David Levi Strauss is a writer who looks deeply into the dark realities of our world, providing analysis that is both sensitive and urgent. Through four collections of essays—Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia, 1999), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (Aperture, 2003), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), and the new book—he closely examines images and objects, how they construct our lives and shape our politics. His newest work, Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow: Essays on the Present and Future of Photography (Aperture, 2014) is a major intervention in contemporary discourse on photography and political representation. He met with Jarrett Earnest to discuss this new book at the School of Visual Arts, where he chairs the M.F.A. program in Art Criticism & Writing.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): You write about images and about the relationship between words and images. That image-text dyad is unstable—it can do multiple things at the same time. I always supposed your artful navigation of this relates to your training as a poet. How did you become a poet dealing with images?
David Levi Strauss: Well, one of the secrets is that they came together. I started writing poetry early on in Kansas—blame it all on Rimbaud—but at the same time I was taking pictures and went to school to study photography at Goddard College and the Visual Studies Workshop, which at that time was the best school for photographic studies. There I was putting words and images together, and trying to figure out how to do that without the images “illustrating” the text, and without the text “explaining” the images. I wanted to have this third thing happen between the two, what William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin called “the third mind.”
Rail: The type of language associated with that kind of image/text work is often the technical language of conceptual art, but I remember seeing a letter you wrote to Bill Berkson in the ’80s in which you said, “I am a lyric poet.” What did it mean to say you were a “lyric” poet?
Strauss: It was a perverse thing to say in San Francisco in the ’80s because it immediately branded you as being resistant to the dominant formalism. It came also from the great poet Robert Duncan, who I was studying with in the Poetics Program. Duncan went out of his way to use terms that were forbidden in accepted avant-garde discourse—he called himself a “Romantic poet,” and a “derivative poet.” Benjamin Hollander and I did an issue of ACTS, the literary journal I edited and published, called “Analytic Lyric”—that sort of gets into the thing you are talking about where the lyric can be analytic as well, but it was meant to be a provocation.
Rail: Did that lineage of the “Romantic” influence the kind of interventions you wanted to make in this book, in understanding representations of suffering?
Strauss: This also has a history. There was a critique of documentary photography that happened in the ’70s and ’80s that made it nearly impossible to talk about representations of suffering because it was an “aestheticization of suffering.” At the time, I wondered why the aesthetic was seen to be such a toxic thing. This book is an update of that, where I ask if such critiques are valid any more, and come to the conclusion that they aren’t. The extension of that critique is that you cannot represent other people and their suffering, and I don’t want to live in a world where that is not happening. One of the things that photography has always been able to do is to register a relationship between the person behind and in front of the camera. Even though that is not a straight line to empathy, solidarity, and political change, for a long time in photography it was part of that, and that didn’t just go away. This relationship and our discussions of it have changed, partly because our communications environment has changed so much. The way documentary happens changed, and the way we receive images changed. A number of the photographers I talk about in the book are engaged in this and know the stakes involved are too high to abandon this urge. Making these kinds of images and getting them distributed has become harder for a lot of structural and economic reasons, but I think it’s also become more important than ever.
Rail: In art, the aestheticization of suffering critique emerged from a certain type of postmodern theory; your book is working through our present moment in the waning light of postmodern art criticism. You quote photographer Susan Meiselas in your essay on her: “It seems to me that if history is working against context, then we must, as artists, work all the harder to reclaim that context.” I want to have a fuller sense of how you situate this book in that context.
Strauss: In her book, The Cruel Radiance, Susie Linfield talks about writers on photography who have “responded to the postmodern critique without succumbing to it,” and she lists me as one of them. Postmodern critiques of representation were rigorous and substantive, and were absolutely necessary at the time. But, it wasn’t sufficient and it became absorbed as a partially-digested given. I have new students coming in now who are 22 or 23 years old who just accept the conclusions of the postmodern critique of representation without question. Those conclusions form the assumptions that they have, some of which need to be confronted and questioned for the simple reason that they are assumptions. I think that there were conclusions reached in postmodernism about the nature of our relation to images that were false conclusions. As time went on my ideas about the actual effect of images and our engagement with them changed. A lot of those earlier theories predicted a world that never happened. I would like to open up that kind of discussion again based on actually looking at images and their effects. I look to what happened with 9/11 as a turning point for the way images work that was very different than what we had been led to believe it was going to be by postmodernism. We are bound by images in a way that I’m increasingly certain goes back long before the invention of technical images—back to a time when images were seen not to be “representations” but “emanations.” That set up our relation to technical images when they were invented 200 years ago, because they were seen to be acheiropoietic, not made by hand, but as an actual reflection of the real. They are not this, but we have always acted as if they are.
