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“Satire Inspired by Wishful Thinking, the Culture Wars, and the Left’s [She]nanigans”
© 2010 Les Krims
For a time in the States, growing criticism of liberal culture’s strident agenda offered signs that the left was quivering, getting grayer, loosing its grip, starting to shrink, beginning to molder & leak. For example, the death of the Marxist theorist Jacques Derrida, on October 8, 2004, provoked an astounding revisionist article: “The Theory of Everything, R.I.P.,” by Emily Eakin, published in The New York Times (October 17, 2004). Several of Derrida’s contemporaries and acolytes admitted to Ms. Eakin, that they had hoped and believed their “theories” would foster a Marxist revolution in the West (amazing!). This admission backdated to the beginning of the 1990’s (no doubt Christmas Day, December 25, 1991, when Gorbachev declared the Soviet Union extinct), their disavowal of, and distancing from, Derrida, and the various flavors of revolution he and they were cultivating in their dreams and classrooms. The article had the effect of highlighting these academics’ hypocrisy, and the fact that theory had failed as an effective anti-capitalist, anti-American weapon. I thought: How much further up their ass could these schmucks possibly shove their heads?
In 1978, I was the “featured photographer” at the national convention of the Society for Photographic Education—an academic organization consisting of leftist college photography teachers, which most closely resembled the Comintern. Two years later, my work was the target of ad hominem, pre-Borkian, libelous attack by radical anti-porn feminists, published in multiple issues of Exposure—the Society for Photographic Education’s “learned” journal, which was sent to every college photography program, curator of photography, and collector, in the United States.
Around the same time, Franklin Furnace, a New York City based feminist collective milking the system for grants to collect and advocate for artist books, mailed an unsolicited library index card bearing my name to hundreds of public and university libraries. The card listed some of my publications, along with a quote attributed to me, stating I thought my work was “shit.” (This defamation was settled out of court.) Activist liberal “educators,” and straight-up psychopaths, began to attack my pictures with the clear intent of causing me as much harm as possible.
By the end of Jimmy Carter’s Presidency, in 1981, as the interest rate for a home mortgage inched above a hernia-inducing 21%, I had, for over a decade, been making satirical pictures inspired by leftist ideas of questionable merit. My own politics were an admixture of moderate Republican and quasi-libertarian notions—it was a free country, and my zealous, lefty-liberal colleagues were supposed to be tolerant of all views. I liked Lenny Bruce’s idea that a truly religious man had only one suit.
With increasing frequency, moderate views were attacked by kangaroo courts springing up willy-nilly in liberal academe. These activists were devoted to what would become known as “political correctness.” Their ideas had germinated at elite colleges and women’s studies programs, byproducts of dubious disciplines and experiments in affirmative action. Sight, for example, was criminalized (ever hear of “Lookism”?), as well as male dating conduct (codified dating rules, and academic “courts” manned by devotees of Andrea Dworkin, enforced judgments with totalitarian, steel-fisted, zeal). Trendy theory would eventually spawn a hodgepodge of wackiness, which spread political correctness from kindergarten to graduate school.
I taught photography at an “urban” college, held the rank of professor, and was tenured. I loved making photographs, exhibited my pictures internationally, and believed I lived in a free country. By 1982, I’d sold hundreds of pictures, owned a winter and a summer Porsche, and at 40, purchased my first house—a 16-room fixer-upper (my darkroom was as big as the apartment in Brooklyn in which I’d grown up). Life now was far from tough.
However, I found my pictures and job under continual attack. I adopted George Herbert’s notion, deciding that living well would be the best revenge. The left controlled the arts and humanities in academe. Dissociating myself from the S.P.E. seemed prudent. Much like Br’er Rabbit after he’d been tossed into the brier patch, I’d live as comfortably as possibly among academe’s flaccid thorns.
