Where Has All the Beauty Gone
by Bruce Barnbaum

On August 11, 1996 I attended a photographic exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City titled "Perpetual Mirage, a Photographic Narrative of the Desert West." Included in the large exhibit were about a half dozen landscapes by Ansel Adams and a few of Edward Weston's print. Much of the exhibit was filled with photographs of suburban tract homes and industrial parks by Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams and others. Why?

It seems to me that the Whitney Museum and the exhibitor's curator, May Castleberry, is either caught up in fad-or perhaps it is the leader of the fad-of boycotting beauty. In its place is a boring combination of ugliness, shock value, social commentary, or just plain humdrum, boring work. The photographs by Baltz, Robert Adams (never to be confused with Ansel), and the like fall largely into the latter two categories.

These photographers tend to refer to themselves as "realists," stating the imagery of Ansel Adams and others of his ilk have no pertinence today because the magnificent landscapes are being decimated, and people should see what we're facing, not the romanticism of what existed. There is certainly an abundance of truth behind such statements, and the writings of Robert Adams state the case with supreme eloquence. Anyone who has watched the loss of open space to inappropriate development, and the general decline in the traditional character of the West, would agree wholeheartedly with Adams' writings. But one wonders if the photographic work produced by these "realists" offers a strong counterbalance for the offending "romanticism?" I don't think so, because they are not offering up art with their everyday snapshots. To show the nation (or the world) the things that we see everyday, and to show it in an everyday manner, raises nobodies level of understanding. It expands nobody's horizons. It does nothing because it tells us what we already know. It doesn't even attempt to show everyday things in a unique, or insightful way. The work produced by this school of photography can best be termed "the dull school," or "the boring school," or the "humdrum school." It is artistically weak, perhaps even artistically devoid.

The history of art-all art in all media, including painting, sculpture, photography, music, literature, etc. has been one of raising peoples awareness, appreciation, and spirit through a combination of artifices. Beauty is certainly the greatest. Deeper insight is still another. Surprise is yet another. And drama another. The work highlighted in the Whitney display exhibited none of these attributes. There is no beauty whatsoever, no deep insight, no drama, no light, and surely no surprises, except of course the undesirable surprise that everyday, workmanlike snapshots were displayed in a museum with such a lofty reputation.

In producing photographic art, light is unquestionably the most essential ingredient, yet none of these photographs exhibited interesting or unusual light. They were as dull in their lighting as they were in their subject matter. Appropriate light can and should be used to help make a statement, but the repetitive use of flat light on boring subject matter makes no statement because it fails to hold the viewers attention. The viewer looks once with disinterest and walks away yawning, to yawn again at the next image. ( I will not be moved by the argument that dull light is the best vehicle for expressing dullness.)

Furthermore, there was no context for the dullness. Ugly development was not shown destroying whole landscapes, but only shown in detail, thus the negative contention that the landscape is being to such intrusive dullness. It could not even be determined that the development was in the West, except by written statements from the photographers that they were there. (I happen to believe that the landscape is being lost to inappropriate random development-I see it everywhere I go-but failed to see it in those photographs.) The photographs not only lacked beauty, but the even lacked the context, and yes, think of beauty...if not in the subject matter they photographed, surely in the prints they produced.

Is beauty a thing of the past? I don't think so. Art will always be based on beauty, and the best art will always be beautiful insightful, surprising, poignant, etc. It will possess qualities opposed to dullness and everyday vision.

Did Rembrandt try to produce ugliness? Did Shakespeare try to use everyday language? Did Puccini run away from a beautiful sonata? Did Dostoevsky shun deep insights? Did Picasso avoid surprise? Did Beethoven sidestep the dramatic? Did Twain shy away from sharp-tongued comments? Did Frank Lloyd Wright shun stunning new ways to meld natural and human interruptions? Will any of these artist's be remembered? Of course! They will be remembered because they were true artist's who produced singularly striking works of art in their fields by remaining true to the essence of art. By contrast, the boring images exhibited in the Whitney Museum will not stand the test of time because they were so devoid of every essential artistic ideal.

The work of the humdrum school will continue to be exhibited in places like the Whitney Museum by curators like Ms. Castleberry, but does that work bring about any new revelations or change anything? I see no evidence of it.. Does it add to the beauty of the world? Not a whit!

But if the same question were asked of the work of Ansel Adams, the answer is a resounding YES! Several national parks owe their very existence to the work done by Ansel. Kings Canyon National Park in California was created after several senators were shown Ansel's photographs of the mountainous realm. The same is true of several other parks and wilderness areas that exist today. Unless the crazies from the the far right wing of the political spectrum have their way, those parks will outlive all of us and will stand forever as a legacy for centuries to come. Ansel's work changed America...for the better and forever.

Ansel's famous "Moonrise over Hernandez," "Monolith, Half Dome," "Yosemite, Clearing Storm,", "Sunrise, Lonepine and the Sierra Nevada," and so many others remain etched in people's minds who have no interface with photography other than in their lasting impressions of individual photographs. Ansel Adams work did indeed have an impact and a pertinence-and continues to have pertinence that the humdrum work displayed at the Whitney Museum could never hope to equal. The reason is simple. Ansel' work is beautiful. It's dramatic. It sings, and we sing with it. It's uplifting to our spirit to see it. It surprises us with its glorious quality of light. We walk away enchanted by what we saw, and it remains a part of our memory. The humdrum school produces nothing that has that effect on us.

So why did the Whitney Museum fill an exhibit on the American West with such and abundance of dull snapshots? I can't answer that. I can't even begin to comprehend and answer. It appears that Ms. Castleberry and the Whitney Museum have lost their bearings concerning art in their search for a social statement. But strong statements must be artistically strong to be effective, to say something, to raise our level of awareness, to make us think, to make us change, to make a difference. Those exhibited at the Whitney failed to make any real statement because they failed miserably as art. Obviously the Whitney and it's curator, Ms. Castleberry, never recognized that failure. My guess is that the public did.

reprinted by permission of the author
copyright 1999.