[IMAGE] Arne Svenson, “Nighbors #5” is part of “The Neighbors” exhibit at the MCA Denver. Image provided by the MCA Denver.
The MCA Denver’s current exhibit, “The Neighbors,” presents photos the artist took of his neighbors without permission
Like a lot of people, I find Arne Svenson’s photographs deeply offensive. He took pictures of his neighbors through their living room windows, without asking or telling, and put them up for sale for thousands of dollars each.
His neighbors sued him in New York state courts back in 2013 and lost, setting off a chain of legal, offensive acts that followed: Galleries exhibited them, collectors bought them and a well-respected museum elevated their status by exhibiting them in a solo show. I’m not sure which link of that chain is the most bothersome, although I’m leaning toward the last one.
Maybe it’s because enough time has passed to really consider the psychological damage to the folks whose privacy was stolen. You can’t, for the most part, recognize Svenson’s subjects as individuals, but you understand they’re actual humans and their sense of personal concealment has been wrecked. Could you sleep if you worried that a stranger was watching? Relax in your bathrobe if someone was taking pictures of your hairy calfs? Would you feel vulnerable and weak if the art crowd was enjoying shots of your 4-year-old daughter’s intimate moments without permission?
Or maybe it’s because privacy is such a touchy subject in an era when the government is routinely collecting data on all of us, suing tech companies for access to phones, hunting down whistle-blowers who divulge their tactics. No matter where you stand on the issues, you get that they’re serious and that personal privacy is precious.
Or maybe it’s because two dozen Svenson photos are now staring us in the face at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, which has taken the controversial step of legitimizing them as high art. Commercial success is nice, but a high-caliber museum show seals the deal on the quality of artists’ work and reputation.
This is a notable move for our museum, and there are a lot of ways to describe it: brash, original, assertive, brave. But also goading, punkish and provocative. The MCA has a right to offend us; more than that, a responsibility to offend us when it is needed. More than a few times the MCA has shocked me into a deeper understanding of the world around me.
This one just doesn’t seem right. Maybe it’s the 4-year-old girl.
The MCA (which, let’s be clear, I cherish and urge you to visit, and support with donations, and send your kids to since they don’t charge anyone 18 and under) does have firm ground to stand on. Thoughtful judges and learned curators alike have acknowledged Svenson’s rights as well as his talents.
His photos are interesting and credible. They have a cinematic quality to them. Like film, they relentlessly capture the small instances of our lives that we’re not always aware of, and they contain an unedited truthfulness about how we move, relax, relate.
They feel present tense, journalistic in the way they record the domestic habits of contemporary urbanites. The photos are important that way, and let’s just put on the record here that journalists, and I am one, rarely ask permission before they take photos either, and there is some profit-making in that effort, too.
Plus, Svenson uses the windows he peers through wisely. They act as frames drawing attention to details. Better, he deploys them as filtering tools, impacting the way images appear depending on their reflective qualities at a given time of day. Sometimes they sharpen the scenery, sometimes they soften it. A few of Svenson’s pieces, all rich, pigment prints, have a Vermeer-like quality, super deep in detail and color, yet gentle. Even casual scenes — a women dropped into a sofa twirling her hair, another perched on the edge of her bed, post-shower, with her head wrapped turban-style in a towel — take on a timeless quality.
They are best summed up as authentic, and that, ironically, might not be possible if Svenson didn’t borrow his methods from the peeping Toms who proceeded him. Could they contain the same veracity if they were set up, lit and posed? It’s arguable. Would they be as impactful if the subjects granted their permission after the fact? They’d certainly lose their urgency, and that’s why so many people have paid attention to them.
A lot of questions, and none more important than this: Is it worth it? Svenson’s photos are undoubtedly beautiful, but beauty in itself isn’t all that unique or important or even desirable in contemporary art. It is easy to replicate and more often a distraction from ideas. So much art is so ugly, and that’s a good thing.
Svenson’s ideas are sound, but many artists and filmmakers, have focused our attention on existential details of our world. He’s not performing a crucial service to mankind. As far as bringing attention to privacy issues, if that’s what he’s doing and I don’t think so, there’s a lot of that around. Artist William Betts, for one, recreates frozen frames from actual surveillance cameras at public facilities in acrylic paint. It’s effectively creepy, a warning that we are all being watched, though not harmful to any individuals.
There is, of course, immeasurable value in letting artists express themselves, original or not. We’ve made it a right here, protecting painters as much as politicians and writers. The social critic in me finds Svenson annoying. My inner-journalist deems him a hero and I wouldn’t censor him for a second.
But I wonder if he should censor himself. If he might find some balance between what he needs to say about how we live and breathe and move and how it can be said unselfishly. Let’s consider that Vermeer did that, though you could argue it needs an update.
There is also, the avoidable aside here of personal profit. It matters that artists and gallerists make a buck, especially if it’s off a photo of you with a towel on your head, or playing footsie with your spouse under the breakfast table. Everyone deserves to make a living, and intellectual property is of high value. But money corrupts the purity of art for art’s sake. If these photos weren’t for sale, I could defend them, and I could defend the museum for backing them via an exhibit, maybe.
Only at its base though is this a conversation about money, or about rights. It’s more about assessing the value of privilege and its limits. It’s about understanding that we live in both community and competition and that’s what allows us to have both shared place and personal space. I want art to be real and somehow, at the same time, I hope it can be polite.
Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, firstname.lastname@example.org or @rayrinaldi
THE NEIGHBORS The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver presents photos by Arne Svenson. Through June 3. 1485 Delgany.
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