Images Of A Depression
Jim Johnson over at (Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography posted a photograph (above) featured in an on-line photo set at The Guardian, with the thought that such an image ironically represents America’s, and perhaps the world’s current economic climate. It’s a striking photographic image, and when it’s regarded in context of the current worldwide recession and credit crisis it certainly could illustrate a paradoxical nature of our financial state amid a globalized world that could not turn off the high powered mechanized production spigot. It also induces the familair pangs of seasickness if you stare at it for any length of time.
But it lead me to think back on Dorothea Lang’s famous Depression Era photographs, particularly her most widely known photo of a mother and seven children. That photograph captured a prevailing national despair at that time. The photo of rows and rows of automobiles above is absent of people, absent human emotion, absent any earthly organic element. That’s not a criticism of the photo or Jim’s suggestion that it could represent today’s financial crisis. The photo above is cool, sleek, repetitive, even visually garish in representing a failure of institutional systems of trade, finance and politics. But where’s the human suffering?
The picture begs the question, how can a depression exist with so much stuff filling our existence? What is an economic depression in our post-modern, globalized world? What does it look like in art? Does a depression today mean that a multitude of people have to go without Blackberry service and cable TV? Perhaps a downgrade to dial-up internet service? There are no bread lines now, despite over two million people losing their jobs last year, and I don’t know how many million people losing or abandoning their homes. There currently is no glut in food supply that existed in the 1930’s during the dust bowl. The good folks at Cargill and Monsanto have seen to that by genetically modifying and genetically engineering foods, and by doing their best to destroy local farmer businesses.
Where was the art world when our current credit crisis was taking place? Down in Miami partying and buying overpriced artworks that will never appreciate, of course. Art has often been found at the opposite polar spectrum from social realities in times of war or other hardships, especially in the twentieth century. During World War Two and the Korean War painters were flying off into their ivory towers and making “pure” abstract expressionist paintings. During the Viet Nam War, painters were burrowing themselves into minimalist dugouts, far away from the social realities of the time. Where are the artists, particularly painters and photographers, who are representing our collective reality (if there is such a thing)? Shepard Fairey has depicted the fairy tale of Obama. Now who will illustrate the day after? Or has art forever given up being an element of social influence?