Rail: One thing that seems remarkable for someone studying image culture is the ability to see the rate at which these images are disseminated, which is information that could change our understanding of how images affect political and social life. But on that note, I appreciate that you never fetishize the technological over the social in the book.
Strauss: I think Hans Belting’s Likeness and Presence (1993) was one of those works that really took on the task of saying that you had to focus on the psychology of the reception of images. I was teaching the history of photography at N.Y.U. when 9/11 happened and all photography programs at that time were going through a change to “photography and imaging” because they recognized this thing happening with the digital image was very different. I said from the beginning that if you are going to talk about “imaging,” you have to go back to the history of images, long before the invention of technical images, certainly to the caves and iconoclastic movements, how it’s always been connected to religion and belief, and how the church had to deal with images. They didn’t want to, but they had to because images had such a tremendous impact on their people. I’m continually reminded that beliefs don’t go away; they just get transferred onto other things.
Rail: Your book begins with a series of case studies on individual photographers, some of whom are photojournalists and some of whom are fine artists. I think a lot of people who are involved with larger political discussions discard the fine arts because so few people, comparatively, are looking at them. How do you see the importance of artists within the huge sea of images?
Strauss: I was trained in the history of photography. I had good teachers, so I really learned that history, but it very quickly became clear that that wasn’t going to be enough, because I wanted to write about the social—I had to go beyond art photography to do that. There were different factions within the art photography world, including a strong strain of anti-intellectualism, but I also found exceptions to it like Frederick Sommer, coming out of a very rich intellectual tradition in Europe that he didn’t abandon when he moved into American art photography.
A number of the people I’m focusing on in this book, like Susan Meiselas, had to deal with this transition in their practice. She started as a documentary photographer—the first book was Carnival Strippers (1972 – 75)—then worked as a photojournalist in Nicaragua and El Salvador and around the world. She began from a strong social-documentary framework. Then she had to take cognizance of the fact that for her work to be seen the way she wanted it to be, she had to take control. As a photojournalist, when you send images to TIME or whoever, you let them decide how to present them, with what text and next to what ads. In response, Meiselas began to do books and then to be courted by the art world and to show in galleries and museums, so it got more complicated.
Rail: In several of your chapters, the gallery and commercial art contexts seem to bring trouble you don’t engage in. For instance, in the essay on Jenny Holzer’s LUSTMORD (1993) you discuss the work as it appeared in the Friday supplement to the main Munich newspaper; you mention there was a strong critique of the show at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, which was an extension of the same project, without going into it. Instead, you say “I can stand up for this original instance,” and leave it at that.
Strauss: For the purposes of what I was trying to do, I wanted to talk about the initial way it was operating in the public realm. I thought getting into the question of the Gladstone show would bring me somewhere else. It’s almost another thing entirely. But I do respond to the critique of the gallery show by Laura Cottingham.
Rail: In terms of how these images function, what is the difference between a show in a gallery space, a book, or online, among other formats?
Strauss: Those audiences can be very different. The exigencies of the art market and how it’s set up economically and socially structures the response, and if you are going to work within it you have to deal with those structures. Alfredo Jaar is someone who I’ve worked with a lot and I think he’s very good at negotiating that terrain, doing gallery shows where everything is constructed for it, to critique it in a way that operates within it. Jaar’s work always has several parts to it: a public part, a gallery part, and an educational part. He has responded to those differences very well.
Rail: Maybe I am asking this in a perverse way, but in the discipline of art history now, all anyone wants to talk about is “exhibition history,” which seems to me not about art—in fact it’s a way of not talking about art. I wonder what the function of the gallery show is. I think there is an important aspect of people seeing something in public together, beyond that is it destructive as a device to the artistic project itself, as in the case of LUSTMORD.
