If you'd prefer a satirical response to Greenberg's "End Times" addressed to the show's curator, Paul Kopeikin, see my Open Letter to Paul Kopeikin.
Instinct's a wonderful thing, isn't it, Mark? A pity it can't be photographed.
- Mrs. Stephens, Peeping Tom
- Mrs. Stephens, Peeping Tom
Thomas Hawk made me start a blogroll.
The author of "Thomas Hawk's Digital Connection", who works as an investment adviser and uses a pen name to keep his work and blogging lives distinct, has created an uproar with his commentary about photographer Jill Greenberg's current exhibition “End Times.”
From a distance, the passions it has aroused lead us directly to the archtypal story of an artist-visionary who stirs up the cultural pot by exploring a “taboo” subject and riding the cultural buzz to the bank, only to be canonized later by the art historical community, preferably within her lifetime, as having created something brave and forward-thinking that had tapped the cultural pulse as well as making the artist and her agent in the marketplace tons of money.
This is different.
Jill Greenberg, for anyone who has not yet noticed, is exhibiting a series of close-up portraits of children under three years of age who are miserably, frightfully upset. (You too can view them here.) Ms. Greenberg has claimed that she made the toddlers cry by giving them a lollipop and then taking it away, a standard method for drawing tears among the young in Hollywood. We can all agree that children get upset by things that we would deem trivial, that artists are masters of illusion, and that there is no reason to suspect physical abuse occurred when shooting these photographs. But it seems clear, to myself and to many others, many of us parents, that the project clearly involved provoking children to a level of duress that goes far beyond the norm. Greenberg's simple "lollipop" story has begun to unravel; in an interview with American Photo magazine for example, she describes how frustrating it was to have parents "step out of the studio for a couple minutes" in vain attempts to make children cry who would not otherwise oblige. (Click here for a podcast.) In short, the rage, fear, and sadness of the photographed children is palpable and raw, and the resulting images are powerful, heartbreaking, and, to many viewers, morally indefensible.
Thomas Hawk’s reaction to this work is of the kind one might be subjected to after kicking a dog on the street or verbally abusing a cowering child in a shopping mall: that is, with a rage that strains to reach out through the web and call attention to the perpetrator’s actions in a publicly humiliating way. His first, explosive post on the subject back in April, "Jill Greenberg Is A Sick Woman Who Should Be Arrested and Charged With Child Abuse," lacked the nuanced language and damning praise of high art criticism, and sidestepped the confused and uncertain reactions typical of the popular press. Although he is a prolific digital photographer and self-avowed "technology enthusiast," Hawk wasted no words on Greenberg's skillful lighting or pristine Photoshopping of her subjects' crystalline tears, shimmering wet eyes, or the exaggerated, rashlike blush on the skin achieved through harsh lighting and skillful post-process adjustments. What Thomas Hawk saw was not an aesthetic question, but a moral one. This has placed him in the awkward position of an artistic progressive acting as a censor. As he wrote in his opening volley:
The ethics of photography are by no means simple - shooting strangers, permissions, capturing pain and suffering, many different subjects require that photographers think through their ethics before coming up with the best way to make and display their work. There are a lot of gray areas and a lot of different opinions on many different areas of what should be captured and what should not be captured. I generally fall into the camp of just about anything ought to be ethical for capture assuming it's natural and the photographer is working as a witness, bystander, artist, photojournalist, citizen journalist, etc. But what Jill Greenberg is doing makes me want to throw up. And it shouldn't be allowed.The post is closing in on 150 comments to date, ranging from characterizations of Hawk as a lunatic to angry denunciations of his position to passionate agreement to relief that someone had spoken out. The effect of reading these comments is alternately agitating and mind-numbing, especially since they are crammed into the blog's comments section, a format poorly adapted to extended dialogue and rife with opportunities for miscommunication.
Defenders of Greenberg's work expressed a variety of objections and anxieties relating to Hawk's position, but throughout them all the blogger has developed and elaborated on his argument while gaining additional attention to his position. Since his original post, he has entertained accusations of libel from Greenberg's husband, Robert Green, read an interview with Greenberg in American Photo that quoted Hawk's blog but did not contact him to respond to untrue information about himself provided by the artist which served to discredit his position, and published four follow-up posts on the issue. The blog Boing-Boing brought many readers in the loop (including me) with their post a week ago, and several people in agreement with Hawk have written in to his blog regarding the status of calls to abuse-prevention agencies and media outlets demanding an investigation. Saturday's New York Times carried a brief about the controversy in its "What's Online" section (if you don't have an account, borrow one here).
The nature of this conflict, and one clue to its ongoing interest, is that many people recognize that this is something more than just another chapter in the ongoing Battle for Contemporary Art, in which progressive, urbane afficionadoes of challenging and complex artistic statements fend off naive or downright evil anti-art reactionaries. Of course, that doesn't stop many blog skimmers from assuming that's exactly what it is. To some, the debate over "End Times" is the same debate viewers had over Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or Robert Mapplethorpe's S&M nudes, and they hustle to the fray with standards raised. As one anonymous commenter wrote:
You can hassle us all you want under the guise of preventing terrorism or saving children, but what we do is something on a higher level. We're expressing those very rights of freedom in photographs as an example of why we can never let the conservative, right-wingers in this country get their way. It's amazing Bush and backwards-thinking goons haven't already tried to stop Jill Greenberg from enjoying her civil rights by locking her up in Guantanamo Bay. We are artists, and just because we don't think the same way you may think when it comes to artistic subjects such as photographs of children, it doesn't mean you can dictate the rules we live by.According to blogger Vern Gill, Robert Green brought the connection to the fore on his own blog, angrily defending his wife's work and declaring that Hawk "claims to be a lefty who has protested this that and the other thing, yet he uses tactics that would be all too familiar to Swift boat Veterans for Truth, the right wing nutbags." Curiously, his blog posts as they now appear jump from June 2 to June 27, the latter post offering only a cryptic expletive directed at Hawk and offering Hawk's real name. If Gill is telling the truth (and current comments graffitied in Green's own blog's suggest as much), Gill unwittingly preserved some words of Mr. Green's that the artist's husband later decided were better left unsaid. You can decide for yourself what Robert Green might have regretted committing to print by reading Gill's post here.
