Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68
by Karen Moller
Art Shay and Karen Moller
(Swans - June 2, 2008) Art Shay's exhibition, "Traces of a Bygone America, the disappearing world of 1950 Chicago," was held in Paris from April 12 to May 28, 2008, at the Albert Loeb Gallery in the prosperous and arty, art school neighborhood of the Beaux Arts. The photographs seemed to come from another age, remote from our world, and except for the society portraits of the famous, they made me feel I was looking at pictures from a long forgotten period of American history. In fact it was precisely the rediscovering of that not so distant past that was noteworthy and intriguing. Good photographs capture a moment, and the shock for me was the sudden awareness of how much the world had changed, especially physically, in my own lifetime.
To the left of the entrance was Art Shay's famous nude photo of Simone de Beauvoir and on the right was the same photo in the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur -- Adobe Photoshop-retouched to hide her rather heavy legs. I felt insulted for her. Was it not enough to be admired worldwide as an intellectual? Did she have to be perfect physically as well? (The French do take national pride in their women and are personally offended if they aren't considered beautiful). Airbrushing or Photoshop-retouching seemed to take away a part of her special and very personal identity -- a refusal to accept her as she was, one might say. I wonder what Simone de Beauvoir would have thought.
The 86-year-old Art Shay was very friendly and we had a lively conversation about Swans -- he commented that it was a good thing he had not published the picture of Simone de Beauvoir facing the camera. I took that to mean the Nouvel Observateur might have used Photoshop to give her a whole new body or at least to fade out her defects to such an extent that it would no longer be photographic realism.
The well heeled and stylishly dressed crowd drifted around the gallery eating delicious tidbits and drinking champagne -- the likes of which (the glorious tidbits) one sees less and less at art openings in Paris today. Blame the economic crisis -- or the fact that art galleries don't actually want freeloaders, just those interested in art.
Perhaps the abundance was laid on for Lionel Jospin, our former lackluster Premier Ministre and ex-socialist party secretary who, when running for the French presidency, was so unpopular that the far right leader, Le Pen, got more votes than he did. He nevertheless caused quite a stir when he arrived for his personal tour around the gallery with Art Shay.
Art Shay's grainy photographs are a social criticism and condemnation of the limits of past society. After decades, the distinction between art (the photographs) and the reality of the working class -- alienation due to the kind of life they were forced to live -- makes for inevitable discomfort. However, French sophisticates often seem to ignore the social criticism, and derive their pleasure from the grainy, grimy, dilapidated street scenes of the down-and-out collapsed on the sidewalk, kids having fun with nothing but an old mattress -- a slice of life to hang on their wall.
Imagination can operate on life in more ways than one, but presenting photographs of the rich and famous in galleries raises questions about the distinction between art and publicity. Art Shay did work for numerous publications and I imagine the photographs of the famous were for publicity, but in their gallery arrangement -- hung next to his personal photos of Chicago -- they have become art. Of course, for the gallery the trick is not to allow the commercial work to be identified with their past use as publicity or promotion, but to promote the image as a work of artistic beauty above it all.
In the hands of an artist familiar with the ways of the imagination, as in Art Shay's case, his ability to capture what we call reality helps demystify our reaction and breaks down conventional limits placed on art in the service of the actual, to the enrichment of both.
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