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Nan Goldin


by Donald Kuspit
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Envy is a destructive attack on the good object, not on the bad object, and it is distinguished from ambivalence. It is held to be innate in origin as part of the instinctual endowment, and requires the mechanism of splitting as an initial defense operating at the outset.

. . . [T]he phantasy of entering a "good" object and spoiling it and its contents is very prevalent. This phantasy is the primary expression of an instinct -- the death instinct.

-- R. D. Hinshelwood,
A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought(1)

Writing about her series "Scopophilia," which "pairs her own autobiographical images with new photographs of paintings and sculptures from the Louvre’s collection," Nan Goldin states that "desire awoken by images is the project’s true starting point. It is about the idea of taking a picture of a sculpture or a painting in an attempt to bring it to life." That’s all very well and nice, but the Old Master sculptures and paintings she photographs don’t need to be photographed by her -- or anyone else -- to be brought to life, having already lived for centuries, not just in cultural memory, but in emotional memory, for they bring enduring meanings to life, which is why they will continue to live, long after Goldin’s photographs have died, along with the people she photographs, all emotionally shallow and undesirable and unlovable -- the young unlovables of the youth culture (that is, of those arrested in their emotional and cognitive development, however physically developed and sexually active they may be) -- rather than imaginatively reconfigured into mythical personae.

The photograph, however carefully staged, is a sort of flash in the pan of time, a specious present that makes no memorable sense until it is past history, and then often only personal, nostalgic sense -- photographic memorabilia are reified fragments of private experience, making wider public sense only to the analytic archivist, placing them in their times and interpreting them from some perspective of meaning, and, if a scientifically cautious historian, never forgetting that they are hardly conclusive evidence for what they claim to factually record -- rather than make permanent sense, as the masterpieces Goldin photographically appropriates (as though to suck the art out of them) do, because they make the permanence of archetypal human truths self-evident.

What I am saying is that Goldin’s photographs are artistically boring and banal, not to say dumbly routine and emotionally superficial -- they lack the mastery and intelligence of art and are not equal to the feeling they profess to convey (indeed, they seem to trivialize it into tedious familiarity) -- while the Old Masters used ingenious art to profound emotional effect, that is, used great skill to essentialize an intensely experienced emotional state, paradoxically “realizing” it by idealizing it. The Old Masterpieces with which Goldin pairs her photographs -- take your choice between the former, which seduces into contemplative lingering, and Goldin’s “cheap shots,” occasional shots which barely rise to the “occasion” they casually represent, which is why they are quickly and casually seen (a second look is not particularly rewarding to consciousness; her photographs are “first impressions,” which is why they don’t invite “second thoughts,” as the Old Master images do) -- show that love and desire have transcendental import while Goldin reduces them to sexual business as usual. One might say that she de-sublimates love and desire but she does something more insidiously devaluing, suggesting that she has no understanding of their subtlety, intimacy and humanizing character, that is, the sense of beauty and grace they can bring with them.

Thus, Goldin’s Simon and Jessica, swan-like embrace, Paris, 2001, may be based -- technically (that is, loosely) -- on The Shades of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appear to Dante and Virgil by Ary Scheffer in the Louvre (2010), but it lacks the tenderness involved in Francesca and Paolo’s embrace. They may be lost in limbo, but Simon and Jessica are even more lost, for they have no faces -- they could be any anonymous couple -- and they will eventually have to separate, while Francesca and Paolo will never separate, suggesting their love is eternal, rather than just another fast forgettable fuck. Francesca and Paolo are in fact not fucking, but clinging to each in defiance of the surrounding darkness -- oblivion -- while Simon is part of the darkness, with one arm holding Jessica’s bright white slip, an artificial superficial luminosity, in contrast to the light informing and emanating from the skin of Francesca and Paolo, however different its tone. They have a tragic aura, suggesting the seriousness of their love and desire for each other -- and, perhaps more crucially, their devotion to each other -- while Simon and Jessica are doing their momentary exciting thing, suggesting they are likely to part company once their desire -- for each other, or for fucking? -- dies down, having reaching its orgasmic climax. Francesca and Paolo have a timeless presence; Simon and Jessica seem stopped in time, as though fucking could stop time, as the photograph seems to do, but, after all, both depend on timing.

The love of Francesca and Paolo is sacred, the love of Simon and Jessica is profane -- and more physically than emotionally intimate, and also more impersonal than the love of the two clearly defined persons named Francesca and Paolo -- and that’s the difference between the paintings and sculptures in the Louvre and Goldin’s photographs. They show her envy of traditional art and its esthetic mastery of the transcendental -- its astonishing ability to directly convey the ideal, and, even more astonishingly, to make it seem that the factual is an epiphenomenon of the ideal -- that the transcendental comes before the phenomenal, which is merely its “expression.” Goldin is interested in the “phenomenon” of sex -- "phenomenal” sex, although the sexual scenes she photographs hardly seem “phenomenal” (nor are the people she photographs phenomenally good looking) -- which is why she is incapable of dealing with true love.

Not only are her photographs not the artistic and emotional equal of the Old Masterpieces she pairs them with, and not only do her photographs de-essentialize and banalize the love the Old Masters essentialized and idealized, but her photographs enviously attack -- destructively devalue -- them, and with that, however unwittingly, love, which involves love for the “higher things” in life not simply lowdown sex (notice that Simon and Jessica are low down on a bed rather than standing upright, as Francesca and Paolo are). The Old Masterpieces are good art, and deal with the good that is love -- find the good in love -- while Goldin’s photographs are bad art (if you want to call them art[istic]) -- and suggest that love is not all that good, certainly not as good as it is shown to be by the Old Masters. I also suggest that her pairings are not what they seem: the Old Master images and Goldin’s photographs are not so much paired as though they complemented each other -- the Old Master images hardly need complementing, being complete in themselves, while Goldin’s photographs need to be complemented by the Old Master images to be “completed,” that is, to have the depth of meaning they pretend to have -- against her unconscious destructive intentions to the Old Masterpieces. She does not want to bring them to life, she wants to destroy them completely, and she does so implicitly in her photographs, which enviously spoil them and their contents and beauty. Once again we see the so-called “break with tradition” involves envy of tradition, for without its idealism modern art has only its own nihilistic narcissism, which, after all, is what Goldin’s “own autobiographical images” are about.    

"Nan Goldin: Scopophilia," Oct. 29-Dec. 23, 2011, at Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

(1) R. D. Hinshelwood, A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (London: Free Association Books, 1959), 167