Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Obvious, Part I

Taking pictures at a concert is silly:

1) It’s music (duh). A photograph has no teeth for it, just as an audiotape recorded in a sculpture gallery sez nil about Rodin, & only a little about Duchamp.

2) Photography mingles light with things: guitarists, speaker racks, crowds, sweaty, misshapen frontmen. Unless you are the Rolling Stones, the stage lighting at a venue is completely beyond the band’s control. If you are the Rolling Stones, you get to approve a professional lighting designer’s concept for your world tour, and to expect remedy if you complain about a par64 shining in your eyes. That’s as close as musicians get to creative participation in the core element of your photo.

Enjoy instead the talent your favorite band brings to the stage: playing music live.

3) Enjoying music live, like enjoying life, requires being there. Go to a great show and you enjoy two-plus hours in a room with a group of like-minded folk, brought into common bond by the artists on stage. Live music - unlike painting or sculpture - unfolds over a discrete period time, and those two hours in that crowd are - unlike a movie - a shared, unrepeatable experience. Hold still to keep an ecstatic crowd from jostling yr Canon Elph while you snap the backlit bassist a 30th time...and you’re not really there. You’ve distanced yourself from direct experience of the event for the sake of memorializing it, grabbing a digital memento of an experience you didn’t live.

The astute reader will accuse me of reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography recently. This is true. I also admit that I am an obsessive shutterbug. I take photos at the Port Authority Bus Terminal the way Japanese tourists snapped the Lincoln Memorial in the 80s. So I sympathize with the impulse.

NTL, I post this as legitimate criticism, because photography does a number of things to the way we construct our notion of the world around us. Miz Sontag was spot on in most respects, and between 1) globalization b) the internet c) cheap digital cameras/phones with cameras/pdas with phones with cameras/etc On Photography is even more broadly applicable. I’m particularly interested in how photographic images of unspecified foreign parts and peoples add up to American/Western notions of foreign poverty, and what that means for how we approach trying to help.

More on this last topic in posts to follow. In the meantime, don’t hoist your camera between me and the act.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Value of Dry Criticism

(jumping in ...)

The point here is not "style over substance," but that style is substance.

Certainly, one may make a useful point in a clumsy way, but the converse is not also true: It is immensely difficult to write well without also saying something worthwhile. And the primary business of any critic is not to explain, or to define, or even (and here we break from our predecessors) to "create a taste," but to keep the conversation interesting. He will be hard-pressed to accomplish this latter task without having incidentally advanced the aforementioned goals in the process.

Or, more simply: Life is far, far, far too short to read much dry criticism.

Which is well and good when we are talking in the abstract, but how, exactly, do we define "good style"? Well,

1. Precision.

Criticism of a work of art will sometimes of necessity be imprecise, but we look for precision in the writing itself. We posit here that no matter how complex the idea that you are trying to explain, there is rarely an excuse for wasting our time by being obtuse.

2. Flair.

(Which, admittedly can get in the way of (1) half the time, but nobody's saying this is supposed to be easy). It's worth restating this point: There's lots to read out there. Meaning that you have a massive amount of competition (in the general sense of "other potential reading material") for that Ecocritical analysis of Book III of The Faerie Queene you're working on—so don't be upset when readers put down your treatise in favor of yesterday's New York Post on the grounds that the latter is better written and more fun to read. They're probably right, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

3. Precision.

Seriously. It should sting.