Bringing one’s self into the lab

9 Spring Chickens 1

An ethnographer’s perspective on drawing

A few weeks after the publication of Winter Fires, I was contacted by the editor of an academic journal, Anthropology and Aging Quarterly, who was interested in reproducing some of Mik Godley’s images. Naturally, Mik and I were very happy to agree, and a portfolio with an explanatory note was published in the spring issue. I asked Jason Danely, the editor, to give me a sense of why he was interested in the images. This is what he says:

Images and other forms of media are not merely decorations for the journal, but generate a new kind of knowledge-making process that invites the viewer into an engagement with the subject. When I read Winter Fires, I could not imagine the text as separate from Mik Godley’s photo-paintings. This collaborative process of engagement perfectly suited the topics of creativity and art in later life. Mik’s portraits not only stir the emotions of the viewer, but they add depth to the expressions and lives of the subjects.

Ethnography also, at its best, has a particular aesthetic commitment, and does not masquerade as an objective recounting of events, but presents the ethnographer and her process as a vital part of the research. Mik’s process of reworking each photo reveals the artistic hand in ways that the camera cannot capture.

Together with the text, I was moved to wonder about the role of art and creativity not only in the lives of older people, but in my own perspective of aging and the ways I engage with aging visually. I reflected on the way these images were different from other images of aging that circulate in popular media. Most of all, I came to think about my own writing on creativity in aging, the aesthetic commitments that I use to convey the complexity and everyday life in old age.

Jason’s comments prompt several trains of thought, but the one I want to look at here is his point that ethnography does not pretend to a simple objectivity.

1978 1999

Drawing is not objective: that’s why it matters

The idealisation of objectivity in contemporary culture has long troubled me—I wrote about it 15 years ago, in the introduction to Use or Ornament?—both because it is untrue and because it is used to promote or disqualify certain forms of knowledge and, by extension, certain values, ideas and political theories. Artistic method is central to Regular Marvels, both in the collaborations with other artists and in the literary construction of my texts, partly to signal plainly that these books do not aspire to the kind of objectivity that is used to legitimise some kinds of science and, through intellectual sleight of hand, what is called ‘evidence-based policy’.

The risk, even in questioning the hegemony of this concept of how knowledge is created, is to be accused of methodological failure and therefore irrelevance. That bad faith shows why scientism in Western culture must be challenged: after all, testing is intrinsic to scientific method. Scientific objectivity can be vital in the right places. But it is not the only method of thinking deeply and with integrity about human experience. Nor is it the only way of distinguishing truth from falsehood. The vast and ancient practice of art is another, which is why 2,500 year old plays can still move us today, though we are so different from the people who created them.

And, despite the inability of some scientists, politicians, academics and, yes, artists, to understand it, these human systems of knowledge are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary, interactive and mutually rewarding.

The work of ethnography is one area, among others, where acceptance of the limits of objectivity challenges the researcher to be even more watchful of their own biases, because they do not trust a method to do it for them. Rather than pretending that their own reality can be left at the laboratory door, ethnographers, like good artists, bring it inside, the better to keep a watch on it.

A note on the photographs: Nicholas Nixon and the Brown Sisters

Nicholas Nixon and Bebe

The photographs that I’ve used to illustrate this post (alongside one of Mik Godley’s images, which are already familiar to visitors to this site) come from a remarkable project by Nicholas Nixon. Since 1975, Nicholas Nixon has made an annual group portrait of his wife with her three sisters. The resulting sequence now stretches over 30 years and is one of the most extraordinary works of portraiture I have seen.

In a press release for a 25 year retrospective of the series, the Zabriskie Gallery wrote this about the series:

For this ongoing series, the artist adheres to two unwavering constants. First, the sisters always pose in the same frontal sequence; Laurie, Heather, Bebe, and Mimi. Second, regardless of how many negatives exposed, only one is selected for printing from each individual year’s batch. This imparts a scientific approach to the work, with its unchanging variables, setting parameters for the creative process. However, operating within these limits also allows the subject matter to richly expand, allowing the viewer to partake more empathetically in the lives of the four individuals.

Despite the misuse of the word ‘scientific’, this is clearly an artistic method, using its own rules. It is also extraordinarily rigorous since it imposes a shared responsibility for the continuation of the process on the sitters. But what matters, in the end, is that the work is a beautiful and moving reflection on human life.

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