A House Is Not A Home

An old joke about photography goes like this: just back from a horribly impoverished country, a photographer tells of seeing an emaciated blind beggar holding a dying child. "My God," says the friend, "what did you do?" "Shot 'em at f/8 at 250," is the reply. Substitute some hapless residents o middle-class America for the peasants in the joke, and you've got an idea of the condescending exploitation of an exhibition called "Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort" (at New York's Museum of Modern Art through Dec. 31 before traveling to San Franciso, Baltimore and other cities).

Not that the likes of Tina Barney, Larry Sultan, Doug DuBois, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and a few others should have intervened on behalf of their subjects, many of whom are friends or family. Quite the opposite: they might have left them alone to go on padding about their boudoirs and rec rooms with the freedom to look as foolish or vulgar as they pleased without being skewered by a camera. Take Barney's huge color blowup, "Sunday New York Times" (1982), for example. A WASPy-looking family hangs around the dining-room table more or less perusing the paper. That seems like a nightgown on the girl with dark blue toenail polish, so that must be a morning beer in the hand of the guy behind her. Or maybe it's 2 p.m. and these people haven't even got their shoes on yet. Barney's wide-angle lens makes the room appear even more forlorn than it probably is. The woman center-rear with the baby on her hip and the young Ned Beatty type at the head of the table look lost. The photograph's implication is that the American pursuit of happiness has come up empty.

An introductory wall label suggests that unfulfillment of our "tenacious expectation--of domestic happiness" is the current state of the American dream. Although this hasn't been a news flash since about the time of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the 152 works in "Pleasures and Terrors" do their damnedest to prove the point. Nan Goldin's lover boys read and smoke in bed while their girlfriends doze or stare into space. Joel Sternfeld's suburban father-daughter couple look like they're hiding a dirty secret. Larry Sultan's Palm Springs elders (his parents!) make Madame Tussaud's effigies seem like break-dancers. Nicholas Nixon's little kids are just hanging around the house, but their proto-adult facial expressions suggest they're headed for their parents' generation's Cheeveresque pass. About the only people who escape the lens with any dignity intact are Carrie Mae Weems's card-playing black couple (Malcolm X gestures sternly from the wall while they take their whisky straight).

If the show attempted a serious social critique, its pervasive misanthropy might be justified. But the catalog essay by Peter Galassi, MoMA's new director of photography, gives reasons why "Pleasures and Terrors" could be sociologically serious, and then denies them. Does this show present "evidence of what anthropologists call material culture"? Galassi asks. Nope, he answers himself: "...a great deal is missing. "Maybe it exposes "a massive exercise in yuppie navel-gazing." No again:"...such a judgment is too sweeping."

Well, what is this exhibition-which contains image after image of material culture and navel-gazing--supposed to be about? "For artists," Galassi muses, "stalking the cliches of advertising and the movies often has meant following them into the home." Aha! It's good ole postmodernism to the rescue once again. The exhibition isn't really about pleasure or terror or domesticity at all; it's about irony. Since the photographs don't mean what they apparently say, all the people in them who look weak, hurt, stupid and vain are merely actors playing stereotypical roles. The show is all in good, clean, media-chiding fun.

In an effort to buttress this cop-out, "Pleasures and Terrors" includes several works whose fictitious nature vitiates whatever being-there impact the majority of the pictures might have. Cindy Sherman's takeoffs on movie stills and Laurie Simmons's fantasy with plastic figurines are by now such well-worn art-world conceits that they don't say much about anything except gallery fashions. Frank Majore's hypercolored still life and Ellen Brooks's ode to film grain are likewise beside the exhibition's disavowed but undeniable premise: the grotesqueness of every-day middle-class life.

Like any wide cast of the curatorial net, however, "Pleasures and Terrors" does contain some memorable works. Jock Sturges's untitled 1984 photograph of a pubescent girl on the beach, seductively eying the camera while her parents nuzzle each other, is as explicit as implicit can be. In Sheron Rupp's crisply composed "Hillsboro, New Hampshire" (1985), a fat kid in a wet T shirt aims a rifle at a paper plate. And in Robert Adams's "Summer Night # 18" (1985), a perfectly ordinary house is rendered extraordinary by lighting alone. But almost nothing else in the show says anything that Diane Arbus and Weegee didn't say better--esthetically and psychologically-long ago. The real lessons of "Pleasures and Terrors" are these: (1) the only sin of its depicted unfortunates is that they weren't hip enough to get on the other side of the camera. And (2) if you've got a postmodernist photographer for a friend, you don't need an enemy.