Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Brooks tackles Frederick Douglass, Supermodel

From a daguerreotype of 1847, National Portrait Gallery, from Wikimedia Commons.
It's David Brooks, the world-famous photography critic —"How Artists Change the World", apparently not by going to Philadelphia this summer.

As usual, there were a ton of artists and musicians at the political conventions this year.
What, they only had two thousand pounds of artists and musicians? Somewhere between ten and twenty individuals, depending on the gender mix? At both of them put together? That seems low. (I realize Brooks, being a literary man, is using some fancy rhetorical technique here, probably the figure of litotes, or understatement, and what he actually means is "rather a lot".)

And that raises some questions. How much should artists get involved in politics? How can artists best promote social change?
I'd say it raises no questions at all. For one thing, if it's "as usual", then there's no reason for it to raise any particular questions this year. And then we don't even know whether the artists and musicians at the conventions were involved in politics and promoting social change or not. I mean, the singers onstage in the speaker lineup, including Stephen Jenkins, Mariana VanHoose, Ayla Brown, and the six-year-old Heavenly Joy Jerkins (for the Republicans; Justin Bieber, who was in negotiations for an entire $5-million set, turned the gig down when his team determined that, contrary to the Republicans' assurances, the convention was going to be a political event), and Alicia Keyes, Idina Menzel, Katy Perry, Carole King, Sheila E., Cyndi Lauper, and Renee Fleming (for the Democrats), were presumably volunteers making a statement of support for their candidate, but the accompanying musicians may well have been in it for all sorts of reasons, such as money, or hoping to be entertained themselves, to say nothing of the filmmakers and photographers, sketch artists, butter sculptors, balloon twisters, clowns, poets, novelists, and performance artists—the last perhaps really interested in observing the politicians' technical accomplishments.

One person who serves as a model here was not an artist but understood how to use a new art form. Frederick Douglass made himself the most photographed American of the 19th century, which is kind of amazing. He sat for 160 separate photographs (George Custer sat for 155 and Abraham Lincoln for 126). He also wrote four lectures on photography.
Lol, one person who serves as a model here was not an artist but served as a model. Something tells me Brooks doesn't have that story quite right.

The link indicates that Brooks obtained his information about the frequency with which Douglass was photographed from a nice pictorial feature in the rightwing British tabloid Daily Mail, 20 October 2015, reproducing photos from Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American, compiled by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, from W.W. Norton.

But he couldn't have gotten the facts on Custer and Lincoln (or the number of Douglass's essays on photography or the fact that they were presented as lectures) from the Mail, because they aren't there. They are to be found in the book's introduction (paragraph 2):

And the view that Douglass's status as most-photographed 19th-century American is "kind of amazing" (146th career use of "amazing/amazingly") could be connected to the book's epilogue, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (reproduced in the most recent issue of Aperture,  June 1 2016, which I'm reading through Ebsco), which says that it's "astonishing".

Brooks is interested in Gates.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard points out that one of Douglass’s favorite rhetorical tropes was the chiasmus: the use of two clauses in a sentence in reversed order to create an inverse parallel.
For example, Douglass wrote, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
Or, as Henry Louis Gates says, rather more precisely,
One of his favorite tropes was chiasmus, repeating two or more words or clauses or grammatical constructions, balanced against each other in reverse order, a rhetorical “x,” somewhat akin to a linguistic seesaw: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”...
Yes, we have a David Brooks Plagiarism Watch situation.

And that’s what Douglass did with his portraits. He took contemporary stereotypes of African-Americans — that they are inferior, unlettered, comic and dependent — and turned them upside down.
Although he prefers some nicer, more domesticated and affectionate stereotypes (drawn from the usual rectal source) to the darker ones Gates references:
Douglass was intent on the use of this visual image to erase the astonishingly large storehouse of racist stereotypes that had been accumulated in the American archive of antiblack imagery, the bank of simian and other animal-like caricatures meant to undermine the Negro’s claim of a common humanity, and therefore the rights to freedom and citizenship and economic opportunity.... “the already read text” of the debased, subhuman Negro fabricated and so profusely distributed by the slave power
(In fact Brooks gets into the bestiality thing himself, referencing Douglass's "lionlike pride".)