Most others who defended Greenberg's methods expressed a personal distaste for the series, particularly of her presentation of the photographs as a politically-charged expression of her own feelings about the Bush administration and the religious right's war on Islam. In her artist's statement for the show, Greenberg described how she felt when a child she was photographing in her studio burst into tears and helped spawn her Great Idea:
The first little boy I shot, Liam, suddenly became hysterically upset. It reminded me of helplessness and anger I feel about our current political and social situation. The most dangerous fundamentalists aren’t just waging war in Iraq; they’re attacking evolution, blocking medical research and ignoring the environment. It’s as if they believe the apocalyptic End Time is near, therefore protecting the earth and future of our children is futile."Greenberg's subject is taboo: children in pain," the Paul Kopeikin Gallery's press release confides, but while Kopeikin rightly senses that Greenberg is encroaching on a taboo, his interpretation of that taboo is dissimulative to the point of absurdity. As anyone with Paul Kopeikin's knowledge of photographic history is well aware, documentary photography (not to mention WorldVision infomercials) brought that challenging subject to our doorsteps long ago. Could it be that Jill's subject is "taboo" - or, to use a less scintillating term, "disgusting" - because we are aware of the real suffering children around the world experience, and to have it recreated snow-globe style reflects poor aesthetic and moral taste?
Perhaps the greatest irony of the work is Greenberg's overlaying of a political message, one preaching compassion and intelligence at that, to a process that involved the willful manipulation of toddlers to break down their toddler-sized psyches and leave them in a pool of their own tears. I agree with the artist and many others in this country in her assessment of the current administration in Washington. But Greenberg's own tactics are a mordant, grotesque "nursery-school version" of the most conspicuous of those same policies and practices. One anonymous commenter on Hawk's blog attempted to reconstruct what happened in Greenberg's studio, using only information she herself has made available regarding how she made "End Times" possible:
Forcibly making a child have an episode of tremendous anguish, as is indicated on their faces (these children are well beyond simply crying) is an act of abuse. She is abusing her power over them, as both an adult and what the child sees as a trusted friend to their parents. I doubt if she sat the children down and said “Ok here is what I am going to do. First, we will take off your clothes, then I will have you sit right over there. Next, my assistant here and I are going to do many things to get you to cry as hard as you have ever cried before. We will do that by having your parent leave the room, giving you some candy or a toy, and then grabbing it from you. We will do this over and over until you are crying good enough for me, and then these bright lights will flash over and over again, until I have a good enough picture. We will do this and there is nothing you can do to stop me. Thank you for your time and understanding, and participating in this historic event that is really a comment on my feelings towards the Bush administration. I am sorry we have to terrorize you like this, but you see, this is for the greater good. These pictures will make that bad man go away and stop hurting other children.”No, "End Times" is not Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, or even your average episode of 24. But I don't think anyone who has alluded to contemporary torture meant to imply an equivalence so much as a cleaner metaphorical link than the one Greenberg attempted to foist on her own work. Stripped of its purported conceptual framework, "End Times" is, above all else, a detached experiment in bullying, period. This fact makes it almost embarrassing to critique Greenberg's work on a deeper level, because it necessarily involves thinking things through more thoroughly than the "artist" herself seems inclined to do, prefering instead to assume that her instinctual response will hold up without further investigation and elaboration, grimly following her idea to its logical conclusion without recognizing how well she is mimicking her supposed enemy in her expression of concern for children. 1984, this one's for you.
Of course, while in politics, sunshine may be the best disinfectant, in the art world, sunlight and limelight are often one and the same. Many commenters have morosely (or gleefully) pointed out that this controversy may be the best thing that ever happened to Jill Greenberg's art career. Naturally, Greenberg and her agents have switched over to the spin cycle; her press release for her show at Los Angeles' Paul Kopeikin Gallery states that the work has "hit a national nerve" and explicitly linking this public discomfort with her hazy political message, and Kopeikin himself emailed Hawk to claim that the abuse controversy was a "non-isse" [sic] and that he had "made several sales to people who you have introduced to the work and who understand and appreciate it."
I believe that the moral dimension of "End Times" cannot be ignored, and that an artist need not profit from societal objections to their work if those objections are sound and widely shared. I further believe that Jill Greenberg's work should not be viewed through the art-historical lens of edgy, contemporary art, but is instead a cultural hiccup that should be shelved with divisive cultural artifacts like black minstrelry, art involving the physical abuse of animals, and other works that reflect a sensibility so alien that it is better approached not as art, but as the fractured product of a diseased mind or a necrotic culture.
I think the best response to any travesty of this nature is careful critique supplanted by outright mockery. Someone out there may prove otherwise, but I think that Child Welfare Services has no applicable standard for judging what Greenberg has done, that Paul Kopeikin really believes that hate mail means he has truly arrived, and that any pain Jill Greenberg suffers from your calls and letters could easily be "expressed" in an equally repugnant new series of work. My personal and untested opinion is that the only way to stop this kind of practice is to laugh it off the public stage. The art itself will die without too much help from us.
- Jill Greenberg and the Short, Fat Tail
- An Open Letter to Paul Kopeikin
- Welcome To The Internet, Paul Kopeikin! Here Are A Few Things You Should Know.
- Worried Monkey Stays Home