SPE Insight Award
I received notification this past fall that the Society for Photographic Education has selected me as the lone 2014 recipient of the SPE Insight Award, coming up in a few months. An auspicious way to kick off the new year.
According to the organization’s description, “This award was developed by SPEʼs National Board of Directors to recognize achievements of significant distinction made by individuals to the photographic education field. Measured from when careers first begin to the time when standing ovations erupt spontaneously in lecture halls, SPEʼs Insight Award symbolizes the realization of a national or international career or the launching of future endeavors to new challenges, ideas, and horizons.
“Photographers (in the broadest sense of the word today), as well as scholars, curators, writers, and visionaries ― be their achievements rapid-fire or accumulated over time ― are eligible for the Societyʼs mark of recognition and distinction.”
Of my work, they write, “[Coleman’s] significant contribution to the field of photographic education and this organization are deeply appreciated, and we truly look forward to honoring him at the conference.” I’m honored by both the nomination and the confirmation of this award. The Insight Award will be presented at the SPE’s national conference in Baltimore this March. I’ll accept it in person, and hope to see you there.
I’m just four and a half years away from the 50th anniversary of the day I hung out my shingle as a freelance photography critic. From that perspective, I can see how a critic in any medium starts out, necessarily, as a chronicler, addressing events (the works produced by his or her contemporaries, and the then-current issues related to them) as they happen, in the role of first-person witness thereto.
However, if that same critic survives and persists in that role for a substantial stretch of time, he or she eventually becomes a historian as well, aware at least of the patterns that became visible during his or her working life, capable of tying those to the comparable patterns of the preceding periods ― a synopsized version of Fernand Braudel’s concept of the longue durée, the long-term view, which you could also think of as the ability to contextualize.
Listening closely as I have this past year to the avant-garde jazz of the 1950s and 1960s, I understand well what Pankaj Mishra wrote in 2007 about John Coltrane, that he “was trying to escape the impasse of antiquarianism in which so much of jazz finds itself today, or … working out, in his most inward quests, the melancholy logic of obsolescence.” It seems entirely possible that, if you substitute the word photography for jazz, this describes my own condition as a critic and historian whose attainment of the capacity for something akin to the longue durée makes me, by definition, a “walking antique”: obsolete in a society newly habituated to the short-term view and what George W. S. Trow described as “the context of no context.”
So in March, by honoring me, the SPE will applaud one of the last surviving members of a species that may not even have earned that sobriquet ― a short-lived branch line of art criticism with a statistically insignificant population that lasted just a few generations, perhaps nothing more than a sport of culture, lusus culturae.
Did the SPE play a role, active or passive, in the dying out of that line ― or, to put it another way, could the SPE have contributed more effectively to its propagation?
I’d answer yes to both versions of that question, at the risk of biting the hand that will fête me in a few months. Concentrating its focus and energies exclusively on BFA/MFA studio programs in photography, the organization built no lines of communication with and provided scant support for programs in photo/art history and criticism, museum studies, image studies, visual anthropology, visual sociology, visual culture, photojournalism, media theory, and the other disciplines that involve the analysis and contextualization of lens-derived imagery.
Because the organization’s board and membership have always made teaching college students to make photographs their primary goal for “photographic education,” I can’t offhand think of many of those I consider my colleagues in the area of criticism and history who came out of BFA/MFA photo programs. (The late Allan Sekula is an exception, to some extent, but he never became a working critic.) I’ve cited a variety of causes for the medium’s inability to field a full team of qualified critics; this surely merits a place among them.
Periodically, in this space and elsewhere, I bemoan (as above) the devolution of my métier. Albert Camus cautioned that “one should never indulge in useless lamentations over an inescapable state of affairs,” and Susan Sontag asserted that “to be scandalized by the normal is always demagogic.” I agree with both. But what if the “state of affairs” isn’t inescapable, or only recently became so? What if the “normal” is still in the “new normal” stage, possibly reversible ― or, if not, just freshly locked in place?
