The Age of Availability
published in L'Insense Magazine No. 6
You are holding a magazine that feels good in your hands. It is oversized and well-produced, its glamorous color and slick finish a genuine presence in the hair salon or architecture office or airplane you’re sitting in. Photography is generous too, offering so thorough and unresisting a view of the world: photography is a series of Yeses. But this weighty, generous object is full of holes. Any attempt to summarize the photographic output of an entire country is an impossible proposition, as diminishing and reductive an enterprise as a census of human feelings. All anthologies inspire gasps of incredulity at who’s left out, who’s snuck in; there are cries of nepotism and sneers at short-sightedness, and in The Age of Availability, the anthologizer’s task is getting harder every day.
Canons and anthologies belong to vertical times, when it is easy to feel that artists belong to traditions and improve on each other and progress. I don’t think it’s completely irresponsible to describe the increasingly refined forward progress of art and culture as essentially Modern. So let me propose something here. Let’s say we’re living in a time when progress has petered out; that it took a turn a block after the Postmodern Hotel and found itself uninterested in improvement. Let’s say we are living in horizontal times, when there is so much art, so much culture, all of which is so readily available, that deciding what is good or what has value or what belongs to a school, movement, canon, or even on a mixed tape, is increasingly hard to judge. What do artists do in a time when no one is telling them You can’t do that or You must do this; when anything (that sells) is sanctioned?
In this magazine you’ll see pictures that were made in spirits quite opposed to each other. Cindy Sherman’s dolled-up cocktail hostesses are the legacy of work she began 20 years earlier in opposition to the then-dominant street photography tradition repesented here by Lee Friedlander’s reflective picture, and by Lisa Kereszi’s homage to it. Mitch Epstein’s napper by the FDR Drive was made in a time when a set of restrained, direct-minded American artists was trying to wrest color photography away from the overblown saturations of fashion and advertising editors—whose absolute apotheosis is reached in the immediately adjacent David LaChapelle. There was a time when these things would not be seen in the same room with each other, when artists and academics and music-lovers and philosophers felt compelled to take sides behind doctrines and positions and ideas. Somehow, all that opposition has disappeared, unopposed.
I have a question. Before you got to the hair salon or architecture office, how many of you sat in front of a computer today? How many began your morning by opening a circuit-filled clamshell that contained access to all the other computers in the world at once? How many turned on a program in which all the record albums you’d ever purchased could be shuffled through at random? Maybe walking to work your personal music player elected to follow The Everly Brothers’ Dream, Dream, Dream with Schoneberg’s Verklate Nacht? Mine did that last week, on a city bus through Rome’s Prenestina neighborhood, which is a tangled mess of Imperial aqueducts abutting 1980s supermarkets and Fascist-era schools. In my ears was a similar historical mess, only one that had been achieved instantly and without human energy, and one that seemed almost normal. Following the Schoenberg came Nina Simone, and I realized I had been blessed by the patron saint of the Age of Availability.
When John Lennon claimed that the Beatles were more popular than God, he was speaking heresy in an age of progress. For me to say that Nina Simone has turned out to be more influential than The Beatles is a mildly disputable utterance in an age of limitless utterance, easy to ignore but just about true. Simone was classically trained and ethnomusically astute, a short, angry, curious ITunes in hoop earrings and too much eye shadow. She shuffled through an enormous array of music, from prison field recording to Here Comes the Sun, tossing Bach and Hair and Ellington into her playlist along with her own protest songs and cultural commentaries; she could segue lazily from Dietrich to Dylan. It seemed anything in the history of music could be curated into her generous, thoughtful, soulful cabaret.
The Nina Simonean cabaret is the perfect unit of cultural measure in The Age of Availability. Everything is out there, instantly reachable, spread out horizontally like wildflowers in a field, begging to be picked. Young bands are as likely to feature an accordion as a Stratocaster. They surf through genres and production values and inspirations, their musical libraries so large, so wide-ranging, that the Anxiety of Influence has been replaced by the Xanax of Influence: you don’t struggle with the past, you calmly use it for your own purposes. Freud would have us kill the father; Nina Simone is teaching us just to cover him. Biennales, medals, prizes, art fairs, anthologies, top-ten and who’s-who lists once tried to define an age, now they attempt to recognize a strain or trend, publish it, and listen to it sing. So what does InsensÈ’s cabaret sound like?
