Musings on Photography

Inquiry Art/Agenda Art

Posted in art is a verb by Paul Butzi on July 2, 2008

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One of my interests is theatre – live theatre, the kind with actors upon a stage. I’ve seen a lot of plays, and because my wife and I actively support development of new plays, I’ve seen a lot of ‘not quite ready for prime time’ plays, and read even more plays that never even made it that far. I wasn’t very far into my playgoing career before I realized that although I think that an evening seeing a bad play is still better than most other activities, there’s a specific sort of play that I seem to inherently dislike intensely – the play with an agenda.

By this I mean a play that seeks to present a political or social agenda – a good example would be My Name is Rachel Corrie, which was a very effective bit of propaganda (regardless of my views about the story presented) but which was, in fact, not really a very good play. And, to get to the point I’m trying to explore, here, I think part of the reason it was such a very bad play was that it spared no opportunity to bash the audience over the head with the political agenda. Indeed, all of the things that make a play excellent were essentially scuttled in the frantic scramble to put spin on the story. It’s not that I don’t think an interesting, compelling evening of theatre can’t be made out of the story of Rachel Corrie – I think that’s fertile ground for a great play. But My Name Is Rachel Corrie is not that play.

Along the same lines, I find photography like that that Chris Jordan has been doing unappealing. The agenda is a bit too overt for my liking. Oh, I appreciate the dexterity with which Jordan’s work is done, and I certainly sympathize with his point of view a great deal of the time. But that’s different from finding the photography interesting or enlightening or enjoyable or good.

And, to be honest, I’ve done agenda photography myself. I’ve been watching the urban sprawl from Seattle slowly rolling eastward toward the Cascade Mountains, and for a while I was very deliberately making photographs that depicted that sprawl in a very deliberate and negative way. It was nothing if not agenda driven, and I have to tell you that the photographs definitely are something I will never show to anyone else. They are horrid, pathetic, terrible. They are some of the worst photographs I’ve made, and I assure you that I’ve made a great many very bad photographs in my lifetime.

Mind you, I’m not opposed to persuasive art. The difference, I think, is the difference between delivering the answers up neatly packaged with a bow, and producing work which often does nothing more than raise the question and provide the photos with enough information that the audience can draw their own conclusions. There’s a difference between presenting the conclusion and presenting the data. In today’s world of ideologies, conclusions are bright and crisp and stark and undeniable. But in the real world, the data are fuzzy and unclear and require thought be invested if we’re to come up with an interpretation. [to leap back to the world of theatre for a moment, I’m here discussing the difference between My Name Is Rachel Corrie and Jon Patrick Shanley’s brilliant Doubt.]

The interesting thing to me is that this ‘audience’ side of things is, at least for me, reflected in the ‘artist’ side of things as well. When I was doing the agenda driven urban sprawl stuff, it didn’t take me long to abandon it. Part of that was that the work was just clearly not good, but if I’d been sufficiently driven, I would have worked to find a way to make it better. The bottom line reason for abandoning that stuff was that making it was just not very gratifying. For me, it’s much more rewarding, much more interesting, and far more educational to come to a subject and say “I don’t understand this. I want to understand it. Photography can be a tool to help me come to grips with this stuff.” Call it inquiry art as opposed to agenda art. In a curious sort of way, if you start to photograph a subject without a preconceived agenda, over time the photographs not only start to show what the questions are but start to show some of the answers as well.

That’s what I like about Herzog’s work, and to an even greater degree about Kyle Cassidy’s. There’s no agenda pushing the story or the presentation in some specific direction. Instead there’s a sort of straight ahead presentation that lets the viewers reach their own conclusions. And, in Cassidy’s case, it seems that this presentation is a result of a deliberate attempt to get at the heart of an issue by making photographs. If you want to learn about gun owners, you could certainly do worse than Cassidy’s approach of just making a lot of uninflected photographs of gun owners in their homes, and letting the accumulated photographs show the way.

5 Responses

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  1. Andrew said, on July 2, 2008 at 11:51 am

    What would you classify Burtynsky’s work as? Agenda or persuasive art? He makes no bones about the fact that his photography is about our impacts on this planet.

    I recently went to a showing of his work at my local art gallery and found it quite moving. I feel his work, is art with an agenda, and yet it still works for me.

  2. Bryan Willman said, on July 3, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    I think there’s a subtler thing here. Almost all art has an “agenda” of some kind. The question is, how much is the agenda forced? Eugene Smith didn’t seem to make any secret about his leanings.

    Perhaps it’s about the relationship between artist and auidence. Like the difference between a pointed conversation in which both sides listen, and a mad man on a soap box, who yells, but does not listen, and to whom no one listens. The mad man may be truthfully telling us the world will end tomorrow, but his approach and demeanor cause us to ignore him.

    Salgado seems to portray people with whom we can identify suffering treatmens with which we cannot. Agenda? No question. “Agenda Art” yelling at us – it didn’t seem that way to me when I last opened the book.

  3. Sean said, on July 5, 2008 at 5:09 am

    Everything seems to come at once. The new post at http://www.jmcolberg.com/weblog touches on this very issue.

    I still think that the work of Cassidy is political. It is still agenda art. It is pro-gun. It is just more subtle in the way it goes about it.

    Best, Sean.

  4. Chris said, on July 7, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    I have mixed feelings about this. I happen to like Chris Jordan’s work a lot and feel that its impact is enhanced by it’s clear agenda. But perhaps that’s just because I resonate so deeply with his agenda. I also like the work of Burtynsky and Gursky for the same reason.

    On the other hand, I can definitely appreciate Paul’s comments about the problems with “Agenda Art” and in many cases it does not work for me at all.

  5. Martin Doonan said, on July 10, 2008 at 9:14 am

    Maybe the dislike of “agenda” art comes from the negative connotations so much of it has. Why can’t any one push a positive agenda, in an agreeable manner? Maybe it’s just me, but it does seem that only angry artists have “agenda”.


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