Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Welcome To The Internet, Paul Kopeikin! Here Are A Few Things You Should Know.

To read the post that spurred this exchange, click here.

Audrey Hepburn as Paul Kopeikin, a lovely moppet in need of
some serious grooming
before he's ready to brave the online world

Dear Paul,

I must say this is a strange correspondence we're having. I wrote an open letter to you criticizing your showing of photographs taken by a woman who made little children cry in order to photograph them. I wasn't the first to point out the idiocy or the insensitivity of her actions; in fact, I was just backing up someone who had dared to criticize an artist's methods and had been taking a lot of heat by drawing attention to an exercise in stylized nonsense that most people hadn't seen, didn't care about, or had ignored. As a courtesy, I emailed it to you as well - it seemed like the appropriate thing to do with an open letter.

Weeks later, I find this little gem from you in the post's comments:
Wow. Three whole comments, and one from a guy (John Wilson) who is angry because I didn't want to be his penpal. This is really a big controversy isn't it? Surprising it's not on the cover of Time Magazine. I didn't read this when you emailed it to me so I don't think I'll bother now. But it's not surprising to me that you're from Texas, the same state that has given us the worst President in the history of our Nation.

Jill Greenberg's "End Times" series is Art and the methods used to make it are not child abuse. Not even a little bit. Anyone who feel otherwise is mistaken. The unfortunate thing is that by equating Jill's work with child abuse the definition of real child abuse gets watered down. Which is why people who want to pretend there is a controversy - there isn't - and get people angry are the ones doing the damage.
I hope it doesn't strike you as presumptuous - but how could it! - for me to explain a couple of things to you about this bizzaro world we call the World Wide Web. Think of it as a blog-driven rehabilitation effort - a quick shave and a grueling etiquette lesson and you'll be ready to join us in some civilized discourse.

As a man who clearly knows the value of publicity, I am confident you will make sure to "not read" this post as well. In fact, it would be best if you had your assistant print it out so you can read it in private - one thing you might not have heard yet about the Internet is that it also functions as a kind of backwards television. You're on channel 27 right now!

But seriously: Don't get too hung up on the three-comment thing. There did actually seem to be a lot of interest in my post, mostly because Thomas Hawk encouraged his site's visitors to read my criticism of the show - not my letter to you, mind you, but my main post about the show, which has accumulated roughly 30 comments to date. Of course, I took the time to link the two together, to ensure as much cross-reading as possible, and over the two weeks that followed my very young blog (not yet two months old!) experienced levels of traffic that are small beans by some site's standards but pretty good for a four-week-old blog that tries to marry art, technology, education and daily life by some guy who animates in PowerPoint. I show off my stats here, but leave the values visible so no one will think I'm bragging. Again, these hits are nothing for bigger, more established sites like Hawk's.

Those two posts alone have drawn over 2,500 page loads between them - granted, most of them to the main argument. That may be my fault - I didn't link directly to Hawk's blog from my letter to you, which might have drawn additional eyes. But I do think this reflects an interest in the topic. Hawk's own posts on the subject drew hundreds of comments - although you found some clever ways to dismiss those, too. But come on, Paul. That's a lot of interest, isn't it? Do you think people who read blogs and people who buy art don't overlap? I know it's easy to assume that others' habits mirror your own, but there are a lot of art-lovers out here navigating the series of tubes we call the Internet.

You could actually learn a lot from Jill - faced with Hawk's criticism, she wrote it off but stayed positive. She was going for those "on the fence" viewers who hadn't decided exactly what to think about what she'd done - which, in a case like hers, was most people, because her actions lack a historical context. One commenter to this site did make an interesting comparison:

Jackie Cooper won an Oscar for his performance in the movie SKIPPY. He was only 10 - the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Oscar.

In his 1981 autobiography "Please Don't Shoot My Dog", Cooper wrote that during filming, his uncle - the director - threatened to shoot the boy's dog if the child actor could not cry for the scene. When Cooper was unable to cry in the following take, his uncle took Cooper's dog out of sight and fired a gun so that Jackie could hear - making Cooper think his uncle had just killed his dog. The intense weeping that won Cooper the Oscar and WON HIS UNCLE THE OSCAR FOR BEST DIRECTOR, clearly became the defining trauma of the 10 year old actor's life - leading him to entitle his autobiography after the event.