First of all, it sounds good. It’s been well-produced, its printing sleek and imperturbable. Every photograph you are looking at, no matter how analog its creation (and I would guess that about 95% of the images in this magazine were made with analog film cameras) has been scanned and digitally processed. The most widespread function of digital technology in photography is the elimination of flaws: trimming, spotting, straightening, prettying up. The production of a good-looking photograph used to be the provenance of professionals, but digital processing can make almost anything look good, making well-made an automatic assumption.
This particular good-sounding/lookingness is a curatorial decision as well as a technological function. There are a lot of pretty people in this magazine. P.L. Di Corcia’s male prostitute is pretty. Katy Grannan’s plein air recliners and David Hilliard’s boys on the dock are. Elinor Carucci’s, Jocelyn Lee’s and Larry Sultan’s girls in bed are pretty. Hillary Clinton (as seen by Annie Liebowitz) looks particularly pretty and even Larry Fink’s mock George W. Bush has a rakish sneer. Suzanne Opton’s oddly prostrate soldiers look like handsome modern dancers. Nan Goldin and Ryan McGinley were born (24 years apart) to chase after their beautiful naked friends.
The American citizens who aren’t so inherently glamorous are mostly photographed in a glamorous manner. The large format studio portrait has replaced the street as the default setting for many contemporary photographers, and here Alec Soth’s corpulent honeymooners, Elizabeth Heyert’s dolled-up corpses, and Nina Berman’s horribly disfigured military husband are all rendered with typical tactile studio lighting. There is something significant in all this corporeal, formal and photographic beauty; something that rings a little tinny when you are American,and used to so many endless acres of ever changing ugliness and banality. But I think the editors of this magazine see something sublime in all this beauty.
I once had a conversation with the art critic, Jerry Saltz, about “the sublime.” We were discussing how the tendency of enlightenment philosophers and artists to find lofty, awestruck feelings in the natural landscape felt false in our time, and wondered where the sublime might be traceable today. Jerry said he thought it existed “between us.” After being taken aback by what seemed a very effective pick-up line, I realized he meant between people, in how we talk, argue, interact, perform—in the culture. I liked the idea. No one saw the sublime in nature until industrialization separated us from it. If the sublime was between us, that meant we were separated from us. And the America you see here is peopled with beautiful and beautifully-rendered Americans— who are mostly alone: alone on beaches, in staged small-town streets, in coffins, gardens, reflections, living rooms, restaurants, and taxi cabs. Cameras love everything placed in front of them, but they also separate those things from the rest of the world.
The landscape is mostly a background singer in this American cabaret. In Call Me Ishmael—his essay about Herman Melville—the American poet, Charles Olson, wrote, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy.” But except for a brief tour out Todd Hido’s car window, then past Joel Sternfeld’s classic sink hole and Sally Mann’s and Mark Ruwedel’s altered trees, here the landscape is seen as in Renaissance painting: stretching out behind the Annunciation or Visitation or portrait. This American space is cultural, seen between buildings and signs and beyond “us.”
Photography is more important in the U.S. than most places on Earth. We have little care for history, and are happy to revise away the present in search of some luminous, all-consuming new. I grew up in a town where someone built a shopping mall in a corn field. Ten years later someone else built a new mall across the street, draining the old place of its customers. It took about ten years to kill it. Ten more years later big box stores moved onto the site old mall, damaging the “new mall.” Eventually it will be a corn field again. In this headlong rush to the new, photography, with its constant crush on the immediate, the present, is a vital tool of self-awareness. Photography is America’s superego.
Your haircut is almost over. Your appointment is imminent. You’ve flipped through this entire vision of an entire nation in no more time than you’d take with a month-old fashion magazine. Your ears will soon be filled with anything from the history of recorded music and you’ll be back at your desk with the world’s archives at your fingertips. With so much available, you might not remember much, but a sense of America as a country where a strange sublime leaks between its solitary, reclining beauties might stay with you. An awareness that photography is the broken treaty in America’s war on time might hold true. And you’ll have heard a number of interesting songs from a dozen different traditions, played side by side, beautifully.