Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Heart is not a bad word

In Monday’s post, I was really opening up a can of worms. The representation of suffering is no small topic. The subject collides right into the ethics of representing others, into the aestheticization of documentary photography and film, and of course, into questions about “what works” (for whom and why being another issue in itself).

As fate would have it, in the most recent issue of Book Forum, there’s a review of two books on the subject. The only thing that really caught my eye was this: In a 1981 essay Martha Rosler, accuses “concerned photography” of “embracing the weakest possible idea of social engagement, namely compassion.” I do realize that Rosler might be condemning sentimentality and passiveness, but, what a totally inhuman way to put it! It’s surely this attitude that leads to irony, my number one pet peeve in art nowadays. Nothing is more boring. It basically erases meaning. It’s a non-stance. It’s non-existence. Might as well just sit down in front of the TV and wait to die.

Beautiful examples of how aestheticizing the documentary can be powerful and compassionate (a good word, by me) are Errol Morris’s early documentaries, "Vernon, Florida" and "Gates of Heaven." Each shot is beautiful composed, yet folks have their own voice, they’re given their humanness in a non-Hallmark way. Ideology is removed in favor of a layered and complex view of pain and pleasure.

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