Note: If you're looking for a sober, expansive background and critique of this issue, please see my previous post, "The Case Against Jill Greenberg's 'End Times.'"
Dear Mr. Kopeikin,
I have followed with interest the debate surrounding your courageous showing of Jill Greenberg's politically-charged photographs criticizing the Bush administration and religious fundamentalists. I would go so far as to say that Jill has not only expanded the boundaries of fine art photography, but invented a new model for performance art as well! I'm guessing the conservative movement is taking this all pretty hard.
I was reading through some of the blog posts and comments by the various nutjobs who pollute the blogosphere with their anonymous opinions when I noticed that you took a moment off from your gallery-directing duties to set the record straight:
Innocent children are being slaughtered daily by the Bush Administration in Iraq and Afganistan (and who knows shere [sic] else) so anyone worrying about the non existant [sic] abuse of the children in Jill Greenberg's photographs should immediately contact the White House to add their voice to ending the murder of children by this Republican Administration.Bravo! I've been saying it for years: Art doesn't kill people - war kills people! Sometimes to make an omlette you've got to break down a few eggs. And for heaven's sake, Jill isn't the first artist to make people suffer for her art, or the first to intentionally bring thirty-seven children to tears. She's just the first person to think of doing them at the same time. I'm sure she will be busy explaining that project at parties that for the rest of her life. Before she did it, I'd have said it couldn't be done!
But I'm preaching to the choir here, right? I know you're a busy man, so I'll get to the point. This controversy has clearly taken you out of your comfort zone, but you've stepped up to the challenge and I think you're ready for more. I also sense in you a deep-seated concern for politics and (dare I infer) pressing social issues. And here we arrive at a unique opportunity. In the absence of any legal challenge to Jill's current work (well, some kooks are working on one, but you have such a good case, I'd defend Jill myself - and I'm not even a lawyer!) we may be cleared for takeoff on a variety of taboo topics. Here are a few exhibits I've been thinking about:
- Mental health services have undergone drastic cuts in recent years, and the mentally ill are suffering without essential services. I would like to draw attention to their plight by having Jill film multiple "interview" sessions with a schizophrenic patient who has been denied needed mental health treatment. The patient will be told that he or she is the subject of a police investigation and lightly interrogated using standard police techniques, and his or her reaction will be captured on film. In this way I hope to illustrate my own anxiety regarding the treatment of the mentally ill in our country. Of course, since the patient lacks the capacity to distinguish fantasy from reality, there is really no reason to think that our intervention on behalf of all sufferers of mental illness will be any worse than the individual's own private hell.
- Mentally handicapped people have been mocked in an alarming number of recent movies - it's as though they're the last group left it's okay to make fun of. Let's take a hard, uncomfortable look at this subject by inviting mentally handicapped adults into Jill's studio, where a large group of Hollywood's beautiful people will taunt them for several minutes while Jill photographs their reactions. We'll get some waterworks for sure, but some of them might get angry or even violent, so we will definitely need some security on this one. After the shoot we'll have a big party with sheet cake and party hats and all of the handicapped people will be invited. They'll be clueless.
- Poor conditions in U.S. nursing homes are putting millions of our elderly at risk. To dramatize this deplorable situation, I would like to subject several nursing home residents with dementia to the repeated receipt of distressing information (that their children had all died together in a plane crash, for example) while Jill photographs their expressions in a hieratic style. By repeatedly sharing the same information and documenting multiple reactions on film, the project would highlight the cultural "amnesia" that has thus far prevented our society from engaging in serious reform, and would express my own feelings of sadness when I realize I have forgotten something important, like my keys. Each subject's children would closely monitor the project, of course, and as their guardians would have full rights to volunteer their parents' unwitting participation.
- I think viewers are also very curious about the parents of the children Jill photographed for "End Times." Why not mine that subject a bit for a "sequel" of sorts? Let's make arrangements with the parents of a "bully" figure at each of the "End Times" kids' schools. With the consent of his or her parents, the bully will taunt and verbally abuse the "End Times" subject until they completely break down. Now, I know what you're thinking - we photograph the bully just after their conquest, to document that smug glow of domination. A good political critique to be sure. But what I think would be really interesting would be to go back to the parents of the "End Times" kids and tell them what we'd done, then photograph their reactions. How will they feel when their kid is bullied without their consent? Hoppin' mad, I bet! Now, permissions would be hard on this one, but Jill's good with Photoshop. It'll be tricky to see their expressions through all the paint daubs, but I'm sure she could pull it off.
These projects will be also a little tighter in terms of their message than "End Times," which, I've got to admit, is a bit of a stretch. Jill sort of left herself open on that one!
I've taken up enough of your time, but I'd like to say one more thing. I noticed you sent Thomas Hawk a clever note thanking him for his negative publicity, and I read it very carefully. If you don't mind a little criticism, I think you need to come on a bit stronger with that stuff if we move forward with any of these projects. Let's face it, there are a lot of people out there who enjoy watching toddlers cry but who have already learned the hard way that in the art world, poor taste translates into kitsch within a generation. As Nietzsche put it, "A pair of powerful spectacles has sometimes sufficed to cure a person in love." Do you think an Al Jolson could get a job singing in blackface today? What happens if and when the real issues affecting children around the world do become more real to us, when we start to take them seriously, rather than "not too seriously," as Jill describes her own stab at it? How will Jill's little cryfest look then? It's enough to keep timid folks' checkbooks firmly planted in their Birkin bags. But you know as well as I do that if we can really keep the general public convinced that any publicity is good publicity, we won't need our artists to go around calling people's bosses. The armchair critics will shut up, the mass media will copy-paste our press releases, and the only people left talking will be people we know how to work with. And us, of course!
But maybe I'm just not thinking enough like a curator. I guess if you do it right, an exhibition is like a war - move in fast, throw in some shock and awe, and by the time people step back and take stock of things, you'll be selling a completely different show.
Think it over, Paul. Let's make some money.