In defense of sentiment: Every now and then I read something that makes me believe that I have never thought deeply about anything.

Every now and then I read something that makes me believe that I have never thought deeply about anything.  Thus I present Melissa Smyth’s epic critical takedown of Brandon Stanton’s cultural phenomenon Humans of New York (HONY).

Here it is:  The critique. 

And here is HONY:  Click

Stanton has created a phenomenon alright, attracting millions of viewers to his various social media platforms.  Melissa Smyth, listed as an associate editor for the on-line magazine Warscapes, takes serious issue with Stanton’s work, specifically the patronizing sentimentality that, according to Smyth, presents a threat to humanity.  Hyperbole aside, Smyth makes the case against sentimentality, and opens her critique of HONY with a well worn quote from James Baldwin:

“Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”

The quote is from the 1949 Baldwin essay Everybody’s Protest Novel, in which Baldwin comments harshly on the sentimentality inherent in  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

First things first:  Anyone seeking to minimize a creative endeavor need only to label it sentimental.

But what of sentiment?  Photography by it’s very nature is sentimental. In her essay Smith cites the work of the very talented photographer Zun Lee as an example, I suppose,  of the sort of photography that works against sentiment, otherwise why cite it in the first place?   Except that the photograph of a  father and son illustrating his web page is certainly sentimental:  The father figure, arm over the shoulder of the boy, their backs to the camera as they gaze in the distance across the urban expanse.  Smith also cites the work of Diane Arbus.  Arbus is known for two things: Her photographs of  people living on the margins  and for her tragic suicide.  I defy any informed viewer to see Arbus’ work outside the context of her suicide. You can’t do it.  Her method of death now informs every photograph she made and thus infuses her photographic efforts with sentiment.  The romantic tragedy of her life overwhelms her work.

Here’s the thing: Sentiment in a photograph is almost a given.  The passing of time adds that sentiment, to some degree, almost regardless of subject.  Does Brandon Stanton traffic in sentiment? Sure he does.  Does the sentiment in his work disqualify that work?  It does not.  Smyth uses volatile language that empowers HONY in a way that is simply not realistic.  HONY is not a political manifesto designed to eradicate the humanity of its subjects.   Further, even a cursory read of Stanton’s remarks regarding HONY reveal an earnest young man and an evolving project that is nothing now like what he imagined when he began the thing, which to me is a positive indicator that Stanton is operating with at least some degree of empathy and that his work can, perhaps, shed a bit of light on the human experience, or at least his human experience.

Maybe it’s time to see sentiment as an inevitable ingredient in much of the work produced by even the most serious contributors to our culture. While I can agree to an extent with Smyth’s assertion that sentiment can be applied to  appease social and political dissidence, I do not see HONY  as part of a state sponsored propaganda mission.  Is Stanton perfect in his effort?  Of course not.  He has a large platform now, and criticism is to be expected.  Time will tell if he is able to maintain his success as the project moves forward.

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