Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Saturday, May 06, 2006


Ari Marcopoulos: Even the Postmodernist Artist Has Got to Stand Naked

Even the President of the United States Sometimes Has Got to Stand Naked by Ari Marcopoulos. JRP/Ringier Kunstverlag, Zurich, 2006, 160 pages, $45.

Courtesy JRP/Ringier Kunstverlag
Contemporary art has never been so diffident about formalism as it is now. The current Whitney Biennial is many things, but in its present version it is decidedly not a formal exercise. There may be many reasons for the show’s denial of anything that smacks of the heady but now anachronistic experience of modernism; idealism and formal exploration for its own sake have given way to the complex relativities of postmodern angst, which expresses itself primarily in political fashion. There is nothing wrong with the idea of change in art; to a contemporary audience, modernism as a concept often smacks of elitist privilege, surely a taboo in light of our current passion for equality, in both a cultural and political context. But the new dose of inchoate imagery brings with it the larger problem of formlessness; the non-visual nature of much of today’s art seems off-balance and terribly vulnerable to the argument that, as usual, contemporary artists are speaking at best to a limited audience, primarily composed of themselves.

The specialization of such art is rooted in an intellectualized view of experience, in which the notion of reform lies at the base of work that makes small effort to hold the viewer. What we must do, instead, is consider the art as primarily symbolic of the moral contingency that accompanies such efforts; a decidedly negative view of expressive possibilities appears to go hand in hand with the belief that art is in the service of democracy. There is a different cast here than the politics of visual modernism, whose radical inspiration was visually abstract but also embraced the needs of the working class. (This is not true of modernist poetry in English: think of the reactionary sympathies of such artists as Eliot and Yeats.) Yet we have moved from a society of production to a society of service, and in the passage, we have become exquisitely aware of our differences in class, as if that were, by itself, enough to fuel the engine of art in search of a political sublime. The question is not so much whether we sympathize with an egalitarian vision. It would be heartless not to take note of the increasing gap between haves and have-nots. More important is an art that lives up to its promise of a realism that is both broader in its effectiveness and higher in its idealism. Otherwise, we are left in a theoretical vacuum.

The truth is that most of us don’t know what art is supposed to do in the twenty-first century. The greatness of modernity hangs over us like a mist; we stumble, often foolishly, in the pursuit of a past that is irredeemably over, passing by some of the possibilities open to us in favor of nostalgia. Many are content to revisit, in a small way, the remnants of modernism, which are kept alive by the desire for an ideological purity that is anathema to the art world, mostly governed by leftist politics. It is most likely unfair to judge such impulses as the hopeless attempt to keep the past alive. On a level playing field such as we have today, anything is possible: art can look to the accessible moment—no matter whether it lies in the past, present, or future—as its time of gain. Thus, we have abstract expressionists in our midst (good ones, too) who invoke the tradition for its own sake, while at the same time newer forms of logic are making headway among us. The result is a field of thematic and formal complexity in which many different kinds of art vie for attention.

The point has been made now and again concerning the pluralism of contemporary art as we know it: our impulse to judge has been replaced by the need to accept, almost beyond reason. Art criticism has been relegated to a place in which explanation substitutes for opinion in the present tense, which is what criticism is. Conservatives hold up standards that do not match what is actually happening in society, but the necessity of an implicit political stance is only relatively new. Our gaze has shifted from the object to the context surrounding it, making the interpretation more important than the belief that something has or has not failed. Much of what we see as art refuses to negotiate any kind of esthetic that would render it as aspiring to the notion of quality, and as a result we have a demotic language whose belief system is pure in a social sense alone. As I have said, there are reasons for the change, but they occur on a public as opposed to private ground. Indeed, in photography, the private, in the form of various kinds of familial and sexual intimacy, has deliberately been transformed into something more than merely personal—you see this in the works of such photographers as Nan Goldin and Sally Mann. Notions of compositional competence have been replaced by the feeling that experience is its own teacher; the raw emotion of these artists fulfills the expressionist belief that feeling is justifiable by itself alone.


These tendencies are a bit clearer in photographic art because the camera appears to be telling the truth about appearance. Of course, it is a common recognition that subjectivity remains dominant in the photo just as it is dominant in traditional paths in art. Still, there is the illusion that you are getting in the photo what you actually see: the artist’s hand is invisible, at least in the short run. But there are plenty of artists who emphasize subjectivity, including Ari Marcopoulos, who has published a book of images of his own family, Even the President of the United States Sometimes Has Got to Stand Naked, some of which were also exhibited at New York City’s PS 1.

Marcopoulos’s history with PS 1 goes back some time. In director Alanna Heiss’s brief afterword, entitled “A Few Thoughts on Ari,” she mentions that, in 1985, he was the venue’s official photographer who recorded the installation of exhibitions. Concurrently, he also documented such figures as the Beastie Boys and Jean-Michel Basquiat; more recently, he has covered sport culture, snowboarding in particular. But the photos at the PS 1 show and in the book treat something far more personal: the artist’s family. The shadow of Nan Goldin falls on this work more than might be imagined; the images are truthful but also banal in their memory of forgettable moments.

