what do you mean when you think of the word “aesthetics?”
is it a detached, dry, intellectual word, something too often and too wearily encountered on yet another artist’s statement written by some anonymous gallery assistant? is it a rare and personalized form of sight that only “master” artists seem to posses? is it a convenient pivot-term that critics can hover upon when creating confining boxes to fit their arguments about an artist, their output and their psychology into?
does one learn aesthetics or does aesthetics learn you? meaning: is aesthetics a panoply of ideas and concerns one encounters in a ripe and meaningful fashion, something to add to an artistic arsenal that will further give shape and weight to work made–or is it a different kind of encounter, a shocking familiarity, when you realize that a fully articulated way of thinking about something is one that you have always had and always carried with you, unawares. until that moment of encounter.
are aesthetics something given to you from the outside, or is it latent potentiality, waiting there for you to recognize it as some part of your self?
what informs you? who cares about beauty and making and thinking in ways that seem important to you, that resonate? is it a process of thinking or making/doing, or, as new age and clich√© as it sounds, a mode of being? and: who and what has embodied this notion for me?
the first photographer that turned my head was bill brandt.
i was but a babe to photography, its history, practice–any and all of it. but when i looked at the work of brandt, something beckoned. whispered to me, compadre.
new as i was to the medium, certain rules were known “rules” and these would concern focus, shadows (and the ability to see deeply into them), varied tonal range, how-to-shoot-a-nude, how-to-shoot-a-documentary-photograph. the whisper inside me was gleeful and grateful because she recognized brandt as bucking all of those rules and the images, despite the break with what is known as successful image making, still managing to be strong, stand-alone, Moments With Which To Be Reckoned.
i think i saw his nudes first, before anything.
camden hill, 1947
these were not the cool, controlling, perfected bodies of edward weston. or the shamelessly direct and wondefully amateur turn-of-the-century erotic nudes i had also become aware of. these were…if they were like anything, they were more like nudes i’d see in paintings than in anything i’d ever seen in a photograph. elongated, mannerist limbs. skin tones so contrasty as to lack any perceptive familiarity i had of the notion “skin.” perspective shifted, skewed, on its side. was the photographer laying on the ground sideways to get this view? maybe. and the mood of them…sad like the nudes of edward hopper. enigmatic and a little dangerous like the collages of max ernst. or even better yet, like the representations of the feminine by his lesser-known and muchly talented wife, dorothea tanning.
you could not “see into” his blacks. he did not want you to. or did not care if you cared. sometimes the perspective was such that it looked like the photo was made through the fat end of a coca-cola bottle.
what i was responding to but didn’t yet know was brandt’s capacity to show a range of emotion and form simultaneously. emotions both protracted and projected as if on a blank, white movie screen. his accounting for, or dismissal of, the added layer of projected meaning by a potential viewer. a practiced eye that liked to double the association of forms, to play with that psychology in his photos. a photographer who, for me, would give me a little (the image), but was more than content to leave much in the way of meaning or interpretation a blank.
i learned recently that brandt’s work was not only unappreciated in his working days, but openly ridiculed and reviled. in the great big book on brandt that i feel lucky to own, bill jay writes about the experience of having championed brandt’s work as a junior editor for Popular Photography. the editor, les barry instead found it, “…impossible to accept the concept that this collection of poorly printed, ineptly cropped photographs of badly posed, unattractive women is his idea of serious work.” talk about being misunderstood. jay asserts in his foreward that despite decades of being told that he was a bad printer, an inept portratist, a sentimental documentarian, a horrid seer of the nude form, that he went right on working and working. making images and printing them exactly as he saw fit. it seems impossible to imagine a working artist today not withering against such steady, constant negative critique. when i think how often an artist quickly finds a comfort zone in their aesthetic vision once it has been vetted by curators and commerce (are the two even distinguishable anymore?), and how oftener and oftener it seems that one does not toy with the ingredients of success once you’ve begun to grope towards it, bill brandt’s plodding example seems nearly heroic to me.