Upon which we arrive at naming the book and the essay, in paragraph 6,

Douglass posed for his portraits very carefully and in ways that evolved over the years. You can see the progression of Douglass portraits in a new book called “Picturing Frederick Douglass,” curated by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier, and you can read a version of Gates’s essay in the new special issue of Aperture magazine, guest edited by Sarah Lewis.
Although it's not a new book, as we've seen, and it's funny how he fudges the fact that the Gates essay was published in it before it got into Aperture (he is probably somewhat acquainted with Lewis, a fellow TED talker and Aspen Institute summiteer—they did an Aspen gig together at the Kennedy Center, chaired by Betsy De Vos, in May 2015, when Picturing Douglass was presumably in press and the special issue of Aperture in the making).

The Introduction says that "Douglass's photographic self, much like his persona as an orator and writer, continually evolved."

In almost all the photographs, Douglass is formally dressed, in black coat, vest, stiff formal collar and bow tie. He is a dignified and highly cultured member of respectable society.
The Introduction notes that "he presented himself in dress, pose, and expression as a dignified and respectable citizen".

And then there was his majestic wrath. In 1847 he told a British audience that when he was a slave he had “been punished and beaten more for [my] looks than for anything else — for looking dissatisfied because [I] felt dissatisfied.”

It's not really plagiarism as such this time, so much as the skivy eighth-grader technique of making it look as if he's got three sources (the book, the essay, and the Mail article) when in fact he's really only got one (fine and important) coffee table book. He did look at the pictures in the magazine as well, actually, referencing them in the last couple of paragraphs.

Brooks name-checks Vermeer, "Girl with a Pearl Earring", but doesn't see any reason to name the photographer, Awol Erizku, who made the picture ("Girl with a Bamboo Earring") in question (discussed in one of the articles in the June 1 issue of Aperture.) This image via Art News.
Cindy Sherman as Vermeer's letter reader, just by way of comparison, also from Art News.
But the infuriating thing to me is the chiastic number Brooks does on Gates's text, turning it upside down to make his own thesis about how artists (like Alicia Keyes and Renee Fleming, presumably) shouldn't engage in practical politics (they should be more like the Parnassian Justin Bieber), because that's just so dirty and morally suspect compared to the beautiful and uplifting work they accomplish in their day jobs:

I never understand why artists want to get involved in partisanship and legislation. The real power lies in the ability to recode the mental maps people project into the world.
He sets it up right at the beginning when he says that Frederick Douglass was "not an artist" but merely "understood how to use a new art form", when Gates is plainly showing us that he is—I mean, not just a great autobiographer and polemicist, as we already knew, but also a great photographer (a little in the style of Cindy Sherman, a designer of costumed self-portraiture) or director of photography, if you prefer (he didn't operate the equipment, as I imagine Sherman does), and an aesthetic theorist as well.

The remark devalues Douglass, who was of course passionately involved in "partisanship and legislation" throughout his life as a free man—treating him as a kind of exploiter of other people's art, using it for propaganda purposes, a spiritual inferior to the guys who actually pushed the button.

Then, to Brooks it seems that the point of Douglass's photography was to show what the black man is, "dignified" and "respectable" but "forceful", whereas Gates argues so strongly that the object was to show what he isn't, to deny that the black man is any one thing:
What was Frederick Douglass trying to represent and, just as importantly by contrast, what was he trying, through his over 160 photographic portraits, not to represent? 
Douglass used photography...  registering, through image of himself after image of himself, that “the Negro,” “the slave,” was as various as any human beings could be, not just in comparison to white people, but even more importantly among and within themselves....
So Brooks can't comprehend the character of what Douglass the artist does, and he can't accept the character of what Douglass the politician does either, but he still wants to be applauded, for what? For putting a black person at the center of his Tuesday column, I guess.

Gates allows the greater delicacy and mystery of what the artist does—
the war against slavery and the obliteration and reconstitution of one’s black subjectivity assumed many shapes and forms more subtle than armed combat and the passage and enforcement of laws —so many of these operating in the realm of the symbolic and the cultural imaginary
—but he doesn't say that sets you outside the struggle.

Frederick Douglass at Cedar Hill, 1880s, from the National Park Service, via Awesome Stories. This is the image Sarah Lewis uses in her editor's note to the special issue of Aperture.

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