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Review: Seeing Things Differently

Author(s): Grant H. Kester

Reviewed work(s):
The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire by Deborah Bright
Source: Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 101-103
Published by: College Art Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/777919
Accessed: 17/02/2010 11:34

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the past. Do everything possible not to Hanh Thi Pham, Sunil Gupta, Catherine
Seeing Things
repeat our mistakes and to make your Opie, and many others, making the book
dreams become reality."'3 Differently an excellent resource for courses on queer
Grant H. Kester representation in general and contemporary
1. DavidA. Ross,"Interview: DavidA. Rossin art in particular.Contributing writers
Conversationwith IlyaKabakov," inIlyaKabakov Deborah Bright, ed. ThePassionate
Camera: include Michael Anton Budd, Mark Alice
(London:PhaidonPress,1998), 17, 19. andBodiesof Desire.London:
2. Correspondencewiththe author,March14, Photography Durant, Liz Kotz, Mysoon Rizk, James
1999. Routledge, i998. 441 pp., 200 b/w and Smalls, and Alisa Solomon. The book also
3. Ross,8. color ills. $85. features a useful bibliography of sources
4. SvetlanaBoym,Common Places:Mythologies
Mass.:Harvard on queer theory, photographic history, and
Everyday LifeinRussia(Cambridge,
UniversityPress,1994), 193;thanksto Marianne As Jerry Falwell's recent attack on the "gay visual culture.
Hirschof DartmouthCollegefor suggesting subtext" in Teletubbies suggests, queer Bright's introduction reviews some of
Boym'sworkto me.
identity in our culture has a particularly the political and theoretical questions sur-
5. Ibid.,193.
6. BorisGroys,"'WithRussianOn YourBack':A close and complex relationship to questions rounding the staging of gay sexuality in
ConversationbetweenllyaKabakovandBoris of visual representation. Is that a television the mass media, political discourse, and
Groys,"Parkett, no. 34 (1992):36. antenna on Tinky Winky's head or a gay art. Bright challenges what she describes as
7. Amei Wallach, llya Kabakov:The Man Who
NeverThrew AnythingAway(New York:HarryN. pride "pink triangle"?Is Tinky holding a misinterpretations of the performative the-
Abrams,1996),86; citedfroma 1992letterfrom purse or just a "magic bag"? And what are ories of sexuality and identity associated
Kabakov to Wallach. we to make of the Teletubby fascination with writers such as Judith Butler, which
8. PaoloFalconeinterviewwith llyaandEmilia with wearing skirts?Falwell's decision to tend to view the assumption of sexual
Kabakov, in llyaandEmiliaKabakov, Monument to
a LostCivilization/Monumento allciviltaperduta, fixate on remarkablyobscure (and perhaps identity as a kind of open-ended ludic
exh. cat. (Palermo:CantieriCulturali aliaZisaand nonexistent) signifiers of queerness in the play. She points instead to the material and
Milan:Edizioni Charta,1999), 17-18. Teletubbies, while such obvious examples political forces that impinge on and con-
9. Wallach,84.
as Xena:WarriorPrincess captivate millions of strain what might be termed the "privilege
10.IlyaKabakov, Auf demDach/Onthe Roof,exh.
cat. (Dusseldorf:RichterVerlag,1997),8. children each week, tells us a great deal of performance." Bright is particularlycon-
I 1. Boym,193. about straight, conservative fantasies of cerned with diversifying the construction
queerness as a discourse of subversion of queer sexuality to include vectors of
13.Monument, 19.
and seduction. It raises another question class, race, and ethnicity. Thus the book
AmyIngridSchlegelis curatorat the Philadelphia as well. Is there a specifically queer her- includes essays and stories by Elizabeth
ArtAllianceandorganizerof the currenttraveling meneutics of the image? What are its con- Stephens, Paul Franklin, Linda Dittmar,
ditions, and how is it different from either Mark A. Reid, and Catherine Lord, among
Exile,whichincludesthe workof IlyaKabakov,
WlodzimierzKsiazek,DinhQ. Le,TanjaSoftic, Falwell's homophobic paranoia, or, for others, which do a superb job of outlining
IreneSosa,andAnaTiscornia.Itwas on view that matter, from mainstream art historical the complex effect of these forces.
at the BrattleboroMuseum&Art Center, methodologies? In her book ThePassionate One of the key points of articulation
Brattleboro,Vermont,fromMay14to July18,
1999andwillbe on view in Philadelphia
from Camera: PhotographyandBodiesof Desire,Deborah for a theory of queer visuality concerns
February 7 to March19,2000. Bright provides an invaluable guide to the the status of desire within intellectual dis-
conditions of queer visuality in the specific course. Conventional art history, founded
context of photographic as it is on the myth of disinterested schol-
history and art practice. arship, must expel or suspend the desire of
Bright, a photo historian and artist the historian, whose job it is to dispassion-
who teaches at the Rhode Island School ately situate the recalcitrant"work of art"
of Design, has combined a wide range of within the already established narrative
materials, including historical and archival of art historical progress. This attempt to
studies, analyses of contemporary art make the difference of the singular work
activism, short stories, and an impressive intelligible within, or conformable to, the
selection of works by contemporary artists. normative standardof artistic achievement,
Given this diversity, the writing through- might be seen as particularlyproblematic
out is fairly consistent, with relatively few for a viewer whose own identity is con-
lapses into excessively turgid academese. structed against the grain of a hetero-
Though at eighty-five dollars, the hardback normative culture.
price is a bit steep, the book is heavily David Deitcher's discussion of his
illustrated, with both black-and-white and relationship to an anonymous ambrotype
color images. Among them are works by of two (possibly) gay men from the
Lyle Ashton Harris, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, i85os, which opens Bright's book, offers

