The Artist and the Critic

This month, Artforum published two short essays on the work of photographer Diane Arbus — one by the philosopher and cultural critic Judith Butler, the other by British artist Gillian Wearing. The articles are companion pieces, both visually (printed back-to-back) and performatively.

What struck me about these two responses to Arbus’ work was the contrast in sensibility. Butler argues that the “obdurate” and impermeable surface of the person in the photograph can be explained as both an assertion of the subject’s dignity in refusing to be invaded by the camera, as well as the camera’s refusal to go beneath the surface. She claims that this approach changes when the bodies being photographed are in motion or touching one another. The sensibility that Butler brings to these photos is that of the observer, the critic, the analyst who stays on the surface by taking the images as documents to be examined with the tools of interpretation and discourse.

Wearing comes to Arbus’ work with the eye of the artist and with an interest in what documentary images both conceal and (through concealment) reveal. Her take is more idiosyncratic, personal, viscerally engaged by the image, what one can do with it, and how this opens up new ways of thinking about her own practice as an artist. She confronts the image not simply as an image-maker, nor as one who transforms the image into text, but as one who thinks and responds visually.

None of this is intended to suggest a value judgment; it’s a way of questioning what it means to think visually. How does one engage with the visual world in a way that enhances the experience and the “symbolic imaginary”?

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