In general, I prefer the dead to the living: they have so fewer opinions. On this matter, I imagine I may win to my side Steven Nelson, an art historian and Director of the African Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. A few weeks ago, he published a piece at Hyperallergic that I haven’t stopped thinking about, because Nelson ran into a minefield of trouble by commenting on the work of a living artist. Perhaps like all trouble, the trouble here points to a larger problem.
Let’s call this the Era of Branding. In this era, how are critics, particularly academic ones, meant to engage with living artists? How much control should living artists and their representatives exert over the real-time analysis of their work? Even if you hate academics, even if you find art photography awful, this matters quite a lot.
First, Nelson’s Odyssey. As he reported on Hyperallergic, in 2016 Nelson submitted an essay that was commissioned by the magazine Aperture on the work of photographer Deana Lawson. The essay — which is published in its entirety as the opening part of his Hyperallergic piece — seeks to contextualize within Lawson’s larger oeuvre the photographs she was hired to take for Time magazine in the wake of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015. It is the thoughtful analysis of a sound scholar. It is not particularly revolutionary or scandalous. It’s what, in more innocent times, we might have called “solid scholarship.”
In March 2017, according to Nelson, Aperture rejected the essay that it had commissioned. Through subsequent communications with the managing editor, Nelson concluded that the essay was rejected largely because Lawson objected his characterization of her work. Let’s stop here for a moment — it’s not the end of the story, but it is a critical juncture. Nelson was commissioned to write an academic piece about Lawson’s work. He did exactly that. At first, the piece was considered of acceptable quality for publication. The only reason that Aperture did not publish it was because Lawson objected. This is a dangerous precedent, one that could very well have a chilling effect on contemporary scholarship and journalism of all kinds. It’s a move that essentially places critics into the role of the public relations copywriter. If we are going to do that, what is the point of keeping the two separate?
Nelson’s essay, as he reported, would be rejected a second time. Freize magazine would also back off from publishing the essay because Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman Gallery, which represents Lawson, balked at providing any images for the piece. In their note declining to provide the images, the gallery made Freize aware that the essay had been previously commissioned by, submitted to, and rejected by Aperture. Presumably the gallery rather conveniently omitted why it was rejected, but suddenly Frieze had the cover it needed to withdraw its offer. Leaving aside the question of whether Nelson should have made Freize aware of the essay’s genesis (I think he should have said something), there is little way to interpret the gallery’s reply aside from a bout of cynical tattle-taling designed to stop the publication of a point of view that #TeamLawson found objectionable. That is a problem. Really, that is the same problem as Aperture’s rejection.
Social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and the fact that an estimated 67% of the world’s population walks around with a camera in the guise of a mobile phone might make our era the most image-obsessed in history — a period in history in which people have become the most accustomed to curating their own image. Like a planet full of Renaissance Italian nuevo riche, we accept uncritically the idea that we can shape how the rest of the world views us. Everyone creates a brand — and brand, now, is everything. It’s a model that is financially to everyone’s benefit and, like most financially beneficial arrangements, it does not come under much scrutiny. It is a new reality accepted as eternal truth. And truth is its principal victim. “Branding” would be the most awful of modern principles if “parenting” and “unfriending” didn’t already claim that mantle.
If Nelson’s version of events is to be believed (and there is no reason not to believe him), the fate of his essay was sealed because Lawson believed it worked against her “brand” — that it presented an analysis of her work not in keeping with the image that she, her editor at Aperture, her gallery and/or anyone else had created and sought to sell to the public. To defend Lawson’s brand, a commissioned, legitimate and scholarly critique of her work was silenced. Not that anyone can blame #TeamLawson. Brands are valuable things. They are made remarkably fragile by the speed, ease and carelessness at which information travels. #TeamLawson played the cards they were dealt and they played them well. And we all lost.
There is a lot of conversation these days about “free speech” and especially “academic freedom” (the latter being shocking to me, as no one seemed to care before). Frequently, objections to the silencing of unpopular opinions are little more than ploys by right-wing talking heads to obtain and keep lucrative invitations to college campuses. But one need not have an ideological (or economic) agenda to note that there is something deeply wrong with our current discourse, with the state of public debate. Alternative fact and fake news are now part of our common parlance. On any night on TV and elsewhere, you can catch the sight of adults literally screaming at each other as the substitution for engaged debate on the issues of the day, thus conquering the territory of 14-year-old boys. No adult should be proud of “owning” their opponent or “trolling” the opposition. But this is where we are. And I cannot help but to think it is in no small part because we are acutely aware of how image shapes perception. We’ve standardized the task of image-making. We’ve all created brands and the first rule of branding is never to be off-brand. Even if it is the truth.
The mentality of the brand is great for commercials but terrible for dialogue: it renders all conversation to a kind of one-sided, very particular praise. In the giant scheme of things, Nelson — a tenured professor at a major university — is not the world’s greatest victim. The silencing of an assessment of Lawson’s work is not the greatest injustice of our time. (There’s too much competition in that category for this to even register.) But this matter is symptomatic of a much larger, bigger problem. Artists may not be the only people working overtime to control their brands, but this behavior was unthinkable a generation ago. Photographers are not the only people who want there to be only a single story about them, their work and their place in the world. This is very, very dangerous.
We cannot, we must not, allow the language of the advertisement to become the baseline of discourse. It will require uncomfortable, unprofitable decisions, but we have let “brand” go. It might be the most off-brand thing we can do. It might save us all. It might save poor Professor Nelson’s essay, too.