The Diane Arbus exhibition "Revelations," currently showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is not difficult to attend. The crowds that circled the block to see the major Marc Chagall exhibition earlier this fall are now quite small, leading me to wonder about the hardiness of visual appetites during these times. Bright colors and flying figures, relentless affirmations of religious traditions in the midst of modernity: All this had clear and overwhelming appeal to a general public. But when I asked a few friends to accompany me to Arbus, nearly everyone declined: They had political repugnance for the objectifying photos; they thought it would be "depressing." To them, Arbus's photographic gaze seems inappropriately fascinated by human distortions, playing on spectacle, pandering to the unseemly desire to gawk at what might seem aberrant, to peer, to invade. However true these criticisms may be, there is something else going on with these photos to which some of this moralizing may well be blind.
I gather that the prohibition against which Arbus worked in her time--the bourgeois norms that have everything to do with making sure only certain surfaces show--continues to operate now in another register. We are not supposed to make into visual spectacles human bodies that are stigmatized within public life or to treat them as objects available for visual consumption. As a result, one finds oneself wanting to see what one "should not" enjoy seeing, and now partly to test the thesis that these photos are nothing but spectacularization or objectification. One does not, from a critical perspective, want to accept such a blanket judgment without first seeing for oneself, so the desire to "see for oneself" is instigated by the newer prohibition as well. There is in Arbus--and in the discomfort with her work--always that struggle: a certain solicitation to see what one should not see. In a way, nothing much has changed since the '50s and '60s when she took most of her photographs, since prohibition still governs the scene of their showing. And though SF MOMA tries to assert Arbus's universal value for understanding the "complexity" of human life, sequestering the fact of her suicide in 1971 to a small corner of a small room in the exhibition, there is no way around the difficulty she makes one work with: One wants, in some instances, to turn away, not because the photo is grotesque, but because the human figure is so proud in its enormity or deformity or its plasticity, in its shiny garb, happy, finally, before the camera, Arbus's camera, that provides the occasion and promise to be seen and seen again. So we witness the visual trace of her solicitation in the smiling or tortured figure who is photographed, and that solicitation works on the viewer as well: What did she say to that person? And what relation did they establish? And how was it arranged, this look, this stance, this pleasure and pain?
So the prohibition is there, since these are photos that no nice Jewish girl is supposed to take, and one can see the restraining force of the prohibition precisely as she shoots through it. The prohibition stands as a dying god, in whose fading light she shoots again and again, bringing into discrete illumination these various shadow figures as so many Antichrists and pagan avengers.
Most consumers of Arbus head straight to the grotesque photos or share in her fascination with the dwarfs, the muscle men, the mentally ill, and all those who wear their decorations, shines, and glazes proudly before the eye of the camera. Indeed, one of her earliest photos is a reduplication of a movie "close-up" in which, it might be said, that celluloid literally closes in on the kiss it portrays. For Arbus, there is already something ghastly and otherworldly in this medium that determines what flesh will mean, but there is no recoil in moral horror. In the Hollywood shot, we don't reckon with the plastic medium into which flesh has dissolved, but that medium is established as the point of departure for much of what Arbus does. …