Distrust of Beauty
by Paul ButziI happened across the amazon.com entry for Regeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow, a book that the publisher describes as focusing on what young photographers are up to at the start of the 21st century. It looks like an interesting book, and I have a copy on the way. What caught my eye, though, was a single sentence in the Publishers Weekly review, which reads “A number of distinct trends are visible: the use of digital technologies is widespread, social comment is ironic and oblique, a distrust of beauty and landscape is omnipresent….” The phrase "distrust of beauty" caught my eye, because some time ago I heard an excellent lecture by playwright Stephen Dietz, about what he called "The Four Seductions"—the four big things that seduce artists away from making the best art they can. Three of the four are disparagement of craft, criticism, and blaming the audience; number one on Dietz’s hit parade is distrust of beauty.
What Dietz was saying is that it’s seductive to advance our work by making it "edgy." There’s a consensus that "beauty" has been done to death, and that if a work is beautiful, then it must be passé. There’s a sense that since beauty is a quality that’s awfully hard to pin down, it must therefore be unimportant, and that striving for beauty is a fool’s errand. It’s a whole heck of a lot easier to arouse an emotional response by doing art that’s gratuitously offensive than it is to make beautiful art that arouses a passionate response.
Tomoko Uemura in her Bath, Mike’s recent selection for the T.O.P Ten, is a case in point. Smith didn’t just happen to make a beautiful photograph—he deliberately contrived to make the photograph beautiful. The lighting, the posing, the way shadow and darkness are used to simplify the composition, even the facial expressions—Smith did that on purpose. By constructing the photograph this way, Smith connected the photograph directly to every viewer who has ever watched a mother cradle a child in her arms and thought "that’s a good thing." Had Smith stuck with a simple, straightforward depiction of Tomoko Eumura’s disfigurement, would the photograph be anywhere near as compelling? Making a beautiful photograph of a horribly disfigured child wasn’t easy, but it’s what makes this photograph transcendent.
So I read the words "distrust of beauty and landscape" in that review with a great deal of trepidation. Is this where photography (and the art world in general) have ended up—where young photographers are unanimous that art shouldn’t be beautiful, and that we shouldn’t trust the very real landscape around us? I’m not at all in favor of a photographic world in which we’re all compelled to mindlessly repeat "Pepper #30" and "Tenaya Lake." But I’m very much afraid of an art world that insists that we must never risk making a beautiful photograph because beauty is old-fashioned.
Posted by PAUL BUTZI