Strauss: I think it certainly can be, and that it’s harder and harder for younger artists who don’t have the history or experience to negotiate. If you are dealing with technical images, moving and still, you have to figure out how to do that. Often the moves can be clumsy. When people started showing video works in galleries they put a black box in a white box. People tried to figure out different ways to construct these black boxes—how to manage the seating, how to manage the flow—and it was pretty clumsy. I think what you say, that talking about the history of exhibition is a way of not talking about the art, is actually the case in a lot of ways. A good part of the art world is currently intent on not talking about the art, because talking about the art is very hard. The task of criticism is a difficult one, and it takes a lot of time. I always think of Leo Steinberg in this context, who described the position of the critic as a ridiculous one: the art was made by an artist who may have taken years to make it, and you’ve got an hour or two to see it, and a short time to write about it, on deadline.
Rail: Did you begin by writing criticism for Artweek in San Francisco?
Strauss: No, when I was at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester I started writing for their journal Afterimage—those were the first attempts. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about this before but I do remember that at the time I was writing poetry mostly and when I started writing criticism it didn’t work, it just felt awful.
Rail: In what sense?
Strauss: The two were at odds in me and it felt like I was killing something with every word, and I had to stop writing criticism for a time. Gradually, I found a way to live with that initial conflict. I started out as a poet and now I’m an essayist and that is a big change, although at a certain point the separation between them became less stark. I’ve become an essayist, and the essay form has been very good to me. There are very few limitations to what one can do in this form. That is why I’ve published four books of essays. It’s like short stories as opposed to a novel: I try to go as far as I can in each essay, to do as much as I can, and then it’s over, and I go on to the next. When I put together this book of essays, it took a long time because I wanted it to have a solid coherent structure, to make sense as a whole, and not be disjunctive. In that way I think about it like I did when I was a poet: poets write poems and then put together collections of poems that are consciously formed, but they are not necessarily written in sequence and they are not written as a whole for the most part. And that is how I think of a book of essays.
Rail: What were you writing about in San Francisco?
Strauss: Lots of things. The first thing I wrote about was music because I was part of the punk scene, and I was writing for the first punk magazine Search & Destroy, and later for RE/SEARCH, which allowed me to do these projects about tattoos and body modification and pranks. For Artweek and then for Artforum, I was mostly writing reviews of photography because that was what I knew, and then I began to do catalogue essays, which allowed more experimentation and scope.
Rail: The way that photography has often been discussed is to talk about the subject or content of the image without discussing the aesthetic dimensions in the way you might in a painting; I don’t find the formal problems in photography to be compelling, which has always made it difficult for me. When you write about abstraction, like with Martin Puryear or Dorothea Rockburne, do you feel like you’re writing from a different place, or as a different self, than when you wrote this book?
Strauss: It’s a different language; a different vocabulary. Right now I’m writing more about painting than anything else, partly because I think what is happening in abstract painting at this moment is amazing. I think there is a lot of energy in abstract painting right now, and that’s surprising. In something I wrote for Gary Stephan’s catalogue for his show at Susan Inglett in March, I tried to grapple with where this is coming from, and I think it’s partly a response to our screenal world, where everything is flattened out, and people are really hungry for a different kind of more mobile looking. Leon Golub was one of the people I talked to the most about this. When you are looking at a painting, your body and eyes move; you have to move to see it and that changes everything. In a photographic image, the image is static and your moving around doesn’t really affect it. I’ve always known painters—my wife, Sterrett Smith, is a painter; my daughter, Maya Strauss, is a painter—and I hung out with painters in San Francisco and now in New York. Since I’m not a painter, in talking with them I realized I didn’t have their vocabulary, especially their color language, which is a fascination of mine now. There is a lot to know about color and you have to acquire that vocabulary. I think you can divide art critics between those who have a color language and those who don’t, and most don’t.
Rail: Most of the things you write about here are reproductions, usually hand-held in book form. Not long ago every gallery was filled with huge photographic prints, which I feel I can’t look at—I’ll walk in and turn to leave. How does scale work differently in photographs than in painting?
Strauss: It’s very different. I remember the moment you’re describing, where you walked through Chelsea and it was one big photograph after another. These things come in waves, but at that point it was just bigger is better for the market, and too often it just becomes a surrogate for ambition that is outside the requirements of the images. It’s a cliché in art school that they want to you scale up just to see what happens—and things do happen, and if you pay attention, you will find out things that are useful to you as an artist.
Rail: Something I thought was an underlying thread of the book had to do with ventriloquism: what it means to speak through images and who has the right to speak with whose voice. You start on this note by saying:
Wanting to hear each other’s stories is an embarrassment because it means we’ve already lost something. Telling someone else’s story puts oneself in an almost untenable position. How dare you put yourself in that position! And yet, without the risk, so much would again be lost.
