100 x 70 cm collage
Scandinavian Summer, 2013. © Michelle Arcila
I recently read Andrew Stefan Weiner’s essay Stimulus, Austerity, Economy: Photography and the US Financial Crisis, which closes with reference to Mark Fisher’s recent and celebrated book Capitalist Realism - a book that addresses itself to the ostensibly inevitable nature of the current state of capitalism in western societies. These readings brought to mind a relationship between the two portraits shown above, which in some ways I was beginning to consider in my essay on Mike Brodie’s book A Period of Juvenile Prosperity:
"if we cannot forgive those depicted some measure of the juvenility in their flight from history (or from harm), if we cannot forgive them their cynicism or their ornamental retromania, we must at the least acknowledge the deep wellspring of individualism in our culture, and recognise in their obsessive adventure a project tied to normative conventions of consumption as a secular religion, and identity as a politically apathetic affect. In their impulsiveness, their naked joy, their greed and their elation, these photographed subjects are the offspring of profoundly neoliberal norms."
- The Cost of Freedom, published at thegreatleapsideways.com
It seems to me that in many ways Brodie’s subjects are quite profoundly tied to the same cultural norms that Richard Renaldi’s portrait so adeptly engages, and that in both instances what lurks beneath these portraits is a capitulation to overweening influence of style in identity culture and in society more generally. In a short article on his book, Mark Fisher writes:
"the decomposition of solidarity on which the victory of neoliberalism depended has not yet been reversed. The various anti-capitalist movements (up to and including Occupy) have not yet constituted a counter-force capable of challenging the super-hegemony of capital. We’ve become used to a world in which workers fear capital, never the reverse. Capitalist realism was never about direct ideological persuasion; it’s not that the population of the UK were ever convinced of the merits of neoliberal ideas. But what people have been convinced of is the idea that neoliberalism is the dominant force in the world, and that, consequently, there is little point resisting it."
In a sense the linkage for me stems from the fact that the aesthetic styling of Brodie’s subjects so deliberately calls to mind the 1950s and 60s, yet without any trace of the fraught and idealistic politics that went along with the ‘look’ that these subjects have quite carefully cultivated (right down to the novels we seem them reading). If Renaldi’s portrait is about the improbably manicured styling of this young woman encountered in a run-down bus station, then it is through an equally attentive cultivation of style (and through their youth) that for me both portraits are linked. All of which raises a question about whether escapism is now construed culturally as a form of resistance to the political norms of capitalism, and at the same time raises a subsidiary question for me about photography’s possible capacity to engage or respond to these changing realities.
Later in my essay I quoted Ernst Fischer, whose reading of the cultural norms embodied by some of Ernest Hemingway’s literary subjects in the book In Our Time seems somehow to to tie much of this together:
“Put up your tent, far from the world. No other way is worth while. The world is dark. Crawl into your tent. It’s lighter inside.
Hemingway’s attitude is typical of a widespread longing in the late bourgeois world. Millions of people, particularly young people, seek to escape from unsatisfying jobs, from daily lives they feel to be empty, from a boredom prophetically analysed by Baudelaire, from all social obligations and ideologies, away, away on roaring motorcycles, intoxicated by a speed that consumes every feeling and thought, away from their own selves, into a Sunday or holiday in which the whole meaning of life is somehow concentrated. As though driven by approaching disaster, as though sensing an imminent storm, whole generations in the capitalist world flee from themselves, to put up, somewhere in the midst of the unknown, a flimsy tent where it will be brighter inside than it is in the outer darkness.”
- from The Necessity of Art (1978).
"This constitutes the terrible plausibility of these images, and part of the basis for their success: they do describe and also enact a world in which people are socially atomized, politically weak, and are governed by their place in the image world. In demanding that the maximum visual detail be wrung from their subjects, they silence and still them. In their seamless, high-resolution depictions, they present the victory of the image world over its human subjects as total and eternal.
While the results may hold apparently radical elements – that the passivity and image victimhood of the subjects may rebound on their viewers – the ambiguity of such images finally salvages artist and viewer. Such images oscillate between identification and distancing, honoring and belittling, critical recognition and the enjoyment of spectacle, and access to the real and the critique of realist representation. Despite the vast amount of data in these images, their specificity is low in terms of unambiguous statements about their subjects. Given that lack of specificity, so standard a feature of art-world production, what is highlighted instead (as Rosler argued) is self-projection by the photographer, and, we should add, by the viewer. Dijkstra says that the bathers in the beach pictures are “more or less a self-portrait.” So we find ourselves in that familiar real of thorough ambiguity, complex as a trap for thought, though far from complex, indeed clichéd, as a configuration in art production, in which, in the free-trade zone of the art work, artist, and viewer are offered matching opportunities for the apparently non-instrumental play of their creative and intellectual faculties.”
— Julian Stallabrass What’s In A Face?: Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography in October, Vol. 122 (Fall 2007)
Great read and incredible work.