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The Helmut Newton Exhibit: A Question of Authenticity

Monday, 29. August 2011 0:02

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is hosting an exhibition of Helmut Newton photography until September 25, 2011. The MFAH is showing very large reproductions of images from Newton’s first three books: White Women (1976), Sleepless Nights (1978), and Big Nudes (1981). Newton was a world renowned photographer, specializing in fashion and nude photography. His work has always been controversial. This show concentrates on his personal work which, in turn, reflects his fashion work, at least in style.

This show raises a number of questions: Is this really a worth-while show? Just because you can print images that large, should you? Is Newton really an artist? Does he really have something to say about feminism? Society? Fashion? Is his work merely black and white pornography? Where is his place in the photographic canon? And now here is another: are the works presented authentic?

Why would I question the authenticity these images? Since this project began in 2007, three years after Newton’s death, and the images on display “were made specifically for the exhibition,” it stands to reason that Newton could not possibly have printed, approved of, or signed these prints, any of which actions might be taken to be proof of authenticity.

There is no question the subject matter is his; Newton’s work is unique to the point of being iconic; anyone who has studied photography will recognize it. There is no question the negatives or original prints, whichever were used as sources for the digital files, were his. But since he was not involved in the printing process, mustn’t one say they are reproductions, not prints?

Perhaps this is too fine a line for some people, but it speaks to the issue of what constitutes a “real” or “original” work of art. This is not such a difficult question for those who sculpt or paint: the original is the one the artist made; everything else is a reproduction. This is not necessarily the case with printmakers, and certainly not the case with photographers.

So the question becomes, when is a photographic print “real?” Is it an image that the photographer physically made him/herself? Is it a print perhaps made by an assistant that the photographer approved? Is it a print made by an assistant according to instructions of the photographer? Is it a print that is signed by the photographer? The Ansel Adams Gallery takes great care to distinguish between original photographs and other types of prints and reproductions. Should we expect less from museums?

The size of these images brings up another question: Are they a true representation of Newton’s art? We must remember that Newton shot originally for print. That is, his fashion work was for magazine publication, and his personal work, at least initially, was for book publication. This is a far cry from the size of pictures on exhibit at the MFAH, “some reaching nearly 8 x 8 feet.” Although the images are presented unframed and unglazed “in order to show how Newton’s work appeared in magazines,” the difference in size makes that impossible.

And another more general question arises: is the art in the concept or the execution? As noted above, these are certainly Newton’s concepts, but not his execution. Still everyone says that this is a show of Newton’s images. And I suppose they are his images, just not his prints.

So perhaps the MFAH is not misleading the public. Maybe this is not so much an exhibition of Newton’s work as it is an overpowering display of Newton’s concepts, of Newton’s subject matter, of Newton’s style, and, by extension, of Newton’s influence. Maybe the art is in the mind and eye of the artist, not in the creation of artifacts. This is indeed an idea worthy of thought, but a curious position to take for any museum that prides itself on showing only authentic, original work.





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Imitation May Not Be Completely Useless, But It Is Cheap

Sunday, 3. April 2011 23:56

In an acting book report that I heard recently, a student paraphrased the author, “Don’t imitate; create.” He went on to elaborate and to clarify the differences between pretending and doing, explaining that the author was talking about honesty in acting. What he said about acting also applies to art in general. It’s a topic I have discussed before, but it’s one that keeps coming up. Today I am not as concerned about the honesty part as I am about the imitation part.

The creation part may be questionable to some. Creation implies originality, and a number of people say that nothing is original, that we are forced to remix and remodel old ideas. That may be, but no one, it seems, is particularly fond of imitation. Picasso reportedly said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal,” which pundits have modified into the often used, “Steal; don’t imitate.” Or perhaps all of this is just a paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s observation: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.…

The question that remains is if originality really is beyond reach, why is imitation scorned? The answer is simply that imitation is an admission that whatever you are copying is worth more than anything you could do yourself. Imitation is not just stealing; it is merely mimicking. Imitation is cheap.