years after i first encountered brandt i found another artist-as-touchstone. by this time i had become more personally invested in photography; i had been studying it for a number of years, i had rented studio space and built a darkroom that i learned to fail and fail better in. my travel plans on a student budget consisted of trips to traveling gallery and museum shows in whatever blocks of time i could afford to pay to stay out of town for. i had met and become friends with some other photographers, and now an intersecting dialogue of ideas, approaches and aesthetics had come to inform and play off of my own.
at the jackson fine art gallery in atlanta, i first encountered the work of japanese photographer masao yamamoto. i wasn’t quite prepared for what i saw there, or the reaction i would have to his work. again: the niggling sense of familiarity, of shared sympathies or concerns. the greeks had a word for it: anagnorisis, meaning literally a recognition of someone, not only of their person but of what they stand for and represent.
the images, for those of you who have not seen them, are extraordinarily small. and variegated in size. some are 2×3, some 3×3, more often than not odd sizes. they are torn and worn and tea-stained. they are printed too dark to see distinctly and too light to see for certain. they are not treated or exhibited as precious objects, and the revelatory experience of seeing contemporary photography speak loudly through smallness and intimacy reinvigorated my sense of the range and possibility of the genre of photography.
installation view at the jackson fine art gallery, 2003
i don’t know this for certain, but i think that yamamoto allows the gallery to decide how his work is to be shown, with perhaps a few sentences about his working philosophy and thinking. when i spoke to an assistant at j.f.a., she told me that the photographs arrived at the gallery minus any of the usual fuss and precocious preciousness surrounding the transport of contemporary art. they were stuffed unceremoniously into a box, all sitting on top and intersecting with one another. i imagined a cigar box stuffed to the brim with someone’s old and aging personal history, closed with a thick rubber band on the outside.
wabi-sabi aesthetics has always deeply resonated with me, and its precepts can be readily seen in yamamoto’s works. the tenets of wabi-sabi, if such a thing exists, would include some or all of the following:
- a purposeful lack of hierarchy; de-emphasis on class or caste (with origins in the traditional japanese tea house, in which the entry to the tearoom is purposefully set very low, so that everyone, regardless of rank, would need to lower themselves to enter)
- preoccupation with a watchful observance
- an emphasis on economy, but without drifting into a kind of miserly-ness
- an appreciation of evanescence, emphemerality, of fleetingness
- leonard koren writes that things wabi-sabi are, “…unstudied and inevitable looking…[but] not without a quiet authority.”
to my thinking, wabi-sabi is an aesthetics of removed/impersonal vulnerability. what do i mean by that? that it is vulnerable and yielding to nature, events and circumstances beyond its control. that it shows its wear and tear on its sleeve but does not do so loudly. it is quiet and proud while being constituted from humble origins. is it an aesthetic of a new kind of puritanism? i don’t believe so. within wabi-sabi is a lack of fear or an expectation of any kind of reward.
after all of this disorganized meditation on the constitution of my personal aesthetic, i am no nearer to deciding whether or not aesthetics are something one does, or has done to one. i certainly experience a “simpatico” moment when encountering something that has managed to articulate something i know to be a deep personal truth, but then, doesn’t everyone? or are those answers and assumptions too pat? do the majority of art-makers and see-ers even give aesethetics a second-glance anymore, or have we all decided that it is the undisputed domain of a bunch of dead french continental philosophers? are aesthetics confined to the domain of form, art and making? is it something one lives (here i think of agnes martin, of richard foreman, even of anthony bourdain)? the one idea i keep returning to, the thing that i want to express here that matters to me, is that a certain self-awareness of one’s borders, boundaries, what one gives and what one keeps close to the chest, are all elements of art making that make the making Real to me, that i want to internalize like a mantra, that i wish were more present in the world around me and in those who happen to be in the business of making.