We will rigorously observe the laws, but only the ones we make up as we go

This issue of The Nation includes a review of a recent exhibition of photographs by Miroslav Tichý .  Tichý was a reclusive man whose major body of work consists of photographs he took without the consent, or in many cases the knowledge, of the women he was photographing.  This project might have been tolerable if Tichý had confined himself to views available in the public spaces of his hometown, Kyjov in the Czech Republic.  This, however, he did not do.  Tichý’s favorite subject was a woman’s exposed backside.  Since these are rarely seen in public spaces, Tichý seems to have made a habit of trespassing into the homes of the women of Kyjov to catch them as they came and went to the bath, changed clothes, etc.  The Nation‘s reviewer takes stern exception not only to Tichý’s activities, but also to the exhibit, protesting that the museum has presented the photographs without fully explaining how Tichý came to capture those images of those particular women.  The reviewer surmises that this was done in hopes that patrons would not ask that question, that they would behave as though the women of Kyjov were Tichý’s to do with as he liked. 

While Tichý’s treatment of his neighbors showed no regard for the laws of Czechoslovakia or for those of common decency, he did invent certain laws for himself and followed them rigorously in his work.  To quote a few remarks from the review to this effect:

If we disregard the few remarks about his original intentions that Tichy made some forty years after the fact–most of which are self-deprecating and puncture meaningfulness whenever it seems to bubble up–his work routine appears remarkably disciplined, even rigorous, and indifferent to the claims of his subjects…


A few rare shots record glances cast directly at the photographer–the women generally not looking pleased. They seem to have had a hunch about where they stood in this transaction. “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” Susan Sontag wrote. “It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge–and, therefore, like power.” This dynamic may explain why backsides so predominate in Tichy’s oeuvre: besides having a clear preference for the angle, he probably found it easier to photograph women when they weren’t facing him…


In other words, nearly all of Tichy’s photographs bypass what has been, from the medium’s first decades, central to its nature: a moment of recognition. We generally expect photographs of people to record a glance, however fleeting, between the person behind the camera and whoever is in front of it; in a random lineup of major twentieth-century photographs, you could probably identify who took many of them by the expressions on their subjects’ faces… In most of his photographs, it’s the absence of exchange that grants the subjects distinction and dignity–an autonomy that, by the same stroke, Tichy denies by taking their picture without their consent.

Tichý’s habit of following laws he invented for himself and disregarding those that might protect other people from his abuse links this review to a piece on The Nation‘s website about the Obama administration’s recently revealed decision to order the assassination of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki.  While most prominent members of the Democratic Party have deferred to Mr O’s judgment in this matter, Congressman Dennis Kucinich has spoken out against this order in particular and against the use of assassination as a tactic in the USA’s antiterrorism efforts generally:

“In the real world, things don’t work out quite so neatly as they seem to in the heads of the CIA,” says Kucinich. “There’s always the possibility of blowback, which could endanger high-ranking US officials. There’s the inevitable licensing of rogue groups that comes about from policies that are not strictly controlled and that get sloppy–so you have zero accountability. And that’s not even to get into an over-arching issue of the morality of assassination policies, which are extra-constitutional, extra-judicial. It’s very dangerous from every possible perspective.”

He added: “The assassination policies vitiate the presumption of innocence and the government then becomes the investigator, policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury, executioner all in one. That raises the greatest questions with respect to our constitution and our democratic way of life.”

Kucinich says the case of al-Awlaki is an attempt to make “a short-cut around the Constitution,” saying, “Short-cuts often belie the deep and underlying questions around which nations rise and fall. We are really putting our nation in jeopardy by pursuing this kind of policy.”

Mr O doesn’t really seem all that different from Miroslav Tichý, nor does the Democratic Party’s acquiescence in its titular leader’s practice of “targeted killings” seem all that different from the museum’s attempt to gloss over the more troubling aspects of Tichý’s method.  In each case, a man marketed as new and fresh, an outsider who challenges a repressive status quo, imitates some of the most repressive practices of that status quo.  As the outsider artist Tichy emulates the Czechoslovakian secret police’s practice of intruding on citizens and photographing them without their consent, perpetuating this practice even after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, so the “outsider candidate” Mr O becomes a president who perpetuates Bush and Cheney’s most bloodthirsty policies.

Less chilling than the lecherous Tichý and of course far less chilling than the homicidal Obama administration was Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-2003.)  Onetti was, technically speaking, a political novelist; his work was sufficiently engagé that Uruguay’s ham-fisted dictator Juan María Bordaberry thought him worth imprisoning in 1974.  If the description of Onetti’s work in this issue’s essay is accurate, however, Onetti can hardly have represented a direct threat to Bordaberry’s regime.   His approach was so esoteric that the thought his novels might be published seemed self-evidently absurd to Onetti’s friends.  The rules Onetti followed as he composed his work were so different from those known elsewhere in literature that readers had to grope through the most disparate extremes of twentieth century prose to find parallels to them.  Eccentric as his methods may have been, Onetti’s influence on Latin American writers of the generation after him has been widespread and intense.

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