Friday, May 27, 2005

Photographic Art, or Exploitation? Ethics and Photography

Last month I was in San Diego for a week's vacation, and managed to swing by the Museum of Photographic Art for a quick look at the exhibits. The two featured artists, photographers Andrea Modica and Edward Burtynsky, cover opposite genres; the former specializes in aesthetic social photodocumentaries while Burtnysky is a landscape photographer emphasizing environmental damage and destruction. Click on the links to get a view of their work.

I found Burtynsky's work appealing, although I learned about it before on the Web in an article by photographer Michael Reichmann (the article makes for great reading). Straightforward, technically superb, and visually appealing, his "industrial landscapes" are both beautiful and disturbing; beautiful in the mix of colors and textures, disturbing in that these aren't paintings and the destruction pictured is a real, and unfortunately, inevitable byproduct of our industrial civilization. Then again, my taste runs to the realistic when it comes to photography.

Modica's exhibition, on the other hand, was very disturbing. Not in the choice of her subject, per se, although photos from the Fountain, Colorado project (covering a community of indigent and migrant workers where the primary employment seems to be an abbatoir) are graphic. I felt her photographs were unfairly exploitative.

Modica's main body of work, the Treadwell Project, concerned a young girl named Barbara, one of fourteen children in an indigent family in upstate New York. Modica spent fifteen years visiting and photographing this family, and her pictures illustrate the metamorphasis, or rather the dissolution, of this person into a grossly overweight yound adult who finally succumbs to obesity-related diabetes. Only in America can the poor die of obesity, but her preventable death really was the result of ignorance.

Does the photographer have a responsibility to intervene if she observes harmful behavior, to say "Stop!" to her subject (or her subject's parents)? Most art critics would say, "No, in this situation the artist is responsible only for documenting events, and while she should be empathetic and respectful to her subjects she owes them nothing." Modica tells us that she did not compensate Barbara or her family for allowing her the privilege of photographing them for more than a decade, nor did they receive any part of the proceeds from Modica's prints, books, or exhibition payments. Modica doesn't tell us if she tried to intervene, to get the family to modify their behavior so that it would be less self-destructive. My guess is that, given the philosophy that the photographer is merely artist-observer, responsible only for the procurement of images with artistic merit, any intervention would be seen as interference, an unwarranted influence on a living experiment that would fatally flaw the outcome.

To me, however, seeing the stages of this person's life documented was less about art and more about voyeuristically documenting a train wreck. Yes, the prints were well-done and attractive both technically and aesthetically, with detail and tonality. But I couldn't get past the idea of the photographer observing this preventable catastrophe upside-down on the ground glass of her view camera for such an extended period of time, being willing enough to communicate her ideas as to composition to the subject, but not willing to advise the subject to forego the junk food, practice decent hygiene, get exercise... or to contact the authorities about an unhealthy domicile and de facto child abuse. What is the philosophical difference between taking pictures of poor, uneducated, ignorant people who live in squalor in order to sell pictures, and taking pictures of poor, uneducated, ignorant people who take their clothes off in order to sell pictures? In either case, the subject's dignity is inevitably sacrificed despite the artists' protests to the contrary.

In the 1930s the US government funded a photographic effort to document the Great Depression and the effect it had on the lives of Americans. While many of the pictures documented people living in unbelievable poverty (to us, at least, some seventy years later), I don't feel they were exploitative because the photographers had a clear mission to document the adversity facing many Americans so something could be done about it, and they photographed what they encountered in a journalistic style that was beautiful in its simplicity. There was no artistic sentiment about "art" being more important than human lives, nor did the photographers have an underlying profit or self-aggrandizement motive. Yes, the photographers did get paid, however they worked on a straight salary and all of their images belonged to their employer—the federal government. More important, these photographers didn't spend a decade getting to know their subjects intimately, returning regularly to shanties to capture the disintegration of these families.

I find Modica's photographs as objectionable as those from an Iraqi AP stringer who, having spotted terrorists preparing an IED, sits and peers through his viewfinder as the US patrol approaches, ready to capture the ambush on film. Both parties would not intervene to protect their subjects, excusing their inaction as a calling to a higher god (be it Art or Journalism). Both are ethically deficient.

I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that my opinion is definitely a minority one in the art world. I also know which of the two artists' exhibits I will recommend to others, and I hope that more artists and journalists will realize that art and journalism are but means to an end, tools meant to inspire or inform rather than exploit or harm.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

On Monday, seven Republican senators, led by John McCain, crossed the aisle to join the Democrats and defeat the best chance the Republican majority had for eliminating the filibuster as a means of minority rule.

