& the undeniable role of criticism within the arts

The roles and responsibilities of the critic have always been a key topic of debate within the arts. Just as the age-old dispute of what makes a good painting, this topic seems to generate endless discussion. Many believe criticism to be of upmost importance, valuing the opinion of an art critic above the artist themselves. While for many the sentiments of critics reflect an almost elitist snobbery, with the role being no more than that of a glorified bully. In this essay, I aim to evaluate the importance of criticism within the production of art and photography. I will determine if the critiques of a work add anything, and if they have any unique experiences to offer which cannot be achieved by simply viewing a work of art. I will be using the work of Sally Mann as the backdrop to my analysis, with two critiques of her work as critical case studies.

Sally Mann is an American photographer who in 1992, rose to fame virtually overnight with the release of her book titled ‘Immediate Family’. The project, which took place over 7 years, consists of images of Mann’s three children: Jessie, Virginia and Emmett, in their rural home in Virginia. The book was a huge success, selling thousands of prints, and creating legacy for the photographer. However, after its publication the book received a lot of criticism. The ethics surrounding child photography fuelled most of this disapproval, with many voicing concerns over the amount of nudity within the book. Several accused Mann of bad parenting, with the most extreme examples being accusations of producing child pornography.

One of the most infamous critiques published in the Wall Street Journal, depicted a censored image of ‘Virginia at four’, with black bars covering the nipples, vagina and eyes of Mann’s daughter. By censoring such an image, the Wall Street Journal insinuates that there is something inherently offense, therefore possibly sexual, about the nakedness of a four-year-old. Many think of a naked child as something innocent, a natural part of growing up, while lots hold an opposing view. This view being that in its nature, to capture child nakedness in a photograph is exploitative, particularly given the child-parent power imbalance.

It’s also vital to point that the historical and cultural context of the time may have stirred a lot of the controversy. The early nineties were a turbulent time for photographers, with lots of disapproval and outrage centred around photographic projects. The most relevant example of this, which Mann herself references in an article published with the NY Times, was the criticism surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe. When talking of her controversy Mann is quoted saying: ‘it was worsened by the cosmically bad timing of the book’s release, which coincided with a debate around an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs that included images of children along with sadomasochistic and homoerotic imagery, stimulating widespread discussion about what constituted obscenity in art.’ Two years before ‘Immediate Family’, photographer Jock Sturges also came under fire, with attempts made to have his images of nudist adolescents classified as child pornography. This controversy grew so large that his photographs and equipment were eventually confiscated by the FBI. It also interesting to note that all of this took place in the same era that huge political figures like Bill Clinton, placed blame on photographer Nan Goldin for supposedly contributing to the provocative Heroic Chic movement. Is it art critics who are to blame for hysteria such as this? Or is it the works themselves? I will discuss the correlation of context and controversy throughout my two case studies.

I will begin by assessing an article titled ‘The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann’, which was published in the New York Times in 1992. Richard B. Woodward, the writer of this publication, is a well-known arts critic who has been working for the NY Times since 1985. As this article was written the same year the book was released, it’s important to note that it took place in the middle of the media storm previously mentioned.

For the article, he visited the Mann family home in Virginia, whereby he interviewed Sally Mann over several days. When describing the home, he creates a sense of foreboding risk, mentioning objects such as pictures of dead relatives, nipple-shaped doorbells, dirty shoes and animal skeletons. He seems to be painting a picture of redneck seclusion despite mentioning their affluent income (he mentioned Mann’s Husband’s career as a lawyer). It appears, already he was actively trying to display her in a negative light. He goes on to say: ‘Sally Mann was an accomplished photographer before the series, but in these intimate black-and-white portraits, exhibited piecemeal over the last several years, she struck a vein.’ And with this, he craftily introduces his audience to the controversy surrounding the work. ‘The vein has bled silver’ he concurs, with this he suggests a possible exploitation designed to make money.

When unfolding his concerns with the project he states, ‘Mann has been criticized for treating violence with an aesthete dispassion, for bringing out the subtle texture of blood and bruises without offering a clear political statement along the way.’ It is this process that Woodward discusses, which may turn the images into something often phrased as ‘misery porn’. By providing no clear statement or context, it turns the subject into somewhat of an object, making it difficult to feel empathetic. In this statement Woodward suggests how with photos such as these, its often feels as though as we’re are peering into the cage of an animal at a zoo, acknowledging the apathy that this style of imagery may create. To elaborate, he quotes Mann (when talking of an image of her bruised daughter) as saying "you couldn't tell if she was living or dead. It looked like one of those Victorian post-mortem photographs." By including this he is cleverly suggesting that Mann possibly feels the same emotional separation within her images, as many others do. To quote Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the pain of others’, “the landscape of devastation is still a landscape, there is beauty in the ruins.” This highlights our almost fetishizing attitude towards human suffering. Woodward’s words work to question the human experience, to challenge the way in which we filter through images of supposed pain.