Since the early 1980’s—my free speech protected by tenure, and the Constitution of the United States—I’ve inhabited a gobbledygook-free zone, enjoying the knowledge that my pictures changed the practice of art-photography. In the ‘90s, I enthusiastically embraced Photoshop, computers, scanners, and ink jet printing. I steer clear of delusional malcontents.
An epilog: The deceased radical-feminist-activist, Andrea Dworkin, excreted hateful aphorisms: “Heterosexual intercourse is the pure, formalized expression of contempt for women’s bodies;” “Romance is rape embellished with meaningful looks;” and “The only good man is a dead man.” (Francois de La Rochefoucald said: “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”) In a June 6th, 2005, New York Magazine article, titled, “The Prisoner of Sex,” Ariel Levy, its self-proclaimed feminist author, offered the upshot for Dworkin and her movement—the radical movement behind the attacks on my pictures. Ms. Levy wrote, “With the possible exception of the Shakers, it is difficult to think of an American movement that has failed more spectacularly than anti-pornography feminism.” Pornography is now, “…a source of inspiration for all of popular culture…”
I deplore pornography; and am not a prude. I believe Ms. Levy’s assessment of Dworkin’s failed ideology is correct. However, only a misguided, double-tracking New York progressive would characterize pornography as “a source of inspiration.” The only thing pornography seems to inspire is masturbation.
While supporting Dworkin’s agitprop, liberal print media discovered that porn’s sensationalism attracted a larger audience. The prospect of larger audiences, and increased profits, quickly modified media’s hack formula: If it bleeds it leads. All manner of tits, ass, vile language, and retarded behavior have been added to the fires, floods, and mayhem broadcast and published daily as entertainment.
I had an idea that photography could be other than propaganda inspired by Socialist Realist art. Photography was politicized in the 1930s, used by the left to promote social engineering and attack capitalism. I might not have realized this if I’d studied with activist teachers who man (or wofem) photography’s collegiate barricades, and indoctrinate future activist photographers. By the mid-1960s, the millions of photographs made of ghettos and wars had failed to bring about a Marxist revolution in America…or change much. Serious photography, narrowly defined by a handful of powerful leftist curators, picture editors, and critics, had devolved into the intractably moribund, the terminally tedious. In contrast, other areas of art were experiencing -ism after -ism of “innovation.” In the 1950’s, New York City had become the center of the art world. In 1968, the Witkin Gallery was the only photography gallery in New York City. Art galleries and many artists did not consider photography to be art. This has changed in the last 48 years.
Fractured fairy tales (a phrase coined for certain Hanna-Barbera cartoons), is an apt term to use to describe some of my pictures. Early on, it seemed important to underscore that a photographic image is always a fiction. My early work fused the plebeian character of conceptual art’s subjects, materials, and methods, with photography. Satirizing leftist photographers’ practice eventually marginalized “activist” photographers who had corrupted and ghettoized photography, establishing broader manners of expression.
Digital equipment was much more expensive a dozen years years ago. Printers and cameras now cost a fraction of what they once did, and are much much better. “Workers” can now afford and own the means of production. A student can make technically perfect photographic images and prints with a few months of training. Affordable equipment, and a more receptive environment for photography created a photography workers paradise. Capitalism, not communism, made this possible.
Making visually and intellectually entertaining pictures, unconstrained by what’s now euphemistically called progressive ideology, appealed to me in the mid-1960s. William Hogarth’s pictures, William F. Buckley’s needling of “crypto-fascists,” and Tom Wolfe’s shrewd assessments of the art world nourished and honed my sensibilities.
My pictures may be part of a large set of related pictures, or single-image works, without siblings. “A Marxist View…” for example, took over a year of adjusting and testing; “Les Krims Performing Aerosol Fiction,” was made in an afternoon. Complex is not inherently better than simple.
Entertained by Ansel Adams’ waggish analogy of different interpretations of a negative to the evolving performance of a musical score, I occasionally scan an older negatives and use Photoshop and other imaging applications to re-imagine and perfect these. All pictures I make using a digital camera are massaged in Photoshop. I’ve always tried to “spin” a picture using a “title.” Some titles, now take the form of short fictional stories or rants, which conjure transparently propagandistic works, and parody standard, liberal, media practice.