The deal that was struck let the Democrats wiggle out of a deep hole that they themselves had dug, and in return bought the Republicans nothing. Democrats still have the 'right' to filibuster judicial nominees they believe are 'extreme', a right the seven Republicans agreed to. What did the Republicans get? Up-or-down votes on just three nominees... which they would have had anyway if the "nuclear option" passed. In fact, these nominees would have been voted on without the filibuster battle because the Democrats were taking a public-relations pasting on opposing women and minority nominees, and would most likely have caved on the filibuster attempt for them, reserving the battle over judicial nominees until a Supreme Court nominee occasioned it.

The Democrats had previously offered to let some of these 'extremist' nominees through if the Republicans would submit to the general concept of a filibuster as being a valid way to prevent judicial nominees from getting a vote on the floor of the Senate. What? Preserving the filibuster is more important than opposing 'extremist' judges? What is the argument really about? Think about this; the Democrat position is that it is valid for a minority of Senators to prevent the entire body from fulfilling its "advice and consent" role. How this flies in the face of the Democrat position just a few years ago when they were arguing against Republicans who threatened (but never engaged in) the filibuster to stop certain Clinton appointees.

As part of the deal, Democrats agreed to not filibuster the three most 'extreme' (according to the Democratics) nominees, Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown, and William Pryor. Just how 'extreme' are these nominees? During her last election to the Texas Supreme Court, Priscilla Owen received 84% of the vote as well as the endorsement of every major newspaper in the state. Janice Rogers Brown, an African-American conservative from California was elected to the California Supreme Court by the majority of the voters in her state. William Pryor was similarly supported by a majority of the voters in the state of Alabama and has served as that state's Attorney General. In each case, how does a person who receives the support of a majority of their home state's electorate come to be viewed as 'extreme' and 'out of the mainstream'?

If these three nominees were the worst of a bad bunch, the most extreme, then why were the Democrats so willing to relent and let them get an up-or-down vote? If they weren't extreme, then why did the Democrats block them from receiving a vote via the filibuster threat? The Democrat position on this merely illustrates the lie that these nominees are extreme at all; the real reason they are being filibustered is that the Dems don't want George Bush and the Republicans to have any influence on the character of the federal judiciary. An active, interpretive federal judiciary—activist judges who make up new 'rights' from whole cloth and thereby impose liberal programs and support liberal agendas that cannot be enacted via legislation—is the Democrats' last grasp on power at the federal level. They will not give up this unelected (and unopposable) source of power without a fight.

Just how dangerous (from an anti-democratic standpoint) is judicial activism? Here's just one example: the Massachusetts legislature was forced into legitimizing gay marriage by the state's Democratic-aligned Supreme Court, against the desires of the elected officials and the will of the people as expressed by their votes. Now, you may be in favor of gay marriage, or you may not. Either way, the proper place to decide this issue is in the legislature so that the electorate may have a say.

Who are the winners and losers of this battle? The Democrats nominally won the encounter, getting essentially what they offered to Republicans (an offer made from a position of weakness in an effort to forestall the "nuclear option") while keeping the filibuster weapon in their arsenal. Republican Senator John McCain nominally won as he painted himself the leader of the "moderate" Senators from both parties who "came together to save the Senate from a catastrophe." Majority Leader Bill Frist came out a loser, double-crossed by renegade members of his own party who bucked the party position, forcing him to temporarily abandon his stated effort of ensuring that every nominee would receive an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate.

But is that really who won? What is actually going to happen now that this so-called "compromise" has occurred? Three contentious Republican nominees will finally get their confirmation votes, and will almost certainly become federal judges. Since these three nominees were considered to be the most 'extremist' by the Democrats, will they have any choice but to allow all of the other current federal judiciary nominees a vote? I don't think so. President Bush will therefore get a slew of new judges. However, the compromise didn't end the problem, it merely postponed it into the future.

This whole battle is really about the US Supreme Court, and which justices will be on it. As you may know, the Court is narrowly divided on ideological grounds and many contentious issues are decided on 5-4 votes. The Republicans want to replace retiring liberal justices with conservative ones, and the Democrats want the opposite. To either party, losing ground is not an acceptable option and thus if a moderate justice, say Sandra Day O'Connor, retires, there will be a fight over who will replace her. By constitutional authority, the President has the right to choose Supreme Court justices, and if his party is the majority in the Senate then by tradition he will get the nominees he desires... unless the minority filibusters. However, there has not been a filibuster against a President's federal judicial nominees throughout the history of the Senate until President George W Bush.