He then continues with his concerns by stating: ‘has she knowingly put them at risk by releasing these pictures into a world where paedophilia exists? Can young children freely give their consent for controversial portraits, even if -- especially if -- the artist is their parent?’ With this he raises several important points. We all know that there are many ethical standpoints to be considered as a photographer, but surely as a parent the amount of responsibility doubles. Perhaps, as Woodward states, it is irresponsible to combine both family and professional life, particularly if children are involved. However, from an opposing standpoint you could acknowledge that parents must knowingly put their children at risk every day. There are endless possibilities of terrible things happening to anyone, and you could argue that by simply letting your children outside you’re ‘knowingly putting them as risk’. Yet holding them to a life without adventure or any perceivable hazard, is also in itself a risk. Ultimately, it is impossible to avoid all harm towards your children, you must let them live their own lives, bad experiences included. It is this point that I feel most critics of Mann’s work, including Woodward, fail to recognise.

Several times throughout the article, Woodward refers to issues of consent and exploitation. He challenges the audience to contemplate the ethics of family photography, and whether being so close to the subject you’re shooting, means you can ever capture an unbias portrait. Another example of a project which is an interesting look at the dynamics of family photography, is titled ‘Ray’s a laugh’ by Richard Billingham. In this work, Billingham documents his working-class family with unabashed honesty, his alcoholic father being the main subject. This work has been criticised as being exploitative of his father, as in almost every scene he appears to be stripped of his dignity. While this project had mixed reactions, the negative critiques are far less than that shown towards ‘Immediate family’, despite the images for the most part, appearing more shocking and grotesque. As Woodward points out, this is possibly because the age and power difference between subject and photographer is far bigger. By questioning Mann’s actions in such an unapologetic way, he sparks the question, is child photography always exploitative?  

Although perhaps its motherhood itself that critics like Woodward are so hung up about. It’s intriguing to note how often the blame falls onto the mother within scenarios involving parenthood. In Woodward’s article there seems to be a severe lack of criticism towards the father. Mann’s husband is mentioned several times within the introduction to the book, and is featured in small ways throughout a lot of the images. Yet despite this the controversy seems to be centred on the issue of Mann’s motherhood. This points to the idea that possibly this is a gender issue, and the critics are of the belief that women should be the soul care givers. This would also explain the frequent jabs Woodward makes towards the dirtiness of the house and children, as women are also expected to be the cleaners within traditional family structures. Consequently, this may mean that from his viewpoint, seeing a dirty child suggests maternal failure. Sally Mann certainly displays an unconventional maternity, which stands out against the pre-conceived notions of the ‘traditional’ mother. Maybe some of the more brutal criticism comes from a place of internalised misogyny, where people are threatened by the act of patriarchal roles being challenged.

However, it would be unfair to ignore the context of which Woodward was in at this time. Women’s rights were far less advanced, and it is understandable that gender politics may have influenced his approach, whether intentionally or not. This article was also published in a time, as previously discussed whereby ethical critiques of art were becoming popular, which may explain his unsympathetic journalistic method. He was also reporting for a left-wing newspaper (often the NY Times has been accused of liberal bias), which means that maybe he is less inclined to be influenced by right-wing family structures as previously theorised.

As mentioned, this interview took place in the intimate confounds of the home, giving the harsh nature of this article even more sting. With all his points of Mann’s possible exploitation, what he fails to consider, is his own. However, despite the unforgiving impression of this article, his words aren’t cruel beyond reasoning. He often references Mann’s concerns for her children’s wellbeing, portraying her as at least, being a thoughtful parent. It’s almost as if despite his clear disapproval of the work, he wants to understand her point of view. This tells me that he’s not the usually depicted angry critic, who gets a kick out of breaking down others work. To some his thoughts may be overly critical, yet clearly, they are in his mind fair.

Many years later in 2015, Mann wrote a response to her critics in the same newspaper, mostly addressing Woodward’s article. She refers to the overwhelming wave of criticism she faced after Woodward’s publication, stating that: ‘It occasionally felt as though my soul had been exposed to critics who took pleasure in poking it with a stick.’ When reflecting on the sometimes-hurtful effect that critics have on artists, it raises important questions about the fundamental value of criticism. Does it provide us with useful discussion points which broaden the mind? Or does it simply tear people down?

However, one cannot deny how criticism has the power to change our minds, to show us things we didn’t see in the first sitting. By addressing the opinions of others, it encourages independent thought, urging us to consider things from both sides. Yet, it’s important for critics to find the right balance. As Mann suggests in her response, perhaps Woodward leaned too close to the bullying boundary, striking a vein in a similar fashion he accused her of.  Too further address the value of criticism, I will study another critical discussion aimed at Mann. By finding an article that is both for and against the work, I hope to evaluate a discussion more balanced. In doing this, it allows for a more all-encompassing approach to the topic.

