One cannot see what is too close. Time passes and fame comes. All of a sudden people realise that this person was not only a painter, but – for goodness sake! – he was a great painter. Do they know him? If they know anything about him, they know him from a book of reproductions. But do they really know anything about him?
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, a Mexican photographer.
A short note about Alexander Pushkin as a favourite artist.
2009 is the 210-th anniversary of Alexander Pushkin‘s birthday. Ten years ago, therefore, Russia and the Russian-speaking world celebrated 200 years since this genuine poet’s birth in 1799. The news reports showed people in the streets being asked to read an extract from any of Pushkin’s poems, there were a plenty of films and TV and radio specials… and when they asked children “who is your favourite poet?” the kids would routinely reply: “Alexander Pushkin“. The kids were some 5-7 year old, and it was then that it struck me: what was the point of that question?
The ‘problem’ with Pushkin is that he is “the sun of the Russian poetry” and simply the best known and much loved Russian poet. Children encounter his verses at the nursery and continue reading his poems and later on, at high school – prose and plays. His works have long been ransacked into citations, and very recently I saw one of my LiveJournal contacts paraphrasing one of Pushkin’s poems. In fact, I paraphrased one of his poems myself many years ago. In short, not only Pushkin is a popular poet, he is a people’s poet.
On the one hand, this proves that art belongs to people. On another hand, this means that people can actually appropriate art to the point that the true legacy or value thereof no longer matters. The downside of the “Pushkin is everything to us” phenomenon is that other poets even posthumously find themselves in his shadow. So, when you ask a child or an adult who their favourite poet is, and they respond ‘Pushkin‘, this tells us nothing about their artistic taste, nor even about the realistic appreciation of Pushkin’s legacy in today’s society. Because his is the household name, he is always a ‘favourite‘. Not to have him as a favourite would be an insult to culture: very much the same as if you said that you didn’t give a damn about Raphael or Mozart.
Favourite vs. Preferred
Even before that pivotal moment in 1999 I was careful about singling out a ‘favourite‘ artist, poet or writer. I have been ever more careful since, and then in 2008 I read the following statement from Manuel Alvarez Bravo:
“‘Favorite’ is a word I can’t stand. Everybody says it, but I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it because it is an error of the language. It is a tremendous deprivation of the language. I think one should say ‘preferred’ instead of ‘favorite’. If I am looking at an El Greco, Picasso doesn’t matter to me. If I am looking at a painting of Clemente Orozco or at an engraving of Rembrandt – at that moment I prefer them to all others. And none of this has to do with that word ‘favorite’. Preference is the instantaneous choosing of something that attracts my seeing or hearing. And this phenomenon of instantaneous choosing is exactly the same thing that happens when I am taking photographs” (Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Photographs and Memories (Aperture)).
I thought a lot about this paragraph. In it Alvarez Bravo pins down the difference in languages: the Romanic languages use ‘preferito‘ (Italian), ‘préferé‘ (French) and ‘preferido‘ (Spanish) to designate what is called ‘favourite‘ (British English; ‘favorite‘ in American) or ‘liebling‘ (German) in Germanic languages. In Russian, we say ‘любимый‘ (‘loved’, similar to German). Interestingly, ‘favori‘ and ‘favorito‘ are used in French and Italian, respectively, in relation to sport, and Alvarez Bravo was no doubt aware of this semantic idiosyncrasy. Art is not a sport, however. It is not a ‘Picasso till I die‘ kind of thing. There is no Artist Premier League that could be organised into subdivisions, let alone rely on any valid inclusion criteria. Rather, if we hold that art serves both to unfathom the world and to create the world, then each and every artist that makes his or her way into our lives remains and exists there on equal terms with others, so that when we “look at an El Greco, Picasso doesn’t matter“.
Of course, if we look back at the use of the word ‘favourite‘ we will find the culture of favouritism blooming at the royal courts and in political circles. This culture has now found its new outlet in what can be called ‘social icon-making‘ and often unveils itself in the world of style and fashion where there are ‘style icons‘ and ‘fashion icons‘. The reverse of this medal, however, is ‘social iconoclasm‘. Both are the products of either a blind following of a trend (think of religious bigotry), or an equally blind passion or an affected habit with which we find ourselves supporting football teams, e.g. The latter point is also supported by the fact that both in German and in Russian the equivalent to ‘favourite‘ originates from the word ‘love‘. Indeed, when we speak of ‘love‘ we assume that there is only one object of our affection. It also makes sense to use it in relation to art because we often consider art to be an outlet for our emotions.
Yet in art there can be no singular object of affection; there will inevitably be a few objects or artists that ignite our emotions (and mind, too) differently and for different reasons. One can see why Alvarez Bravo thought that ‘favorite‘ in application to art is a deprivation of the language. Additionally, since ‘favourite‘ is close to ‘loved‘ but is also used in an idiom like ‘to do a favour‘, to say ‘my favourite artist‘ is to have the artistic universe evolve around the figure of yourself as a selector of ‘favourites‘ who may then be knocked off the pedestal, should it be necessary. It makes the man as the builder of his artistic universe a tyrant rather than a Creator. It is impossible not to give a preference (sic) to one artist over another; likewise, it is impossible not to be more passionate about certain men-of-arts, without calling either a “favourite artist”. However, the beauty of art is that it allows you to be a polygamist without any hurt to your conscience.
Like many other photoartists, Alvarez Bravo drew inspiration from painting and literature. Below are the two fine examples. First is Lucy, his new take on the image of St Lucy (whose attribute was her eyes that were poked during the tortures). I chose the 16th c. painting by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi (1484-1551), although Alvarez Bravo clearly had more to say in his photo, and this is not a mere ‘resemblance’ of eyes to nipples. Frederic Kaufman whose extensive interviews with the photographer made up an introduction to Aperture monograph about Alvarez Bravo (Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Photographs and Memories (Aperture, Vol 147)) recalls a visit to the house where the master was born. The building in 20, Guatemala, right behind the cathedral, by the 1990s housed two commercial stalls on the ground floor. In one of these, Kaufman says, ‘I sink my hands into a bowl of glass eyeballs‘. These were “saint’s eyes”, and on the plate in the photo we probably see such a pair.