So regarding actions with children in the name of art - Most of you probably have never heard of the film "Skippy" before this writing? And if you are someone you know has seen it - were you or they deeply affected by its art in such a way that this lifetime trauma to a 10 year old was worth it?
But then again, the same person wrote a lot of things about her personal interactions with Greenberg - unproven claims that are highly unflattering, so I won't repost them here. But shame on her for revealing her hidden agenda! It's astonishing how many people will object to something in the name of morality when really they're just jealous.

I've already taken up too much of your "not reading" time, so I'd better cut to the chase. Here are a few tips to make you a bit more presentable to the millions of blog readers who judge you by your words:
  • Don't bother responding to criticism by saying you can't be bothered to read your critics. It's like coming to a party with no pants on and saying the guests weren't worth dressing for. If you can't pull on a pair of pants, stay home.
  • Don't contradict yourself on two different websites by mocking critics for bothering to comment on one site and then claiming that no one cares about the issue because they didn't bother to comment on another one. This kind of double-speak works wonders in art dealing. But imagine yourself negotiating the purchase of a piece for the lowest possible price and then selling it up for the highest possible value with both transactions recorded live and played through a giant megaphone repeatedly for many years whenever someone wants to hear it. You'd probably say a few things differently!
  • Don't think that critical thinking can be held at bay by turning up your nose and writing art with a capital A. This isn't the 19th-century, Paul; everyone is a critic, and if we weren't, contemporary art would not be what it is today.
Blogs are about openness, intelligent engagement, and dialogue. If you don't care to discuss ideas with your critics, stick to billboards, where the stage is all yours.

In case you'd like to do a little light reading on reactions to "End Times," or just collect some virtual clippings, here's a list of interesting posts about the show. Who said bloggers don't do their research! I've marked the most enlightening ones with a "+" sign. But hey - you don't have time for this, right?

Those More Or Less Opposed
+ Jill Greenberg is a Sick Woman Who Should Be Arrested ...
+ Thomas Takes A Stand
don't we just adore innocence?
Yeah, what he said!
I'm sorry, Jill Greenberg...
Jill Greenberg's questionable treatment of children
Is photography exploitation?
Jill Greenberg (and husband Robert) Are First Class...
Wouldn't it be ironic...
+ Jill Greenberg and the boundaries of art
+ More thoughts on the Jill Greenberg controversy at Hawk's Digital ...
Jill Greenberg is Ill
Is Photographer Jill Greenberg abusing children in the name of art?
+ Jill Greenberg: "End Times" Indeed
+ Unsubscribed: American Photo Magazine -- Jill Greenberg Feature
+ Thomas Hawk vs. Jill Greenberg
For Shame
Jill Greenberg: Child abuser
Jill Greenberg Poses Photos of Emotionally Distraught Kids and ...

Those More Or Less In Favor
+ Jill Greenberg's End Times series
Photographer Jill Greenberg Controversy!.... Time to Buy?
Can I Be Her Assistant?
Blog my wife. Please! controversy doesn't rage so much as bubble ...
Like taking candy from a baby ... over and over
Jill Greenberg - "toddlers"
Freakin' Awesome!
thank zeus i don't have children
Amazing Emotion: End Times by Jill Greenburg
Jill Greenberg Photography

Staying On the Sidelines
On the subject of the ethics of photography... Jill Greenberg's ...
Jill Greenberg: Unclear on the Concept
What is art?
Photography and Ethics of photographing children part II
Discussing the ethics of photography


Joshua said...

I don't think I've been fairly categorized as generally "in favor" of Greenberg's photography. Mostly, I don't care. I don't think it's such a crime to make children cry for the sake of art -- there's a huge gulf between taking a toddler's sucker and pretending to shoot a ten year old boy's dog, by the way. Is it exploitative? Of course it is. But as Jim Lewis argued, all photography (and probably all art) is exploitative. I don't, for instance, hear you complaining about the numerous traumas Christopher Milne suffered when his father turned his fantasy world into a series of best-selling books.