This is not to say that all imitation is a terrible thing. Often, as a learning exercise, art students are asked to make a painting or a photograph or a drawing in the style of a famous artist, or at least a distinctive one. But even in such an exercise, outright copying is generally frowned upon. The poor student will copy the masterwork slavishly, trying to reproduce exactly what the older artist has done. The better student will look at the work of the established artist, and maybe others by the same artist and create something that incorporates the artistic concepts of the master artist but is still the student’s own work. These latter students learn the intimacies of the master artist without giving up their own identities.

Even participating in a learning exercise, the second group of students would be doing what some would call “original” work. It is work that is decidedly based on earlier work, but not blindly mimicked, not imitated. It is an application that teaches the successful students more about the style and content of another’s work through thought and analysis than they could ever learn by simply reproducing that artist’s work. But there the value of imitation ends.

Even if everything that you make is a remix or a remodeling or mash-up of the ideas of others, at least it will be your remix or your remodeling or your mash-up. It will reflect your approach, your effort, you. And in that sense it will be original, or at the very least authentic. It will be real.

What the Bhagavad Gita says about living life can be applied equally to making art: “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of someone else’s life with perfection.” It is better to make your own authentic art imperfectly, regardless of where you get the ideas, than to make a perfect imitation of someone else’s art.

And perfection, as we all know, is highly overrated.

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Finding Your Own Voice

Sunday, 21. November 2010 23:40

Sharon Olds, who was raised as a “hell-fire Calvinist” began to find her own voice as a poet through a sort of “deal with the devil:”

I said to free will or the pagan god of making things, or whoever, let me write my own stuff. I’ll give up everything I’ve learned, anything, if you’ll let me write my poems. They don’t have to be any good, but just mine. What happened was enjambment. Writing over the end of the line and having a noun starting each line — it had some psychological meaning to me, like I was protecting things by hiding them. Poems started pouring out of me and Satan was in a lot of them. Also, toilets.

And find her voice, she did.

This week I spoke with an actor who was going through the same sort of despondency that pushed Olds into making her deal, although the actor was not fully aware of the real nature of his situation; he just knew that he was not satisfied with what he was doing. Later in the week, I talked with a designer who voiced similar questions about his work. I think that it’s a natural sort of artistic identity crisis that almost every creative person goes through, and keeps going through until he/she finds an answer or just gives up.

I suppose that there are artists who speak with unique individual voices from the beginning, but many of us wander around creating pieces that we feel finally do not accurately represent our point of view. Or we create work that somehow fails to say exactly what we want to say. Or we spend our time doing work that is derivative to the point of not being our own. Or we do this and that and the other thing and find that while it is all acceptable, it is somehow not really us, or it is us, but somehow not satisfying. While I was in the last category, you (if you have this problem) may be in one of the others, or you may have a category all your own.

The real question is how do you get out of that category and go about finding your own voice.  You can try making a deal with the devil, as Olds did, and hope for a similar sudden burst of intuition. My experience is, however, that such visions are few and far between, and you certainly can’t count on them.  So I think you might try another approach: experiment. Take a risk or two or three or four or seven. Try things outside your comfort zone. Try different twists and variations and approaches and processes until you find the one or the combination that is authentic, that represents your ideas—that is you.

Maybe that sounds a little clichéd, a little too easy. May be. But I have found that to really experiment, to try really new and uncomfortable things is difficult even on a good day. Sometimes, just to think of new and uncomfortable things to try is difficult. But to do them, and then to be honest with yourself about the results of those experiments is even more difficult. But it’s how you find your voice, or at least one way. In addition, you may find out a number of other things about yourself and your art, useful things, things that you can’t find out by thinking, or pretending, or even imagining; things you can only discover by doing and reviewing the result.

So, if you haven’t already, go find your voice. Imagine, think, intuit. But then put those thoughts and intuitions into action. Do, play, experiment, discover. It’s the only way to learn what really works—for you. Then you can produce art that is authentically you. It may not be completely original. Some people posit that originality is no longer possible, but that’s a subject for another time. What it will be is authentic. And few would argue that authenticity is not possible. Go find yours.

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