It isn’t art because you or I say it’s art. The solipsism that anyone may define art started long before Marcel Duchamp; it blossomed into a full-blown bromide in the nineteenth century with people like William Morris, who believed against all odds that beauty could save the common man from the misery of existence in what was then a very small, industrialized world. The Arts and Crafts movement Morris helped codify was the epitome of elitism because it presumed to set a universal standard: the cozy lie that art is somehow democratic and available to everyone prevails today. In truth art is only art when the élite say it’s art and it doesn’t trickle down to the rest of us by some beneficent process of osmosis any more than the riches of the one percent of United States citizens drip down upon the remaining ninety-nine percent of us like a golden shower.

I’ve been thinking more about this élitism while reading about how the art Albert Barnes collected must be ripped out of the cloistered building he created for it and moved to a conspicuous monolith on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway in order to make his collection more accessible to the general public. This notion that, once created, art belongs to no one and should be held in sacred trust for all people everywhere is a spurious ruse devised by very few human beings who have the luxury to indulge in treating Art as some sort of elemental fact rather than as merely a marvelous conceit of the vainglorious human brain. Will force-marching bused-in school children through the new Barnes facility put any more beauty into their lives than parading them past the other “masterpieces” in the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art?

The science of photography was turned into high art during the era when the Arts and Crafts movement philosophy was fashionable among aesthetes; while it held promise (not fulfilled until the twenty-first century, with the advent of digital cameras) as a most democratic technique, the élite feared its accessibility because it seemed to threaten the painter’s unique ability to represent reality in two dimension. Almost immediately art critics fenced in the demotic upstart with Fine Art terminology, which still colors the way most people look at (read?) even journalistic photography like that of The New Yorker’s single-named Platon, whose photographs often conflate apparent journalistic reality (truth) with hidden artistic (lying) license.

Twenty-one-year-old Norwegian chess prodigy’s soul as “captured” by Platon’s camera has the dreamy eyes and sensuous lips of a child porn star. Other cameras caught a pugnacious young man with brutish brow and a mean mouth.
The élite art of writing about art is what defines art. In the twentieth century people like Clement Greenberg and Susan Sontag determined what was and what was not art. These days Peter Schjeldahl and Janet Malcolm are telling us how to understand art; both write for The New Yorker, but the former, who usually writes about painting and sculpture, is credible whereas the latter, in an article about photographer Thomas Struth, is incredible. Schjeldahl has a nice way with words, but, more importantly, his perceptions seem trustworthy to one who can’t be there standing beside him. About a recent exhibition of Degas nudes, he writes: “Viewing his work, we breathe the dizzyingly thin air on the snowy peak of the capital ‘A’ in Art.”

Malcolm has likened herself to “someone trying to cut down a tree who has never done it before, isn’t strong, has a dull axe, but is very stubborn.” Her assessment does not inspire trust except in the stubborn part, which translates into narcissism in the one article I’ve read. Her text (“Depth of Field; Thomas Struth’s Way of Seeing” The New Yorker, Sept. 26, 2011) is primarily about Janet Malcolm’s way of seeing. As such, the reader must concur with her peculiar definition of what photography is and what she thinks Struth’s way of seeing is without letting the photographer speak for himself: “‘You realized that someone else or, rather, something else—a camera—could do this for you?’ I cut in…” as Struth explains why he turned from painting to photography. Malcolm then proceeds to equate Struth’s painting to photo-realism and, when he objects, she accuses him of “mischaracterizing the photo-realist project” offering her own inept summary as the correct characterization.

Later she asks how Struth’s teachers Bernd and Hilla Bechers influenced him. He answered that they helped him understand the Paris photographs of Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust, which I immediately understood, but Malcolm countered with “I don’t get it.” With gotcha delight she asserts that there can be no connection between the photographer and the writer for Struth because he didn’t read Proust while he was under the Bechers’ tutelage. She holds his stupidity over him, smugly equivalating his “Proust-Atget moment” to a photograph that was “already on the way to the darkroom of journalistic opportunism” as if opportunism were a worthy aspiration. Malcolm is in her seventies so she must have “done it” before, but she still doesn’t “get” photography even after so much thwacking with her dull journalistic tool.

