nftu #9 – personal narrative and a question of curation

Now, I’ve taken all the pictures for Assignment 3 on the underground, I’ve got time to read during my commute again. This morning I read the interview with Sonia Boyce in the Guardian, which (besides the obvious relevance of the furore about the – temporary – removal of Hylas and the Nymphs from Manchester Art Gallery to stuff I had been thinking about the male gaze and the representation of women in art – there’s even reference to Berger’s Ways of Seeing) fired off two quick bursts of associative thought.

1: How my identity as a white, straight man has simplified my ability to inhabit various narratives through my life.

“Even though there were a lot of female students, they were thought about as though they were being trained to become the wives of artists, not artists themselves. As a black person, there wasn’t a narrative at all.” – Sonia Boyce, quoted in the Guardian

(Like Chris Huhne in Grayson Perry’s Ch4 series about Identity, but hopefully less complacently)  I have never really had to consider what I am doing inhabiting any of the roles I’ve played in my life, as they all have seemed a natural result of stuff that I haven’t had to think about, like “being clever” or “being male” or “white” or “middle class”. Sonia Boyce on the other hand has had to write her own story to explain herself (“…she was the first black female artist to enter the collection and, she later discovered to her shock, only the fifth woman. In 2016, she became the first black woman to be elected a Royal Academician...” – Guardian). I wonder how I would turned out with a less friction-free path through life.

2: The extent to which curation is a process of constant, conscious construction (which is also a major strand in all the discussion of the BBC’s plural re-make of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilization)

“Nor do paintings arrive on museum walls by magic. Someone decides to put them up – and, later, to take them down or move them around, which is the job of a curator. This might happen for all kinds of reasons, including the changing of taste or, indeed, a shift in the limits of acceptability.  Hylas and the Nymphs was removed through an impulse to reveal normally hidden institutional machinery to the public, and to invite them to take a stake in it.” – Charlotte Higgins, author of the Guardian article

This set me thinking about the extent to which the various curators – John Szarkowski in particular – of the photography department at MOMA in New York had shaped the general idea of what photography is , not just in America, but here as well.

Where would a British Eggleston have been able to buttonhole a curator like Szarkowski who would have had the clout to catapult him into the art world stratosphere? Of course it is possible that there could never have been a British Eggleston. And there is also the question of whether the art world embracing photography is a good thing in the first place.

I am capable of tracing multiple, parallel paths through American 20th Century Photography (and beyond); I can even name a string of specific canonical exhibitions; but my knowledge of British photography over the same period is much more patchy with plenty of gaps that are filled in my US canon. I know much more about the FSA’s work in the US during the 30s than I do of Mass Observation’s here for example. MOMA has carried out a task to place photography and photographers at the heart of “the culture”  that the great institutions in UK have barely started on. even now.

But there is still scope to dig  here, I think…

(This is not to belittle the stuff that is done by the V&A or The Photographers’ Gallery or even the Johnny-come-lately-to-the-photography-party that is the Tate collossus; but it is striking how much more visible the US photographers are over here.)

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