Parties and Pretenders

The Pretenders, 2008

The Pretenders, 2008

Chrissie Hynde met her soul mate at a party hosted by Damien Hirst’s wife. Hynde, not a party person, had gone with a girlfriend out of a sense of obligation. When she realized she’d dropped in on a Congolese Art themed festival, replete with a Congolese barbecue, she headed straight to the bar. “Anyone who knows me knows exactly what I would think about that,” Hynde said in a recent interview. She proceeded to get “wrecked” and while getting wrecked met JP Jones, a young Welsh musician who would become her band mate and muse. “It was some sort of wanky arty party,” Jones later said when asked where he first encountered Hynde.

While Hynde’s anti-diva diplomacy has always attracted me, I certainly don’t know her. Nor do I know much about The Pretenders—beyond the opening verses to Private Life and rumors of members’ drug induced downfalls. But I can imagine why someone like Hynde might resent a Congolese Art party, especially one hosted by a few wealthy Brits and frequented by a hand-picked assortment of artists and intellectuals.

Circle of Charles Marville (French, 1816-ca.1879), Women of Algiers, 1858, Salted-paper print, Ken and Jenny Jacobson orientalist photography collection, The Getty Research Institute

I spent yesterday, Thursday, May 6th, at The Getty Museum, attending a different sort of art party, one at which the option of getting wrecked did not present itself. But opportunities to over-indulge in freshly brewed coffee and gaze out at sunny green vistas more than sufficed. Called Zoom Out: The Making and Unmaking of the “Orient” Through Photography, this party had a guest list of people who read Edward Said and write papers with titles like The Prosthetic Eye: Photography as Cure and Poison. This sort of guest has symmetrically styled hair (even the man with Einstein-worthy, sandy-colored tufts made an effort to balance his mop), sports silk scarves and wears tastefully unobtrusive eyeglasses. As my companion, a hip, inquisitive specialist in Vietnam War era photography, assured me, art historians are the best looking academics around—far superior to, say, those working in Early Modern Studies.

“The sight of a Greek head depresses most people, strikes an un-liberated chord, reminds them of books in their grandmother’s parlor and of all they were supposed to learn and never did,” wrote Joan Didion in The White Album, published soon after The Getty opened to the public. “This note of ‘learning’ pervades the entire Getty collection.”  It pervaded yesterday’s panels and talks too. The talks, which continue today, focused on two photographic archives from The Getty Collection: The Ken and Jenny Jacobson Orientalist Photography Collection and the Pierre de Gigord Collection. But if the sight of sightly blurred, romantically composed photos from the 19th Century Middle East and North Africa depressed anyone there, they hid it well.

Pierre de Gigord Collection, The Getty Research Institute

What seems reprehensible about a Congolese Art party is that it uses limited knowledge of another culture as the premise for fun, possibly mindless fun. Academic conferences about how images taken in the Orient changed the course of photography’s history also take limited knowledge of another culture as the premise. But the overarching goal is not fun and what does take place is rarely mindless, even if you genuinely enjoy probing the politics of representation–and, of course, most art historians do.

Nancy Micklewright, The Getty Foundation’s Senior Program Officer and yesterday’s closing speaker, showed a series of photographs from the Gigord Collection, probably taken by a box camera. A group of Turkish women and one man act out different stereotypes. In one image, they play Harem; in another, they play aristocratic family; in yet another, they play tea party. In all, they’ve donned genre-specific costumes and masked the identity of their surroundings, though a painting above the fire place gives them away.  They’re having their own art party, maybe even their own mindless fun, while half-knowingly, half-unknowingly probing the strange ways in which the photograph has turned their culture into myth.