On Criticism and Patronage

Vasily Grossman

I like my reading matter to reflect my surroundings, so while I was in Ukraine recently I decided to tackle Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate. A vast meandering novel with more than a few similarities to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it follows a Russian family and those around them through the events of the Battle of Stalingrad and the uncovering of the Holocaust. The novel’s protagonist, a Jewish theoretical physicist named Victor Shtrum is often dangerously critical of the Soviet government. To make matters worse he develops a ground breaking new theory which draws the ire and jealousy of his less talented colleagues who accuse him of ‘Talmudic abstractions’.

Shtrum appears to be on a fast track to denouncement and deportation to a prison camp, until a surprise phone call from Stalin himself changes everything, reversing Shtrum’s situation and placing him in a position of previously unimaginable privilege. But where before Shtrum felt able to protest the abuses of the state in spite of his precarious position, with his new status he comes to feel completely powerless to resist it. Under pressure from colleagues he had previously despised Shtrum signals his final, total supplication by signing a letter denouncing two innocent doctors as murderers and enemies of the state.

As a novel is chosen to reflect surroundings, so surroundings begin in a strange way to reflect that novel. It may sound melodramatic to say so but I found it difficult not to recognise similarities, admittedly very distant similarities, between what I was reading and recent feelings of my own. When I began writing reviews and critiques of photography it was partly because I thought it would force me to engage more with work that I saw in exhibitions, in books and online. It was also though a response to what I felt was the deeply unsatisfactory nature of many of the reviews I was reading in other places.

I had a feeling at the time that there was almost a collusion between some reviewers and the photographers and artists they wrote about. I had read so many pieces that might as well have been rephrased press releases from the galleries and artists themselves, that attempted no interpretation, offered no insight, and gave no original commentary of the work. Either this was down to laziness or stupidity on the part of reviewers, or it was a reflection of spinelessness in the face of a system of patronage, of exchanged tokens, of unspoken loyalties.

Such systems of nepotism and favouritism are notoriously difficult to uncover, let alone resist, because as Grossman adroitly observes in Life and Fate, those engaging in these things are rarely aware of it themselves. Instead to them their actions appear transparent, natural. Grossman observes that while a good man will forever torture himself over one bad act, a bad man will forever congratulate himself over a single good one. Critics are to some extent dependent on access, whether in the form of press invites, opportunities for interviews, and so forth. As I slowly draw myself further into this world it becomes increasingly apparent that there are unwritten rules to be obeyed in return, gatekeepers to satisfy.

Now I feel uncomfortable to note certain tendencies creeping into my own reviews. That as I come to know and be known by more people in the photographic community, I find it harder to be as honest as I thought I used to be. In the beginning it was easy, I didn’t know anyone and hardly anyone read this blog. Being savage was little different from saying such things aloud in the privacy of my home, nothing rested on them. Inevitably as things have grown, as I’ve met more and more photographers, it has becomes harder to be completely honest about how I feel about their work. Whether because I fear the professional repercussions, or simply because I don’t want to hurt another person’s feelings, I all too often have the feeling that I am tempering my remarks.

In his Writing the Truth, Five Difficulties Brecht identifies five necessary abilities for those wishing to write the truth. He writes that those who wish to write the truth must have ‘the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.’ All these traits at the moment feel beyond me, but I can at least start to work through them, gradually ticking them off, and without courage the other four are useless.

I needed to write this post as a first step, both as a denunciation of what I think I see, but also in order to steel myself not to fall into to the same behaviour I’m condemning. I need this little bit of text as a reminder to remain honest and continue to say what I think, not what I think is expected, even if that means annoying, angering, alienating those in a position to help me advance professionally. To again borrow from that old firebrand Brecht, ‘To displease the possessors may mean to become one of the dispossessed…this takes courage’.

3 thoughts on “On Criticism and Patronage

  1. When I first started studying for my degree a couple of years ago I dared to voice an opinion that some of the photographers we were encouraged to look at as exemplars had only reached their status through the power of critics and curators with a vested interest of maintaining their own position and not through ability. I was soundly and roundly drubbed by those who perhaps should have known better, now I keep reasonably quiet, no-one wants to hear a nonentities thoughts……… do they?

    • I do! (not at all to imply you are a non-entity) and I agree with you. As an example when you look at somewhere like the ICP in New York. The people who work there have a huge vested interest in promoting the myth of Robert Capa, ditto for many other institutions that have been built on the work of a small stable of photographers/artists/whatever. I talked about this a little here http://www.disphotic.lewisbush.com/2013/07/25/review-the-mexican-suitcase/ (also a good film if you’re interested in this legend building etc).

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