To be sure, the banal is the subject of Marcopoulos’s commentary, which eschews visible ambition for the comfortable discourse of the home. The cover photograph is of the artist’s prepubescent son, skinny and innocent in a dark-green T-shirt with the word, “Atheists,” emblazoned on the chest. Clearly the image had to mean a lot to Marcopoulos; however, its interest as a photograph is entirely in his implicit affection for his son. One asks, perhaps meanly, why we should care for the picture. But, then, how is the image different from anyone else’s photograph of a family member? What is it that makes the picture professional (with or without quotation marks), artistic (ditto), or just different? It seems that the artlessness of the pose and gaze of the boy are its most salient characteristics. At the same time, its informality, in both a social and technical sense, undercuts the meaningfulness of what we see. I cannot interpret more than what I have indicated because the photo’s simplicity denies any chance of a discussion of its esthetic. Perhaps, like the image of certain artistic actions or happenings, one had to have been there in order to relish fully the grip of the work. But I worry that this is giving too much to an image—and by extension a body of work—that is neither complex nor memorable beyond the personal meaning Marcopoulos extends to it.

Is such intimacy affecting beyond Marcopoulos’s immediate family? It is hard to say. There are precedents for such work: many find Goldin’s pictorial narratives of herself, her lovers, and her friends deeply moving. By the same token, Marcopoulos may be taken as the documenter of what he loves. Still, doubt lingers: the content of the image may be remarkable to the artist who shoots it, but his audience has the right to ask of him that the work be as compelling as his feeling for the subject. One sympathetically imagines a close family life, but that is not really the matter at hand, which is to decide whether the image is capable of surviving the moment of its making. As important as these images may be on a personal level, they do not command attention as compositions; as such, their meaningfulness is determined by the proximity of the viewer to the actual life of the family. In other words, the work succeeds only if we know the subjects well. The book is an essay on feeling as content; however, it is limited in its ability to expand that content beyond the immediate life of the family. I am enjoined to care for people I do not know, but there is something exploitative about the terms of the demand.

The same kind of intrusive intimacy is expressed throughout the book, whose insights are deliberately mundane, both in their expression and in their implication that such images carry with them not only the conclusiveness of a close family but the gravitas of the historical record. There are pictures (all of them uncaptioned) of Marcopoulos’s boys with skin rashes and cuts on their back; there are images of Marcopoulos’s wife naked, or wearing a black dress, standing next to two posters proclaiming Warhol and Basquiat as if they were in a boxing match, or bent over, having sex with her husband. Some of the outdoor, landscape shots are striking: one is of a great, snow-covered rock rising up on the side of the road; the form is interesting enough by itself to make the picture successful. One imagines that the underlying motive for the collection has to do with the artist’s need to present his family’s small victories and defeats as worthy of public regard. But just as happens with Goldin’s intimacies, the image of bruised children or a naked spouse claim more space than they can possibly inhabit. As a viewer, I was left with the confusing, even disturbing, emotion that it was my privilege to enter the lives of a family I’ve never known. To be brusque, however, why should I do that? What is it about the work that engages me to the point where I take these images to heart?

Because it is impossible to differentiate between the image as seen and the subjective eye that catches the moment, we are left to imagine some larger goal behind the impulse of the book. I grant Marcopoulos his desire to capture family life, but I remain unconvinced that it has been done with an eye for form, which suggests that he is indifferent to the eye of the audience. But does that give the work greater integrity or less? Are such questions even to the point? It is hard to tell whether Marcopoulos’s close interiors or open landscapes are anything more than what they are. It may even be that his denial of the fiction of distance is key to the esthetic bent of the work: honest intention comes before formal interpretation. Seen this way, the book may be read as a firm rejection of art as artifice in favor of the homely but accurate view of a family at work, at play, at rest. Given these conditions, the search for formal accomplishment is at best a tangential matter, overwhelmed by a search for emotional honesty that records the complexities of home life. Marcopoulos poses a dilemma. As a critic, I cannot share his blithe disregard for issues of form or skill, but I recognize that there is, by now, an entire generation for whom the argument is moot.

So, then, is the discussion of form in Marcopoulos’s art primarily academic in nature, and not necessary for an interpretation of its merits? There is an image of one of his kids dressed in a costume—he looks like a superhero wearing a mask and a shirt with wings. The child stands in a field, close behind which is a power plant. For those of us who want to make compositional sense of the picture, it is clear that the boy’s sense of wonder is being encroached upon by the commercialization of the costume, as well as by technology itself, the power lines an ominous but inevitable part of the landscape—good enough as a start, but the picture itself, of the boy with his arms stretching outward, is not composed in a way that links it to the tradition of art photography. In fact, its point of reference is that of the snapshot, whose energy has everything to do with the bond established between artist and subject, rather than the abstractions of formal concerns. But, unfortunately, the feeling is essentially hermetic, a part of a very personal bond that does not necessarily extend itself to Marcopoulos’s audience in any way. We must take the connection implied in the photo for granted, for, without the bond, the photograph fails in its presentation of intimacy.

I do not want to dismiss Marcopoulos as a photographer; however, I think there is something seriously amiss in this book, his most recent gathering of images. The quiet banality of what we see presupposes that art is no longer structured by formal processes, whose very idealism, as we have noted, is now deeply suspect. But what else do we have to judge the image by? Marcopoulos is clearly committed to a point of view that interests his audience by underscoring the subject matter of his eye—hence the project on snowboarding, in which the activity itself is deemed sufficient to hold his audience. But in his pictures of family, the content is sufficiently “inactive” as to distance his viewers. Certainly, it is possible to empathize with the family events presented; why we would want to do so, however, is another question. It may well be that Marcopoulos is presenting transparent, guileless images in the hope of baring his soul, but the anonymity of most of the work results in a different feeling entirely, one that discourages us from caring. The images are curiously deadpan, constructed as they are of their own self-regarding immediacies. Clearly, the project must make sense for Marcopoulos, even if it is hard to accept on public terms. Sympathy for his ideas is finally based upon the acceptance of the banal, a weak link for appreciation if ever there was one.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
Page 1 of 1 pages