Do those who still recall the previous condition not deserve at least the confirmation that they’re not crazy and it wasn’t always this way? Plus some analysis of how this transformation came to pass, and who we might hold accountable? Even some suggestions about alternative strategies? Or should they receive only, per Nancy Pelosi, advice to “embrace the suck” and get with the program?
Yes, We Have No Silk Purses
Interesting times, surely, in which to practice critical thinking:
• Increasing evidence indicates that obesity, which has reached epidemic proportions worldwide, has a connection to lower IQ in children and the decline in cognitive skills like thinking and memory among the middle-aged.
• Not only do upwards of 74 percent of students admit to cheating, but student teachers cheat by hiring ghostwriters to complete their assignments and, thus unprepared, enter the classroom as faculty to pass along their ignorance and, presumably, their ethics.
• Which, in turn, explains the increasing visibility of people who suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect, “a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.” (Click the preceding link for the original research; click here for an analysis thereof.)
• Which manifests itself in such forms as 50 percent of incoming freshmen requiring “remedial work” before beginning college-level classes while, simultaneously, 75 percent of incoming U.S. college students rate themselves as “above average” (according to the American Freshman Survey).
The Marching Morons
C. M. Kornbluth predicted the inevitable outcome of all this in his terrifying short story from 1951, “The Marching Morons.” (Click here for a podcast version.) If you doubt its prophetic power, consider these evidences:
• The majority of Republicans ― as well as the majority of evangelical white and black Protestants ― currently reject outright the theory of evolution, believing instead that “humans have existed in the same form since the beginning of time.” Thus swapping the vision of the mother of us all, Mama Lucy, walking on the veldt for the image of God giving man dominion over the velociraptor and the pterodactyl, with T-Rex and the Brachiosaurus lying down with each other in the Garden of Eden before the Fall — “God’s Gospel Lizards,” as Christian idiots have dubbed them.
• Psychologist G. Dick Miller successfully argued during the trial of teen drunk driver Ethan Couch ― who crashed a car he had no legal right to drive, killing four people and severely injuring two more ― that wealth constituted a new disease Miller named “affluenza” which renders its sufferers not responsible for their actions: class privilege meets (and marries) the reductio ad absurdum of the therapeutic model.
• Over 200,000 people applied for participation in a project colonizing Mars, of which 1000 got shortlisted, from which group, after testing, 24 will get chosen. (The significance of this will become apparent once you read the Kornbluth story.)
We Are Devo
For my part, I accept the theory of evolution, which means that I must also accept the possibility of the devolution of species, including my own. But I never anticipated actually watching it happen during my lifetime; I expected it to come incrementally, slowly enough that no individual would actually notice the diminution. Alas, we’ve reached the point where, going to bed on any given night, I can feel confident that upon waking I’ll find myself among people who’ve grown more ignorant, stupid, and dumb than when I shut my eyes just hours earlier.
The dumbing down of our culture and its citizenry has achieved a momentum that seems inexorable and may prove irreversible. Most of it doesn’t result from conscious planning but from what Victor Gold, former press secretary to Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, called “osmotic conspiracy.” But some of it happens deliberately, by choice.
For example, the newly appointed editor at the website BuzzFeed, Isaac Fitzgerald, has actually banned negative book reviews. He expects contributors to “follow what he calls the ‘Bambi Rule': ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.'” As he puts it, “Why waste breath talking smack about something? You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.”
So much for old media-type Voltaire and his belief that “To hold a pen is to be at war.” So much for old media-type Karl Marx, who wrote, “The essential sentiment of criticism is indignation; its essential activity is denunciation.” (Emphasis in the original.)
So much for old media-types like Will Blythe, who walked away from two weeks’ severance pay from the website Byliner, a San Francisco-based digital publishing company and subscription service, because he refused on principle to sign a termination agreement that included a “No Disparagement” clause: “You agree that you will never make any negative or disparaging statements (orally or in writing) about the Company or its stockholders, directors, officers, employees, products, services or business practices, except as required by law.”
And so much for old media-type yours truly, content to “waste breath talking smack about something” when that seems both justified and necessary. I praise what I find deserving, of course, but I seek readers who sometimes feel, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth had embroidered on her salon pillow, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
This post supported by a donation from photographer Harry Wilks.