Context is everything

Over on instagram, @donaldweber, a member of the vii agency, posted a nice photograph of the sunset prayer during Ramadan in Al Ain, UAE. It’s a straight-on shot of a group of men and boys at prayer, in traditional Middle Eastern garb, in a fort, in front of a canon.

In the Middle East, and I believe in Maghreb as well, it’s traditional to sound the canon to mark Iftar, the end of the daily fast. Iftar is eagerly awaited by Muslims, especially in the summer months where temperatures soar to 50°C. It’s a joyous occasion for family and friends to gather together; and because it’s not easy to tell when it starts (try figuring out the exact moment of sunset on your own), the cannon used to play the role of the bells in Christian Europe (it’s sound carried much further than the adan – the call to prayer).

When I look at the picture, this background context comes immediately to mind: I’ve lived in Muslim countries for 7 years, and it’s the middle of Ramadan right now; Al Ain is a place where I’ve been more than a few times and I’ve taken countless pictures in that same fort.

But if you read the comment stream on the picture, you’ll see that to some people, this context was lacking, or utterly mangled. They see “Muslim praying in front of a canon” in the context of the ongoing strife in the Middle East. While they don’t come out and say it explicitely (although “it’s part of the problem” is pretty clear), the subtext is about condemning the photographer for promoting images of a violent Islam.

@donaldweber’s rejoinder is very direct: “you’ve assumed my cultural stereotypes, but you’ve projected your own thoughts”.
I tend to agree with him that the implicit criticism is wrong. However he writes two contradictory things that make me a little uncomfortable. On the one hand, he wants to viewer to “enjoy the picture for what it is”, yet he berates commenters for not taking the time to do their due diligence.

You can’t really have it both ways: it’s not a simple picture if you need to dig for context; it’s only a simple picture if – like me – you’ve internalized the context. And even then, there’s nothing really simple about the interpretation process. This of course harks back to the classic question: can you enjoy art without context? Mostly, its an academic exercise. The fact that to my mind Buren and Klein are intellectual frauds and Duchamp is a genius doesn’t hurt anyone. And the question was initially biased because European art criticism is informed by a very deep and mostly implicit set of common references.

But in this case, the exercise is coming dangerously close to brutal reality. It reflects on people being killed daily in Palestine and on the perception of Muslims in the modern world. It shows us that we don’t share the same set of implicit references, however much we’d like to think “American TV shows” = “culture”.
If the simple fact of posting this picture is problematic, we probably need to rethink our notions of context and references. We can’t afford to hide behind the illusion that there are “simple pictures” anymore.

That said, I still think the commenters are mainly wrong or at least acting entitled, even if I wish @donaldweber hadn’t been so offhanded in his dismissal. As much as artists need to explain context, audiences need to assume trust and do due diligence: if the picture is published through VII, and if you follow VII on Instagram, then you should know what VII stands for and what they post before calling them on some illusory bias.

In the end, I firmly believe that the context enriches my experience of the picture. And because it was implicit, my experience was more immediate. If he had been showing me an East Asian religious ceremony, I would’ve been less in touch with the feelings and emotions, and more analytical in processing the image. It would have prepared me for a next time, when I’d have been closer to the emotional relationship. Ultimately, that’s the reason for art: to make us grow as human beings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s