Issue #238  1/12/2018
A Belated Holiday Greeting and a Plea for Balance and Charity

By Alex Novak

As many of my long-time newsletter readers know, I have usually sent out a holiday message at the end of December. I missed it in 2016 with a rather hectic schedule that included the Daguerreian Society's 19th-Century Photography Show, Paris Photo and preparing for Classic Photography LA, not to mention numerous auctions and preparation of my book/catalog on 19th-century French Master Photographers.

The end of 2017 got a bit complicated too, when I had a bad fall in Paris after being there only two days, just after Halloween. The trip to the hospital for a CT scan and blood work was not on my expected itinerary, but my daughter Lohana helped out tremendously, as did my friend Pascale Jacquemin. The doctors there in Paris did a great job, although their macabre sense of humor while drawing blood did make me chuckle, despite the pain. They joked with a Transylvanian accent about having a lot of "red wine" to drink with their dinner that night. Remember that this was just two days after Halloween.

I have recovered from the rather severe bruising and muscle damage from the fall, but it still hobbled me while in Paris and even later here in Pennsylvania. Such events make you feel your age all the more unfortunately.

There must have been some badly aligned planets or something in the water in Paris, because I wasn't the only casualty and klutz there. My daughter Lohana fell down the stairs to her room two days after helping me get to the hospital myself. Auction expert Stuart Alexander fell and badly sprained his pinky finger, but had most of his hand wrapped up. New York gallerist Parker Stephenson fell as well, and she told me that one of her collectors also took a dive during the week at Paris Photo. To all, my sympathies and hope that you have recovered nicely.

And today, while beginning to write this, I have a bad cold and the weather outside is, as they say in the song, "frightful, so let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

But being bottled up at home pushes me to get out this newsletter, a holiday note and later a look back and look forward at the photography market.

This past year has been a tough one for many, and the political and cultural upheaval has played havoc with all our emotions and psyches, as well as with the photo and art markets.

I gave up on Facebook once again early last year, and feel much better for doing so. Plus I have more time for my actual friends and my work. People, including many truly good friends, just can't seem to find their equilibrium in these unbalanced times. I found myself getting sucked in trying to be a fair referee without much success. I often pointed out fake or terribly unbalanced news stories (on both sides of the political/cultural divide), only to be hammered for it. It takes a toll on you, no matter your attitude.

Kindness and the ability to see another point of view have not only diminished on such Social Media, they seem to have disappeared completely. People live increasingly in a smaller and smaller bubble of "friends" and ideas with a focus on political rightness instead of compromise. Instead of using social media to expand people's horizons, it is being used now to simply confirm that "rightness" belongs to those in a constantly shrinking circle of friends who agree with you, and on everything--no exceptions.

We've come a long way from reconnecting and staying in touch with old friends and sharing/learning about our combined interests to what has now become a network of callousness and nastiness. Maybe it is time to rethink how we all react to the world, and especially to Social Media. Recent studies suggest that Facebook, Instagram and similar platforms are purposely constructed to addict us—in a way even worse than opiates--with some results (bullying/suicide) being as serious. Such a combination of addiction and bubble-mentality should strike thoughtful people as extremely dangerous in these times, despite your political persuasion.

In the art world we saw some frightening tactics and bullying attacks being made (online and in the real world), as artists and museums tried to react semi-reasonably to what I will call unfair nuttiness. Charges of racism, sexism, gentrification (as a negative) and insensitivity—once treated correctly as serious issues—became instead egocentric ways for some museum and gallery protestors to get their 15 minutes of fame. Their protests and charges seemed flawed and unfair, appearing to trivialize the very issues they were protesting—often with violence and physical threats. At least that's how most of these incidents struck me.

Most institutions and others involved (or accused, depending on how you wanted to frame it) reacted with more balance, grace and sensitivity than their attackers. But it is rather frightening to see calls for such censorship and even violence from some elements that used to be dependable bastions of free expression without censorship or anti-intellectualism. And to see destruction of artwork or a gallery as a goal is sad, as it was in numerous instances this past year or so.

It doesn't help matters that the so-called leadership in Washington, DC has taken to slashing some federal art budgets and frightening many with often bizarre ideas that seem tone-deaf to the times, instead of trying to find common ground and unity. Both sets of political party hacks seem more aimed at ideas on how to destroy the other party than finding ways to solve and resolve complex and important issues for our country and the world.

It's as if we have lost a moral compass and our sense of balance as a country. But this development—despite sudden and surprising results of a Presidential election that devastated a bit more than half of the population—has been happening for sometime now. Over the last 20 years political divides have been getting deeper, rather than moderating. Concentrations of like-minded people are getting more concentrated geographically, according to survey data, not less. That makes politicians more extreme on both sides of the aisle.

So what are we as individuals to do in such circumstances?

While I sometimes feel like Sisyphus repeatedly rolling his rock up a hill, I still always attempt to be a reasonable optimist. That's just who I am. So…

First, despite so many people walling themselves off into little private fiefdoms, I find true need--even an actual thirst—for real personal contact, rather than just the virtual kind. Too often we just flounder around the edges without committing to richer relationships. Maybe in this New Year we can all try to connect a bit better than build our walls higher. What's true for nations is true for individuals. So spend a little less time on social media platforms, and more time in direct contact with people (try to actually measure your time devoted to each activity).

Try to heal yourself by turning off the day-to-day virtual blather that really doesn't change and only reinforces an unhealthy psychology. If all we fed ourselves were desserts, our bodies would quickly fail. So cut down on the negative reinforcement of social media and cable TV, and spend more time on positive personal growth and try to reconnect to our real world friends, partners, children and simple people connections.

Instead of complaining about the lack of government support of the arts, start making individual charitable contributions. No money? How about time as a docent at your local institution?

Bring things back to personal actions and responsibility; and try to extend a sense of charity to others, even if they don't always see things exactly your way. It's better than constantly moping in your own personal stew reinforced constantly day-in, day-out by Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms. Better to change the things we can, then simply bitch about the things we can't.

As I said in the 2015 Holiday message: "I would suggest to all my readers to keep as strong, loving, understanding and positive as you can, recognizing that everyone has difficulties in their lives that affect them. How we respond to others may be how we are judged on whatever cosmic scale measures our lives. Keep that in mind when you are in difficult and stressful situations."

In case you find yourself in the spirit of the holidays and would like to read a selection of some of our past holiday messages:
In Praise of Friends and Family, Issue #186
A Lesson For The Holidays, and The Rest of The Year: The Gift of Balancing The Scale, Issue #167
Holiday Greetings to All Our Clients and Newsletter Readers, Issue #138
A Holiday Message, Issue #99