Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Writing TWO: Visual Culture and Historical Research

Writing Two - Visual Culture and Historical Research

Ramon Riley

I saw an exhibit at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh entitled “Impressionism In A New Light: From Monet to Stieglitz”.  The show was a look at how Impressionism had impacted photography.  As an art student, I was taught photography changed the need to render realistically, and Impressionism and Expressionism grew from the camera relieving the artist from the role of documenter.  This show made the case that Impressionism created “Pictorialism”, where photographers were using techniques in both the taking photos and the development of photographs to show photography as art and more than “point-and-shoot” (1).   

But there were two photographs that made me return to the museum a day later.  The subject of this paper is a photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz and the art of O'Keeffe.  I will intertwine my findings with my understanding of the assigned readings:  Chapter 2 of the Sturken and Cartwright book “Practices of Looking...” and the article “Welcome to the Cultural Revolution” by Krauss.

In the photograph of O’Keeffe, Stieglitz knew how to capture the beauty of the woman he loved.  This portrait shows a side profile with the artist’s (O’Keeffe’s) nude shoulder seducing the viewer and her uplifted hands playing the air like an instrument.  Stieglitz displayed O’Keeffe’s elongated and elegant fingers and portrayed her skin as fair against the stark contrast of a black background.

Alfred Stieglitz "Georgia O'Keeffe" 1920

As I sat for hours cherishing the opportunity to see O’Keeffe as Stieglitz might have seen her.  I thought about O’Keeffe’s art work which added greatly to the power of the image.  I was looking at an American Master photographed tenderly by the man who loved her before the stardom and before her legacy had been overanalyzed, bastardized and regurgitated.

Thinking about the Sturken and Cartwright reading and the concept of the dominant-hegemonic reading theory (p.53-57), I recalled a professor during my days as an undergrad “informing” me that O’Keeffe’s paintings were seen as subconscious images of tribute to the vagina.  And the more I looked at her work, I saw it too.  I accepted this as truth, and I carried that deduction with me... until I saw the photograph of in the show at the Carnegie.  It’s accepted that the artist doesn’t always “know” the symbolism in their own work, and this is where critics and historians can help to uncover the subconscious of the artist.  So I accepted my professor's statement despite O'Keeffe's public denial.  There is nothing wrong with seeing the flower paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe in the way the love of a woman can soothe the angst man.   Plus it contrasted the chaotic work of the time (2).  

Georgia O'Keeffe's Black Iris Series 1926

It was not until I witnessed the oversimplification and immature giggles toward her work that I felt perplexed.  I heard other undergrads, “...she just paints vaginas.”  There was that damned word “just” to reduce the significance of something, and the loaded word “vagina” which carries much more baggage (both selfish and commercial).  This is the opposite of rappers trying to validate the “n-word” by saying they are re-purposing its meaning (Sturken and Cartwright p. 63).  This is our culture claiming ownership of something intangible and trying to sell it, thus, cheapening it (Either option is misguided), and these idiots were allowed to speak that way, let alone think that way.  The context of OUR culture was contaminating this fresh experience of looking at O’Keeffe’s art (Sturken and Cartwright p. 57) for me.

Maybe Georgia O’Keeffe did paint vaginas subconsciously.  Then the definition or connotaion of “vagina” must be refined to align with the impression made upon me by the art and image of the woman in Stieglitz’s portrait.  Looking at the photo of O’Keeffe by Stieglitz, one could see in her image the contrast of strength and vulnerability, seduction and unawareness, sophistication and informality... I saw it in Stieglitz’s photograph.  So, if the artist IS the work, and the work IS the artist, to say Georgia O’Keeffe paints vaginas can still be accepted (if YOU need to label things), but one best get their understanding of the vagina as symbol correct first and remove the marketing baggage, bastardization, prostitution and pimping of “pussy” out of the equation.  

This is not some up-skirt shot of Brittany Spears on TMZ, but unfortunately, many “intelligent” people among us use knowledge to sell garbage to the majority of us to make themselves rich.  When it comes to visual culture, or culture period, there should be required courses in visual art, symbolism, and ethics.  This is where the Krauss reading comes in.  It seeks to critique and expose “unexamined assumptions about representation” (p.83). There are too many “smart” people saying stupid “shit”.  Sturken and Cartwright might say people “make do” because our introduction to most things come from a passive state of boredom (p.59), which would fit in with Krauss stating that our capitalist culture prepares us in order to sell TO us (p.84).  We kinda, sorta channel surf through life, and in that sense, I hate when people disrespect or don’t get the things I find inspirational. I guess, by living to be inspired, I am a bad consumer.

So, as I draw my own comparisons, through conversations with other inspired people, I compare O’Keeffe’s hands in the Stieglitz photograph to the artist Rodin’s sculpture “The Hand of God” using the symbol of the hands as the original Creator.  Rodin, also saw hands as being able to express the emotions of the entire body (3).  The similarity of Rodin’s sculpted fingers and O’Keeffe’s fingers is uncanny... or is it?  The more I am around creative people, and the more photographs of O’Keeffe by Stieglitz I seek out, the more I see there are common trait’s that artists have, and O’Keeffe’s likeness exuded many if not all of the best of these traits.  I am not proclaiming her to be perfect.  I am, however, applauding the value of O’Keeffe as creator and as muse. I do not want to reduce her or her creations.  It took seeing O’Keeffe in photograph form and revisiting her work as an adult to see the energy and power in her and her ART.  I would rather falter on the side of treating O’Keeffe as God-like than mistakingly reduce her. 

Auguste Rodin
"The Hand of God" 1907
Alfred Stieglitz
"Hands and Thimble - Georgia O'Keeffe" 1920

Our visual culture often uses the lowest common denominator to unite us or relate to us, but it only treats us like children devaluing what is important under the guise of simplifying information.  Simultaneously, our culture inflates the status of molesters who can sell and make capital.  Krauss’s article proclaims art both representational and non-objective to be language that needs to be analyzed to understand providing the tools to fight the hard sell and avoid being misled.  Conscious art education begins there.  When deconstructing visual language/culture, we must be careful not to lose the subtlety of the art in exchange for a fast explanation, or an explanation at all.   

Thankfully, through education, I am learning that there is so much more to learn.  Like Stieglitz and the photographers in that show, I can stand up for ART despite my fear that we will always be a “point-and-shoot” culture.  We tolerate the quick conclusion because it is catchy, and it sells.  I have to maintain my filter which will not allow my appreciation to be contaminated and penetrated by someone else’s disease.  Not without a fight.

  1. Christina Rouvalis, “First Impressions,” CARNEGIE, (Summer, 2012): 13-17.
  2. Author Unknown. “Georgia O’Keefe: About the Painter,” American Masters, 2006  <> (28 April 2006).
  3. "Auguste Rodin: The Hand of God (08.210)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)

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