On the other hand -- Greenberg's particular behavior is odious not simply because she made the children cry (note to the world: children cry. the world is misery and pain. I doubt these children will be scarred for the rest of their lives, and if they are, it's a bit like John Waters's attitude to the chicken that died during the filming of "Pink Flamingos": "It got to be in a movie and it got to get fucked.") but that she initially presented the work as if she were taking photos of spontaneous outbursts. This manipulation, which she claims has some of political meaning (blame it on Bush!), isn't uncommong among artists, nor is it always bad, but in this case I think it's proof she's made bad art. In which case, her exploitation of children should be treated rather more harshly. She exploited them in order to deceive us. Better if she'd made an aesthetic case -- but then you'd really be calling her a monster!

Okay, so maybe I am on the more of less inf avor of camp -- but I really don't care.

Quick question though: if it's child abuse to intentionally cause a child to cry in order to take its picture, is it not also child abuse to take a child to a portrait studio in the mall dressed in a fancy dress and hand them off to photographers who want to take pictures of them looking pretty KNOWING that this will make the children cry? How about putting them in Santa's lap, knowing how often children cry in this situation? Greenberg is hardly the first person to find some kind of worth in pictures of crying children. And very few of us think it's wrong to make a child wear her Easter dress even if she cries about it. I'm not sure how a child crying has become prima facie evidence of child abuse -- but apparently it has.

Jeremiah McNichols said...

If Greenberg did "initially present the work as if she were taking photos of spontaneous outbursts," I wasn't aware of it, and to me, the context makes it clear that someone had dedicated some time to those kids. I do agree that you fall more or less into the "camp" of supporters - it may have been a poor fit for some to be camped according to their acceptance of her methods when so many (like yourself) object strenuously to her aesthetics, but the ethics are my focus, because for me they take precedence in this case.

Questions of long-term damage aside (and surely that will vary from person to person, and will have more to do with how they make sense of the artwork after the fact than any feeling imposed on them by the experience - which puts them in the role of a special kind of viewer), the simple fact remains that children in pain (emotional, physical, what have you) depend on the adults they trust to comfort them when they suffer. The untimely decay of that trust is a fact of life for many children, and their elders' failure to live up to it is rarely penalized and in some cases even institutionalized. But to have such inhumane behavior prsented as high art galls me. Aesthetics and ethics collide in a big ol' heaping pile of disgust.

vern said...

"very few of us think it's wrong to make a child wear her Easter dress even if she cries about it"
Joshua, how many people do you know that would tolerate making a child weart an Easter dress, knowing it would make her cry and even IF it made her cry if the REASON for the dress was PURE PROFIT? I don't mind a few tears from my daughters for the sake of the Christmas pictures. It's a very short-lived experience, and immediately afterward they are calmed down and given plenty of love and affection.
Oh, and I'm not SELLING my Christmas pictures.

You might not think there's a difference, but in my mind there needs to be a distinction between taking these pictures to profit from them at the expense of the child, and taking Christmas pictures to share the beauty or adorability of your children with your friends and family.

"I'm not sure how a child crying has become prima facie evidence of child abuse -- but apparently it has"
No one has said it constitutes prima facie evidence, but I think I could argue that it does.
Moreover, the statements made by Jill, her asshole husband and the asshole gallery owner have all supported the notion that this DOES INDEED constitute child abuse.
Perhpas not in fact, but if the parents had done the same thing to children it would in fact. So how's this better?

Joshua said...


I'm not certain that profit should enter into it. Is it better to make your daughter cry just so you can take pleasure in her adorability? In a way, that strikes me as much worse. Furthermore, the primary example I gave (portrait studios) do make profit and do manipulate children in order to do so, with the full complicity of the parents.

And Jeremiah, I'd still contend that my ethical stance is more ambiguous. I see nothing in Greenberg's work to justify her ethical behavior. I see nothing wrong with her tactics as such, but I do think such ethical issues require a reasonable justification (and yes, art itself can be a justification, but it can't be used as a blanket shield from criticism, one must have a better argument than "it's art!" Art, as Nietzsche and Sontag once put it, must be eternally justified.)

But all this talk still begs the question of whether or not photographers and photography fans are willing to face a rigorous look at photographic ethics. I doubt that's something most of you want to accept. It's easy enough to come to the defense of crying children, but that is only a particularly grotesque example of the many ways in which photographers make their livings my manipulating and harming their subjects.