Okay, forgive me. I’ve “borrowed” and recast this title from the short poem that W.B. Yeats wrote for his tombstone: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!” You know, when you’ve been the greatest 20th-Century poet writing in English, there’s at least a decent chance that the epitaph you labored over will in fact be carved on your stone. But even in a case like that (and Yeats did get his wish), there’s no guarantee. And you might say that certain kinds of common and commonly-worthless guarantees (what you might call social signifiers of value) are my subject in this post.
Some of us were loved very little by our parents, some not at all. Most of us weren’t loved by them nearly enough to satisfy our needy childhood hearts. What’s more, most of us never fully wake up to that painful truth, because the things that it seems to imply about our worth, our ability to inspire love, and our chance of surviving are unbearable to us.
But the degree to which we won’t wake up to that gnawing reality will be the degree to which we go on “looking for love [and satisfaction] in all the wrong places.” Most of us, in self-defeating self-protection, project our futile desires and delusions onto the world around us. We want the approval of anyone who looks like a parental figure and we want to be vindicated in our projected delusion that we can trust them, that they care about us, that we can replicate our family home in our marriages or in our work or in our social group, but that this time we’ll have a happy ending. We’ll get what we want and what we really deserve.
And even though cynicism has grown from the revelations of scandalous misconduct everywhere from Wall Street and the Oval Office to the Vatican and the ministry of Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker, we continue, on the whole, to expect the holders of high office to be well-informed, worthy of their positions, and concerned about us and the general well-being. We expect experts to be expert and professionals to be professional. In our realm of photography and the other arts, most of us expect that prizewinners deserved their prizes, that prominent curators and gallerists know great art (and awful art) when they see it. We have to get over these assumptions. Yes, sometimes such people have indeed earned their honors and merited their good reputations. But only sometimes.
Though it places a greater grief and responsibility on us than we may want to shoulder, we have to do our independent best to look beyond the medals and titles to what lies behind them. I always feel a combination of rueful amusement and sadness when I hear a fellow artist puzzling in dismay over why some artist who appears to be meritless, even ridiculous, has been given a famous award or had one of his works sold for an absurdly grand sum of money. Hey, really, why, for instance, would Christie’s or Sotheby’s take out a full-page ad in the New York Times to show us the ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Chimp, produced by the Jeff Koons factory, on which the distinguished auction house placed an estimated selling price of $10-15 million dollars?
I have two things to tell you, for your benefit (I hope), from my fairly wide-ranging experience with different fields and with people at different “levels” within those fields: in academia, government, business, law, poetry and photography; with FBI agents, prize- winning authors, governors, and Teamsters.
My experience has borne out the following observations. One: No title, no award, no credential is a guarantee that the person possessing it is not vulgar, stupid, cruel, crass, greedy, dishonest, corrupt, or almost wholly lacking in inspiration, compassion, and judgment. Two: The notion that people are more expert, more intelligent, more objective, more effective, or better-behaved at the so-called “higher levels” of education or government or art or business is not a reliable or realistic notion. While the rich have more money than most people, and while those with more formal education likely have more degrees than most of their fellows, these kinds of circular truths are about all the assurance such badges can give you.
Yes, you have to have a certain minimum of measurable talent or training to be able to perform certain tasks or feats, particularly physical ones, but even performances measurable by a stopwatch may have been aided by a banned substance or a negligent referee. At all “levels,” we’re dealing with human beings, human beings that, on the whole and to differing degrees, suffer from prejudice, fear, insecurity, egotism, ambition, greed, and lust. And they generally suffer in those realms from the same kinds of inclinations to form exclusive cliques and to persecute outsiders that we see in our neighborhoods, grade school classes, and sales offices.
Despite the passage of a half-millennium since his creator put Hamlet onto the stage, we all experience on a regular basis the things that made the Prince consider putting an end to his misery: “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune . . . / The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office, and the spurns / That patient merit of the unworthy takes. . . .” You ought to keep that last one in mind whenever you enter an art contest or consider buying a book of photographs because there’s a glorious blurb from a famous critic on its jacket.
We always need to look inside the cover and do our best to judge for ourself what’s inside. We need to ask whether it enhances life or deadens it. In Balzac’s A Harlot High and Low, the criminal mastermind Vautrin is tracked by the Chief of Police of Paris. Vautrin shows his displeasure and maintains his standing by having the Chief’s daughter viciously assaulted. At the end of the novel, Vautrin himself is appointed the new Chief of Police. Anyone who finds this merely the farfetched stuff of fiction should consider, for example, the swinging doors among the military, the weapons makers, and the “firms” of mercenaries hired by our government. Just read the front section of the Times for a week, or, these days, even the Sports section .
The reasons why these things happen are not a complete mystery, though they may be an absolute misery, to you. They are also reasons why you should try not to make too much of either acceptances or rejections, positions or prizes, either yours or someone else’s. In my next post, I’ll describe some of these reasons, and then we’ll be off into the world of photography, looking inside some literal and figurative covers and behind some highly-touted facades.
Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .