Another Brick in the Wall
Well, it seems like everyone has something to say about the NYT piece on Jeff Wall. Lots of comments on the art theory of his work. Lots of comments along the lines of “He’s not an artist, he’s a crab with good PR”.
Beyond observing that Wall’s work doesn’t seem to represent good value as an object (Do you have any idea of what a wonderful art collection you could assemble with the price of ONE of Wall’s photographs?), I’d comment on this:
Having chosen not to live in an art capital like New York or London, Wall professes that he could just as easily have lived anywhere, with little effect on his work. “One thing I hate with small cities is the myth of their specialness,” he says. “It’s like in Europe, everywhere has its own ham, its own wine, its own cheese, and they’re all nice, but it doesn’t interest me.” He is after “the indeterminate American look,” which he says he can find by not looking for anything in particular. “You have to forget about the idea of the spirit of the place,” he says. “It’s one of the big, consoling myths of people who live nowhere.”
Here’s my observation on that, speaking as a person who, beyond having visited art capitals like New York and London, has a lot of entry and exit stamps in his passport. I’ve visited places which were widely considered Important Places. I’ve visited places which I’m sure would be considered ‘nowhere’ by Wall (and I live in just such a place, in fact). I’ve been to small cities, large cities, medium cities. In fact, having spent twelve months traveling in a motorhome with my family, visiting all 49 continental states and every Canadian province and territory except Newfoundland, I’m pretty confident that I’ve seen a heck of a lot more of ‘America’ than Wall has.
And, speaking as a photographer who works almost entirely within the landscape genre, if there’s a myth it’s that there are places which are ‘nowhere’. Every place, every single damn place I’ve visited has had its own character, its own feel, its own process and history. Anyone who thinks there’s a single ‘indeterminate American look’ does not have the smallest clue about the staggering diversity of places that fall under the broad category of ‘America’. It’s like looking at Tuscany in Italy, the Bavarian Alps, and London, and claiming you’re seeing ‘an indeterminate European look’. It’s arrant nonsense. Trust me, there’s no more similarity between, say, West Quoddy Head, Maine and Niobrara, Nebraska than there is between San Gimignano in Tuscany and Tintagel in Cornwall. And I say you can trust me because I’ve been to all four places.
To return to the subject of this morning’s post, the problem that afflicts Wall (actually, it’s more like ONE of the problems that afflicts Wall) is that he’s been looking at places, and he’s been too quick to apply the ‘indeterminate America’ label, and as soon has he’s applied the label, he doesn’t look more closely. He’s like the mother in the anecdote, pointing at a wide variety of different fish, and telling her daughter “Look at the fish!”.