The Final Frame - Roger Hicks

What is an intellectual? Well, it’s a bit like being an artist, really. Anyone who claims to be one, can be one. But, like artists, some are better than others.

Roger Hicks
What is an intellectual? Well, itís a bit like being an artist, really. Anyone who claims to be one, can be one. But, like artists, some are better than others.

At its most fundamental, intellectualism presupposes thought before action. Not, however, thought as a replacement for action. The Ďactioní may not be the sort of action you see in an action movie, with car chases and gunfights, but something as apparently intellectual as Einsteinís Theory of Relativity still qualifies as action, because it changed the way that people think and its repercussions are still being felt today, around a century later.

Intellectualism also presupposes a degree of education, but once again it is easy to mislead oneself as to the nature of education. One of my most intellectual friends left school at 14 but, through voracious reading, acquired a knowledge of philosophy, politics and economics that would put the average PPE graduate to shame. Besides, education does not come only from books. Television can be mindless entertainment, or a boundless source of information. Another of my intellectual friends is not a great reader, but her intelligence and discrimination enable her to marshal arguments on a wide range of topics in a manner that allows her to hold her own in any company.

A third pillar of intellectualism might be taken as a familiarity with Ďcultureí, the world of the arts, and this is where pseudo-intellectualism rears its ugly head. The arts supplements in the newspapers are the fons et origo of much pseudo-intellectualism. Read the books they recommend, go to the exhibitions they recommend, attend the plays, concerts and operas they recommend, regurgitate the same opinions that their paid critics spout, and you will qualify, in the eyes of a fellow pseudo-intellectual, as an intellectual. The fact that neither of you is, in fact, an intellectual, will escape both of you. Dare to say that you find opera tedious, and pseudo-intellectuals will flock to condemn you Ė in the company, to be fair, of a few genuine intellectuals who are unable to imagine anyone who doesnít like it.

What, then, might be a clear way of distinguishing the pseudo-intellectual from the true intellectual? I can think of at least two possibilities.

The first has already been hinted at: action. The artist, the creator, the thinker, has a much better chance of being an intellectual than the critic or analyst. In other words, youíve got to get your work out there. Precisely where Ďout thereí may be is not necessarily important: a textbook on semiotics, in the right place, can be as Ďout thereí as a novel that sells a million copies and is made into a movie, especially if the same person is responsible for both. Umberto Eco is, for example, one of the great intellectuals of our time.

The second, which is where things may start to get controversial, is a lack of pretentiousness. Pretentiousness can be very much in the eye of the beholder, and there are plenty who would accuse Ecoís The Name of the Rose or even his Foucaultís Pendulum of pretentiousness. The answer to that, basically, is Ďtoughí. Read his Travels in Hyperreality and youíll see that while he is formidably intelligent and well read, heís also extremely playful, both in ideas and language. If there are bits that go over your head, well, fine. Iím absolutely sure that I donít get every reference, allusion or joke, but equally, I get enough of it that Iíll happily put up with what I donít. And for sheer genius in playfulness with ideas and language, read Sir Terry Pratchett.

What has all this to do with photography? Well, Sir Terry is part of the clue. Very few pseudo-intellectuals can stand him. Heís too popular. And, worse still, he doesnít concentrate on misery and suffering. The Buddha said, ĎAll sentient beings desire happiness and the causes of happiness, and to avoid suffering and the causes of suffering,í and this raises the question of whether the readers of literary novels are indeed sentient beings, wallowing as they do in suffering and the causes of suffering.

There is, of course, an exactly parallel strand in photography. Itís not reportage, itís not crusading journalism. It doesnít seek to change anything. It is a sheer voyeurism of misery. And if they canít find (or be bothered to find) real misery, photographers of this school will create it, with yet more pictures of glum, overprivileged teenagers staring at the camera, dying of affluenza. Often, thereís an extensive Artistís Statement alongside. Point out that the Artistís Statement is commonly even more worthless than the pictures, and, oh boy, do the pseudo-intellectuals get angry.


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