A.D. Coleman’s Light Readings: Criticism as an Ethical Practice

A.D Coleman, New York, 2002, © copyright 2002 by Steven Speliotis

Photo A.D. Coleman by Steven Speliotis, www.speliotis.com. Used with permission.

As Robert Graves and Alan Hodge wrote, the writing of good English is a moral matter. Written language carries with it a deep responsibility. One has a responsibility when writing to be comprehensible. More importantly, though, one has a responsibility to be aware that language may be used for aims of politics and publicity that are diametrically opposed to the beliefs and intent of the original writer. Sloppy prose provides an easy target for political and social machinations. The sloppier the prose, the freer the abuse.

What is true generally of writers has even deeper truth for professional critics. Critics exist to call attention to works and ideas, not to themselves. The entire job of the professional critic is to make the subjects he cares about stand out brilliantly for his readers, to provoke them to consider and reconsider their own thoughts, and above all to compel them to their own experiences. Yet one frequently finds impenetrable, vainglorious writing about the arts in our country: entire “reviews” of films that are spent in imaginary dialogue with one’s imaginary six-year-old niece; “discussions” of dances that waste hundreds of words opining whether or not a dancer is unattractive regardless of technical skill; “dialogue” about plays wherein the writer spends half the piece talking about his date for the evening.

I chalk this up to American solipsism–eternally fashionable in our adolescent culture. Just as frequently, though, and just as nauseously, one encounters the type of writing that only a mother could love, and then only if she were a dyed-in-the-wool academic. A few dozen examples jump to mind but my pride and low tolerance for smoke and mirrors prevents me from quoting any of them. Instead I offer a parody of such writing by the fabulous Peter Rose, whose video work has attracted much of this sort of claptrap:

The epitaxial fricatives located within the ruptured rhetorical spasms of a conjoined systemic imperative are not, therefore, the locus vivendi of a parasyntactic concourse, nor are they even sly reminders of bourgeois affinities; they are in fact substrategized dislocatures unarguably enjambed in a protempic lepsis.

Though this is obviously lampoon and quite funny when an artist turns the tables thus, in truth I have read more than enough arts criticism from which this could have been lifted verbatim–pick up virtually anything by Rosalind Krauss for a dose, if you dare.

When I was a young critic writing about theater, such writing was the standard in art journals and especially when dealing with photography and cinematography. Such writing is not merely pompous. It is fundamentally unethical. Critics have an ethical duty not merely to their readers but also to the art itself. It is their sworn duty to illuminate rather than obfuscate. It is also their sworn duty to protect their art from political and social chicanery not because politics and publicity do not have any effect on the purity of art–it is obvious they do–but because they cannot supplant the art itself. The responsibility to art exists in aesthetic terms (I mean this in the Kantian sense of the sensus communis) but also in moral terms. Critics and artists both must consider not only how their work is viewed and received but also and perhaps more importantly how their work is used and for what purposes. In order to uphold these duties, critics themselves must constantly ask ethical questions of themselves and of the artists whose work they encounter.

That I believe any of this stems largely from my intellectual encounters with A.D. Coleman over the years.

Beginning his career as a photography critic when no one knew what such a thing was, or even why someone might bother, Mr. Coleman established quickly his interest in photography as something beyond the making of pretty pictures of purism. His essays from the very first of his “Latent Image” columns in The Village Voice proclaim his interest in the uses of photography for education and social change. Too, they show immediate concern for issues of representation and racism (his essay on “Harlem on My Mind” and its “honky chutzpah” still stings my funnybone) not only of African American artists but how those artists are presented by upper class WASPs in museums, galleries and books–or how they are not presented, and simply excluded as irrelevant.

As Peter Plagens once intimated, Mr. Coleman’s primary concerns about photography are fundamentally concerns about artistic democracy. He surely believes that the smug and self-aggrandizing schemes of artistic venture capitalism have no place in a democratic art–a belief difficult not to admire. He writes personally and passionately about recognizing the entirety of photography–not only the academy-approved “art photography”–as worthy of study. Any style, any subject, any vision that is free deserves its voice and may just as readily share ideas as anything that bears official “fine art” world or academic approval; in fact they probably share even more important ideas than those entombed in the mausoleums of the dead rich (as Stieglitz wrote), and share them more healthily.

At the same time, he does believe in craft and in history. A recurrent theme of Light Readings: A Photography Critic’s Writings 1968-1978 is a wholesome skepticism of self-appointed “artists” and curators who come to photography with no respect or knowledge of photographic traditions (“Reinventing Photography” or his dismantling of Bill Dane’s exhibit at MOMA), and an even more brutal excoriation of art critics who attempt to do the same (“Art Critics: Our Weakest Link”).

If he had only those qualities to go with his fine and lucid prose, he would still rank as one of the finest American art critics of the past fifty years. For all of this, however, Mr. Coleman’s most outstanding quality to me remains his commitment to an essential moral compass in the amoral world of photography. This commitment remains tireless even to this day: his recent writings for his Photocritic International blog, covering the Polaroid Collection debacle, the “lost Ansel Adams” prints found by Rick Norsigian at a garage sale, and the truly ugly affair at UC Davis involving a certain Lt. John Pike prove his fire has not diminished. On the subject of plagiarism and copyright he remains infuriatingly consistent in ways that completely confound me, but they are very much his ideas and he has held tenaciously to them since at least 1975.

