By Gary Michael Dault, C Magazine #29, Spring 1991
All of us are presumably on such visually familiar turf with the photographs of Diane Arbus that it is hard now to remember what all the upset was about when they were new; hard to remember, for example, that when the Museum of Modern Art mounted an Arbus retrospective a year after her death, there were some viewers among the teeming crowds pressing into the museum to gawk at the freaks who were sufficiently deranged by what they saw to spit on the glass.
As Susan Sontag has written in On Photography (1977), the attention Arbus’s work has received since her death by suicide in 1971 is, like that directed towards Sylvia Plath, attention of another order — ‘a kind of apotheosis. The fact of her suicide,’ Sontag writes, ‘seems to guarantee that her work is sincere, not voyeuristic, that it is compassionate, not cold. Her suicide also seems to make the photographs more devastating, as if it proved the photographs to have been dangerous to her.’ Sontag then goes on to stress the degree to which Arbus herself seems to have thought of her work as a kind of anthropological espionage, as war photographs — combining voyeurism and danger: ‘Everything is so superb and breathtaking,’ she quotes Arbus as saying. ‘I am creeping forward on my belly like they do in the war movies… I’m not sure if there are limits… God knows, when the troops start advancing on you, you do approach that stricken feeling where you perfectly well can get killed.’
In Arbus’s case the killing came on slowly. A sniper’s bullet that took years to enter her heart: kicking the envelope to death, the opposite (except in a special sense) of death-by-ennui.
What is fascinating about seeing the work of Diane Arbus now — especially seeing a large collection of photographs together, as in the immaculately designed and roughly chronological installation of 90 images at the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation — is to note the degree to which the photographs have lost their power to shock and appal. (This despite the crush of voyeuristic viewers pressing into the Foundation to see them, a curious coda to the MOMA’s circus of 1972.)
That they have done so is no small cause for a kind of introspective alarm on our part. What is it? Aging? The accelerating grotesqueness of an everyday culture we so precariously inhabit? The Arbuses are just as bleakly confrontational as they ever were. The camera eye / artist’s eye just as unblinking?
What it comes down to is that we have constructed an amphitheatre of meditative analysis around ourselves; a spongy force-field of critical agitation and pre-digested discourse that precludes the admission of anything truly corrosive, anything that might rasp and bite at us the way a genuine irritant might. What it comes down to is that the Arhus photographs, mounted together, look like an installation. The ongoing lateral procession of their individual inserts of exclusion, pain and overcompensation meld ultimately into some feeling, imprecisely defined, of an overwhelming statement, some seamless thesis. Contributing to this is their beautiful printing, their impassive surfaces, that untouched-by-human-hands feeling that is of such crucial importance to the look of serious work today. No longer agonised outcroppings of an individual sensibility in extremis, the Arbus photographs now read like some lengthy, linear narrative that is heading towards some mighty closure as metaphor.
Nothing wrong with this, of course. Indeed, perhaps it is ultimately a tribute to the power of the photographs that they remain stubbornly about something and that this ‘something’ they are about is the raw material of a look. But the photographs are no longer sociological. No longer the leak-through acids of a forbidden netherworld Arbus had to hack her way into with the flaming sword of class-consciousness gone berserk. And, quite frankly, despite what has always been said about them, some of them do look exploitive. Who wouldn’t look as dumb, for example, as the Jewish couple dancing, N.Y.C.(1963) caught in the bombardiering glare of Arbus’s flash? And why are they ‘Jewish’ particularly? Did she stop and ask them? Or did she just go where Jewish couples were dancing and hope for the best (worst)?
What’s really intriguing is how beautiful, in some lambent old-fashioned sense, the photographs got near the end. Ghostly, retarded adults standing out in fields swaddled in sheets and glowing like angels. And the Albino Sword Swallower (1970), arms flung open in her own crucifixion, circus tent flapping in the wind, the darks as dark as velvet and the light as palpable as warmth. Maybe it was the tide of beauty inching back in that killed her. Death-by-loveliness, the true terror of transcendence.
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