Photography versus Contemporary Art | Ekaterina Degot | Dienstag, 16.12.2014

Photography versus Contemporary Art: What’s Next?

We have reviewed several aspects of the highly competitive—even love/hate—relationship between contemporary art and photography. Is there anything left to say? Perhaps something about the future of both. They will hardly be able to avoid each other.

For avant-garde artists of the 1920s, photography represented the ultimate hope in their quest for new paths. In his seminal texts penned between 1926 and 1928 (The Photograph versus the Painting and From the Painting to the Photograph), constructivist theorist Ossip Brik saw photography as “supplanting painting” for several reasons—for being “precise, fast, cheap,” but also for having a more direct relation with the truth, as well as for being more intellectual (photography was black-and-white at that time, forcing viewers to brace their imagination), more socially engaged, and, first and foremost, more “anti-art.” According to Brik, the photographer is always working in social contexts and representing them, while “any painting by any artist is structured around a central object isolated from its environment.”

Today, many things have changed. Photographs are still fast and cheap, but the contextualization ethics to which Brik referred are over: the contemporary snapshot, be it digital or even obsoletely analogue, is fragmented and fragmenting, and there is a powerful decontextualizing force behind contemporary swift image production. Today, it’s rather painters who are working with photographs (like Marlene Dumas), who are reinjecting a historical and contextual dimension into the random singularities of their photographic sources—strangely, by adding a subjective touch, as well as time.

For the twentieth-century theorists, including, obviously, Walter Benjamin, photography (with its then-necessary captions) represented the ideological, the (con)textual, the informative, and the semantic, while art was on the dangerous side of “pure pictures.” In the new millennium, the tables turned. Today’s feeling rather places photography on the side of semblance, while contemporary art, with its undisputed (or not-yet-disputed) conceptual heritage, is on the side of ideas and therefore can enjoy the (not always well-deserved) sense of superiority that might send young photographers into despair.

However, the dilemma of photography versus painting is false. We all live in what has been recently called the “post-Internet condition,” which has effectively dissolved the confrontation of the two. Today, anything can be an artwork as long as it is a digital photograph. And even if it is not, nothing is lost because anything can become a digital photograph in its afterlife, when reproduced in a magazine or, increasingly, on a website. As a result, we all experience not even media indifference, but what can be called media blindness, when we often do not exactly remember whether what we saw was a painting or a photograph. Our visual memory often skips media-specificity.

Basically, web-distributed digital photographs have become the art form of our times, and it does not make professional photographers’ lives any easier than it was for professional scribes after the advent of book printing. But, to make things even more complicated, the institutional structure surrounding this web-distributed image is not yet fully in place and, for now, is in favor of neither photographers nor artists. In the 1980s, documentary photographers started to switch, at least partly, to the art field and its institutions (market, collections, exhibitions, curators, and critics), while magazine journalism began its gradual decline. Now, the framework typical for contemporary art is likewise fading out in the face of new modes of image circulation, Internet, and social networks in the first place. These modes guarantee neither authorship stability nor economical benefits. As Susanne von Falkenhausen recently wrote in Frieze about art in social media: “However utopianly anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist the resulting changes might be, they are economically unfavourable for the artists themselves. Property is replaced by the capital of the largest possible digital fan community.”

Artists try to control the avalanche of digitalization and performative distribution of images by heavily investing in the genre of research installation and lecture performance, as I described in my previous blog post. Both operate through a fee-based “concert economy” and not a collector’s economy. Photographers mostly stick to books, another precarious genre, whose economy is an enigma to me (though I suspect it can be very different, since these books range from artist’s unique paraphernalia to glossy, widely distributed marks of pride by major publishers). Anyway, while the institutional future of art and photography in the post-digital era is foggy, it will certainly rely on the “citation index” (and “like/share index”) to some extent—not just on the market or on art history (which until now was the ultimate judge).

In this uncertain future, photography and art have some resources to share with each other. Photography must indisputably leave the field of pure visibility; it needs concepts and ideas, it needs its captions back, it needs books where photographers can present both their writings and their images. In the first place, it needs self-reflection, especially because its mode of production is becoming so central to the contemporary world, and not just in art. Recent twists in photography’s materiality (which it maintains despite digitalization) and the social and political implications thereof have not been pivotal enough to theorists’ interests—Hito Steyerl’s prolific writings are a notable, and very influential, exception.

Art, on the other hand, needs something as simple and as complex as “truth,” such as interest in reality beyond media-critical navel-gazing, and this is where photography, at least as a symbolic anchor, can be relevant. Recently, art lost its faith in the absolute power of a critical attitude—perhaps for the better. The response to this has been some sort of radical artistic modesty: increasing self-instrumentalization, a conscious reduction of art’s role toward social and political usefulness, as well as a surrender to science. Yet radical aspiration—aspiration, not pretense—to truthfulness, still present as a horizon of photography, might be a more complex answer to this challenge, and the critical character of art would not be abandoned to the enemy as easily as is happening now.