So, what was actually accomplished? The Republicans had an excellent opportunity to once and for all take the reins of Congress—something they have failed to do since they won the majority in 1994. That opportunity was lost, given away by seven Republican senators led by John McCain. This battle will be joined again, and soon, because the Democratic base will not stand by quietly while George Bush appoints his judges. What will happen when the inevitable filibuster threat occurs? Having seen enough Republicans cave in to defeat the party's position, will the Democrats be less inclined to hang tough and fight things out? I doubt it. Will the Republicans have more party unity the next time around so they will be able to prevail? I doubt it.

The Democrats have lost control of the White House and of both houses of Congress. However, unlike the Republicans, the party has kept control of its caucuses in Congress and individual Democrat legislators do not thwart the will of the Party as established by the party leaders. Until the Republicans are as effective at working together to accomplish their goals, they will not have the ability to change the federal government and have it reflect the Republican agenda. That is most likely a comforting thought for Democrat voters, and a disturbing one for Republicans.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

On Religion and Morality

This post is in response to a debate that I encountered on this website (ht: Christina).

I don't think that moral beliefs are religions beliefs, although I do believe that morality descended from religion. I also think that respect for the rights of others is the single greatest contribution to Western Civilization, and it came from our Judeo-Christian heritage.

In order to believe in morality, you have to believe in right and wrong. In a state of nature there is no morality, only self-interest, the rule of claw and fang. The big lions eat as much meat as they want from a kill and if there's not anything left for the cubs... oh, well. They'll even eat the cubs when hard times occur, not to mention when a new lion takes over the pride he eats the cubs so all of the lionesses will go into heat.

If there is no absolute right and wrong, then there effectively is no morality. This is the great "contribution" that Marxism and Nihilism has brought to our culture over the past 150 years. Was Hitler a monster, or was he just exercising the Will to Power and removing the weaker beings? Was Stalin a monster, or was he just following a scientifically-determined path to utopia? Relativists say, "You be the judge!" Or, worse yet, "Who are you to judge?" I say, "Phooey!" Everyone has the right to judge, and denying us that is denying us freedom of thought.

Our system of laws are derived from, and dependent on, morality which is a result of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The Founding Fathers would not have written our Constitution if they had been Muslims, or if they had been atheists raised in a culture of relativism. Our constitutional republic only works when the vast majority of its citizens are willing to restrain themselves because they believe in, and adhere to, a system of morals. And, I know this will upset some Europeans (and Europhiles) but in my opinion the US is the ultimate culmination of 2,500 years of Western Civilization, while Europe has been sidetracked onto a dead-end path. That's why I have a problem with the Blue State philosophy; these people want us to be more like Europe, and they don't understand that America was founded to escape the morass of Europe. I wish these people would ask themselves one simple question: if European political thought is so advanced, why has it led to two of the worst wars in world history and the imprisonment and slaughter of hundreds of millions of people? Should that be our future?

Now, in respect to pharmacists being required to dispense drugs with which they have a moral problem, I am in favor of letting them refuse to do so. If a pharmacist is against abortion then he has every right to not sell RU-485. Go to another pharmacy.

Similarly, I am in favor of letting non-governmental hospitals decide which procedures they will perform and which they won't. Catholic hospitals should not be forced to provide elective abortions, or any other procedures which violate their beliefs. Go to another hospital.

Note that in each of these cases, the medical treatment desired is elective. Forcing pharmacists, and hospitals, to act against their moral or religious beliefs, is tantamount to forcing them to follow your moral or religious beliefs. That is against the spirit and the letter of the Constitution regardless of what nine old fogies in black robes might decide on the matter. Secularism is a religion.

I would describe myself as a conservative libertarian. I believe in live and let live, but I also believe in not disregarding tradition for the sake of "progress" or modernity. There's a reason that human society has evolved the way it has... because what is tried and true works. There's a reason we condemn adultery; jealous spouses and lovers often commit acts of violence including murder. There's a reason we promote committed monogamous heterosexual relationships (marriage) over all others; this is the best way to ensure the future of our species and our culture, and the stability of our community. Don't believe me? Look at Europe, where falling marriage rates have led to a population implosion. Europeans will be an endangered species in 50 years. We don't even have to look at Europe, just at our own inner cities where the Great Society effectively discouraged people from forming strong families, and look at the results: continual poverty, and large numbers of children who grow up without parental oversite resulting in criminal behavior. The prisons aren't filled with people who grew up in stable two-parent households.

In short, what made Jesus' legacy truly great was that he finalized a philosophy of living (that started with the Jews) that allowed for humanity to peacefully thrive. He did the hard work. All that is required of us is to live the good life, to live by the tenets of Christianity even if we don't believe in God.

Would that be a bad thing?