by Randall Auxier
I cannot stand to have my picture taken. I am told that my vanity won’t abide an honest depiction. The people who told me this weren’t nearly so eloquent in expressing the point as I was in that lovely sentence you just read. I am vain indeed, but not about my appearance. If you would know what wounds my vanity, it is a critique of my writing that finds the real weaknesses. I dare you . . . no, on second thought, spare me.
I never wanted my picture taken, even when I was young, and thin, and better looking. I also didn’t want to cut my hair. So I didn’t, and I wore ragged second-hand clothes, and I didn’t get my picture made. My checks were refused at grocery stores and I was mistaken for homeless from time to time. I maintain this “aesthetic” into the present, if that’s what it is. I could easily appear in this quiz. But now, now we live in a culture that constantly makes my picture whether I like it or not. At least it doesn’t cut my hair or force me into nice clothes. Yet.
Above is Hanakahi the Hula Girl, pictured in front of the world’s largest catsup bottle, which doubles as a water tower in Collinsville, Illinois. I have realized that Hanakahi (along with her sisters and cousins) is my Selfie Surrogate. Since I don’t want pictures of myself, but I do want to be part of the fun, I created a Selfie Scenario without the self. You can visit her page and see that Hanakahi (i.e., I and my spouse) has been lots of places –38 states, 27 state capitols, the bulk of Western Europe, and numerous points of interest. She has a narrative, created in prose by yours truly, and can stand in for me where others would put a selfie. I don’t have to put myself into the picture or the story, but I do control it all, don’t I?
And there’s the rub. Modernity is haunted by the omnipresence of the spectator. I don’t like it, but I like the control it affords. Why reveal my life to you when you can infer it from her adventures? I like that extra layer of protection. You don’t wanna follow Hanakahi? OK, but that isn’t exactly a rejection of me, now, is it? Surrogate Selves are one end of the spectrum. There’s another end (as we’ll see shortly). But I think I’m like a lot of people. I may be a bit more willing to put myself into prose than most, but only on my own terms, no? As for living on the edge, well, no, it’s the opposite of that. Hanakahi spectates the world through the windshield of a minivan, and I take the droit d’auteur directeur artistique. (God, I love it when I speak French.)
Others put themselves in that role. For example, Brooke Shaden has raised the selfie to the level of fine art. Her work is almost too good to be art, since it pleases us a bit too much (and we are supposed to be ambivalent about fine art and wonder what all the fuss is). This work obviously strives to be fine art. It has all the knowledge of Western history crammed into its composition, contrasts, forms, expression, ad nauseam (God, I love it when I speak Latin). I admit that Shaden’s images are very much to my taste, but you know, de gustibus non disputandum est. And, as the Germans might say, was ist mir viel schön, geschmeckt dir Wurst. They don’t actually say this, but they might if their command of their language was as crude as my command of their language. (God I love it when I make up new things from nearly perfect ignorance.)
Crispin Sartwell encourages us to see art and knowledge as a “fusion.” (see The Art of Living, pp. 125 ff.) He means that being (merely) the spectator doesn’t work well for knowing. We end up with a purely abstract idea of knowing. So, yeah, Hanakahi doesn’t know the catsup bottle (neither does her directeur). She didn’t exactly climb up on it for a closer look. It’s 170 feet at the top. Thank you, no. But what matter? It’s just a cutesie travelogue. Still, behind every act of knowing is an experience. That’s Satrwell’s point. The experience may be hard to recover from viewing the artwork, but it’s the basis. Looking at Shaden’s images, there is so much staging and post-production, and everything so obviously creates an image especially for the eye to consume, that being the self in those selfies is pretty distant in our imaginations.
On the other hand, there is Justin Casquejo. I hardly know what to say about him. People have called him a daredevil, a fool, a criminal, an airhead, and other words not so tame. But if his “vision” (in every sense of the word) is not a fusion of art, experience, and knowledge, I don’t know what is. I can barely watch what he does. He has overcome the problem of imaginative “distance,” since I can’t even look without feeling like I’m there. On the other hand, the images are stunning, possibly lasting works of art, as well as experiences that point to a kind of knowing quite peculiar to Justin himself. Justin may not last, but how can anyone deny: (1) that the images are beautiful; (2) that they are intended to be beautiful; and (3) that we cannot help being drawn in to the experience they bring to us? This is art, by Sartwell’s standards.
Sartwell also insists that genuine art grows from our everyday experience, from a rootedness in what we are and what we do, in this time, this place. Is Justin, with his daring selfie stick, what we are? Is Brooke Shaden? Is Hanakahi? What does it mean to embrace experience, and the knowledge that goes with it, when it comes to living the art? In a culture where, as Danto said, anything can be art, do we cede to the “artworld” the decision about what is art? The artworld likes Brooke Shaden, increasingly. It doesn’t notice Hanakahi. And it furiously rejects Justin Casquejo. Yet, the latter has his crew and collaborators, his aesthetic ideas and experiential goals, and his public.
My guess is that Sartwell will say, “yes, Casquejo is giving us art.” For my part, well, I prefer not to have my picture taken. I’d rather see the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota. It’s worth the trip, I hear.