Photography versus Contemporary Art | Ekaterina Degot | Mittwoch, 10.12.2014

Photographers versus Contemporary Artists: Whose Crisis Is Deeper?

Photography and contemporary art are engaged in an entangled relationship with unresolved issues of power. Essentially, photography is one of art’s media, while art is one of photography’s applications. Exactly this is immersing both in an endless chicken-versus-egg causality dispute. Indeed, even if photography is obviously younger than art as such, contemporary art might still be younger than photography—it depends on what we define as the former’s beginning.

Some people, including me, would say that photography and contemporary art were born around same time, which might be the reason that still, at the end of the day, these two disciplines have many things in common, support each other, and coinhabit more or less happily, at least for now. One cannot say the same about photographers and artists, though: those characters of the contemporary cultural scene could hardly be more different and, in fact, bear considerable mutual distrust.

As is well known, contemporary artists who produce photographs outright refuse to call themselves photographers, even if the photos they exhibit are their own, and they tend to invest a substantial amount of personal time, and sometimes even manual craft, in their work. Photographers respond by sometimes depreciating artists with their perceivedly useless artwork showing no proof of decent technique. Artists who profess absolute freedom observe inexplicable quasi-religious taboos, considering it unthinkable to take a commission, to apply for biennial participation, or to pay for one’s own solo show, to name just a few; on the other hand, they tolerate more or less everything in terms of the final product. Photographers, on the contrary, do not see anything wrong with paid portfolio reviews or commissions, but they might have difficulty accepting digital alterations of documentary images, staged photographs posing as “real life,” or violations of some other rules that go far beyond aesthetics, ranging into the field of ethics.

Which of the two is experiencing the more acute identity crisis today? Contemporary artists or photographers?

This is an interesting question. For the uninitiated, contemporary art is still something completely enigmatic and elusive—“normal people” would find it difficult to define its limits and raison d’être. But insiders of the art scene are quite stable and comfortable in their unstable identity. Nowadays, young artists learn very quickly, in practice if not by the book, that what makes them artists is affiliation with specific institutions (nonprofit spaces, biennials, residencies, or international curators), while their work can take very different forms or even be physically nonexistent. Contemporary artists know very well who they are.

Photographers, by contrast, seemingly produce something very simple, easily recognizable (who cannot spot a photograph?), but they feel utterly lost in a myriad of very different professions. Introducing oneself as a “professional photographer” may give rise to many misunderstandings. In an era when anybody can make a photograph (and, most importantly, everybody does), it might seem natural that professionals are those who can make money with their photos, being commissioned by magazines, photo agencies, or even private individuals who outsource their wedding photos to a “professional.”

Relevant critical photography finds itself in a tiny zone encircled and endangered by selfie-obsessed iPhone owners on one side, and service professionals on the other (and hardly any of those sides is a “left side). It becomes more and more difficult to explain in a simple way how (and why) “photography” by Allan Sekula, Boris Mikhailov, or Wolfgang Tillmans is profoundly different from “photography” by the stars of news journalism or fashion magazines. Critical photographers who are committed to this name (and there are not that many who still are) are currently experiencing linguistic difficulties that can remind of difficulties of the early avant-garde, when artists had to claim that their discipline was not the “art” of a pompous academic painter but “art” in some other, yet undefined sense. Some of these artists tried to invent another name for their practice—and sometimes it was “photography” . . .

So, can one say that the situation of a critical photographer is vulnerable (maybe productively so), while artists, even critical artists, are enjoying an institutional and identitarian routine established half a century ago? Some photographers might think so, when they desert the photography field, but the stable identity of artists is also increasingly precarious, and in a completely new way.

Critical photographers, as I noted above, may be either amateurs or professionals. Artists, so it seems, did not fall into either of these categories until very recently. Such a thing as “Sunday art” or naive contemporary art was long considered an improbable contradictio in adjecto: it was indisputable that art required high intellectual sophistication, very conscious decisions, and knowledge of art history. On the other hand, professionalization in the sense of art realizing outside commissions was not seen as a serious danger to serious art either, since even radically politically engaged artists always stressed that this was their own, deeply personal choice.

But these assumptions about the contemporary artist—about his or her absolute consciousness and absolute independence—are now shaken. There is such a thing as amateur contemporary art nowadays: “folk conceptualism” is flourishing in social networks. There is “mass contemporary art”: a recognizable (mostly digital) language that is appropriated by advertisement, business presentations, or web design. And there is “commissioned contemporary art”: big exhibitions in large postindustrial spaces where a good many curators have asked (or at least dreamt of asking) artists for “a large-scale and rather darkish central piece of pyramidal form” or “a bright mural for a concave wall 5.5 meter long.”

Soon contemporary art might face the challenge of distancing itself from this instrumentalized “new applied art,” or even some sort of visual service—something that critical photographers have been doing for a long time already.