I 01 art journal
a revealing meditation on this dilemma. various readings that have developed outlaw and the mechanic's calendar girl to
Deitcher uses the image to explore both his around Robert Mapplethorpe's images of satisfy butch and femme desire. But this
own ambivalent relationship to academic black men also addresses the question of discourse of subversion and mimicry is at
inquiry ("queer men and women are justi- subversion. Reid relates the beatification the same time a product of oppression; a
fied in maintaining a certain skepticism of Mapplethorpe as a kind of saint of gay language of citation and counter-citation,
regarding the historian's positivistic and art to the relative neglect suffered by artists of reading, writing, and looking between
empirical method") and the complex posi- of color such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode. the lines, necessitated by the homophobia
tion of queerness in the nineteenth-century KaucyilaBrooke describes the difficul- of the dominant culture. It is a form of
concept of "romantic friendship," which ties she encountered in trying to research wisdom, of creativity, yes, but at a price,
granted a "special dispensation" (29) Berenice Abbott's images of the lesbian and we (especially straight critics, histori-
to same-sex relationships. At the same subcultureof Parisin the I92os. Shein- ans, and artists) would do well to recog-
moment, Deitcher is less concerned with cludes a letter from Abbott, who vigorously nize its origins. Among the more provoca-
the historical specificity of the image than resisted Brooke's attempt to read the images tive questions that Bright's book raises
he is with its ability to give him the plea- in connection to her sexual orientation, in is, Can we imagine a queer visuality or
sure of self-recognition. Here intrudes identity outside of this
Deitcher's own desire to read in or into the repression? The collection
image something more, which may or may raises an additional ques-
not be borne out by the picture's manifest tion. Just who is being
content: "I am drawn to the men in this "subverted"?As the queer
photograph because their pose strikes me writer Jane DeLynn has
as courageous, even defiant. And yet this noted in her book BadSex
may only be projection on my part, a mea- Is Good:FictionandEssays
sure of how much I would like to find (I998), the reason why
so much "gay art seems
gay desire reflected in an artifact from
the pre-gay past" (25). It is precisely the designed to tweak the noses
anonymity of the image, its lack of autho- of the Jesse Helms's of the
rial and historical stability, which allows world [is] because who
it to function this way. Thus Deitcher else really cares?" (196).
describes his particularattraction to Who is the audience
"orphaned"pictures that exist both "in which Abbott, sounding a bit like an exas- for queer art? Is it straight viewers whose
and out" of history (29). perated Dr. McCoy, insists, "I'm a photog- consciousness will be expanded by an
A second and related theme is subver- rapher not a lesbian!" (suggesting precisely encounter with a sexually transgressive
sion. We might draw a parallel here to the kind of elision of the sexual dimension Other? Or do images of queer desire func-
urban parks built during the late nineteenth of photographic production that the book tion instead to corroborate and confirm
century. Originally intended to pacify the is at pains to overcome, as if the positions an identity that is always at risk of dis-
immigrant masses through a therapeutic of "lesbian" and "photographer"were solution? Bright's book suggests that the
exposure to "nature," they are now peri- mutually exclusive) (I30). At the same representation of queerness in art can
odically transformed into sites for cruising time, the exchange between Brooke and only proceed through a questioning of the
and gay desire. In the same way, the queer Abbott suggests some of the problems rhetoric of art itself. Appropriatelyenough
viewer temporarily inhabits, and re-maps, (ethical and well as hermeneutic) that the the book ends (almost) with two essays
the space of the straight image. Jos6 Esteban kind of reading "in" to the image practiced analyzing the visual politics of AIDS
Mufioz offers a fascinating re-reading of by Deitcher raises when the photograph in activism with a particularemphasis on the
the "queer charge" (i68) in LarryClark's question is not an anonymous, nineteenth- role of women. Both EricaRand and Mary
images of white adolescent boys (in Teenage century ambrotype of two unknown men, Patten write from a retrospective point of
Lust,Tulsa,Kids,and ThePerfect For
Childhood). but the work of a living artist. view. Their essays look back at the AIDS
his part, Clarkrefuses to admit even the Other essays in the book explore battles of the 198os and early 1990S and
possibility that his relentless fascination YasumasaMorimura's photographic re- look forward to the future of queer cultural
with teenage male sexuality (which reduces creations of "masterpieces"of Western art
women to the status of on-lookers or in his attempt to overcome the "desexual- Yasumasa Morimura.
"props") may somehow reflect on his own ized Zen asceticism" of the Asian male ("if Portrait(Futago), 1988.
desires. Perhaps he fears that this admission Asian men have no sexuality, how can we Color photograph, 823 x
I18 (210.2 x 299.7).
would pose an intolerable threat to his have homosexuality?" (238)) and Elizabeth
Courtesy Luhring
own "bad boy" self-fashioning, as Mufoz Stephens's staged photographs of dykes on Augustine Gallery, New
describes it. Mark A. Reid's analysis of the bikes, re-coding the image of the biker York.