Images like Atget’s photograph of the Luxembourg Park still evoke Proustian Paris for me even though I haven’t read Proust since I was in art school, where Harry Callahan (1912-1999) was teaching photography. I didn’t connect Callahan’s images with the worlds of the other writers I was reading at the time like Truman Capote or Jean Genet. The only way a provincial rube could visualize the kind of love described in Querelle de Brest was through the lens of George Platt Lynes.
She still believes “photography is a medium of inescapable truthfulness. The camera doesn’t know how to lie... Only the person being photographed can assume the lying appearance of ‘naturalness’ that the portrait photographer tries to elicit...” The inescapable truth is the medium always lies from the moment a camera transforms the three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional photograph, whether it’s a portrait of a human being or a landscape. Over that essential lie, are layers of little lies of light, focus, composition, context, content, and intent, which have nothing to do with the person being photographed. A Platon camera lens can give a politician (even one who doesn’t lie) a big nose with every pore and hair follicle defined with untruthful washed-out color. Malcolm’s riff on the veracity of photography is part of her stubborn attempt to analyze Stuth’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, subjects famous for their “lying appearance of naturalness.” She suggests that Struth is not known for taking “inoffensive pictures of famous people” — if photography doesn’t lie, how could his picture be either inoffensive or offensive?
As reproduced in The New Yorker, the portrait is indeed a lie although not the one Malcolm describes; most of the queen is in the gutter! It is also just 9.25 inches high by 11.25 inches wide. Struth chose (against Malcolm’s better judgment) an image of monumental scale larger than 63 inches by 79 inches. Struth chose the dress the queen wore for the sitting and he chose the setting; he manipulated the color in the lab after the photograph was taken in Windsor Castle–he chose the green room because the white room was “too tired” and the red room was “too much”–and he thought the camera had lied about the room’s lighting by making the background too light and the color of the queen’s hands too red.

As with any work of art, reproductions of Struth’s jubilee portrait vary in color, light, depth of field, and even composition, which renders any critique of technical elements problematic for those who have not seen the original.

Malcolm discusses the setting at length citing August Sander photographs as object lessons in “the significance of settings in the art of the photographic portrait.” She claims Sander’s settings are intrinsic to the viewer’s sense that the sitter’s soul has been captured. To me, art is part of artifice and souls are not an inescapable part of truthfulness. When a Sander (1876-1964) portrait has a distinctive setting, it speaks of a particular era as much as Atget’s (1857-1924) photographs speak of Proust (1871-1922), but Sander often used blank walls or generic backgrounds and still captured souls as vividly as did Phillipe Halsman in his iconic jump photos or as Irving Penn did in his equally famous corner portraits. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor jumped for Halsman and Penn pushed all kinds of famous people into his blank corner, which says much about distinctive settings and naturalness. The background in the version of the portrait Malcolm analyses appears to be very dark and almost gloomy in The New Yorker reproduction; the same image shows up on the Internet with much brighter backgrounds so it is hard to know if Struth snatched the queen’s soul out of Dantesque murk or if he couched it in gilded glory.

