A Question Of Unity

There she was at the outdoor arts and crafts show hidden behind her work (the only shady spot to be found). Not a pretty woman, with bad teeth wearing overalls and work boots, she displayed portraits of exquisite detail featuring various animals, wild and domestic. She was literally behind her work.

Dorothea Lange was featured on a PBS American Masters episode. Of particular note was that Lange had been laid off by the FSA around 1940 and this completely disoriented her. Prior to this, though not well paid, she and her work had the connection of support that allowed entry into migrant workers camps and entitled her to photograph their conditions and inhabitants (for which she became famous). After the outbreak of the Second World War, Lange was picked up by the WRA to document the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. Her work proved too good and was impounded by the Army that had hired her. After the war she went on to document the conditions of sharecroppers in America’s south through various impromptu, on site portraits.

Today’s artist is not found behind the work but rather is contained in the surface of the work (“if you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” Andy Warhol). Lange’s legacy is tainted by the question of whether the haunting portraits of Americans (as Americans) were unified by Lange herself (ala’ Woody Guthrie) or whether the unity had to do with the political economy of the time, which gave her a job, a purpose, cover and a mission. Would Lange have done what she did without taking a position with the FSA (and the WRA)?

Today, though not in the form of the outdoor arts and craft exhibitionist, the contemporary artist is expected to initiate and take ownership of an enterprise such as Lange had formed organically through her job involvement and the passage of time. Not only is the exceptional artist expected to have the “vision” of all the implications of their work, but they also are expected to obtain all the necessary connections and funding to bring it to fruition. Alternately, the subjective individual artist not pursuing such a socially visionary route is expected to draw from their own personal archives for portrayals within which they can be found, neither behind nor solely on the surface.

In either case, the unspoken question is where does the unity lie? As so many of today’s “social events” verify, unity is found through the discrete portrayal of the event’s participants themselves (through the near instantaneous documentation appearing on social media, etc.). This further implicates the contemporary social documentarians, along with the visionary arts entrepreneurs and subjective artistic interpreters, as discrete units within an abstract cohesive entirety entitled “Art”. This coordinates well within the operational determinants of a contemporary capitalist political economy that emphasizes personal choice and the freedom (and responsibility) of “rugged individualism”. The conditions of Lange’s pre-existing unity, promoting and spurring her creativity (and outcomes), as well as the pre-supposed unity of the subjective artist, with her viewer audience supporting her individual personal statements, are long gone. Today’s American culture emphasizes continuous discrete differentiation from any singular unifying definition.

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3 Responses to “A Question Of Unity”

  1. everettecartoons Says:

    Pardon me, but where is your ‘like’ button?

  2. everettecartoons Says:

    O I found it!
    I ‘like’ you!

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