Looking for, and Resisting, Diane Arbus

I posted on Diane Arbus very briefly after seeing her show at the Met, and after seeing a show in Chelsea. Briefly I suppose because despite her dual giantess status in both feminist and photography worlds, I’m still not sure what to say about her. The prolific photographer worked extensively in the 50s and 60s, publishing in Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, showing her work sporadically before committing suicide in 1971. Her work, as I mentioned after seeing her show at the Met, is almost overly familiar, posted on fridge doors and in dorm rooms: the Manhattan women, the lipstick and high hats, the Peurto Ricans on the street, the hopeful, and fulsome bodies of New Yorkers parading past her lens, all of this seems woven with seminal New York City images of that era. But her body of work, concerned largely with the carnevalesque: twins, and outsiders, transvestites, dwarfs, giants, people with Down’s syndrome, resists any kind of assessment, fails in some way to convince me of any authenticity…of what? Experience? Art? Intention? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure that it’s even a fair criticism, but it’s where I am with Arbus. What are we to make of all these faces, similarly blank and otherworldly in expression, like short confessional narrative poems with their minute, repetitive and ultimately cloyingly assuring endings. We are all the same, we are all of us freaks, I am you, you am I, and so on, and yes, in theory, yes.

Diane Arbus, “Identical Twins, Roselle NJ, 1967”

Perhaps this is what makes “The Twins,” so popular. The image, the first Arbus image I recall seeing, satisfies on basic formal and narrative levels: children, doubled, mysterious, a couplet, accessible, suggestive, bite-sized, not overly complicated but resonant. My sister, a photography student at the time, sent me the postcard, which in itself was a radical act it seemed to me, so far from art that I hadn’t yet waded into the sea of replications. That postcard stood out from the collection I had assembled, largely of motels, mountain ranges, dams, squirrels eating ice cream cones, and bears with paws in picnic baskets. Visiting my sister I found a book of Arbus on her coffee table, and several versions of twins in images pinned on her bulletin board in the various apartments and phases of her life.
Looking into the faces in the Arbus book one sees a vast array of faces, of people in various moments, fleeting, caught in acts. But to what end? Are we looking at the straining gaze of a good girl longing to get out of the constraints of privilege? Is that interesting? Looking at her equipment, her library, bits of her writing over the years, in the show at the Met, didn’t prove helpful. She had a gift for “rendering the familiar strange,” she “uncovered the exotic in the familiar.” Was she trolling misery for art? Arbus’s legacy of photographs is impressive, and her influence undeniable. That doesn’t make it any easier to engage with her work, or to come to terms with its impact. In some way Arbus is a collector, and the captures evoke fissures, odd disjunctures that the Walls and Shermans of the world went on to work into a lather of texture and technical wonder.

Diane Arbus, “Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park,” 1962
The child with toy hand grenade for instance, is an image that had Wall seen and been intrigued by he would have painstakingly recreated in a way that fully exploited the formal, classical, and contemporary elements; he would have staged a performance.
I’m not advocating one approach over the other. I’m admitting that there is something about Arbus’ work that doesn’t ring true to me. Judith Butler sees an intriguing thread in Arbus’ work by focusing on her depictions of the human body in its urban setting, the figure as it moves in and out of light. I can work with that, the human body perhaps as ubiquitous and unsettling as light moving across the city’s surface?
Okay, to be fair, seeing Arbus’ equipment and notebooks, her library, and family photographs, one gets a sense of the artist’s struggle. The hurdles of gender unearth themselves, for instance, glimmers of difficulty, an unwillingness to perhaps put the children first…signs that for women developing a grand, life-long project on the scale of a Jeff Wall, or Edward Burtynsky is much more difficult. (Hence Virginia Woolf’s satsifaction that Vanessa could be mother and painter, but not mother, painter, and terribly successful, or famous.) And those who do, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Candida Hofer, have somehow slipped through the net of likability, and expected wholesale emotional administration. As feminist as a man can be–and I know there are men who are feminist out there–I can’t think of many who don’t rely on the free work (emotional and otherwise) women do to make the world inhabitable, and who do women turn to for that?
But as a whole, Arbus’ body of work slips past me. There was a moment when the images seemed to have meaning, as a young girl, but that hasn’t lasted. Like Sharon Olds work which in the 1980s inspired legions of young poets to cough up images of grotesque penises, make the unmediated psyche their canvas, the poem’s surface rippling with managed rage, Arbus inspired students to photograph the liminal–taking their cameras into night clubs and strip clubs, nursing homes and hospital wards, into bath, bed, shower, everywhere the body goes, the lens follows. As a project, for some reason, its luminescence eludes me. Nan Goldin on the other hand, but that’s another post
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