Jon Rafman takes screencaps of the world. From his desk, he follows the paths of google cars and discovers their most recent pictures. He does little to modify them, often leaving the arrow markers and google sybmols: he presses ‘save-as’. Rafman’s art has appeared in the Saatchi gallery, the New Museum, and the Contemporary Art Museum of Rome, Italy.
Jonah Lehrer writes about how our minds work. He studied at Columbia and Oxford; he’s written for Wired, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and NPR’s Radiolab. Recently he resigned from The New Yorker, was fired from Wired, and his book Imagine was withdrawn from the market. Lehrer was accused of recycling, fabricating, and plagiarizing. Sometimes he pressed ‘save-as’, sometimes he copied and pasted, and sometimes he simply invented.
So why do we condemn Lehrer and embrace Rafman?
At first the answer is obvious. One, Rafman frames his work intelligently and Lehrer doesn’t at all; Rafman made his plagiarism the art, but Lehrer never made a spectacle of his fabrication, because that’s not how plagiarism works. Two, art—especially what lives online—is notorious for embracing copy-cats and repeats. Both answers admit the obvious differences between visual art and the written word.
But if we question Rafman more thoroughly, it gets complicated. Why do viewers embrace the explanation for his work, why do they appreciate it? Is intelligent framing enough to give weight and value to his art, one that’s literally screen-grabbed from the Internet?
On his website, Rafman says he captures the ”paradoxes of modernity” and that ”the technological tools themselves show how they can estrange us from ourselves.” The Independent published an article by Tim Walker about Jon Rafman’s Google photographs with the subhead “Is he a pioneer or a plagiarist?” The article underlined the “man on the street” qualities of Rafman’s work, which completely misses the point of what Rafman himself—and what thousands of other folks—are saying about our relationship to art, media, and the world.
Jonah Lehrer’s website is frozen in time, before the moment he was viciously ejected from the very sphere of people who applauded him. He doesn’t claim to have a PhD, to have years of experience in any lab (just one lab, and less than a year, in fact), or to have any kind of substantial basis for the ideas he was writing about. He’s just a really, really good storyteller with lots and lots of exciting ways to ask questions. We loved him until he started recycling those ideas, which is what we often applaud artists for: take this idea and show it to me in a different medium, with a different color, on a different platform.
If there is a moniker for Rafman, it’s “totally solitary man living vicariously through the other man on the street, a reflection of his desired self, on the Internet”. If there is a moniker for Lehrer, it might be similar, both pre- and post-fall.
Ultimately the value of Rafman’s art lies in these various distinctions and identities, and in the way his framing enables us to have new conversations about our lives and the way we see the world. His work is the perfect example of how to master, in some small way, what happens to us online.
Lehrer’s work is the perfect example of how all that’s out there, the immensity of opportunities, visuals, and words, can (and does!) master us.
November 4th, 2012 - Boris Kachka published a well-researched, comprehensive look at what Jonah Lehrer did in New York Magazine. In a sense, he agrees with me - he says that in our hunger for Truth and Ideas, we force writers to produce more and more, when often the brain doesn’t work like that, and neither does science.
December 5th, 2012 - Huffington Post rehashes their love for Jon Rafman.
1: Vigorous oral sex in the french style, finished with fire
Fig. 1: She does it
i love: horses, mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, my hairdresser, my boyfriend (when he’s not being a fascist pig), macrame, italians (when they’re not being fascist pigs), motorcycles, the olympics - for men’s beach volleyball - and SPF 3.
A fish, duh. They’re not worth eating (unless you’re in china where it seems like everything’s worth eating, or at least edible), but in Minnesota people spear them from canoes, pull them ashore, and take their pictures next to five-year-old girls.
*Voraxed: Shares roots with the now-common phrase carpe diem, or YOLO.
1: This clearly refers to some kind of obsession with science fiction.
2: “I’ll do anything to avoid getting boned for the next ten years”
In the office there is a girl who has dark eyebrows and oval cheeks like a Mediterranean princess. She’s a fruitless cunt, I think, but I haven’t proved it yet. Maybe I just haven’t found her stamen.
My back is to her and there’s a cubicle slab between us; she’s on the phone, and she’s giving what-for to a forlorn human on the other side of the line. The Staten Island creeps bigger and bigger into her voice as the tirade crescendos: “Gerry, the girls in your store don’t deserve to work in customer service! When I was there yesterday I was insulted, all of us were insulted, and your girls didn’t even know how to handle themselves. They had no conception of the situation whatsoever! After I was handed a dress two sizes too big — they had my size, Gerry, on file, because I called ahead to give all our sizes! we’re a bridal party for godsakes — after she handed me the wrong dress I asked for my size, a 2, and she rolled her eyes at me! At me, for wanting to try on my size! Is that what you call customer service, Gerry?”
The princess gives pause for Gerry to ask something inconsequential. The air conditioner hums and keyboards tap around us. The telephone cord dangles against the counter. Nothing Gerry can say will make this better.
“I come from a customer service background, Gerry. I worked at Kleinfeld’s Dresses here in the city. I know what customer service is, and I know how to give it, and I know how to get it. And I did not receive it yesterday at your store. It’s hard enough getting married, but being handed the wrong dress at a fitting? I know what size I am, Gerry, and your girls wouldn’t believe me. I am what size I am!”
She rails on for three minutes, then a sudden complacency enters her voice. It might be exhaustion, or perhaps Gerry has hit the right buttons. The princess says, “I wish you were there the other night, Gerry, because the way you’re handling this is really fabulous.”
She hangs up the phone and sighs.
The princess must be a self-pollinator, I thought.