Many Halsman jump photos were shot with a blank background and I imagine the souls of the Duke and Duchess souls would have been “captured” without the generic frenchified setting that could be almost anywhere from Paris to New York perhaps reflecting the subjects’ lives in exile. Penn’s undecorated corner seems to squeeze the duchess’s soul out into the open. This viewer can’t sense anything about the nun’s soul from the background in August Sander’s portrait.
Struth seemed to me to be in control of any naturalness in the royal portrait. I have to assume that he chose the queen’s expression when he chose the photograph that was ultimately submitted for palace approval. Elizabeth has always been able to flash a natural, charming, even down-to-earth smile (!), but in the official portrait her face is as near to expressionless as a woman who has been on the throne for sixty years could possibly present. All I can think of when I look at it is “stiff upper lip.” Struth decided to minimize the queen’s “quite big boobs” by choosing a dress made of armor-like fabric. But the most poignant bit of naturalness for me may have been accidental rather than a lie perpetrated by either Struth or the queen; the stiff hem of her pale blue brocade dress is ever so slightly hiked up to reveal the surprisingly human curve behind her knee where her calf turns into her thigh. The surprise may be due to my own weirdness: Somewhere in my brain, I know nuns and queens have legs, but when confronted with corporeal proof I am startled. When I was growing up nuns wore voluminous habits with wide skirts that dropped down almost to the ground. The sisters were no more than a peripheral part of my life in Maine, but when I went to study in Rome, nuns were everywhere. Once I was riding a crowded bus that jolted my leg between the legs of a nun—I was stunned to feel her crotch against my thigh. I would have been less unnerved had I bumped up against some solid cone on wheels. So too with the queen; we watched her coronation on a schoolroom television and in the image that stays in my mind she wears a gown with a long skirt weighted with so many beads as to eliminate any suggestion of body parts even though she and I have lived long enough to see many pictures of her wearing outfits that show a little leg.
Elizabeth inside her coronation dress above and the queen’s knees as Struth’s camera saw them below
Malcolm finds much meaning in the fact that Struth is German and English is his second language: “I smiled to myself at Struth’s coarse reference to the royal bosom—a rare lapse in his excellent English.” I don’t see how “boobs” is a lapse in excellence; his slang could be an example of his excellent English, but Malcolm’s understanding and use of English is idiosyncratic. Struth says “I felt sympathy. [Elizabeth] was exactly my mother’s age and Philip was born in 1921, two years after my father was born…I said O. K. to the commission for reasons I cannot name…” Rather than understanding “for reasons I cannot name” as a stilted way of saying “I don’t know why I took the commission,” Malcolm understands him to be saying his reasons are too terrible to name and launches into a discussion of the way his parents’ Nazi associations inform his art. My parents were from the country that dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; I’m from the generation that devastated Vietnam. Certainly my past has something to do with who I am now, but it doesn’t dominate whatever I do. Malcolm, who was born a Jew in Czechoslovakia, believes most Germans of Struth’s generation must be tormented by the Holocaust. With her knack for causing whiplash by inverting concepts mid sentence, Malcolm decides that the “sunniness” of Struth’s persona shows up in his photographs as expiation for Auschwitz and further that his radiance is what makes critics enthusiastic about his art. All the word play may make the interview more about the writer’s art than the photographer’s art, but it also keeps a simple mind exercised: “Today, there is no diminution of the enthusiasm; if anything, it is growing, and sane critics are continuing to lose it under Struth’s mesmerizing spell.” Wait! What?

Malcolm evidently started her literary career writing about interior decoration. She married her editor, but I’ve not followed her trajectory so I don’t how she got to be an authority on the art of photography—not that I believe appreciating art requires a particular expertise. She published a collection of essays about photography in 1980. In a recent Paris Review interview of Malcolm, Katie Roiphe wonders “…how you impose your very singular interpretation in such an authoritative way that it feels organic, like anyone walking into a room couldn’t help but see it exactly as you do.” Analyzing a photograph Struth made of an interior in a Dresden solar panel factory, Malcolm supports her theory that the photographer’s sunny disposition produces benign, reassuring images: His photographs “tell us that the people who are absent from the pictures are back there somewhere and that they know what it all means and know what they are doing.” The images “tell” me no such thing! Even on the tiny scale of “String Handling, SolarWorld, Freiberg 2011” as reproduced in The New Yorker, I see the shiny silver machinery that fills the frame as facets in a glittering geometric composition and I can imagine the overwhelming effect of the monumental scale of the actual photograph. I didn’t give any thought to an imagined human presence until Malcolm told “us” that was what we were supposed to see.

She is “unable to appreciate Struth’s jungle series called “Paradise” because she agrees with another critic’s assessment that “His jungles look like the potted plants in a dentist’s office.” Is the potted-plant look necessarily a bad thing? Could it be Struth’s comment on the concept of Paradise? Is Malcolm also unable to appreciate Henri Rousseau’s jungles? I once read an account about how Rousseau was so involved in painting his jungle pictures that he had to stop working and go to look out a studio window to be sure he was still in Paris. True or not of Rousseau, intense absorption in the artistic process is common among artists of every ilk yet Malcolm takes Struth’s concentration while he is making a photograph personally--characterizing it as “boorishness” and “obliviouness”—so she flounces out of his photo shoot and hails a cab to get back to the city where she sulks until the next day when his “courtliness” towards her is restored. For all her boorishness and obliviousness, I’m glad Malcolm took it upon herself to write about Struth in the élitist pages of The New Yorker because she helped me focus my thoughts about a picture that’s even bigger than Struth’s gigantic photographs. It is art because Duchamp, Sontag, Schjeldahl, Morris, and Malcolm say it’s art, but only because a few human beings created the idea of Art and, necessarily, most of the rest of humanity buys into that idea. An ape or a penguin probably doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the art of photography or the queen’s knees, which would be okay in Paradise, but in this world--where man has dominion over every other living thing and is destroying jungle and arctic alike--apes and penguins would do well to “get” fantastic human constructs like dominion and Art so they could compete on a level playing field.