Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thoughts on Atomization

This past weekend, I found myself sitting at a post opening dinner, engaging in a wide ranging discussion with a handful of the artists who were included in the show. The conversation turned to the idea of influences, where artists of the past and present were related to the contemporary work that these artists were producing. The discussion went down the tangent of whether these artists would agree that they might be "children of Agnes Martin" (this was a drawings group show). What came next was a whole raft of caveats and conditions: her ideas had been internalized, reformulated, synthesized, and turned into something entirely new and original by these artists, so tying back to Martin might or might not be entirely relevant. I have come to think of this as the "atomization" argument for contemporary art: there are no longer any important patterns, everything is individually different, the concept that certain artists might naturally cluster into movements (or -isms), groups, connections or shared ideas is either passe or mildly insulting. To me, it's a conversation killer; there's no answer to complete randomness.

On one hand, I entirely support the idea of celebrating the raw creativity of artists of all kinds and seeing their work as something that stands alone as a representation of the voice of a single individual. But in our hyper-connected world, I find the idea that there are no patterns or influences to be unsatisfying. We constantly complain that the art world is an echo chamber where everyone is talking to each other and themselves inside this small bubble. How can it be that when taken at a summary level, all of contemporary art is just chaos? To me this is a defeatist attitude; the problem seems too hard to solve, so we give up and conclude that there is no solution.

I think the main challenge is that the sheer number of accomplished artists/photographers has grown exponentially over the past few decades; there are just so many more people finding their way into the gallery and museum worlds that trying to track them all has become an overwhelming task. Critics and scholars used to have manageable numbers of artists to try and categorize and sift into buckets. 50 or 75 years ago, it wasn't impossible to group 10 or 15 artists from New York into one group and 10 or 15 others from Paris into another based on stylistic characteristics or conceptual theories; with a vast increase in the number of artists at work, this kind of sifting by hand has become incredibly complex.

I've started to think that the critical analysis of trends in art has really become a new kind of data analysis problem, and one that can really only be tackled with the help of computers. While I am a true believer in patterns and influences, I am increasingly skeptical of the ability of any one critic, curator or scholar to impose his or her own framework onto this large data set. Such a process is inherently biased by those data points (artists in this case) that are most easily recalled or known; it just isn't statistically valid in any way, and is prone to both flaws of logic and flights of arrogance.

I'd like to believe that instead of trying to dictate a set of frameworks in a top down manner that we could derive actual patterns by looking at the data from the bottom up. So follow this thought experiment for a moment. Let's start with the goal of making sense of the past 10 years of contemporary photography, the period from 2000 to 2009.

As a jumping off point, I think we would need to select the top 100 most influential contemporary photographers alive and working at that time. My guess is that we might be able to agree on the top 60 or 70 without much fuss, and then it would get a little tougher to choose who's in and who's out, but let's assume for the moment that we could pick 100 to start, and that we could layer in more later as necessary. For each photographer, we would then need to map his or her work across the ten year period, laying out important individual pictures and larger series or projects into discrete years, i.e. Project A ran from 2001 through 2003, Project B was in 2004, Project C got started in 2004 and continued through 2008, Important Picture 1 was made in 2002, Important Picture 2 was made in 2007 etc. We would then be able to slice through the data set in year 2002 for example (like a core sample) and see what each of the 100 was doing at that particular moment.

With this as the basic backdrop, we could then layer in a variety of other influence points, specifically the publication of a photobook/monograph or a museum exhibition or gallery show, where other artists may have been exposed to the work. There will of course be time delays between the making of a picture and its showing up in one of these forms, but this can be accounted for - the influence is just delayed a bit. We could also add in details of geography, schools attended/teachers, or even social network connections of close friends and colleagues. Conceivably, specifics of subject matter, technical process or genre (still life, portraiture, landscape etc.) might also be tallied, and major external events (like September 11th or the economic crisis) could be introduced.

So now imagine we have this deep database of the top 100 photographers and all these discrete data points about what was going on in the past decade. While the data visualization problem is indeed tricky (Edward Tufte here we come), I'd like to believe that lots of connections and patterns would start to emerge from this data, and that these conclusions would be more inherently valid than my personal opinion about which photographers should be grouped together. I'm not saying there is a "right" answer exactly, only that such a process might yield some insights that we have heretofore been unable to discern due to the immense size of the data analysis problem. Once the scaffolding is put in place, there really isn't any reason that the next 100 or next 500 photographers on the list couldn't be added in, it's just a question of effort and information gathering. We might also layer in connections to earlier photographers or artists in other media (children of Diane Arbus or Walker Evans for example), if the photographers themselves went on the record that these were real influences (rather than implied by critics or scholars).

Of course, this straw man idea has flaws, and I'm sure you'll highlight them in the comments. But even if this particular structure doesn't quite work, seems too "computerish", or would likely be too unruly or impractical, I remain unwilling to accept "atomization" as the natural state of contemporary photography (or contemporary art) on a going forward basis. We need better solutions than one brain coming up with a magic map of the artistic landscape; if we wait for this, we may never get a coherent analysis. And I'm not ready to throw up my hands and give into to the absence of patterns. There must be a better way, and I for one think it will come from a radically different approach to analyzing the data.

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