Mr. Coleman’s understanding of ethics is highly admirable in our world of rather flexible morality–which bends primarily from the weight and counterweight of money and status and tempers only in the waters of conscience. His writing of English is part of this morality. Quoting in his preface to the second edition of Light Readings Karl Popper’s dictum that “Lucidity is a moral duty of all intellectuals,” he continues:

I consider it my obligation, and my job, to make those subjects and issues that are urgent to me accessible and engaging for my readership–a constituency that includes photographers, artists, critics, students and teachers of photography and mass communication, and members of the public at large.

To read such a candid assessment of moral obligation to one’s audience is inspirational by itself. To encounter an intellect that values commitment through language is nothing short of remarkable in this day and age. Only someone who believes in the power of the word could write as he responded to me about Diane Arbus’s Untitled monograph from Aperture:

As I said in my response to Mark Power, language surely shapes the way we think, and changes in nomenclature lead to differences in perception. And there’s a difference between description and judgment. Much of what Mr. Willey calls ‘ameliorative language’ seeks not to prettify reality but to rectify the prejudicial denotations and connotations built into many words that for decades, even centuries, were taken as purely descriptive, to the detriment of those so described. It wasn’t until we stopped calling them cripples and gimps that the Special Olympics began and we learned that a lot of those people had physical skills and capacities way beyond yours, mine and Mr. Willey’s. It wasn’t till we stopped talking and thinking about wheelchair-bound paraplegics as drooling geeks that it became possible to recognize the genius of Stephen Hawking. And one was unlikely to recognize a roomful of pure musical genius if one saw a bunch of jungle bunnies onstage instead of the Duke Ellington Orchestra….

I did not respond at the time, but to turn one of his favorite phrases against him, this is a case where it is “pretty to think so.” Many human beings called the Duke Ellington Orchestra a bunch of jungle bunnies and yet still attended their concerts without essential irony. Eunice Shriver referred to her charges in the Special Olympics as mentally retarded and even occasionally as crippled without patronizing their true nature. Changing or not changing the language did not change the attitudes, and rarely does–the notable exception, according to Fine and Asch in their book Women and Disability, seems to be when an oppressed class changes how it refers to its oppressors, not its members. Much research in both anthropology and neurolinguistics shows that “renaming” changes nothing, from Professor Richard Diebold’s studies of neutral gender words all the way down to Edwin Battistella’s studies of markedness and “bad” language. While ameliorative language may well seek to rectify certain prejudicial connotations, it just as often re-embeds them elsewhere. Calling a group of jungle bunnies a swing band still did not give them the legal right to drink at the table with you and for all our feminist pretensions whether one calls them women, wimmin or womyn, they still make about seventy-five percent of what males make in the marketplace. The question, as always, remains who uses language and for what purpose, a matter on which I am certain we share a similar circumspection.

This, however, is only an example of how brilliant his critical writing is, because even when Mr. Coleman is quite wrong, he is wrong in the best possible way. While I can read fifty pages of a critic like Abigail Solomon-Godeau and admire her clinical dissection and absorbent use of baroque argot and perhaps even agree entirely with her reductive analysis, I am nevertheless often left thinking, “So what?” Such critics may be right, but they are right in ways that inhibit if not destroy future thinking. By comparison, reading a piece of Mr. Coleman’s I am impressed by the quality of the questions he asks and principles he expresses, and whether or not I agree with him, the openness of his writing allows for an extraordinary dialogue on the subject not only with others but with myself. He is exploratory rather than dogmatic, and I had rather explore than simply accept another’s catechism. This quality, too, impresses me as a supremely ethical tenet for all critics: always write in such a way that encourages further exploration. Again, this sounds so basic, but it does not take much reading of arts criticism to realize that it is far from the default setting.

Perhaps not his most intellectually impressive quality but certainly his most noble one is that throughout it all, Mr. Coleman remains a humanist committed to social change. He holds the opinions he does about language and education because fundamentally he believes that it is possible (and often desirable) to change the way human beings act and think. After twenty years or so of smug poststructuralism and self-congratulatory po-mo critics promulgating the notion that people are nothing more than products, this belief is valuably rare. Furthermore, not only does he believe that human beings and their lives are changeable but also that it is part of the ethical duty of critics and artists to speed that change. His lack of a fashionable cynicism and his commitment that, beyond all ideologies, the fundamental concern of artists is not art but rather Life Itself is a belief I wish more writers shared.

As I read and re-read Light Readings over the years, it humbles me. Much of my own criticism has been necessarily journalistic and, as much of it was done for radio and extremely small run print journals, quite ephemeral. It is difficult within such strictures to generate a real ethos as a critic. A.D. Coleman’s work makes it look so easy. While reading Light Readings again last week, I was struck most by the change from 1973 to 1975 in which he turned away from criticism rooted in exhibition and book reviews toward more sweeping theoretical questions that covered not isolated events but rather social topics and trends.

These same ideas had always been latent in his work, particularly his ideas about education, but the essays from that point on take on a real potency, especially the angry “Lament for the Walking Wounded” and the classic “The Directorial Mode: Notes Toward a Definition.” They mark a point at which he separates once and for all from what Robert Brustein calls “Himalayan Criticism”–loved him, hated her–and becomes a critic using photography as a gauge of larger cultural problems, not just within the photography community but within everything touched by photography–Life Itself. These are my favorite writings of his by far and for me they clarify for me every time as a critic just exactly what the hell I am supposed to be doing whenever I write about art: above all, remain ethical. I have never forgotten this and never will. I am grateful forever that I had such a brilliant man to show me the way.

Filed under Photography

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net