July 28, 2009 at 9:09 am
Gustave Courbet, Un enterrement à Ornans, c. 1849-50, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Just as Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet aggrandized peasants in the latter half of the 19th century, Web 2.0 is doing the same for the 21st century commoner. The peasant can be represented just as prominently and loudly as an Emperor or Jesus Christ, which might suggest that he might also have a voice within his respective population and not be degraded to the lowest rank in any given hierarchical pyramid. It can be argued that the average creator of a YouTube video might get even more attention than a political or religious figure. We all know that President Obama’s embracing of Web 2.0 culture helped win him the election. Ashton Kutcher is the most widely followed person on twitter, with almost 3 million followers, and Fred is still the most widely subscribed YouTuber, with almost 1.3 million subscribers. The White House’s official YouTube channel has just under 80,000 followers.
The commoner can be celebrated and used to subversively challenge hierarchical conventions of power. Just as a handful of early modernist French artists — Barbizon painters, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Realists — challenged the institution of the French Academy, or just as the Third Estate — the most populous group with the smallest voice — was the catalyst and major force in overthrowing the establishment of the Ancien Regime, Web 2.0, YouTube, social networking, and reality television are too challenging old power structures.
Jacques-Louis David, Le Premier Consul franchissant les Alpes au col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, 1800, Château du Malmaison, France; Antoine-Jean Gros, Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa le 11 mars 1799, c. 1804, Musée du Louvre, Paris
When Jacques-Louis David or Antoine-Jean Gros painted Napoléon Bonaparte towards the end of the 18th century, they had to create a myth around the figure of the French Emperor. He had to be shown in the most respectable manner, not only because he was the most powerful man in Europe, but because he was paying for the creation of the tableau. Yet he was dependant upon artists, just as Louis XIV or Julius Caesar was, to disseminate his myth and folklore. He himself was incapable of visually representing himself to all of Europe alone.
Artists, on the other hand, were a peculiar case because they could create their own image. They could depict themselves however they wished, be it in front of the canvas or in nature, as a God or misunderstood artist, beautiful or ugly, idealized or veristic. The way they fashioned their skin, hair, environment, or clothing played into this premeditated image.
Self-portraits abound throughout the history of art. From Albrecht Dürer’s Christ-like self-portrait to Courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre, artists have always used their creative skills at constructing their own image and legend, controlling viewers’ perceptions of themselves. It is no coincidence that as history has approached present day, representational and sociopolitical power has moved away from the few kings, popes, and aristocrats to the masses. That is, the earliest people depicted tended to be Gods or those with the means (either monetary, political, or artistic) to commission a portrait. With the social, economic, and political upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries, power moved into the masses and artistic control followed suite. YouTube and the idea of a user-generated era falls into this larger subversion of social hierarchies.
The desire to have oneself painted, photographed, or depicted in any artistic mode (or have control over his own sociopolitical economic destiny) is not new to human existence. It has been around since the dawn of art, but the means in which people can now project their image into the world and have it seen by literally millions of people is something very new. Even with the birth of photography, only the affluent with access to new technological and chemical resources had the means to have their portrait taken.
But as technologies have progressed, evolved, and inadvertently become cheaper and more democratic, the shift in power has always seemed to trickle back down to the masses. It seems as though Web 2.0 is finally beginning to assert itself as a veritable force that is challenging many of the oldest established power structures. Artists, politicians, musicians, scientists, writers, and advocates alike are challenging old-formed institutions and industries by utilizing the newest (free) technologies made available to them.
As journalists have less and less access into Iran, major media outlets are beginning to turn to “citizen journalism” for more information. Iran’s oppressive government is now being subverted through Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Blogs are disseminating unprecedented amounts of information with the most simple of means.
It’s interesting to see how these new platforms are being used in ways that were completely unheard of just a few years ago. I feel as though I never saw serious, didactic footage on YouTube or read anything truly important on blogs. It’s very exciting and I hope that more empowering things come from these new technological resources.
July 24, 2009 at 5:21 pm
Ever since i saw Badlands (1973) three years ago, I became a fan of Terrence Malick. I picked up Days of Heaven (1978) and couldn’t help but notice how much it seemed to have in common with the new breed of American photography that was developing alongside it, as pioneered by Richard Misrach, Stephen Shore, Mitch Epstein, Joel Sternfeld, and Joel Meyerowitz.
