This essay was originally published accompanying Anna Niskanen's photobook Lustrum (2017). See http://annaniskanen.com/lustrum/
“For Amanda”Lustrum, in its gestures of tenderness and love, takes on our own insecurities and artistic traditions of obsessive individualism and objectified muses without creative agency. Let me explain. Anyone who's spent time with artists will know that the art world can be a scary place. It might be an outdated definition, but one nonetheless uncomfortably alive: “Serious” art means serious selfishness and plenty of small-minded competition. Days are spent fighting for work and recognition, spent bickering in art school corridors. Too many are spent feeling miserable. Artists have of course judged each other since the days of Athenian drama competitions, and been judged by outside “professionals” at least since the days of Vasari, but today's supposedly democratized situation – where everybody can be an artist – has interestingly not coincided with any significant lessening of status-related insecurity. The conflation of art and personality has, if anything, made the guarding of individual status more important than before. The peculiarity is heightened by the fact that we, at least on the surface of things, have done away with the cult of “greatness” in artworks a long time ago; we no longer claim anything to make anything outside our contexts. Yet, when it comes to the people who make art, we're surprisingly stuck in old-fashioned status worship. We might have broken free from the languid world of high art and art critics hopelessly behind the times (or tell ourselves we have), we've bunkered up in our own spaces of pop-up happenings and post-internet extravaganza, but we've come nowhere near being genuinely happy for other people. The apparent freedom of expression in art easily masks the strict and jealously guarded personal hierarchies of the people creating it. Whether it’s the callousness of the million-dollar gallery or the exuberance of the independent happening, the double specters of insecurity and envy keep following in our footsteps.Art has a serious problem with friendship. Artist rarely make honest art about each other, while exhibition openings often give you the feeling that in any way admitting to another persons’ worth threatens your own status. Equality in intimacy is a rare treat: Meeting artists genuinely open to professionally appreciating and depending on one another is an event so special you'll find yourself still talking about it years later. Being insular and grumpy, alone in your supposed greatness, is normalized while treating others like crap is de rigueur. Although perhaps not directly apparent, this has a lot to do with art's sexist underbelly. As Griselda Pollock and many others have argued, the idea of authorship – the idea that there has to be an artist, a singular entity that suffers the hardships of work and takes the credit and the status that follows – is not a gender-neutral concept, but one intricately coded as male. Following this line of thought, one can argue that only singular people can make Art with a big A. To be singular you have to become male, and the other way around: Sexism has defined not just what kind of art is good, but what you're supposed to act like while making it. Pointing out that people confuse rudeness with importance is nothing new. Janice Moulton argued in the eighties that people (men), especially when striving for positions of authority, exploit the conflation of certain type of aggressiveness with positive individualization. What Moulton meant was basically that one has to be nasty in order to succeed: “Aggression may have no causal bearing on competence, superiority, power, etc, but if many people believe aggressive behavior is a sign of these properties, then one may have to learn to behave aggressively in order to appear competent, to seem superior, and to gain or maintain power.” Now, some people like to think that the art world has progressed towards gender equality since the days that Linda Nochlin and her peers rewrote its history. At least nowadays most art students are able to name one really famous woman in their own sub-discipline, one could argue. Yay. The thing is, in art as in society in general, there's a massive difference between more women inhabiting high-profile positions and actually changing a system that is inherently wired to see only certain characteristics as worthy. Whereas the latter strives for collective betterment, the first pits individuals against each other. The emulation of toxic masculinity in the context of art was spoken about by Cassandra Langer already in a 1991 article: “Needless to say, [big-name contemporary female artists'] art is a mirror-image of male nature, not human nature”. And, following a 2011 article on the dubious feminist credentials of “feminist artists” such as Cindy Sherman, one can argue that that we're still very much stuck in the first category of action: “Great” men and the occasional woman who wishes to act like a great man continue to make up the core of today's established art world. The idea that there's less for me when something good happens to you lies at the heart of the matter. We meet the same phenomenon when looking at workplace feminism. A 2015 article in the journal Hypatia talked about this uncomfortable relationship between feminism and competition. Simply put, the perpetual dilemma is whether or not “success” on masculinist terms of success is any success worth having: What does it help if we win a competition that gains its meaning from others “losing”? Of course, few people would argue that all competition is bad or undesirable. Amanda Cawston (following a tradition before her), first of all makes the crucial distinction between competition and competitiveness. The former itself can be both good and bad, depending on the scarcity of the resource competed for. Often – as in art – the scarcity of the resource (recognition, kindness) is actually artificially constructed in order to benefit those on top, not some natural fact. Further, competition can also be good or bad depending on the way we look at competitiveness. Ideally, we can enjoy competing – in say eating sugar free gummy bears, speed painting, or writing postscripts for friends' art books – without a toxic culture of competitiveness: “By bracketing the (traditionally male) emotions/behaviors of jealousy, greed, combativeness, aggression, and selfishness from the activity of competition, we avoid the complaint that competition requires women to become more like men”, Cawston writes. She further notes that this