Reading In

Last night, I attended a panel composed of Jeff L. Rosenheim, Neil Selkirk, Elisabeth Sussman and Elisabeth Carpenter at the Walker Art Center on the eve of the opening of Diane Arbus Revelations. The motivation for assembling the show and monograph, according to Sussman, was the fact that although a huge stack of articles have been published about Diane Arbus (pronounced Dee-anne), these speculations really tell us nothing about her. Most of them are “pure rubbish.” Each one generally reveals the particular perverse interest the critic has taken in the work—on the whole, they add less than nothing to our understanding.

When the Q&A started, it became clear that the main reason why a lot of people attended the panel was to query the panelists about the nature of her unhappy life and suicide. Such matters, as Selkirk pointed out, are completely peripheral and disconnected with the work. Selkirk, who knew her briefly and is the official printer for her estate, suggested that we read and listen to her commentaries about her own work. She does not seem depressed or unhappy. The panelists refused to read anything into her work about her suicide, or to speculate on its cause. Life is complicated, Selkirk suggested. Arbus didn’t like museums much; Selkirk mentioned that Arbus commented on how “clean” they were.

“Reading in” seems like a fine sport for those in the clean room. This seems a poor substitute for reading itself. Mark Woods juxtaposed the quote from Emily Thompson I posted about soundscapes yesterday with an article by Jonathan Flatley using the same point of departure from Marx. The two authors couldn’t land further apart. What intrigued me about Thompson is that for her, air is material and real. For Flatley, air is speculative. From a critical distance, he reads a lot into things. For example:

What makes the events of September 11 singular is the way in which, as I already mentioned, the solid melted into air in another sense: the event was literally broadcast through the air in order to be televised “live.” It is possible that no other historical event has ever received such a wide public viewing during the event itself. Those who did not see it “live” (which was uncannily possible because of the time lags built into the event itself) were presented with ample opportunity to see it shortly thereafter. This massive public viewing, mainly on television, is what constituted the event-ness of the attacks on the WTC. In fact, it was a “made-for-TV’ event.

This is utter rubbish. The only reason why someone might make the claim that this event received a bigger public is simply that more people own T.V. sets now, compared to 1969’s moon landing. Was the moon landing a staged media event? Perhaps. Was that its primary significance? Not at all. For each viewer, the significance was different. Do we need several thousand essays on “what the moon landing meant to me” or, for that matter, “what the destruction of the W.T.C. meant to me”? I think not. But the real crime is not that people claim understanding of unimaginable tragedy for themselves, but that they claim to explicate it for the masses. This rubbish is as evanescent as the clouds of dust coating the people in proximity to ground zero.

I give the media props; as I watched the event live (just as I had previously watched the moon landing), I marveled at the way the media staged it. During the moon landing, Walter Cronkite played with models, simulating of the landing beforehand. On September 11, the media seemed more obsessed with “keeping it real.” The eyewitnesses were trotted before the camera, dirty faces and all. Only the area around their ears (for earpieces) were swabbed clean. The media didn’t want to create museum pieces for time capsules, they wanted to touch the dirt.

I keep thinking about Anderson Cooper and the coverage of Hurricane Katrina—he stood there in the rain and wind, narrating the experience for the world. It was both fascinating and pathetic. Most grown men know when to come in from the rain. We are no longer invited to imagine experience; experience is rendered concrete through the all-too-human talking heads.

But there is a gap between imagined intentions and appearances. That, according to most of the panel last night, is at the soul of Arbus’s work. What we need are more facts, not more readings. We can use our own imaginations rather than renting someone else’s. It cheapens any confrontation with the “work,” either of an artist or of the world.

I am reminded of James Elkin’s well thought out precepts in his primer Visual Culture: A Skeptical Introduction. “Ten Ways to Make Visual Studies More Difficult” includes a rant about scholars writing essays about events like 9/11:

Not all of the visual world is in need of interpretation of the sort that visual culture offers: visual culture needs to consider what portions of the visual are appropriate and amenable to its concerns. . . .Visual images may not always be the optimal place to look for signs of gender, identity, politics, and the other questions that are of interest to scholars. Images are deeply connected to attention, memory, sex, and any number of foundational human responses—but that does not mean that they can be taken as optimal routes to those subjects. Sometimes the images are just there because the writers are interested in them, not because the images are needed to make the arguments work. As Watson would say, this is really another case: call it the Case of the Addiction to Images. It is related to the Case of the Ill-Conceived Essay because it is assumed that ideas and information come to us in unique form when they are given in or as images. That assumption is tricky, because our commitment to images naturally leads us to think that ideas gotten through images are truer or more interesting than the same ideas outside of images. (81, 83)

Just because simulations or images from real events exist, that does not automatically make them more interesting than events or encounters. Just look at the damn art, and remember the real events. The WTC collapsed and people died senselessly. That was the “event,” not the media circus. As the Pontiac Brothers once obseverved, Clowns Join the Circus nearly everyday— but the building and the victims are gone forever.

It is a bit poetic that TouchScape was forced to cease operations after 9/11 and that its death was caused by the catastrophe—but touch remains alive and well.