Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mondovino and The Gift

In the past week I've encountered two titles which have shifted my thoughts on photography, neither one of which mentions the word photography even once. The first is the film Mondovino, a 2004 documentary exploring the winemaking industry in various parts of the world. Although it doesn't ever come out and say so, the film is basically a Marxist critique of globalization. Traditional past-times are assimilated into global industry as big guy swallows little guy. You know the story. Where it relates to photography is in wine's fiercely hierarchical system of aesthetics. There is a small handful of wine critics which decide which wines are good and which aren't. The main one is a man named Robert Parker. There are one or two others. They rank each wine with a number, say 91 out of 100. That ranking generates an entire series of dynamics which effects everything that happens to that wine. It determines the sales price of the wine, the prestige of the vineyard, and the value of all land growing a certain type of grape. What's more it creates a blanket aesthetic for the industry. The critic's personal taste becomes the de facto standard taste. If he likes a certain style of wine, e.g. oaky or with lots of tannin, it creates pressure on the entire industry to shift toward that taste. Individualism suffers. Homogenization triumphs, generally speaking. I could translate the whole thing into photographic terms but I'm sure you can already see where this is going. Powerful tastemakers determine the market, etc etc etc. See the movie for details.

The other title which has stirred up questions for me is Lewis Hyde's classic book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, an examination of how creative works are treated in the market. I have always wrestled with the issue of selling photographs, how to price them, if to price them. Some photographs sell for thousands. Some better ones sell for $50. For a long while I just gave up and tried to give away photographs for free, but even that didn't work. For some reason that seems still unexplained every photograph out there has a price attached to it. Why is that? Are they just another commodity? Should art be treated differently somehow? Hyde really gets to the heart of the whole issue. He analyzes the gift economy throughout history and examines its relationship to the standard market. For anyone in the creative arts -for which the motivation is usually something beyond money- this is a wonderful universe of ideas. It's the type of thinking that's so fresh and individual that he must've secluded himself for years to come up with it. See the book for details.

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