In Tina Barney: Social Studies, the documentary about photographer Tina Barney, the artist recalls having a realization in the mid-1970s that “the American family was going to become extinct … I realized that everything was so good I didn’t want it to end.”
Most everything was good for Barney, who was born into old East Coast wealth and who’s been picturing the world’s 1% in galleries and museums since she first saw her vision of the end of the “good” life. It was Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they shall eat the rich,” but through Barney’s devouring eye we watch the predator class cannibalize themselves.
Phrases like “1%” and “predator class” have only become news cycle sound bites since the Occupy Movement saw an uprising of the disenfranchised poor, and radicalized working and middle classes in the US and around the world beginning in the fall of 2011. Improvised camps across the US were emblazoned with the slogan “We Are the 99%” in protest of the concentration of wealth in one percent of the population, the type of people who populate Barney’s images.
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts is currently hosting 21 of Barney’s large-format photographs from her series The Europeans, offering the photographer’s staged tableaux of Old World elites in the sumptuous surrounds of their lavish homes, cozy châteaus and precisely appointed offices. Barney’s work is celebrated by those who point to art historical allusions in her compositions and who marvel at the meticulous detailing in her oversized 5-by-4-foot prints.
However, Barney’s most direct connection to art history is her role as a portrait-maker of the wealthy and the powerful, a tradition that includes papal paintings from the Renaissance, Jacques-Louis David’s five commissioned versions of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, as well as Barney’s photos of today’s Italian aristocrats and British matriarchs.
Barney’s work also points to the art world’s dependence on elite collectors whose wealth makes the big business of the international art market a reality—but don’t expect to find that narrative in most assessments of her work. The commentary around Barney’s images always nods to issues of privilege and class, but it’s rarely, if ever, confrontational. It’s as if examining Barney’s choice of subjects may result in questions that the art world—and the art market—would rather not ask the artist, her subjects, or themselves.
For most of her career, Barney has aimed her lens at her own relatives, and her claim that her images are only about relationships, intimacy, and the demise of the “American family” ring truest in those works.
The Europeans derive from a significantly different context: these aren’t relations of Barney’s, they’re people she picked specifically because of their money and their status. The fact is, Barney only feels comfortable photographing her monied peers—she has said that she has turned down opportunities to photograph the poor because “it would be hypocritical and shallow. How could I know what they were all about?” It’s a point well made, and Barney doesn’t need to be forgiven for following the creative truism of photographing what she knows.
Barney knows the wealthy and the powerful well enough to state, “When people say that there is a distance, a stiffness in my photographs, that the people look like they do not connect, my answer is, that this is the best that we can do. This inability to show physical affection is in our heritage.” But how interesting or even worthwhile for most viewers are such simple, subtle revelations in a post-Occupy art environment full or artworks that reflect the struggle most of the world has with putting clothes on their backs or food in their mouths?
Who besides Barney and her peers could ever be moved by the minute discomforts of the privileged, which she captures in her expertly posed, seemingly candid tableaux? Isn’t this only the rich making art about the rich for the rich? Doesn’t this myopic, self-reflexive worldview imply the lack of empathy that actually defines classism?
Barney gained access to her European subjects through the introductions of friends and curators, and the literature that accompanies the exhibition celebrates the artist’s “natural instinct for propriety” in the same manner that most gallery guides might compliment another artist’s “strong eye for color” or “radical sense of composition.” It would be naive to say that knowing how to ingratiate oneself to the rich wasn’t an important tool for an artist of any era with career ambitions, but it’s rare to see it stated so bluntly. Is money—finally—the only actual arbiter of art, and who will tell Rothko and his razor that none of it ever really mattered, after all? Will Barney?
Barney claims that her work isn’t about class, but isn’t this dismissal similar to those of the Afrikaner who claimed not to be a racist while simultaneously enjoying all the power and privilege afforded by apartheid? That example may seem extreme, but after Occupy, when reviews of Barney’s pictures suggest they’re of interest because they offer a window into a world most ordinary people don’t get to see, isn’t it an extreme form of naiveté that keeps the artist and her supporters from understanding that many of those ordinary people might rather throw a brick through that window?
“Tina Barney: The Europeans” is on view through May 10 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.