Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ben Lifson on Sugimoto and art

I'll try not to make it Sugimoto week on here, but while writing the last post about Sugimoto, I came across a post on the OpenPhotographyForums by critic and writer Ben Lifson. The context is a (somewhat cynical) discussion about contemporary photographic art in general and Sugimoto in particular.

It's well worth reading (Lifson's post is about half way down). Ben is someone whose criticisms and conversations I've always enjoyed and benefited from - I've extracted a big chunk here - the highlighted emphases are mine:


But, I believe, Sugimoto is the wrong example.

I feel that he is being unfairly judged here... Sugimoto is really quite good.

I haven't seen these new pictures but my direct knowledge of theoriginal works of his other series leads me to believe that these new pictures, of shadows, also have the same excellences that have made him a strong artist with a specific vision that holds much comfort and reassurance for us in these chaotic and deeply troubling times...
Sugimoto makes it look as though it were easy, as though the truths about space, light, recession, projection, the geometry within the rectangle and its relation to the geometry of rectangles, the relationship between the momentary and the eternal which he reveals to us in each picture...Each time different... He makes it look as though these things can be seen and felt by everyone all the time.

I emphasize "felt" because I know from my personal experience with his original works that after only a few seconds of quiet, calm, concentrated looking at them -- leaving one's prejudices and even thoughts behind -- one begins to feel things, a kind of calm, a kind of excited calm, a kind of anticipation of a mystery about to be revealed... A feeling that I've experienced only from his work although often in nature...

True, the things Sugimoto photographs are indeed present and visible all around us all the time, in any corner or on any wall one chooses to look at.

We pass them every day. We sit opposite them for half-hours at a time in airport waiting areas when our flight is delayed, we gaze at them over our computers at the wall opposite when we can't concentrate on our work for a while.

But do we see them?

Do we see them as precisely as Sugimoto has?

Do we know precisely where the edges are, that is, where the unity, the coherence, the integration, the eloquence, the disclosed mystery of this particular patch of the universe ends, the boundary across which the order is engulfed by what seems like a chaos until, with Sugimnoto's eyes, heart, intelligence, literacy, etc. we see where the next set of edges is?...

No. Sugimoto's is not fake art made real by the pricing mechanisms of the market and the greed of investors for rich future returns.

Sugimoto's art is real art that has had the good luck to be recognized as such by the market and given good prices so that Sugimoto can keep making it and be sustained, in part, by the gratification that is given artists by recognition and reputation...
It is absolutely correct with respect to much of what is going on,
not only in photography but in painting, sculpture, performance art, conceptual art, drawing, etc...

But we must be careful not to throw out the good artists like Sugimoto with the empty ones.

I was with a good and very well known German artist yesterday who characterized much of what is going on in the art capitals of New York, London, Paris and Berlin as "Pretentousness" which says only "I NEED, I NEED, I NEED, I NEED."

To which a young decorative artist I know and with whom I visited a lot of New York galleries a month ago added, "LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME"

Both artists agree that the general note is DESPERATION.

So Yes, we must continue this thread and analyze and observe and bring to bear on the situation our best intelligences...

BUT WE MUST BE CAREFUL not to judge the value of a work either way, good or bad, by two things: ONE, How much or how little it costs and TWO Whether we like it or not, i.e. our taste.

REMEMBER W. H. AUDEN'S FIVE VERDICTS, which express the difference between taste and judgment.

1. I see that this is good and I like it.

2. I see that this is good but I don't like it.

3. I see that this is good and I don't like it but I understand that with perseverance I could come to like it.****

4. I can see that this is trash and I don't like it.

5. I can see that this is trash, but I like it.

****Which is how I came to like Sugimoto's work: I could see that it was honest, true, clean, extremely well done etc but I didn't like it., I felt like many of you here, like So What? or something. But I could see that it was good. It took me five years of struggling against my dislike of and my prejudices against it to see just how good it was and then, one day, passing one print in a museum and being arrested by it, feeling how good it was, feeling all its feelings, and then knowing that it and its artist were, as Keats calls the Grecian Urn, "friends to man" and I embraced it and liked it. Just like some theorems in non-Euclidean geometry, some formulas in
organic chemistry, some projectiles that will get a satellite near enough to Venus to make photographs, some art is difficult to understand.

ben lifson"

Ben also has a series of quite in-depth articles on



Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

It's amusing how things that have been done to death in Art decades ago, are lauded as hot stuff in Photography. It's a good tactic that comes around every now and then; lift something from Art that has sunk deep into the mainstream, and repeat it as a photo. And those with their head stuck deep into the photo sand will tell you how exiting and fresh it all is...

Yeah well.... NOT. Marketability through a blend of familiarity with a tinge of the new through the choice of medium... oh yawn. It's the suburban-safe alternative to printing phony money in the shed.