bracketing cannot only happen during a specific competition, but crucially, after the whole thing is over. For the effects of toxic competitiveness linger on, become habitual states and attitudes. Cawston's article talks about academics and business, but the same ideas hold very much true for art: We create and even celebrate hierarchies of artists and hierarchies dividing artists from other people (like models and assistants). In this matter, art goes against the general anti-hierarchical trend of supposedly progressive causes: While e.g. social scientists spend chapters on dissecting and appreciating their co-creating relationships with interviewees, participants and others involved, artistic portrayers of people and human environments – social artists – are schooled to see the “end”, the “artwork” as completely detached from the people involved in the process of making it. In order to really change art for the better we need to get rid of this pride. In its own understated way, Lustrum deals with this difficult heritage. Born out of the musings of Anna Niskanen and Amanda Côté (both in the sense of to muse and a muse), the book deals with the relationship of two female artists inspiring each other in the midst of debilitating competition. Of all the people who have been devalued in the hands of the individual genius, the person delegated to the status of a muse – that icky old concept – has perhaps suffered the most. For the muse was always the goddess-woman, the pretty girl so full of heavenly delights that she was supposed to have no say in what pedestal she was put on, or when that was torn down. She was the source of art but only when translated through the genius of the artist. She herself was never an artist (or at least never as good as the person portraying her). In practical society, a muse was also what you'd call someone who had a large influence on your art when you wanted to limit their potential claim to co-authorship. By defining someone as your “muse” you could stop her from becoming something more, a whole person and a co-artist. There have of course been male muses and female artists, but the gendered roles they were to inhabit were always coded the other way around. Because of this openly sexist history, it's shady to talk about traditional muses today. We might even think we stopped caring about such things when we recently realized we can paint or sculpt or write about other things than wanting sex with objectified feminine figures. Nevertheless, I argue that the artist-muse dichotomy still lives on in photography, perhaps quietly but stronger than elsewhere in art. This, because the non-artists/model is often visually involved in the photographic artwork, seen directly represented in the picture. Since a recognizable real-world subject exists in a photograph more often than, say, in a performance piece, there is more anxiety caused to the photographer. In order to live up to the standards of individuality outlined above, the latter needs to make sure that no status is lost, that no confusion arises as to who's in charge. Here the old idea of a muse still comes in handy: Somebody who is very visible or recurrent in a photographer's work is made into an muse-like inspiration, something that emphasizes the person's externality: “The muse inspired me”. (If we think about how celebrity portraits reverse this equation we might better understand what is meant with the risk of loss of authorship.) Whether it's the artist or the model who “wins”, the fight over who gets remembered makes the real relationship behind the artwork – the shared lived experience – social secondary to the individual's solitary vision of it. This again is good for stagnant, traditionalist and socially un-dangerous art. What makes Lustrum meaningful is that Amanda, the subject of the book, here is presented and consciously becomes a muse in a way which breaks with traditional hierarchies and allows the word to feel fresh again. The Amanda-Anna relationship strips the artist of his stoic pretentiousness. The book opens with a poem credited to Côté – the full name, the specific friend, artist and woman seen in most of the photographs of Lustrum. It establishes her as a subject not subsumed by the person behind the camera. Equally importantly, Anna Niskanen is herself seen in some of the pictures. The first photograph is a tender double portrait of Amanda and Anna, in an embrace-like setting drenched in sunlight. The poem and the opening picture are very simple, honest and sweet. During the course of the book, as in the course of any real relationship, a variety of emotions are seen – from happiness to exhaustion and from audacity to fragility. The seasons change, as do the landscapes; the whole thing feels like an around-the-world trip. In order to make sense of the book one needs to take this relationship seriously, and see its relation to the callousness of our artistic traditions. The internet is filled with photographers shooting friendship-like stories with professional models, advertorials for being young, beautiful and and carefree. Emphatically, that is not the case here. Sure, Lustrum is both young and and beautiful, sometimes carefree too, but what separates it from all the pretty noise is its factious, empirical, lived background. Lustrum comes from a real friendship between two artists: It has taken time, it has gone through its cycles of fighting and love, it has engaged with the questions of envy, individualism and obsessive pride. It comes from a place of being safe enough to tell the art world that we don't need or even want to make it alone.
Bibliography:Cawston, Amanda (2015): “Are Feminism and Competition Compatible?”, in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 31:1, pp. 204-220.Langer, Cassandra L. (1991): “Feminist Art Criticism: Turning Points and Sticking Places”, in Art Journal 50:2, pp. 21-28. Moulton, Janice (1983): “A Paradigm of Philosophy: The Adversary Method”, in Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka (eds.) Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Nochlin, Linda (1971): “Why are there no great women artists?”, in V. Gornick & B. K. Moran (eds.) Woman in sexist society: Studies in power and powerlessness. New York: Basic Books.Riches, Harriet (2015): “Women's Role in Photography”, in Photoworks Annual 22, pp. 18-26.Pollock, Griselda (1988): Vision and Difference: Feminism, femininity and the histories of art. New York: Routledge. Sprague-Jones, Jessica and Sprague, Joey (2011): “The Standpoint of Art/Criticism: Cindy Sherman as Feminist Artist?”, in Sociological Inquiry 81:4, pp. 404-430.