There is a lot throughout the book that echoes and amplifies this idea, and has to do with how “narrative” is working right now.
Strauss: Well that chapter is called “An Amplitude That Information Lacks,” which is the core of what I think about storytelling. I go back to Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” where he goes into what a story really is, and what the stakes are, and I think that is something even more important now, when everything is treated as “information.” When you treat words and images as information, those other parts of it—the storytelling, the aesthetic, even meaning and significance—go away. This is the position we’re in now, where images are seldom fixed, they are always moving, they are in transit, which is what information does—it doesn’t want to be “free” (I’ll never forgive Stewart Brand for that), but it does want to move. To tell a story, you have to slow everything down.
Rail: You have to change time.
Strauss: Yeah, and that is embarrassing. And it’s embarrassing to try to talk for someone else. I always think of Craig Owens here, who said, quoting Deleuze on Foucault, that there is a certain “indignity in speaking for others.” Owens’s writing is so useful, and had more purchase on these questions of representation than most other postmodern theory, because he never closed down these questions. This embarrassment is a very real thing and I don’t think it’s good to avoid embarrassment or to run away from it, because when it happens, it means you are getting close to someplace where there’s something really at stake. I am drawn to that risk and to that danger.
Rail: Writing about Robert Bergman you said “each new generation of image makers finds fresh ways to make human cruelty visible.” That seems like an interesting way to write the history of images. What are significant changes you’ve witnessed in representations of cruelty?
Strauss: Just recently I came upon a limit for me. The artist and filmmaker George Gittoes was with the Australian section of the U.N. force that was in Kibeho, the camp where the Rwandan refugees were taken and where a second genocide happened, in much the same way as the first, although the roles were reversed. This was in April 1995. Many, many people died there, and George saw and photographed it. We were in Houston and he came to me and said, “I want to show you these images.” He had a stack of them and he showed them to me, and I couldn’t do it. I’m not even going to describe them to you; they were so horrific. There was a part of me that was angry at George for showing them to me and for having made them, so it got inside that question of representing cruelty for me, uncovering again these questions I thought I had answered for myself. Those images are seared into my brain now, and took me all the way back to being a child just old enough to read when I found a file of images from the Nazi death camps—bodies being moved around with bulldozers. I didn’t know what it represented, quite, because I didn’t know that history yet, but I knew they were important documents of human cruelty. It changed me. Something shifted. There is a deep human need to make a connection. I was not in Rwanda, I did not see that, but I need to know about it and there is a way you can only know about it by seeing it, at least seeing images of it. Seeing is believing. There is no shortage of subject matter for looking at human cruelty, it’s going on all over the world and continues, and we’ve lived through some signal examples of it. George was acting as a witness and he takes that job and role very seriously, and so I had to look again at my responses. Again, I don’t want to live in a world where these kinds of images are not being made, as long as these things are happening in the world.
Rail: You are almost always calling to see more images, or against redacted images and the decision to withhold images of the dead body of Osama bin Laden, for instance. You also don’t seem to believe that seeing images of violence or suffering desensitizes us to it.
Strauss: That question also has a history. My last Aperture book, Between the Eyes, came out in 2003 at the same time as Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she revisited her previous views about the anaesthetizing effect of horrific photographs. She revised her view and I agreed with her down the line on that; I don’t believe people become anaesthetized to the extent that we used to think. You see it in the book, that is why I am almost always advocating for more rather than fewer images. The historical record shows clearly that if you try to suppress images, they will come back to haunt you. This is the history of iconoclasm—it really doesn’t work. There are things that people will not accept and will not believe unless they see an image of it. That is so deeply embedded in the human response to the visible world and the world of appearances and the world inside our heads that this is not going to change. The trouble is that these responses are often unconscious, way below the surface, and beyond what is easily accessed, which is what makes images so powerful and so able to control us.
Rail: Would you say you believe human beings are innately cruel?
Strauss: It certainly appears so. As Benjamin said, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” It’s deeply human not because it’s out there somewhere else and we can’t understand it, but because it’s here and we live with it and we find ways to respond to it in ourselves. That is why we put these people in the position to make these images for us, and I don’t think it’s acceptable to recognize that and then turn away from it when it horrifies us, as if that is the solution. Or to condemn the people who are making the images as “vultures,” as people said of Kevin Carter. What we need to do is confront it and make some images and words that try to deal with it.
Rail: Were you always political?