“Satire Inspired by Wishful Thinking, the Culture Wars, and the Left’s [She]nanigans,” is an apt banner for this presentation, the pictures I’ve selected, and the times in which these pictures were made.
—Les Krims, The George Eastman House, September 8, 2010. Edited: 2.23.2015
The Spirit Of The $50 Print After Death
In 1977, George Eastman House held a charity print auction—actually, fund raising print auction is the phrase that was used. In fact, George Eastman House was the charity, and photographer/artists from all over the country were called upon to donate their pictures for the cause. A catalog was printed and mailed to thousands of people. The artists contacted were asked to designate a minimum bid for their work below which the work could not be purchased. Few did. A suggested price for each picture was printed in the catalogue, based on current retail for those artists who had sold work through a gallery. For those whose work and names were less known, a price was set by the curatorial staff at George Eastman House.
Analysis of the auction revealed a curious logic: artists would be donating work to an auction where the money raised would, in part, be used to purchase the work of some of those very same artists (the museum world’s version of a perpetual motion mechanism). This led to some interesting questions: What if the artists whose work didn’t sell (and another question was: Would anything sell?) were those who subsequently had work purchased by the museum? And suppose those that did sell at the auction did not have work purchased? Could the museum justify paying $350 per print to an artist whose work sold for $50 each in the auction, or didn’t sell at all? What would people pay for contemporary work? And what would those prices indicate? Was there any intelligent comparison of price possible between a photographic print and other art? Was this comparison appropriate? If this first auction failed, would a future market for photography be likely?
The 1977 auction would have to be called a smashing financial success, with much work selling at or near retail. However, a good deal of work did not sell. (It should be noted that most artists set extremely low minimum bids in this first auction—or no minimum bid—in the spirit of the idea that making some money for George Eastman House was the charitable goal.) Over $75,000 was realized in this first auction. Part of the money was used to match a grant form the National Endowment for the Arts, specifically earmarked for the purchase of contemporary work—the rationale for the auction in the first place. I believe few expected this first auction to be such a success. However, since it was, a plan was formulated to do it again.
In the 1978 auction, artists would receive 50% of the purchase price for their work. For the first time, the artist stood a chance to make some money. A second difference was in addition to mail bids a live auctioneer would perform at a real auction held in the Dryden Theater, at George Eastman House. Given the frenzy of such events, who knew how much money could be raised this time?
Rochester, New York, is not a community known for its avaricious art market. Therefore, to insure there would be any people at all in the Dryden Theater to whip up the bidding frenzy, dealers, collectors, curators, and galleries from the United States, Canada & Europe, were invited to attend what was now being called “Photographic Collecting Past & Present in the United States, Canada & Europe”—one aspect of which would be the auction. Nothing like this had happened before.
How many collectors would make the trip to Rochester when they could bid by mail, buy directly from the artist (probably for the minimum bid indicated), or buy from a gallery? What would people do for three days or more, in this city that was the home, the enshrinement, of 18% gray? How many curators of photography were there? Five? Would galleries buy from each other? What new material or information would be available?
As some might have expected, the main reason for attending—when there was a reason at all—was what could metaphorically be viewed as onanistic. Curators would talk about their own collections: their vested interest. The gallery people would do the same. And since most collectors were also dealers on one level or another, they could talk to themselves. The local press would carry the news of this glorious event.
The catalogue, which preceded this gathering by a few months, provided some interesting information if carefully read and compared to the catalogue for the previous auction: Almost all the artists had placed their minimum bid figures at, or above, what their profit would be if that sale were made through a gallery. If, as many assumed, this year’s auction would be an even bigger success than last year’s, the least the artist wanted to make was the normal gallery cut—a fairly healthy and intelligent desire.
