Photography versus Contemporary Art | Ekaterina Degot | Samstag, 01.11.2014

Photographers versus Artists: A Colonial Story?

In this blog, I will explore—in a necessarily fragmented way—some of the paradoxes inherent to the complex relations between photography and so-called contemporary art, as seen through the eyes of a curator, a writer, and, in the first place, a teacher, since for almost a decade I have been teaching at a school that educates both photographers and artists. Just as an aside: The Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia is a small postgraduate or, rather, alternative art school—set in a country where professional art education still produces mainly nineteenth-century-like academic painters, and photography is being taught widely, but in its purely commercial iteration.Watching young people at the tentative beginnings of their respective career as a photographer and artist has revealed to me something about these two disciplines that usually becomes blurred later. However overlapping these two professions might be, students, at the beginning, are not; they can hardly be more different.

Photographers-to-be often seem naïve and, literally, artless. Typically, they use the rhetoric of “bringing beauty and happiness into people’s lives,” and it breaks my heart to tell them that this will not really contribute to their careers, and that they should rather adopt a very different vocabulary. I suggest that they make a promise to “disturb” and “frustrate” some innocent people—without necessarily changing the type of images they are producing (cats and flowers can be very frustrating, as artists like Fischli/Weiss have shown us). Others, who have already tasted the blood of contemporary art, know they must exude a certain nonchalant disdain of the uneducated public, while claiming to be socially useful—and this particular claim is best expressed in an extremely complicated language. Contemporary art then appears as some sort of rhetorical skill, a tool to interpret what you are doing in a right way—something photographers-to-be do not always master, while what they actually do more or less fits with the ever-expanding frame of contemporary art.

In their indifference to the question of audience, dedicated contemporary artists seem to be protected by the logic of the unique object for the individual consumer, which is still on their horizons even if very far away from the video installations they are actually producing. Photographers—digital and not—are into sharing and communicating. They become really upset about the perspective of becoming an “artist’s artist” and are not ready for the idea of deliberately making non-understandable art for an imaginary audience. Incidentally, this does not make young photographers statistically more left-wing than wannabe-elitist young artists—rather, the opposite is true.

Our school has emerged as a “pure photography” school, which in recent years has shifted significantly—although not completely—toward the field of intermedia art. This is also the path our students are following: by the end of the second year (we have three), half of those who declared themselves photographers abandon this medium cold turkey and start to frenetically produce videos and performances. Might it be that we, the teachers, are projecting onto them some sort of self-hate, a horrifying suspicion that photo schools, photo galleries, photo museums, and photo biennials are self-imposed ghettos? One would not tolerate a watercolor school in a contemporary art field, would one?

But this is a wrong dilemma. The very alternative of photography versus contemporary art seems logically awkward. Is not photography actually contemporary art? (What can be more contemporary than clicking the shutter, in present time?) Sometimes it is; sometimes, however, it is contemporary but not art, just a vessel for something outside this field (a passport photo or a document copy). Photography is, as Susan Sontag famously put it, basically a universal language that can transport all sorts of meaning. Unlike watercolor, photography is, in equal measure, a less encompassing notion than art (one of contemporary art’s media) and a wider one (it can carry art as well as non-art). And while my photography students get inferiority complexes for not being artists enough, in the logic of contemporary art itself they actually should be rather proud of it. Unbeknownst to them, they possess something that contemporary artists rarely have: a healthy non-art attitude and a quest for direct truth (however inaccessible it might be).

But, while twentieth-century photography was often seen by avant-garde artists like Alexander Rodchenko as a solution to their desire to escape from the trap of the beaux arts, today photography appears as a rather archaic discipline—even in its digital form, let alone the chemical one. Typically it is where art residues hide, nowadays. At least among my student photographers, more often than not, skills are rehabilitated, a preindustrial attitude emerges, individual vision is worshipped, and producers speak of traditions and styles rather than about the economy of their work.

My freshman-year photography students, statistically, are into naïve-ish “street photography” and are worshipping “vision.” My art students, typically, identify art with dusty avant-garde media-critical and anti-retinal “experiments” (you see nothing, to put it simply—or, what you see is totally irrelevant). Between these two groups, there is an intellectual, if not class, inequality at play, even something not unlike a colonial relationship. Art loves the photographic medium because it is so “simple,” so “non-artsy,” so “direct.” For the same reason, art does not always love photographers, who start to hate themselves and their own alleged “simple-mindedness.” From very early on, artists-to-be speak about using photographs that make photographers nervous. While building their numerous “research installations” and “image collages,” artists adopt the position of a curator. Photographers suspect they might be soon objectified and instrumentalized by their fellows students.

Typically, young photographers believe that to become contemporary artists, they need a “supplement”—either spatial (some special installation—a book, among other things) or temporal (turning photos into a slide sequence, adding sound or written text). But what is at stake here is regaining control of display and narrative. Might it be similar to self-colonization and self-exploitation (photographers are starting to use snapshots as well—just their own)? And are strategies of “decolonization” also out there? What kind of place can direct photography have in art and art exhibitions? (More about this next week.) After all, it is photography-inspired, Courbet-like, crude realism that is the ancestor of contemporary art. This directness, this democratically inclined image, was overshadowed by an avant-gardist, media-critical attitude at some point. Does it stand any chance now?