Rail: Was that always tied to your engagements with poetry and photography?
Strauss: Well, I think it came before even that. I was always in trouble in elementary school for questioning authority. I was asked to leave high school for publishing an underground newspaper. I was asked to leave college because of my political organizing. I don’t know where that came from, but it’s always been there. Dealing with this in words and images was my only way out.
Rail: I’m really interested in your essay on Carolee Schneemann’s Terminal Velocity (2001), which consists of photographs of people jumping out of the World Trade Center buildings, and which received an extremely negative response.
Strauss: We’ve had this relationship for a long time, where Carolee will ask me to come over to the studio to tell her what I think of the work she’s doing. She did that with Terminal Velocity in December 2001 and I said, “It’s too soon to show this work; this is an open wound.” She didn’t take my advice, and she got slammed when she showed it; people said this was exploitation, that it was cruel. But that didn’t make any difference to her. As I say in the piece, it went against a fundamental belief of hers, which is that the time to treat the wound is when the wound is open and fresh.
Rail: I love the idea that “going too far is an aesthetic and ethical strategy.”
Strauss: It is with Carolee. It is an aesthetic, ethical, and political position, and I respect her for it.
Rail: In your essay on Chris Marker, you write:
The first amnesia machine was writing, and now images have joined in forgetting. Each successive storage medium (for both words and images) is less stable than the one that preceded it, so we are losing our memories at an exponential rate as we move into the future. In an age of Total Information Awareness, wherein we are able to capture and “mine” more and more particles of information, we have become less and less able to digest or act on this information. Total Information Awareness = Zero Agency.
I wonder what part images play in our ability to have commonality, in our experiences and our conversations.
Strauss: Communication technologies change. There have been revolutions in these technologies before. Vilém Flusser says that we created technical images and then we forgot that we made them. With the Internet and with new social media, we forget that we made these things and we can change them. It’s not some outside force that is doing this to us. We make decisions every day about it. When you step back and look at it, it is very strange that we have set up these outside memory storage systems that get more and more elaborate and more and more unstable. The “cloud” can go away. There is a factor of social amnesia about the whole thing—something we are trying to forget. Usually, in human history, when big changes happen there is a memory dump, there is a time of forgetting. People now are busy forgetting, like we are being prepared for something. Total Information Awareness was a term that was used in the past, and then everyone forgot about it, but it turns out it was happening on a much larger scale than we thought with the NSA—they don’t call it that anymore but that is what it is. There are big political questions coming up every day regarding what we are going to do with this stuff. We are just now waking up to the fact that the cost for this vast search capability and access is our personal privacy. As we search for information, GoogleAppleFacebookAmazon is collecting information from us. They have told us for years that information wants to be free, but it turns out that this data, our data, is worth a fortune to the consumer-security state.
Rail: Do you think the failure to have major substantive discussions about issues like the N.S.A. is a failure of image-making?
Strauss: Partly. I really believe in the power of art and I think artists have a tremendous responsibility. Because, for the moment, art is one of the only places you can actually still deal with these things in an open and free way—it hasn’t all been ruined. I think it is the artist’s responsibility to do that, to raise these questions and interrogate these assumptions.
As David Graeber said, Occupy was not a failure. It did what we intended to do, which was to show that things could be different. That is not nothing. Again it gets into our relationship to images: we have to see something in order to know that it is possible. My dear teacher in San Francisco, the poet Diane di Prima, would always say, “There is only one war: the war against the Imagination.” If we can’t see it, we can’t get there.
Rail: Part of the question of cultural amnesia seems to be a question of education. You’ve been involved with famously radical spaces of learning, and now you’ve had the opportunity to completely construct a curriculum as the head of the Art Criticism and Writing graduate program at the School of Visual Arts. What do you think is possible in terms of education and how to approach art education now?
Strauss: I think almost anything is possible with education—that is where my idealism knows no bounds. When I was 19 years old, I went around the world on this floating university, and there was a guy there named John Elmendorf, of the New College of Sarasota, Florida, and he was a devotee of Paulo Freire, and that is what we read going around the world: critical pedagogy. Paulo Freire was the basis of the whole thing for me: if you change education, you change the world, and it works. I think of the classroom as the last free space, a radical zone. I’m continually excited by what happens in that room, because there are no rules. Well, there are a few rules, like preschool rules—you can’t bite other people—but other than that it’s wide open. I’m continually amazed by what happens in that room.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.David Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.