Academic Art

I have been involved in a master class for photographic artists for some time now, but have decided to terminate my involvement. I must admit I find the conversations very interesting, and I really love the focused dialog between artists that really doesn’t happen in every day life. You need to seek out people working in the same medium, but that alone is not enough. They need to be mentally in the same state, and regular weekend retreats enable that. Even artists have days when they have to do their taxes, take the kids to the dentist and test out new gear… so not all days allow for the freedom of mind to drill into the importance of the work.

But the academic art world, and especially the specialized world of fine art photography coming out of the art schools, tends to be extremely fixated on its own belly button. The last weekend was a combined class with graduates from ENSPA, the École Nationale Supériore des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The students meet every four months, and present their work in relation to a theme that was assigned previously.

Of course there was some highly creative work on view. Some of it was quite clever, and had an interesting take on the assigned theme. But most of it was so conceptual that it required a long essay to be read out loud before the work was presented, and that barely made the images more comprehensible.  It also seemed like most people had the same ideas, including five who used Google Earth as the basis of their project, and several more who recontextualized images by photographing existing pictures or capturing various screens, posters, or paintings. This has been done ad nauseum, and it has been done well. I will admit that one or two of the works were quite smart.

Two weeks ago I attended Paris Photo, the annual pinnacle of photographic art fairs. I am always surprised about the number of galleries that specialize in representing the work of such students-turned-artists. The galleries’ primary business is selling art to large insurance companies, energy consortia, and major banks, who in turn have funded trusts dedicated to building up art assets. These funds are being curated by other art school graduates, who in turn are seeking consultation from other former art school graduates. Outside of the art world this is called a circle jerk. There is an insularity to the art being sold for large sums, but ultimately that art has not withstood one of the tests of art: does it work?

One test that academic art has failed consistently is in the market place. Can money validate art? Its an age-old question, but one fact to consider in whether importance is artificially bestowed should be that 85% of the conceptual work did not hold its value once achieved in previous auctions.

Sean O’Hagan poses some other interesting questions in his article On not answering the Question: what makes a good Photograph over at Photoworks.

So I am terminating my flirtation with academia. It lacks passion, and it lacks lust. And frankly, none of my heroes and role models emerged from academia, and that may say the most.

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Tired of the Fear

I have been working on a new project for months now. I am only really getting started, because I want to take my time finding the right visual language, but also want to make sure the images I create provoke thought. I don’t want them to be provocative without reason, I am too old for that.

The new project deals with religious iconography, but uses the language of beauty and fashion. I don’t do that casually, I believe that models have become our modern-day angels in terms of the visual language. I do not men that as a compliment. They are unattainably perfect creatures that serve to remind us that we are not “good enough” in the eyes of ourselves. The use of fashion models, dancers, and character actors in my work serves another purpose: it questions the viewer, and demands attention. Yet no product or service is being sold, and so the plasticity of the image requires attention beyond the immediate medial digestion system.

I have created about fourteen images so far, and have many more planned. Not all will see the light of day, because as I refine the purpose of the project, and get more comfortable in this visual language, some of the images will simply seem out of place. There will be many images that are simply beautiful… I could never just make message-pictures, that’s not my style… but certainly the project will have some key pieces that set the mood for the series.

Here are two images that I am willing to show right now.

I presented the series for the first time today at a photographic art masterclass in Paris, at the École Nationale Supériore des Beaux-Arts no less, one of the most acclaimed art schools in our time. Although the work was well-received, I was shocked by the childlike expression of fear over possibly angering religious fundamentalists. I will admit that the bulk of the work is provocative, it was created with the purpose of questioning our respect for religious imagery while using the baroque language of art to echo back a contemporary theme. But I was shocked and dismayed to find such timidity amongst fellow artists. Especially the older, more successful ones that were leading the class were mostly worried about the response amongst the ultra-religious.

How much longer must we all live in fear? Why do we – as enlightened people – fear the thuggish religious so much that we are willing to forego our rights simply to appease them? How long are we willing to let mullahs, rabbis, and the Holy Sea dictate to us what is acceptable when they contribute nothing to the progress of society?

Leave me your thoughts, or better yet just write to me at info@roth-photo.com and I will discuss it, though I may not answer right away.

Hopper’s Americans… the alternate selection

One of the great frustrations of a good photo project is making final selections… here are some images that didn’t make the initial cut, were not included in the book, and then ultimately have yet to be exhibited at a show…. they’re a lot better as large prints, but I thought you might want to see them as little web files for now.

Part of the official selection can be seen by clicking Projects above and going to Hopper’s Americans.


…and guess what: there’s another 30 images that remain unpublished…