That lovely logic led one to an interesting conclusion: there were few bargains to be had in the 1978 auction. The artists wanted some money this year (a reasonable desire, considering it was supposedly for their benefit). The dealers, curators, collectors, and galleries had to foot their own bills for travel expenses, and a $40 per head registration fee. Additionally, dealers and galleries were required to rent tables set-up throughout the galleries of George Eastman House, so that for three glorious money-filled days they could do business in the temple…again. Aside from an occasional surreptitious purchase designed for publicity (e.g., $600 for the purchase of a contemporary picture available for half of that either from the artist or a gallery), one could speculate that little money for contemporary work would flow from this group. The galleries already represented most of the artists, and the curators and collectors already had acquired their one or two “seminal” pictures by these artists for their collections (purchased in many instances for the cost of a good meal, and the ego gratification of being represented in a “museum” collection).
Fortunes had been made with historic material—“old paper,” as it was known in the antiques trade. Find and buy an interesting daguerreotype for $5 (as was possible through even the mid-‘70s) at an obscure flea market, and if you were lucky and shrewd, it might one day sold it for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. On a less grand scale, these were the kinds of percentage increases in investments dealers were accustomed to making. A tintype bought for a quarter, and sold for $8, has made a 3,200% profit—minus the original quarter. The maker was dead, so he couldn’t pester the dealer about shows, sales, or the disappearance of the artist’s last consignment. Interpretation was up for grabs. Material—at least through the end of the 1960s—was plentiful (what living artist would sell you a picture for 25¢?); lots of quarters could be turned at 3,200%, 6,000%, and more. This was in contrast to the usual (and by comparison—meager) 40%, or 50% of retail a dealer could make on contemporary material, sometimes selling for a similar amount. The ever-escalating percentages (those lovely numbers) being paid for historic material provided much more exciting dreams. So, at an auction and print collecting symposium where contemporary material constituted the bulk of the work, and few bargains were available, this group—notorious for diverting money from more speculative, difficult to sell contemporary work, to safe, historic investments, for the reasons already outlined—seemed conditioned to respond to a stimulus in short supply. Might what so clearly seemed the Rumpelstiltskin-like conditioning of old paper for over a decade be stimulated (those big numbers) using different material—contemporary photographs? It certainly seemed an appropriate time to see.
Aside from a handful of older artists (Calahan, Syskind, Adams, Sommer) who made deals to sell their archives—or, in Adams’ case, had sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work to a few galleries at prices below wholesale, promising not to re-print, and effectively ending the once never-ending flow of his “classics” (over 900 copies of one of Adams’ pictures can be documented)—few younger artists ever had work purchased outright by galleries, and few sold more than a handful of pictures a year. The work of younger artists was held by galleries on “consignment,” and primarily used as a diversion—an entertainment—while they paid the bills merchandising/investing in the old paper or blue-chip commodities the dealers proffered, with which dealers fulfilled their dreams of multiplying numbers. Even though some dealers liked the work of younger artists, the money to be made with the work of copyright-free, dead artists was irresistible (VINTAGE). The small establishment of curators and historians who specialized in photography often felt the new work was a threat to their narrow beliefs (and it often was); many just didn’t understand it. When advice was sought, as it often was, by people beginning to collect photography, experts touted historic material often keeping the best for themselves.
In 1978, after ten years of exhibiting and publishing with regularity, my standard print price for an 8”x10” contact print was $350. I didn’t sell many, but I did as well as most of my peers. In my experience, almost all art students in graduate school majoring in photography asked, and occasionally received, anywhere from $50 (considered a low price) to over $150 per print. This was for work which was—at least at that point in their careers—generally derivative or an overt plagiarism (not unusual phenomena among graduate art students). A graduate student could keep the entire $150 for a sale. When a picture of mine sold through a gallery for $350, I received 50%, or $175. Effectively, our work sold for about the same amount.
In early 1978, I decided that I wanted to begin enlarging 8”x10” negatives. To do this I needed an 8”x10” enlarger, and wanted a nitrogen-burst development system to process negatives. I would also need a darkroom. Not having been a graduate student for many years, I did not have access to an 8”x10” enlarger and would have to buy my own. I had to raise between $10,000 and $12,000.