102 WINTER 1999

activism, now forced to contend with the The Integrity of the Morgan believes that the way out of the
depoliticized mainstreaming of "lesbian current quandary is to put an end to the
chic" (Linda Dittmar's apt term) and the Artist art world as it now exists. He urges artists
still powerful energies of Falwell, Pat Mark Daniel Cohen to struggle to liberate themselves from the
Robertson, and the conservative hordes. art world's temptations of fame and finan-
Robert C. Morgan. TheEndof theArtWorld. cial triumph. He recommends that they
GrantH. Kesteris AssistantProfessorof New York: Allworth Press, i998. 256 pp., turn to an art of personal consequence-
Contemporary Art HistoryandTheoryat 4o b/w ills. $ i8.95. to strive for an inner-directed art created
out of individual experience-and that
The nearly unanimous point of view that they bring to bear upon their work their
dominates current art criticism provides an full imaginative resources. His argument
ideal platform for contrarian thought. Thus amounts to a call for a return of aesthetic
does conformity constitute a perfect back- standardsand objectives. He also urges a
drop for nonconformity. The predictability return of art's status as a rarefied species
of the shared assumptions that compose of awareness that embodies an intuition
the amorphous body of postmodern theory arching beyond the limits of rational
invites individual voices to arise and thought into what may only be called
demands that something truly critical be beauty, which "emerges when logic has
written. This situation is an opportunity exhausted its limits" (47).
and a responsibility that Robert C. Morgan The determining characteristicof
has elected to confront in his recent essays. Morgan's aesthetics is its grounding in
TheEndof theArtWorldis a collection of his psychology. He argues that the revivifica-
previously published essays and reviews, tion of art must be based in the psycho-
most of which he wrote during the 199os. logical coherence of the artist. Authentic
Taken as a whole, they adumbrateMorgan's art requires and invokes a coordination of
argument against the prevailing tendencies emotion, intelligence, and intuition, instill-
that have characterizedart and art criticism ing the viewer with "a heightened sensory
for the last two decades. cognition" (io). In essence, this critic's
He puts his condemnation in no uncer- solution to the social disintegration of the
tain terms. He launches a full blown assault art world is located in the psychological
on the general state of the "art world," a integration of the artist, an integration that
marketing and publicity system bolstered is the foundation of the artist's integrity
by the hardened academic rhetoric of post- as a creator. Ultimately the answer to the
modernism that controls the creation and imperious influence of the art world's
selling of art. It is a fragmented network corporate marketing strategies is the self-
of business concerns and careerist interests reliant capabilities of the artist as a mature
that lacks any central artistic concerns and individual capable of personally directed
serves only to divert artists away from action and independent judgment.
serious work and toward the pursuit of Morgan presents his views directly in
marketplace success. As a result, contem- the six essays in Manifestos, the first sec-
porary art has become virtually lost in the tion of the book. They weave a cogent
swamp of visual culture-the neutralizer of argument, yet his reviews of contemporary
artistic significance. Year after year, artists artists who exemplify his conception of
chase the constantly shifting demands of inner direction even more clearly demar-
the market, creating art after a fashion and cate his vision. In these, he demonstrates
offering up not works of personal inten- by example how works of art may func-
tion and insight, but escapist spectacles tion as apprehensions of an emotionally
and anonymous analyses of cultural signs. dense intelligence, of a more difficult
Art critics have become apologists for the and more valuable cognition. And here,
system, bandying about impenetrable ter- Morgan conveys his own thoughtful and
minology that serves to mystify generally felt experience in confronting the art
meaningless works of art, suspending them object. These reviews exemplify the kind
in an intellectual atmosphere that betrays all of criticism their author recommends. They
adult expectations of meaning and quality. are instances of Morgan's own integrity,

103 art journal