"I lean toward the enchantment, the visual power, of the esthetically rejected subject."
This statement by photographer Walker Evans, cited at a career-ranging exhibit of Evans' work at the High Museum in Atlanta, defines an aesthetic principle of modernism.
The quote was cited on an explanatory panel besides several Evans photographs showing street debris such as leaves on a manhole cover or discarded plastic and paper.
I wasn't impressed by the debris photos, finding them of much lesser quality than Evans' portraits and haunting landscapes such as cars parked diagonally along a street at twilight. They failed the test of a distinctive vision: I felt anyone could have taken them, while much of Evans' other work displays the originality of talent.
This, I realize, is close to the Philistine's complaint about modern art, such as Jackson Pollock's drip paintings: My kindergarten child could have done it.
Nevertheless, I found the street debris photos, and ones showing wrenches, lacking in artistic merit. But that is besides the point, what interested me was the phrase "the esthetically rejected object."
The phrase, taken out of context, was not spoken by Evans in connection with his street debris photos. The quote comes from an interview Evans did late in his life with Yale University art students. Evans' statement came as part of his response to a student's question about whether a trash can can be beautiful. Evans affirmed that a trash can can have its own beauty.
The phrase "esthetically rejected" intrigued me. Did anyone esthetically reject the trash can? A critic can esthetically (I was also intrigued by the spelling) reject a play, a painting or a novel, but no one would make such a judgment about a functional object like a trash can. It stands outside of the aesthetic realm, until an artist makes it a subject for a photograph, painting or poem. Or perhaps it is esthetically rejected until an artist makes such a choice.
I though of Evans' statement in connection with his famous photos of poverty-ravaged Alabama sharecroppers taken for James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." The men, women and children had been economically and socially rejected. Their lack of culture, their primitive clothes and housing, show they'd been "esthetically rejected" as well. Evans' photos reveal the beauty of their bodies, faces and homes.
Evans and other modernists revealed the beauty in objects long "esthetically rejected." The shock has not abated.