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Joel Sternfeld, A Blind Man in his Garden, Homer, Alaska, July, 1984, from American Prospects
The style and story of Malick’s films seemed to anticipate their works. As far as I know, Days of Heaven was in the making before any of the photographers’ color work had received wide-spread critical acclaim, which would lead me to believe that Terrence Malick and his cinematographer, Néstor Almendros, were no different than the group of color photographers in their approach and sensibilities. Shore’s first major color exhibition was held at MoMA in 1976, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art published a limited-edition portfolio of 12 prints the same year; Meyerowitz showed Cape Light at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1978; Sally Eauclaire’s seminal The New Color Photography, in which she writes at length about the new photographers, was not published until 1981; both Sternfeld’s American Prospects and Misrach’s Desert Cantos books appeared in 1987; Sternfeld did not even begin touring America until 1978, when he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. For the majority of the photographers, their photos were not widely seen until the late 1970s.
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Richard Misrach, Desert Fire #249, 1985, from Desert Cantos
All the photographers were working in a sort of self-reflexive manner, photographing, for the most part, solely within America. Their pictures are completely in touch with their times, suggesting a shifting of the idyllic American society and a collapse of American politics. Malick’s films are concerned with many of the same aesthetic principles that interested the pioneering color photographers, such as light, color, and emotional depth, but what is most compelling is how their conceptual interests were completely attuned to one another. That is, the visual similarities are a point of departure, but beyond that, their interest in American mythology and its corruption is at the core of their work.
Richard Misrach’s photographs of the devastated American desert in the Desert Cantos and Bravo 20 (1990) recall Cold War politics, armament, environmentalism, and other international issues while remaining contained within a plot of Nevada desert. Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects describes a dilapidated American landscape, populated with the same disenchanted characters that can be found throughout Malick’s films.
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Joel Sternfeld, Bear Lake, Utah, July 1979, from American Prospects
Sternfeld, like many other contemporaneous color photographers, understood that if color photography were to be taken seriously, it would have to compete with painting.
In “Corrupting Photography,” Kenneth Brougher’s forward to the newest imprint of American Prospects, Brougher writes: Sternfeld aspired to “paint” a larger canvas or worldview that brought together figure, landscape, and narrative into one master frame that slowly reveals its secrets. His goal was to create a contemplative and slow viewing experience without returning to the late-nineteenth-century photographers’ mimicry of painting techniques with such “special effects” as diffused lighting and silhouetted imagery. He wanted to depict man’s place within the complex contemporary world, to reinvest the landscape with a sense of narrative, to offer vistas peppered with myriad details rendered in crystal clarity that, as much of traditional landscape painting, leave the viewer with a mystery yet to unravel. Bruegel, as well as other painters ranging from the Limbourg brothers to Jacob van Ruisdael used compositional and perspectival methods to bring the macrocosm into the microcosm, to examine man’s relationship to both tamed and untamed nature; their work offered Sternfeld a way of thinking about photography’s ability to create landscape imagery imbedded with meaning.
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Jean-François Millet, Les Glaneuses, 1857, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Jean-François Millet, L’Angélus, 1857-59, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Just as the 19th Century Barbizon painter Jean-François Millet used the landscape and its inhabitants as the backdrop for a sociopolitical stage, Sternfeld and Misrach created beautiful and relevant images with the same subtle gradations of tone and respect for their subjects. Millet’s almost religious paintings of French peasants tending to their work seemed to reflect the plight of the workers in Days of Heaven, and the desolate and bleak landscapes of Misrach and Sternfeld. The crepuscular activities of Millet’s peasants were always described with a muted color palette, adding to the solemnity of the images. While Millet’s paintings were never meant to be a critique of French society or the terrible working conditions of the French peasantry, the sober tone was certainly established within the frame, and his stance towards his subject matter is understood. Similarly, Sternfeld and Misrach’s work articulate observations that neither condemn nor praise American life, yet their visions are clear and efficient enough for us to understand the larger picture at hand.
Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” film still, 1978; Jean-François Millet, Bergère avec son troupeau, c. 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
In the work of all four of these visual artists, man is connected, bound, and defined by the earth. The connection is clear in Millet and Malick’s case, where the peasants are inextricably chained to the earth. In the same way that modern architecture defines the space and characters in Antonioni’s films, I find that the American landscape does the same for Misrach and Sternfeld’s work — it becomes a character that forms and interacts with those who inhabit it. The restless and outlawed nature of the killers in Badlands is shaped by the endless sprawl of suburbia and the American countryside. The characters in Days of Heaven are as defined by the landscape as the real-life Americans who left the cities to find work in rural America. As Brougher stated in “Corrupting Photography,” the figures within Sternfeld’s landscapes are completely intertwined, each notifying the other. For Misrach, they identify one another, yet because his work is the most overtly political, he posits that man has destroyed his surrounding landscape, which in turn, destroys him.