IN SPRING THE WORLD FILLS up with exhibitionists. All the flowers come up with colors they think bees will have to notice, and young people appear in class plays and dance recitals and get strange haircuts, all by way of saying, "Look at me! Look at me!" (Or, in this multicultural age, "Mira, Mamma! Mira!")
Dutifully, we attend their exhibitions and have a look at what the children have been up to. But there are so many flowers, so many needful, noisy children, that even the most obliging attention-giver has to pick and choose. A competition ensues among exhibitors; awards are awarded, and then disputed; hierarchies evolve; and losers form their own Salons des Refusées, which soon gel into new establishments.
The ironies of this process of attention-getting and-giving were the constant theme of the photographer Diane Arbus, who, 34 years after her suicide at the age of 48, has been given a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum (then on tour to Essen, London, Barcelona, and Minneapolis). "Diane Arbus Revelations," as the show is called, is a crowd-pleaser, and I was happy to have been part of the crowd being pleased. Time and again Arbus astonished me, as per Louis XIV's command, and she did it with pictures that have become as familiar as old family photos, pictures that made their first impact in the seventies but have gained new zing in the interval. Surely the mark of a good photographer, as of a good painter, is to create coups d'oeil, images that are taken in at a glance and can't be forgotten, images that seem to be axioms in some non-Euclidean geometry that explains the whole world.
Like haiku, good photos show what oft was thought but ne'er so well compressed. The photo that serves as a frontispiece to the exhibition catalogue, "Clouds on screen at a drive-in, N.J. 1960," is a fine example. Who has not gasped or giggled at the sight of the image on a drive-in screen contesting for our attention with the sky behind it? In Arbus's black-and-white picture, the backgrounding sky is pitch-black, the foreground cars visible only as glints of metal, and the image on the screen is a VistaVision cloudscape. Simple, ironic, sublime.
And, it should be noted, in no way one of her signature images, which are of circus freaks, crying babies, masqueraders, pathetic teenagers, sagging grande dames, big-haired suburban housewives, nudists, religious fanatics, and right-wing weirdos. What all these typical Arbusites have in common is a fervent desire to be noticed, a desire so pressing it has vanquished all shyness and turned even the drabbest and least prepossessing of them into exhibitionists, at least for their moment before Arbus's camera. The effect is disconcerting, in varying degrees, but it never ceases to have the good vibrations of that New Jersey drive-in, as though each raddled face and crazy costume were an exhibit in a textbook on the psychopathology of everyday life. Arbus's discoveries are not clues in some criminal case, just facts of life (in its eternal aspect).
This was not Susan Sontag's sense of the matter when she declared Arbus an "anti-humanist" and general public enemy in the first chapter of her 1976 book, On Photography, where she scolds:
"Arbus's work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable looking people she photographed. Humanity is not one." She goes on to ask: "Do they see themselves, the viewer wonders, like that? [i.e., acceptingly] Do they know how grotesque they are? It seems as if they don't."
Sontag herself didn't seem to know how grotesque she was at such a moment, how like one of Arbus's big-haired, purse-lipped, veiled beldames. But to answer her question: No, they don't know how grotesque they are, because grotesquery, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. They probably think they're beautiful, or at least presentable. That's what Arbus is showing us: how we present ourselves, how every face we see on the street is a mask, and how every mask is a message to be decoded.
If Arbus is to be reprehended, it must be on some other basis than inhumanity. Many of her critics have argued that she trespasses on her subjects' right to privacy, and in the excellent catalogue to the show (Random House, $50 in paperback), Arbus, writing to a magazine editor, is quoted to this effect: "The releases are sometimes a problem: if people are grand enough they have learned never to sign anything and if they are degraded enough they can't. . . . Tuesday I saw a man lying on the steps of a church on Lex Ave under a sign saying Open for Meditation and Prayer with his fly open and his penis out. I couldn't ask him to sign a release, could you?"