Subjectivity in the Face of Choice

A while ago, I asked six people to read and critique a manuscript of mine. Some feedback has come in already. It varies widely which leads me to the only sensible conclusion possible: tastes differ.

This conclusion is of absolutely no help to me. How could it be? Person X loves a particular scene while Person Y hated it. There is no real objectivity in that which comes from a creative source.

Science is objective, math is objective, law is objective, medicine is objective. There are clear rules–supported by evidence–to guide how those disciplines function.

The creative stuff? No such result.

You know this photo:

Image result for migrant mother nursing

It has been seen by many as the image of the Great American Dust Bowl. In fact, were I to have asked you to call up in your mind a black and white photo you’ve seen about the dust bowl, I’d venture to guess this is what your memory would have presented.

And why this image? Did you know that a series of photos were taken of this woman and her children? Any one of them could have been put forth as the picture to capture the feel and tragedy of that time period.

So why that one?

Because someone decided that one was “the best.” Imagine though if someone else had been in the position to make that decision?

What if this had been the image we all came to know?

Image result for migrant mother nursing

Would we have, as a culture had a different notion of breastfeeding had we all come to know this image? Would we have spent time hypothesizing on the writing on the side of the crate upon which she sat? Would we have understood,from this photo, that this woman was living in an open-air tent. Would we have concluded that she and her one child were victims of an environmental tragedy? Would we have even cared?

Did it matter more in the other image that you could see three children? What if the photographer had gotten all five of the “migrant mother’s” children to encircle her?

On that day, the photographer, Dorothea Lange took five photographs. ( You can see all five photos here.) Later, she had this to say about her experience:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. . .  I did not ask her name or her history. . . . She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. . . . There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

Now I’m not sure how this migrant’s mother’s individual tragedy being documented by Ms. Lange ending up “helping” her out of her circumstances. And I cringed when I read Ms. Lange’s characterizing the exchange as being some sort of “equality.”  Those critiques of mine aside, I still am struck by the randomness that one image prevailed in our cultural memory while the other four faded into obscurity.

And herein lies the struggle that all creative efforts undergo: The subjective gaze and judgment made by others.

As I slowly edit, for the first time, the manuscript for The Olivia Express, I find myself making changes with the awareness that I may be doing so simply to please others. Those “others,” i.e., literary agents and publisher, being the ones in a position to label my work as credible, meaningful, and worthwhile–when in fact, it is all subjective.

Who knows if Ms. Lange wanted her photo of the migrant mother breastfeeding to be the one to be promulgated. If she did, and was told by “an other” that the now-famous photo would be the one published, I wonder if she was disappointed or whether she accepted her fame through the filter of someone else’s subjectivity.





10 thoughts on “Subjectivity in the Face of Choice

  1. It really is a matter of taste whether or not your submissions are accepted or rejected. That’s always given me some hope, but it’s also frustrating–it seems like a crap shoot sometimes. That no matter how much hard work you put into your writing, no one may like it. Or the people who would like it may never see it. It seems to be a combination of persistence and luck, with a dash of talent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know how it works, but could you self publish your books?
    I purchase e-books from Barns & Noble, and some are self published.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I took a college course entitled “The Artist and the Making of Meaning”. Our professor’s main point was that art is subjective and anything could be art if acknowledged as such by those who are deemed credentialed in the art world. A very small number of people are chosen to decide what has creative value and the masses look to those few to advise them rather than trusting their own instincts.

    In my estimation, there is always creative value — at a minimum for the creator. I believe the few credentialed in any subjective field are actually assigning commercial value. And here again I would argue that a lay person, so to speak, feels as though they need the publisher, the art critic, the A&R rep, Oprah, etc. to tell them what is good and what they should like.

    And with that I will say, keep writing. You are a talented storyteller.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very thought-provoking! It is mentioned in the article you link to that she was taking the photos for a government agency. Is it possible the family received assistance through that agency?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe, I don’t know what sort of social safety nets there were during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. I don’t think a whole lot.

      It wasn’t until the 1960’s that those sorts of agencies were established: AFDC (Aid for Families with Dependent Children) began in 1962.
      Food Stamps didn’t start up until 1964. And Medicaid was 1965.


  5. At least you’re submitting Jenna – I can’t even find the energy to do that! Keep the faith. A writer writes and all that….best wishes, N

    Liked by 1 person

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