Social hierarchies are nothing if not timeless and ubiquitous. It seems almost human nature to create hierarchies. It is, therefore, unsurprising to find hierarchies in art as well. Alfred Stieglitz emphasizes this in his essay “Pictorial Photography” and this concept is exemplified in Michelle Chen’s article “How the Slants Reclaimed Their Name.” Through these two different pieces, Stieglitz and Chen show how hierarchies persist within artforms themselves and bring social hierarchies and stereotypes into art.
Stieglitz, in his piece, essentially argues for a higher place in the hierarchy of art for photography. He describes how photography has previously been viewed – primarily as a simple observer of time. He then presses on about the technicalities of photography, but how only the true artist can manipulate these technicalities with a passion that highlights some truth. In other words, he argues that photography is as much on an art as painting or other types of visual art are. This is important because it frames how photography was previously viewed in the late 19th century (and most likely in the early 20th century as well). Clearly, did not hold a high place in the society’s previously held view of “true” art. For this reason, Stieglitz explains that photography has most likely been represented this way because there are a majority of amateurs (who he describes as “ignorant” and bringing nothing to the artform of photography) and technical photographers (who bring skill, but no passion). The third group of photographers he describes are the “artistic” ones who he says guide their work with skill and passion. These three separate groups he describes are a hierarchy. It may or may not have been a preexisting hierarchy, but it is one he establishes in his piece nonetheless.
In Chen’s piece, the article discusses the legal battle of a group entitled The Slants. This group is an Asian-American rock group formed in the early 2000’s. Shortly after banding together, the group attempted to trademark their name. The Patent and Trademark Office flat-out refused because of a previously established law that disallowed “racially offensive” trademarks (Chen). The complication, however, begins because “slant” as a historical epitaph was a racial slur towards Asians and Asian-Americans. Yet the music group chose it as their name for this purpose. As members of the victim-group, they decided to own it by reclaiming it. Further, this was a steady characteristic of The Slants music. They frequently commented on racial and other injustices in their lyrics. So, as members of the group targeted by the racial slur, why could they not have the ultimate decision about what was or was not acceptable to them? In this way, a hierarchy is established as well. Those in minority groups are given much less decision about their artistic freedoms within the intellectual property system. This, in turn, gives them less autonomy and pushes them further down the hierarchy of art.
All in all, the system is complex and constantly in conversation with hierarchies outside of art – like cultural, social, and religious, just as a couple examples. Stieglitz, as a white male, can establish hierarchies without much push-back. Asian-Americans, as a minority, are seen in Chen’s piece to be unable to redefine the hierarchies. While sad and understated, it is undeniably true that hierarchies of all kinds in all different aspects of life, culture, and society exist.