By 1978, I’d been making pictures for a rhapsodic work I called “Academic Art: 1975—1978.” The work consisted of a number of “sets” of pictures. Each set was assembled by combining one picture from 10, different, groups of pictures. All of the sets exhibited together formed the finished work. Few in the photography community understood the intent of the satire. Where could 80 prints be exhibited? Who would be interested in a set, when even the sale of one print was unusual? In an attempt to sell these pictures, I suggested to the director of LIGHT Gallery (LIGHT represented my work in 1978), that if he’d contact LIGHT’s list of clients, I’d sell the sets to LIGHT for $500 per set ($50 per print). Even if LIGHT doubled the price to retail them, I thought some would sell.
My idea was ignored.
On the first day of the Eastman House symposium, before I began to sell prints, I again offered the idea to Peter MacGill, and Larry Miller, LIGHT’s representatives at the symposium. They refused to represent and sell my work at the symposium.
I drove from Buffalo to attend “Photographic Collecting Past & Present in the United States, Canada, & Europe.” in my 1976, canary yellow, 911 Porsche, on a gloomy October day, carrying 23 pictures in a cardboard case, from “Academic Art: 1975—1978,” and a new 11-print work called “PLEASE!” The bait was the $50 print, but the hook was what I’d suggested to LIGHT: a minimum purchase of 10 prints—any 10 from the Academic Art group—for $500. The 11-print set of “PLEASE!” was $400, or $36.36 per print (36/36 being two of my mother’s most curvaceous measurements). “PLEASE!” had been made specifically to be sold at the symposium as a charity piece: my mother photographed in the dusty industrial areas of Buffalo, pretending to beg, wearing a two-piece bikini, carrying a tin cup of yellow pencils, a blind man’s cane, and a card stuck to her forehead which said PLEASE! These pictures were made to sell at G.E.H to provide money for her old age—a charity benefitting a real person rather than an institution, literally offered in the context of another notion of charity.
I thought I might sell four sets. The pictures were good, I wasn’t a graduate student, and the price couldn’t have been better. After ten years of exhibiting in this country, Europe, and Japan, a few collectors might purchase a set.
By the end of the first day, I’d sold seventeen sets. By the end of the symposium over forty sets were sold, and a deal struck with Rick Koopman, a private collector, to purchase all 50 sets in the edition of “PLEASE!” I sold more pictures than the auction.
The pace of sales was frenetic. Some bought more than one set; some asked me to wait while they called a client and doubled their money for the cost of a call. The phenomenon of doing so much business seemed a realization of some dealers’ own dreams, yet it wasn’t their stock that was selling, and their envy or hate was uncontrolled and obvious. At least two prominent dealers called me a prostitute while handing me a check for a set of pictures. Someone ripped open a gash on the side of my Porsche, which was parked in the Eastman House lot, from headlight to the taillight.
Robert Doherty, Director of George Eastman House at that time, was very kind (as were Roger Bruce and Marianne Margolis). He liked my entrepreneurial spirit, and introduced me to a number of collectors who purchased work, even though I noticed him wince when I opened my case to show the work on the floor (his patience was great).
There have been a number of interesting results from those exciting three days. In the last two years certain galleries have offered to buy $50 pictures from the artists they represent. LIGHT even offered me a megabuck, three year, $50-a-print tax advantage scheme. But I no longer sell $50 prints.
The most interesting results of this event are this limited-edition folio of new pictures, and the new darkroom built to produce them. The folio’s title, “IDIOSYNCRATIC PICTURES,” personifies the pictures, the method employed to acquire the equipment to make them, and the spirit of other work I’ve done. This is my most ambitious portfolio project to date, and I’m convinced it’s my most beautiful and effective. This folio updates the spirit and tradition of the $50 print: good work, at a reasonable price, from an independent artist.
Buffalo, New York, July 1980