Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, an exhibition at The Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, New York NY 10021, July 12 through November 27, 2016
Like the painter Francis Bacon and the illustrator Ralph Steadman, Diane Arbus’s photographic art has often been associated with the grotesque, the disconcerting, the alien. Her haunting photos of steely-pale-eyed identical twin girls, and of mentally handicapped women in Halloween costumes, are at once intensely humane and respectful of their subjects, yet eerily uncanny. Arbus, like her near contemporary, the otherwise very different Daily News photographer Weegee, seemed to be setting her viewers up for a decentering shock, just as she seemed to set up those whom she photographed for something which was as awkward and uncomfortable as it was revealing. She may have captured the souls of the ordinary folk that cross her lens by catching their eyes and making them deliberately pose for the camera on the spot, but their poses seem artless and unforced, their eyes meeting the camera either dead-on or slightly turned away, as if to say “let’s get this over with soon, okay?” Her photographs simultaneously attract and repel, and getting one to feel such ambivalence and strangeness is the still point of her artistic genius. She let ordinary people, places, and things show themselves as small scale events of uncanniness.
The ongoing exhibition at the new Met Breuer museum (the old Whitney building, the “one-eyed monster of Madison Avenue”) highlights 7 years of her work, from 1956 to 1962: two thirds of the photographs on view have never before been published or exhibited. Arbus’s technique on display at this exhibition differs in one immediately noticeable way from her more familiar, later images: Arbus used a 35mm camera until 1962, when she switched to a 2.25 inch Rolleiflex. Thus while her later photos are sharply focused with clean contrasts, her earlier photos are grainier, softer, and less jarring. But they still disconcert.
Some of the subject matter of this exhibition is familiar to students of Arbus: Coney Island, sideshow acts at the long-defunct Palisades Amusement Park, drag performers, corpses, and so on. These contexts are at once weird and very familiar. Coney Island is a good metaphor for Arbus’s sensibility, as it is simultaneously very everyday (at least to New York natives who make frequent summer pilgrimages there) and very odd. It may be a New Yorker’s cliché to describe Coney Island as a place of “seedy elegance”, but the description fits the place nicely – it is both humdrum and glittering, which is unsettling. There may be nothing exalted about a carnival “human pincushion” – one of the photos on exhibit at Met Breuer – and you could see one every day at the Coney Island Freak Show (or Hubert’s Museum, another NYC locale featured in Arbus’s work). But Arbus jars us out of our complacency: familiarity in her hands breeds not contempt, but something more like shock. We recognize our own selves in all the bizarre imagery, and what we see shakes us up. The disturbing and bizarre nature of her photos is not a bug: it’s a feature.
There were two sets of photographs at Met Breuer, however, that struck me as different terrain for Arbus. There were many photographs of motion pictures: theater goers staring raptly at a screen with the projector light looming up behind them, a photo of a drive-in theater with clouds showing on the screen, actors kissing, opening credits fading out, and so on. If photographic images make the world uncanny by freezing it, faking real movement as the cinema frames whiz by, Arbus’s filming of film makes us view both still and moving pictures as disarming in themselves. It’s uncanny how uncanny they are. Meta-uncanniness as form and content, if you will.
The other photos were taken in a very un-Arbus-ish locale: Disneyland in Anaheim, California. (Most of the other photos on exhibit were taken in New York City and environs.) Arbus’s take on Magic Kingdom 1.0 is devilishly brilliant: in keeping with her revealing the weirdness of the ordinary world that we are reluctant to acknowledge, she makes Disneyland look absolutely frightening. A nighttime shot of the newly constructed Cinderella’s castle, dimly lit and cast in stygian black-and-white, reveals it as utterly menacing. And a shot of fake boulders on huge dollies, probably being moved to a ride like the “Runaway Train” then in the process of being built, makes the rocks seem to be alien artifacts from outer space. Adults who have gone to either Disneyland or Disney World, kids in tow (or better yet, kids with adults in tow) will appreciate these images: there is a shock of recognition that, underneath all the Disneyesque pastiche “enchantment”, there lurks an aura of something terrifying, or at least something unsettling in its relentless, mechanical pursuit of a happiness more suited to animatronic robots than human beings. In these photographs Arbus pegs the dark side of the Disney sensibility better than anyone else I have viewed or read. I did not expect that moment of uncanniness.
Arbus’s photography raises philosophical questions about the proper aesthetic category in which to place her work, and the best standards with which to appraise it. Immanuel Kant frames this central issue best, I think. Kant, in The Critique of Judgment, famously distinguishes the beautiful from the sublime. Beauty is something you “get” fairly immediately and straightforwardly. Monet’s haystacks, The Mona Lisa, a bouquet of autumn chrysanthemums – these are beautiful insofar as they move us, aesthetically, through the understanding and imagination playing with the deliverances of perception. But the sublime goes beyond that. A violent thunderstorm, crashing surf, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, the Parthenon – these convey a power, an ineffable mysterium tremendum et fascinans that, unlike “mere” beautiful things, shake and disconcert us in a way that we cannot wrap our minds around.
It is tempting to place Arbus’s uncanny art in the “sublime” camp. It is art that de-centers rather than re-centers. But I do not think that is quite right. The Kantian sublime points to Reason, and the Freedom that Reason’s work, “The moral law within”, delivers. The “shock and awe” of the Kantian sublime points the way toward the teleology vouchsafed by Reason – it is a uncanniness that moves from the unsettling to the settling, toward a reasonable faith in God, Freedom, and Immortality. Arbus’s sublime, if you want to call it that, is nowhere near as grand. We are shocked in her art by the presence of the surreal in the ordinary, shocked from the ordinary to the extraordinary and then back again into the ordinary world, a world less of thunderstorms and Parthenons than the tremendum of Coney Island and the local drive-in. We stand in awe not of the majestic or transcendental, but of fighting couples and carnival freaks. Freaks like us. We are transported not to some radiant empyrean, but back to our frighteningly humdrum, and all-too-human selves, with all the ambiguity and ambivalence that implies.