when looking at a DIANE ARBUS photograph what you are witnessing firsthand is an experiential document of an alternative AMERICAN narrative from the not-too-distant 1960s and 70s. her subjects run the gamut from drag queens, side show performers, twins, children, the developmentally challenged, the elderly and those that challenge normative culture with their unique perspective lived experience regarding issues of identity: specifically that of gender, race and sexual identity.
i don't find these images shocking, but for those who do i think it is due to the shallow nature of representation in our media diet of the true scope of lived experience in our country. too often we are marketed and sold images that placate our national sense of self, which is youth-driven.
this media reflection is the real freak show. it distorts our self-perception and makes those that fall outside our collective limited conceptions of beauty and what constitutes "normal" as being outliers that should be disregarded. this is to blame in my opinion for our infantilized views regarding issues surrounding sexual reproduction, death, aging, health and even family.
when i see her work i am reminded of once underground communities that have since been brought more prominently to the foreground of acknowledged lived experience. they don't seem that alternative anymore in the face of newer "others" to be castigated and dismissed (Muslims, Hispanics, Africans, Chinese, etc). not to get all BUDDHIST here, but i will be. there is no other. there is no dividing line between you, me and all sentient beings on the planet. it is all a shared experience. to deny the existence of others is only damaging yourself by extension.
famously the historical BUDDHA, the prince SIDDARTHA GUATAMA, as a kid lived in a palace where he was only surrounded by young, invigorated, healthy people that his father the king purposely put in place within its confines. one day when outside he saw the reality of the aging process and sickness and death. his self-perception and sense of reality was called into question and his life decisions took such into consideration accordingly. it was his real-life ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE played in a way PLATO may have not even imagined, as he used knowledge to further his goal of understanding reality minus blinders of greed and self-interest in the purpose of liberating his fellow sentient beings.
this is all well and good, but i know, again some would argue that the portraits of DIANE ARBUS are exploitative and her subjects the objects of revulsion or titillation. i'd argue that wholly depends on the viewer. if your limited scope of lived experience doesn't include these people than perhaps you should reconsider whether it is you that is being exploited by your feeble ignorance.
read a book. go outside (not during the pandemic). live a little. see the world for what it truly is in all its inclusive diversity.
when i look at the photography of WILLIAM EGGLESTON it reminds me of an AMERICA rarely noticed, not the skyscrapers, monuments and public buildings that have contrived meaning loaded into them, but the mundane and ordinary. a version of AMERICA that is stripped back of pretense and showcases the dignity of middle class exurban landscape of roads, storefronts, living rooms, restaurants and people making their way through life.
there seems to be a real problem in our culture where people look down on those that make a blue-collar living through manual labor, instead placing value and focusing our attention on the superficial "keeping up with the joneses" goals of mass consumerism. when i was in MANDALAY (MYANMAR) and you got up early enough, usually around dawn, and made your way across the river to the hilltop BUDDHIST temples of nearby SAGAING there was a good chance you would see lines of male and female monks seeking alms for the day. their one daily meal which consisted wholeheartedly of food donated by their neighbors. in the BUDDHIST worldview, allowing these monks to follow their spiritual path outside the framework of commerce was a gift with merit by their supporters. the fact that MYANMAR is a severely poor nation only goes to show how dear this daily gift is to the local community. there is a dignity in their spiritual work and those supporting it are likewise elevated.
we have none of that in the UNITED STATES. we have a zero sum mentality with clearly defined winner and losers. when i see the work of EGGLESTON, i am reminded that there is a beauty and dignity in work and the ordinary lives of everyday AMERICANS, even if our bloated culture and body politic refuse to acknowledge such.
his work is a celebration of it.
i remember when i was student teaching at BROOKLYN TECH almost a decade ago i had to film myself instructing students to later be dissected by my counterparts at TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY as part of my masters program. there was all this focus on presence and persona and clarity of instruction, etc. i was so caught up with that in mind that i got nervous a week later when the assistant principal walked in and saw a room full of students quietly reading and writing at their desks. she walked up to me in this silent space and said "there's a lot of action going on right now." and there was.
thats kind of how i felt when i first saw the work of noted PERSIAN artist/photographer/filmmaker SHIRIN NESHAT, her subjects emoted a depth and feeling that transcended their austere, silent poses.
if you look at early MUSLIM artwork, before they made the conscious decision against realism/naturalism in favor of calligraphy on religious grounds, there was a focus on the natural world. being surrounded by desert, depictions of heaven, as exemplified by the famous mosaics at the GREAT MOSQUE OF DAMASCUS, is a bountiful oasis with lush vegetation, plump fruits and blooming trees. like arable land, women are viewed as a resource subject to being protected, adored and objectified.
NESHAT's focus on feet, hands and eyes makes sense in that there is a cultural fetish on these exposed parts of the body when wearing an abaya and burqa much like the west have fetishized a women's' breasts, legs and backside. i saw this firsthand when attending school and later teaching in KUWAIT when we had cultural ministers visiting schools to make sure shirts and skirts were long enough in the classroom. very interesting indeed.
i remember my senior year in CALIFORNIA visiting the cadaver lab at UC DAVIS on a high school ANATOMY class trip and the parts of the body that they specifically covered were the eyes, hands and feet. apparently people faint at seeing those as they make the corpse feel "human." there is a power to those objects, thats all im saying.
what is interesting about NESHAT's work is that she takes PERSIAN calligraphy and contextualizes the female form into a sacred text. the melding of the sacred and the profane, the natural and the spiritual, the silent and the spoken. its powerful and thought-provoking and very much makes you consider your cultural baggage and preconceptions regarding the femininity of the other, in this case IRAN and SHI'A MUSLIM culture. there are depictions of a wide range of women, young and old, militant and praying, subdued and mysterious; all valid.
i find her work compelling and challenging and welcome others to explore it. a good companion piece to this subject is EDWARD SAID's post-colonial masterwork ORIENTALISM (PANTHEON, 1978) which examines the west's projections of exoticism and otherness to the outside world in order inoculate itself from exposure to new ideas that may complicate their need to dominate. fits in perfectly with this subject matter. enjoy.