An Irresponsible Image - Parsons MFA catalog
Time is running out. You can count on it. Populations are booming where they cannot be sustained. Politics continues its jolly jaunt toward mass annihilation. And the fight for sustainable use of earthly resources stinks of “too little too late” creative exuberance. And all the fucking pictures! They are everywhere! The miracle of mass reproduction has gone beyond its bounds. Images aren’t produced and reproduced. They are ever -present – as though they always existed. And not in that friendly way art has always stood a bit to the side of time, letting it pass on its anxious way to the office. No, images have taken on the task of depleting our memories, turning history into information.
And what are you doing about it? You’re taking more pictures. If this doesn’t keep you up at night, we don’t know what would. May the ghost of Susan Sontag breath down your throats as you try to sleep. And even if you do manage a dream or two it’s all images all over again – billboards, magazines. Dreams and nightmares. What a mess.
It’s going to be okay though (well, not really. But let’s be narcissistic for the time being.). The great thing about problems is solving them. It gives us a feeling of accomplishment, a sense of purpose, something to fill up our days with. Today’s problem of choice – because this happens to be an essay for a photography catalog – regards the responsibility of making images.
It’s a funny word to throw around when we’re supposed to be talking about art: responsibility. It’s gotten all sorts of people into trouble, convinced that art matters a lot more than it really does. The fact is, it really doesn’t (and that might be because nothing really matters). The fact that it doesn’t really matter might be what matters most about it. We live in a world desperate for mattering, for meaning – a collective reason to get out of bed in the morning, and the prophecies of relativism (for lack of a better word) haven’t really helped us out of the problem of needing to do something meaningful with our lives.
Maybe it isn’t real meaning though. Maybe it’s just a kind of meaning as credential. Maybe we feel a social obligation to consider our lives purposeful – raising kids, making images, saving the planet. Maybe those are just bullet points for our résumé (By the way, here’s a joke with no punch line: what’s the difference between a résumé and an obituary?). But let’s assume for the moment that this problem only applies to other people and the ones we really ought to be thinking about are the artists – those born into the world with some sense of making sense out of it.
These people, these artists, may not always have a knack for making meaning, but they sure do have a knack for needing to make something. That seems a leg up on the unwashed remainder of the human race. And if the education of a young photographer is to be any sort of education at all, if it is to be fair to the rest of God’s green humanity, it should probably throw its constituents into a temporarily devastating existential crisis (Oh! How youth ruins the young!) concerned with whether or not photography is a thing worth doing at all. “I am compelled to make something” shifts ever so gracefully into “I ought to be making something important.”
But the fact of the matter at hand, as much as it pains us at the moment of its first eye-bleeding revelation, is: photography is not a thing worth doing.
Let’s break it down a bit:
You are a person. Your responsibility (morals and ethics and whatnot) regards you in relation to your fellow persons – the perpetuation of our incredibly cute species, the imagineering of our civic happiness, keeping our planetary home tidy (in the event of unannounced visitors). These are jobs worth jobbing!
But the artists amongst us take on the illustrious social duty of decorating the warhead that will plunge down on our enemies, or at worst, providing distracting small talk when the self-congratulation wears thin at the victory celebration.
This is not a noble duty. Surely we could be doing something more beneficial with our time. We could clean toilets! Or rally the revolutionaries! Or send salamis to our boys in the army! But we don’t. What we do is we draft stunning statements of purpose to protect ourselves from the truth of the matter. We are a social mirror, reflecting our society back to itself, providing it with self-consciousness, allowing it to think critically about what it is doing, how it is acting, and how it ought to act in the future.
Good luck swallowing that one. No matter the accuracy of the reflection, if no one looks in the mirror, no one sees Bloody Mary. And even if they do look – looking is harder than it looks. So throw off the yolk of revelatory tricksterism and embrace the cold clutches of pedagogy! Burn your phoenix wings and shake your bare bodhisattva booty down to the bank of social purpose: teach! Good luck swallowing that one.
When all is said and burned, the remains remain. Art is the thing we don’t throw away when we clean up after ourselves – not because we need it, not because something better hasn’t come along – but just because we want to hold on to it. Call it a weakness. Call it a fetish. Call it a gross miscarriage of justice – a hallmark of our shallowness as a people.
Call it what you will. It’s all we’ve got left at the end of the day – this untenable desire, this gnawing suspicion – that to make something – in spite of meaning – simply because we really want to see it, is more than enough of a reason.
We wish the graduating class of 2010 happy travels down the dirty path of irresponsible image making. You’re going to need it.