Musings on Photography

Agenda Art

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on June 12, 2007

Not long ago, I saw a performance of a play with a very overt political agenda.  When it was selected as part of this particular theatre’s season, I thought it was a bad choice.  My objections, though, weren’t about the political agenda; it was just that I’d read the play months before and I thought it was a terrible play. As you might guess, the theatre went ahead and produced the play.  And it was, from what I hear, a financial success.  I didn’t much like it; I thought it was a brilliantly directed performance by an extraordinary actress with a great set design, sound design, etc., but I thought the irredeemable flaw was it was a beautiful performance of a bad play.

I think that happens a lot – I think there’s a lot of art that’s what I think of as ‘Agenda Art’, made to express a political viewpoint.  My observation is that, when you set aside the politics and try to view the work just as art, nearly all of that art falls into the category I think of as awful.

That’s not always the case, though.  I love the work of Lewis Hine, and Hine was definitely a man who had an agenda behind the photographs he made.  As Hine put it, “I wanted to show the thing that had to be corrected: I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated” and “Photography can light up darkness and expose ignorance”.  Another that springs to mind is Sebastio Salgado.  So it seems that some artists can make agenda art that is also good art, and some artists can’t. 

I don’t know what to do with that observation except note that when I’ve tried to make photographs with an agenda, I thought the photos I made were dreck.  It appears that I fall into the category of “artists who can’t make agenda art that’s also good”.  I suppose that’s helpful if uninspiring.

5 Responses

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  1. paul said, on June 12, 2007 at 11:03 am

    I’m think that I’m there with you. I don’t think that I know how to make a political statement with my art. 🙂

  2. Rosie Perera said, on June 12, 2007 at 11:18 am

    Maybe the key is to have the passion for the agenda in your heart and then just go about making good photos and don’t worry about the agenda. It will come out in some of your art whether you want it to or not. And then you can pick and choose afterwards which works communicate your agenda well.

    I think people who are concerned with the plight of the homeless or environmental degradataion or whatever are naturally fascinated by subjects surrounding that issue. If they have an artistic bone in their body, they will create stuff that portrays the subject of their fascination. And if they are good artists, it will be good stuff.

    If you don’t have a cause you’re so passionate about that it shows up in your art, don’t worry about it. But I think you actually do. One of your agendas is pretty clear from your writing in conjunction with your photography, and that’s to get people to stop focusing on the final product in their art and do art as a verb. You show by your photos that you are practicing what you preach.

  3. Martin Doonan said, on June 12, 2007 at 11:25 am

    Perhaps it’s a question of divided attention. In trying to make a point, one’s attention is drawn away from the process of making art.

  4. Chuck Kimmerle said, on June 12, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    “In trying to make a point, one’s attention is drawn away from the process of making art.”

    That might be the case for some people, but there are multitudes of agenda-oriented photographers doing amazing work. They range from Eugene Richards groundbreaking work in inner city ghettos to Clyde Butchers landscapes of Florida swampland, encompassing every genre in between.

    I remember reading that Cartier Bresson once scoffed at Ansel Adams landscape work because the world was, in his view, in great turmoil and needed photographer’s to step up and help institute beneficial change. Adams continued with his style. The work of both of these men is among the most respected in the history of not just photography, but of art in general, despite their obvious differences in motivation.

    I just think that some of us are driven more by the moment than by any particular issue. I am, unapologetically a member of the former. I have no conscious social agenda. I shoot the photos I shoot because some inner muse tells me there’s something special in front of me at that moment.

    The images that we, as lyric photographers, provide is as important as the work created by those photographers with a social agenda. Neither can, in my opinion, lay claim to superior rationals.

  5. Bryan Willman said, on June 12, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    There is also the issue of how “forced” the agenda is.

    If your agenda is “show the essential nature of X” then good work will probably have some Art to it, as well as revealing X.

    If your agenda is “abusive treatment of left-handed red-haired paupers is the world’s more pressing human rights issue!!” then your thinking, “art”, agenda, and so on will all be shrill. Sometimes “agenda art” is hard to swallow because it has no sense of balance, no sense of humor, all tension and no relaxation.


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