The most contrary among us take stances against what we may think are universal, positive things. The veins mined by social critique are so often uncovered by taking an honest, sober appraisal of conventional wisdom — cigarettes being harmful, the methods of exercise, what ‘art’ is, or is not, and the purpose of it all. Chief among these social blisters is Johnathan Franzen, and somewhat recently he poked at humanity’s analgesic: hope.
I’m not going to talk about Franzen directly. Rather, I think it’s useful to consider how art effects the audience, and how art that is divorced from, or even scornful of, hope can be powerful and bring about a greater social energy. To my eye and heart, no one working in any medium today is as emblematic of this as a French - by way of Brazil - photographer, Sebastian Salagado.
“As Far As Was Necessary”
It’s 1984. She’s cloaked in dozens of shades of black and grey. Her eyes are milky, thick with cataracts and age. Across the world, Americans are enjoying another long stock market run. They gorge themselves on electronics, on soda and fried foods, on all the accoutrements of modernity. And she is starving.
Salgado’s portrait of an unnamed Touareg woman is something that I cannot shake, every bit the Mona Lisa of catastrophe. It’s the first Salgado piece I ever saw, and it has stayed with me to this day.
Any artist working in this sort of tranche has the same pitfalls as those that Salgado has navigated through his career: namely, when does art end and emotional pornography begin? Salgado has maintained that his art serves a single primary purpose, making the world a better place and the things that he has documented a relic of the past.
Do not look away.
Salgado’s artistic awakening was in the twilight of the revolutionary 1970’s. Dead were the dreams of an egalitarian world society of the immediate post-war years, and not yet born were the cruel and harsh realism bookended by Thatcher and Reagan. From the moment he began, Salgado’s art has been this: to show humanity, in all of the private moments of joy, suffering, pain, anger, and love, in spite of what we inflict on one another.
That is not to say that is work lacks sentimentality; in fact, art absent sentimentality is nihilism, vacuous anger. Rather, Salgado’s work finds the sentimentality within the realities of our lives, and not in our interpretations of that reality. So many times, we fall into the between: not necessarily ourselves, our thoughts, but also not the physical world around us. That prison of imagination can be a death sentence for any art. Understanding how to navigate it and to free both yourself and your audience, that’s the hallmark of effective art in the late 20th and early 21st century.