Pieter Hugo on ‘political correctness’

Pieter Hugo, the critically acclaimed South African photographer, has done an interview with Guernica (H/T Glenna Gordon) in which he seems to be taking issue with criticisms of his work, especially the “Nollywood” series: “It’s quite scary when academics start dictating to artists that they should be politically correct or follow certain rules of behavior — which means we have to start making dishonest work, which means it becomes didactic and propaganda in nature.”

In the United Kingdom (where I’m based), the only people who usually invoke “political correctness” are the right-wing press, clamouring about the censorship they would joyfully impose on their enemies, so we were surprised by Hugo’s accusation.

The direction and details of this outrage are worth close attention. (And we feel compelled to write back since we blogged about the Nollywood series here and here; those posts include comments by our spirited readers.)

Hugo seems to reject the content and nature of academic art criticism. In fact, he dictates that we should reject this relationship. Academics must not impose their readings on artworks.

It is curious that Hugo assumes that attention to his work by academics is hierarchical, as if, by reading his images, we become not only his judge, but his superior. Curious primarily as Hugo’s work seems unusually committed to the idea of forcing his viewers to confront ‘problematic’ images. That he expects us to do so without being critical, judging the intent of the work according to its content and context, is baffling. No one takes a position of superiority in relation to this work, rather we occupy different positions in related fields — chronologically different in time and place: he makes the images, we all ‘read’ them.

The second assumption worth questioning is that the academics who criticise his work wield mysterious — and, in his mind, unnecessary — power. For an artist so riotously successful as Hugo, this is a strange complaint. (Even AIAC, from our lowly blog perch, has thrown flowers in Hugo’s direction.)

The main idea Hugo pushes is that this criticism seeks to force his practice into ‘dishonesty,’ ‘didacticism’ or ‘propaganda’. This charge, in which the work’s audience — and more particularly the professional reader — is singled out as the stultifier of the artistic ego, is remarkable, and deserves closer attention still. Hugo’s anxiety, that criticism might induce the collapse of the integrity of his own work into ‘propaganda’ — presumably from a racially ‘correct’ politics of the image which his work rejects — is telling. For him, presumably, the artist demands the freedom of his (deeply political) images to be read un-politically. Which is to say that he asks us to imagine that his work couldn’t have been different, that it is incapable of change.

In making such a charge, the artist blames his critics for the doubt he feels:

I find that very troublesome, very problematic. It’s taken me a long time to figure out why it affected me so deeply. It really upset me. It was never my intention in any way.

It’s great to hear Hugo is sufficiently attuned to the world that he suffers the lash of the academic tongue with such intensity. Such sensitivity towards criticism surely marks the potential of a great artist. What is odd about the statement above is, however, that Hugo fails to specify what exactly it is that upsets him. Look closely and you’ll see that Hugo’s argument jumps from disagreement (‘troublesome’, ‘problematic’) with the dark forces of political-correctness-mongers to the self-pitying complaint (‘it really upset me’). It seems Hugo is not upset by the fact that people think his work is potentially damaging, but the reactionary idea that the phantasmic armies of ‘political correctness’ are being mobilised against the heroic defenders of Art and Freedom.

It is understandably upsetting to be accused of political incorrectness, but Hugo seems to have come full-circle: first, claiming to have performed a necessary and painful self-scrutiny, then passing over any resultant doubt or anxiety, then returning to criticise his critics with this attack. He has already banished the idea that his work might reflect and sustain desires within himself which others find unappealing; so why should the art, or the artist himself, consider change?

To quote from Theodor Adorno at this point seems provocatively ‘academic’, and so be it. In Minima Moralia, the German philosopher claims that, for writers “[w]hat is let pass as a minute doubt may indicate the objective worthlessness of the whole.” This Promethean task Adorno demands of writers must be no less extensive for photographers making work as sophisticated as Hugo would no doubt like to be. In view of this, the alternative to Hugo’s melancholy, is doubt. Those questions he calls ‘troublesome’, ‘problematic’, ‘affecting’ or ‘upsetting’, should not induce ‘dishonesty’, harmful introspection or vulnerability to making (or becoming) ‘propaganda’. Hugo must have searched for what critics see in his work — he surely wouldn’t have been so upset if he hadn’t — his scrutiny must have been insufficient. Until this artist can locate within his work that which his fiercest critics see, the whole exercise may be worthless.


6 thoughts on “Pieter Hugo on ‘political correctness’

  1. I love that you ended this with Adorno. This calls to mine another ‘academic,’ Susan Sontag, who wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others, “The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of a photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.” I find this both depressing and liberating, and both at the same time.

  2. I’m concerned that you took one paragraph from the whole interview as the sole basis of your critique of Pieter Hugo. Not a huge fan of his work but it does seem you selectively quoted what suited your argument. I’m not an academic or critic but I am a photographer, and I understood what he was stating in that paragraph. For you to nitpick so selectively really means that you didn’t like the work and his discussion about it was an opportunity for you to attack him for it.

  3. Zari – you will notice, if you search back through the history of this blog, that it has given Pieter Hugo’s work extensive attention. The reason this article focused on one paragraph is that he was attacking critics who, like us, believe an image should be read carefully and considered in the light of the argument it appears to make about the world. This wasn’t nitpicking – that paragraph was simply the most critical part of that interview – and I don’t dislike Pieter Hugo’s work, in fact, I find much of it deeply affecting and was disappointed to see that his politically-charged image-making did not seem to be underpinned by a sufficiently rigorous self-scrutiny.

    • I was going to say the same thing as Zari, but I do agree with you also Orlando especially after reading the whole interview that the artist hasn’t properly done some self exploration properly and might even be in fact hiding behind his camera. To take criticism and learn from it requires some confidence and self knowledge. If his doubts and lack of self esteem came to light because of criticism then yes he should have some alone time. I’m glad he got over it, but he doesn’t address it, it will come back to bite him.

  4. “The reason this article focused on one paragraph is that he was attacking critics who, like us, believe an image should be read carefully and considered in the light of the argument it appears to make about the world.”
    Ok, I think this is where we seem to be diverging, as I didn’t consider his statement an ‘attack’. I thought it was mostly his opinion which I also don’t agree with, but to spend a whole article dissecting it doesn’t seem useful. I’m glad academics/critics have called him out, the fact that he has a little tantrum about it just feels irrelevant.
    Also, this lack of rigorous self-scrutiny isn’t really specific to Pieter Hugo. Mikhael Subotzky, Richard Mosse and co. also operate in a similar fashion which was apparent to me in a previous Richard Mosse interview featured here.
    Off to read previous Pieter Hugo posts you mentioned.

  5. No matter what shade or inhuman an image may appear, what matters the most is that it still represents a degree of truth/existence and that is what Pieter is portraying. He is portraying what all of you illiterate-literates are afraid to confront . Critics keep ur criques to yourself, they are impotent.

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