It's often been observed that one must leave the country of birth to see it more clearly, a truism that applies to politics, but also to art. The exhibit of Walker Evans at Die Photographische Sammlung in Köln is a perfect case in point. Evans was a multi-talented photographer whose oeuvre spanned more subjects than anyone knows, as he spent his life traveling the country and shooting whatever grabbed his fancy; he seemed to eschew strict adherence to any style or viewpoint, each of his images being unique in approach to the subject. He is best known, however, as being the man who defined our image of The Depression with his work for the WPA, and his portraits of destitute women and decrepit structures are part of our collective consciousness of the time. He also photographed many industrial structures throughout his career, a body of work that defined a sensibility which many artists would emulate in subsequent years.
Bernd and Hilla Becher were German photographers and teachers from the 1960s to 1990s who took Evans's idiosyncratic approach to industrial structures, applied a template of strict symmetry and flat, shadowless lighting and hit the repeat button. One can recognize their images anywhere, technically immaculate, but emotionally dry; it's difficult to go to a museum in Germany without seeing an exhibit of their work, and in many American museums as well. One imagines that their goal was the documentation of these disappearing structures, which represented an era of industrial architecture; but the establishment of a brand, if not an overt goal, was a significant result. Does this invariability define style and thus make their work more valid than Evans in the art world? In the vein of documenting a vanishing technology, one thinks of O. Winston Link who made the amazing series of images of steam-powered trains just before they disappeared, each image a rich, romantic story, and also technically outstanding. His style was defined by a regular exploration of the same subject, but not by repetition of form and shape.
The Bechers taught photography in Düsseldorf, and spawned a generation of photographers who implement their edicts: each producing a plethora of repetitive images of a given subject (supermarket interiors, row houses, museum interiors, billboards, overhead street wires), all technically immaculate, enlarged to huge proportions, but with that completely neutral, symmetrical "no comment" approach. As the expression goes, "if you've seen one, you've seen them all," and the art world flocks to this group, safe in the purchase of a branded artist. No dinner guest will be insulted, no sensibility challenged in this best of all possible worlds, and any host praised for their acumen in the purchase of a work with a subject so obscure that it must be genius. If there is universal consensus, the king, after all, must be clothed.
One must wonder about the reaction of his patrons when Velazquez, commissioned to paint a portrait of the children of the king (1656), produced a work in which the artist figures larger than the subject. "Las Meninas" has been described as the most important work in Western art with its bold statement that the artist is more important than the subject, a tenet that established the groundwork for the modern art market; without that basis, one was simply buying a picture, but suddenly, one was buying a brand. In our world, brand is more important than content, as it establishes the purchaser as a member of an exclusive club, inclusion in which demands collective disregard for the fact that the poor king is actually naked.
Around 1820, Francisco de Goya, traumatized by the brutality of the Napoleonic Wars, his illnesses and fear of insanity, produced the Black Paintings, one of the most important and moving bodies of work in the history of art. These are paintings executed by a master that have a tremendous impact on anyone that sees them. Two hundred years later they still seem modern, rivet our attention, and engender emotions in the viewer. This is art. If the king had no clothes, Goya would paint his naked bony body for the world to see.
The modern world, with its complexities, dangers, and stimulus overload, encourages a retreat to the safe, peaceful and familiar; we don't always want to be challenged, forced to think. Paradoxically, in this precipitous time, it is even more urgent that we consider, critique, and speak out. The issues that face us are grave, and can only be ignored at our peril. The role of art is to challenge us, bring sensitive issues to the fore, to take a stand. A work only qualifies as "art" if it is both masterfully executed, and uses the medium to make a statement, like Evans, or Velazquez, or Goya. Emotionless, immaculate creations are handicraft, and should not command a place in public dialog, and certainly don't belong next to the masters. They have a place behind the couch, with the approval of a decorator, but not in the museum next to the artists that have changed our way of seeing. Of course, "art" has been commoditized, and markets demand safety and predictability, a converse exigency from the real meaning of the word. Good marketing is about establishing the brand and reinforcing market recognition. What better strategy in the art market than to endlessly repeat a variation of a slightly edgy subject, following a path that was laid by a rogue years before.
The art world, like so many human cliques, operates in a lemming-like fashion, and once an editor or curator deems something worthy of publication or display, their colleagues rush to join the line; to wit, one can hardly enter a museum without seeing an exhibit of the Bechers. As teachers, the credibility they bestowed on their students has magnified their influence in the photography world immeasurably, to our (those who love photography) impoverishment. After all, how many giant reproductions of supermarket interiors, overhead wires, row houses, or museum interiors do we need to see in our museums? Maybe it would be nice to see the occasional Walker Evans exhibit?