The title of said critical discussion is ‘Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’: The unflinching and Unafraid Childhood’, written by Valerie Osbourn in 2006, and published on in 2009. Unlike Woodward she starts by immediately addressing the negative responses, stating: ‘The controversy that “Immediate Family” stirred up is a direct reflection of the times in which it was produced, and says more about the adult viewer than of the child subject.’ In placing responsibility onto an adult audience, she highlights the shared role that artist and audience have in creating meaning towards art. For what is a piece of art if no one is looking at it? Also by saying this, she dismisses the idea that the blame should fall entirely on Mann. Her more relaxed stance may be explained by the timing and context of which she wrote the article, as the wave of outrage aimed at artists had long passed. By 2006, the books audience had far more time to adjust to some of the unsettling themes, and perhaps given the post 9-11 context whereby images of suffering and war had become mainstream, these images really didn’t appear all that shocking anymore.

When introducing the project, she quotes Mann as saying: ‘Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictitious, and some are fantastic’. This is one of many times that Osbourn references the staged nature of the images throughout the article. In doing this she acknowledges what many others fail too, that the images do not represent a reality, and that the children in many of the scenes are living through a persona. Mann talked of this misunderstanding in the same NY Times article sited above, whereby she expresses: ‘what most of them failed to understand was that taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering. When I stepped behind the camera and my kids stepped in front of it, I was a photographer and they were actors’. With this introduction Osbourn is displaying a more truthful account of the original intention of the work, instead of getting carried away with scepticism.

She continues to analyse the work similarly to how a photographer might, instead of taking a more traditional journalistic approach. She evaluates images from the project, with almost painstaking detail, discussing the semiotics of each scene. When concluding with this analysis, she is quoted saying: ‘She (Mann) is showing the maternal need to tend to her wounded child, and is not concerned about the beauty of it. This is real life and she is not afraid to show it.’ By including this she suggests that the disturbing elements in these scenes are in fact, natural parts of growing up. Maybe it’s a case that we all over glamorise our childhood memories, and by seeing it depicted in such a candid way, ‘struck a vein’ in the viewers. Adding to this angle Osbourn states: ‘Immediate Family is all about showing what really makes up a child and a childhood. Although Mann is composing the images, she lets her children have their own voice’. In including this, she recognizes something different to other critics, by suggesting that what Mann is capturing is not neglect or abuse, instead it is unabashed honesty.

Osbourn, although more thoughtful in her approach, still agrees with the masses on the undeniable sensuality shown in the photos. She accuses Mann of objectifying her children within certain scenes, and of putting them within sexually suggestive scenarios. Yet unlike Woodward, within her article she includes quotes from the children themselves, justifying their mother’s actions. She quotes Jessie as saying ‘There are so many levels to childhood that we as a society ignore, or don’t accept. Rather than just saying it, she (Mann) was able to capture it with photographs.’ In including their points of view, she allows for a balanced and unbias portrayal of the work, where everyone’s voices are heard.

She then points to issues of gender politics, and the way in which this may have affected the critic’s opinions. Referencing an image titled ‘Popsicle drops’ (which includes Emmett’s naked form), she adds: ‘this image is the only one in the entire body of work that details male full-frontal nudity. This comes as a shock to those who were not expecting it, and it causes more of a discomfort than that of the full-frontal nude female.’ By highlighting this she mirrors the previously mentioned theory, whereby the mass outrage towards this work from mostly male critics, might of have a lot to do with gender. It is feasible that these images appear so disturbing to some, because of the nature of the family, where it appears that men are equal to women. The young girls appear adventurous and boisterous just as Emmett does, and as referenced in the book’s introduction, Mann and her husband shared responsibility in the production of these images.

Overall, I feel as though this article displays a far more balanced approach, highlighting not only the punctums of the scenes (which have fallen under scrutiny most), but also the touching and universal moments present, of which many can relate. By not simply placing the blame on one party, Osbourn cleverly addresses her concerns to everyone. She leaves it as an open question, leaving the reader feeling as though ultimately its up to them to dictate the power of the work. As a critic, she isn’t simply forcing her opinion onto others, instead it feels as though she is aiming to start a conversation.

Surely, that should be what cultural criticism is all about, encouraging us to contemplate beyond our gut reaction. To consider points of view other than our own, because often this means that the meaning of an image can radically change. As previously suggested, perhaps some critiques have a negative effect on people, yet in a way, this can still be used to broaden our minds. It is important for us to build up a strong ethical standpoint, to identify what we feel is right and wrong. Critics help us to understand this, and they hold the capacity to change our minds about things, to see them in a new light. In conclusion, the contribution of criticism to the arts I feel, is overwhelming, and while you don’t need reviews to enjoy a work of art, it undeniably has the power to enlarge the whole experience.