Duane Michals: ‘How photography lost its virginity on the way to the bank’

Duane Michals’ new book, Foto Follies, opens with row upon row of $100 notes continuing, perhaps significantly, off the page. On its reverse there is a backwards mirror image of an advertisement for an ‘All Star Cast Vaudeville’; it looks like a poster, but the impression is of looking back out through a window that bears the advert, that is, back out through the window of the vaudeville.

Continuing the metaphor, then, inside the book is the vaudeville, the glamour-centred stage show that, as we can see as we look in, is a dubious conflation of money and art.

The vaudeville presented in the book is ‘the art world’, or rather Michals’ amusing, morally motivated parodies of the art stars of contemporary photography. He mockingly re-imagines these photographers and their works, aiming to expose their pretentiousness. The underlying concern is suggested by the title, the dollar sign on the cover and the opening page: what is behind the photographer’s ‘artistic’ facade, for Michals, is their valuation of money over art.

By allowing the market to guide their work, artists inevitable compromise it. It is, ostensibly, this compromise that the book is criticising: the artistically (not personally) corrupting influence of money.

The parodies either take the form of mock pieces of art or criticism, or they address wider trends in the art world that relate to particularities (such as the Maxim: “Never trust any photograph so large it can only fit inside a museum”). In attacking artists through their work, Michals focuses his parodies on the ethics of art, not the ethics of social conduct, that is, on artworks as being part of a pretence, not on people as being pretentious.

Here is an example. The cover image, a white powdery dollar sign on a black background, is presented in the book as “From the Dandruff Portrait Series: Portraits of the Artist’s own Dandruff in the Manner of Vik Muniz by Jeff Koons.” Vik Muniz photographs pictures made from materials like wire, chocolate, sugar and rubbish.

Jeff Koons makes mundane objects out of alternative (but less unusual) materials (stainless steel rabbits etc). Here, Koons is caricatured as making money out of dandruff and presenting the product as art with an intimidating title.

My initial reaction was to love the parody for its brilliant double meaning and because, when you consider the superficiality of Koons’ carefully cultivated and extremely profitable public image, it is insightful and probably deserved. My response related this image of Koons’ work to the problems I have with the way he sells his work. I was not responding to a demonstration of a strictly artistic corruption by money: the way the art is sold is not the art, any issue taken with Koons’ methods of self-promotion is not an issue taken with his work.

This prompts two questions; does Michals’ parody critique the work, and is this critique based on personal or creative conduct? The critique is levelled at the work by implying a rough equality between its artistic worth and crudely organised dandruff, and again by suggesting that the principle behind the work is the organisational principle behind the dandruff: money.

Although the parody takes the form of a piece presented as being by Jeff Koons, his work does not actually feature in the parody, nor does the parody bear any relevant resemblance to Koons’ work.

The parody mocks the intentions behind the work by presenting an imaginary work that betrays these intentions.

For the parody to point out an artistic (and not merely a personal) corruption by money, the corrupting influence of money on art needs to be shown; a demonstration of the corrupting influence of money through art does not, in itself, do this; it just pretends it does.

Thus, the parody is a brilliant and insightful failure. In the book Michals’ takes a tone that doesn’t invite serious analysis. Its point is made in the first few pages, the rest of the book is a series of jokes at the expense of the guilty (and Michals himself features among them). Perhaps the title of the book is misleading: it does not show how photography lost its virginity on the way to the bank.

Any attempt to read it as if it does could undermine what is offered: entertaining parodies of modern art, after photography lost its virginity on the way to the bank.


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