Thursday, December 11, 2014

Art as Historical Record

We recently watched the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, which is about a French-American woman whose photographs were discovered after her death. She spent the latter part of her life working as a nanny on the North Shore of Chicago and had a photography hobby that was not well known to anyone besides herself. Upon her death, her possessions were sold at auction and thousands of her negatives were found. When experts saw prints of the photographs it became apparent that she had quite a talent, and there have now been exhibitions of her work all over the world. It is a shame that she did not achieve recognition during her lifetime, because she could have used the money. However, her personality quirks may have had a significant influence on the course of her life, which remains somewhat of a mystery. Vivian Maier was what you would call a street photographer and had a knack for spotting and framing pictures and sometimes getting the subjects to pose optimally. From the selection I've seen, I thinks she ranks about the same as many famous photographers. I am bringing this up because it ties in with an ongoing interest of mine, which is the determination of what counts as art.

Most of what I consider to be art is inextricably linked to specific historical contexts. In some ways, the best cave art seems just as good to me as any art that has ever been produced. Art often seems simply to be a representation of the physical and cultural artifacts of a particular era. Carefully painted portraits aren't necessarily much different from carefully executed photographic portraits. The Impressionists depicted daily life in France in a manner similar to the Japanese depiction of life during the Ukiyo-e period, though the materials used and styles differed. I think in many cases the subject matter of a particular form of art may change very little over time, though the materials, methods and styles may vary considerably. With the passage of time, older works of art gain an exotic aura, because they highlight people and circumstances that no longer exist and are of nostalgic value, sometimes evoking an idealized past. There are also the decorative arts, which sometimes overlap with fine art, but to me they are of lesser importance.

In literature, historical context is important. Many of the great novels of the nineteenth century have value added to them simply on the basis of their depiction of a bygone era that is of special sentimental or other interest. Moreover, particularly in the case of Western Europe, there was a cultural heyday in France and England that lasted up until World War I. Having followed the progression from Victor Hugo to Balzac to Flaubert to Proust, the latter bringing us into the modern era, I have the impression that there was a peak in French and English literature at about the time of Flaubert. This may be because French culture also seemed to have reached some sort of apex then. Yes, Proust exhibits a new style, but he still seems conceptually and culturally derivative. As I wade through In Search of Lost Time, I can't escape the notion that he has too much time to kill, doesn't get to the point soon enough, and is frequently uninsightful about his social milieu and himself. Yet he is distant enough in time to merit the stamp of approval from most contemporary academics. I find that although his writing style can be captivating at times, at other times his prose resemble a rambling, self-indulgent memoir. Even so, Proust is more interesting to read than most American writers. Perhaps because American culture has never been impressive to me, it is hard for me to warm up to its literature. American life is so prosaic and philistine that it doesn't arouse much reaction among aesthetes. To be sure, there is a lot going on here, and pockets of interest can be found, but you have to look hard and there is a lot of trial and error. The lack of history makes nearly everything new, and to an undiscerning public, that's fine, even when the discerning think otherwise. As Denise Levertov wrote in a late poem:

Dear 19th century! Give me refuge
in your unconscious sanctuary for a while....

Getting back to Vivian Maier's work, some of it takes on significance purely from its documentation of life in New York and Chicago in the 1950's and 1960's. It is possible that if she were still alive and photographing people in Chicago, those would be very good photographs too, but the passage of time certainly makes a difference.


  1. I recall reading about the discovery of her photos a year or 2 ago and enjoyed scrolling through the images. On a recent trip to NYC (3 weeks ago) I consciously wondered if I was enjoying the city so much because I could look at so many people each day. The faces of course were often very alike i.e. just people looking at me and me looking at them. But some of the images were stand out in their randomness, and of course we are all similar but also so very different. Similar to V.M.'s photos. Maybe I consider the human race going about it's daily business as art? Is that possible?

    1. I lived in Dixon, Illinois for ten years, and I had to get out occasionally because it was so dead on multiple levels. I used to go to Chicago or Madison, Wisconsin, about equal distances, for a change. My daughter would come with me too when she lived in Dixon. Street life in cities is often a form of art, especially compared to small towns. It is very rural here in Vermont, and I always get a kick out of Bill Cunningham's weekly videos:

    2. Ha I've watched them many times too! Love him and his New York accent.

    3. He is originally from Boston, and you can hear it in his accent. The only thing, though, is that he just shows the bright, stylish side of Manhattan. Because of that I don't think he quite counts as an artist. But I find him entertaining in small doses.


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