Exceptional Position of Photography within the (Art) World | Walead Beshty | Monday, 30.04.2012

The Question of a Medium’s Identity

Last week, I attempted to draw forward a peculiar thematic in photography criticism and theory and the parallel instability of the term “photography.” At its base, a technology that has such a variance of instrumental applications and contextual meanings presents some intractable problems for art historical discourse, and its preference for discrete objects over more broadly systemic social or epistemological conditions. In other words, art history still maintains echoes of the assumption of aesthetic autonomy within its adherence to medium divisions, an interpretive schema that runs into difficulties when dealing with photographic objects, and the elasticity of the term photography to describe practices which range from fine art, to the journalistic, and cover objects as varied as platinum palladium and vegetable dye on paper.

This is not a crisis for the medium as such--it continues to be widely disseminated and an efficient tool of mass communication--but a methodological problem within art history/criticism with regard to how semiotics and psychoanalysis are applied to aesthetic objects. The frequent confusion of a crisis of practice, for one of theorization, has produced a general misunderstanding of both photography, and where this problem truly lies. I posted my response to the SFMoMA symposium “Is Photography Over?” because it was one approach to describing this conundrum, specifically in institutional terms, that are bureaucratic issues on the micro scale, and only become methodological or theoretical when abstracted from and generalized. This situation is further complicated because photography creates confusions between the synthetic arts and material culture, and in addition, between conscious acts and natural phenomena, two distinctions that are key for the traditions of art history and criticism. These qualities make it difficult to reconcile photographic production with medium specific discourses. Something more akin to information theory, or enunciation theory seems better able to describe the conditions of photography, neither of which necessitate the organization of communication according to medium, nor seek to ontologize media. Vilém Flusser’s work is, to me, the most accomplished attempt to produce a theory of photography that is not subject to the theoretical pitfalls of essentializing categorical delimiters.

Moreover, while photography has had a nuanced and complex relationship to death, so has every other “medium.” For example monuments are the foundation of modernist sculpture, and these are exclusively about marking sites, and the “this has been,” variously addressing the notion of loss, and death. Similar arguments could be made with regard to painting.

The apocalyptic theorization of the photograph (seeing photography as the end of some relationship to the world around us) is both illusory, and actual. It is illusory in the sense that it has little to do with photography as a concrete aesthetic tool (how could an object be “about” absence), and actual, as the phenomena is historically and intellectually significant for the discourse about aesthetics in general, and photography in particular, and cannot simply be abandoned, for to do so would be to obscure the meaning of these debates a second time. It is not simply whether or not photography is perennially in crisis (the answer to this question is dull), but why this question continues to be asked.

In response to Jorg Scheller’s compelling post, I would offer that one could proffer a singular notion of photography as an umbrella term that contains the accumulation of debates which have struggled to come to terms with it as a medium (one could historicize this discourse), while simultaneously reducing the term “photography” to a provisional term, one like “washing machine”, or “telephone”, neither of which require theoretical or intellectual explication (for we look to neither category for evidence of the ontological nature of the thing which fits within it, we only seek marginal utility from the terms). Doing so would change the approach to the term “photography” from “what is the nature of the photography?” to “how do the various assertions of photographic identity over time provide us with a mirror through which to contemplate the conventions of aesthetic theory, art criticism, and art history?” In other words, while it is difficult to look directly at critical discourse as a theoretical object, one can look to its reflections, much in the manner that one would attempt to look at a solar eclipse by using an intermediary tool. Or to put it in Claude Lévi Strauss’ terms:

The real question is not whether the touch of a woodpecker’s beak does in fact cure toothache. It is rather whether there is a point of view from which a woodpecker’s beak and a man’s tooth can be seen as ‘going together’ (the use of this congruity for therapeutic purposes being only one of its possible uses), and whether some initial order can be introduced into the universe by means of these groupings.

So instead of considering whether or not the theorization of photography and absence, or loss, was accurate, we could instead ask what function or need these theories satisfied for writing about aesthetics.

It seems the best approach to answering how we can “keep discussing photography at all?” is two-pronged. First, we should remember that this issue regarding the collapse of a medium is a fabrication and/or inconsequential (if the term ceases to exist, a new one will replace it, and if the system the term refers to is subsumed within another, nothing is actually lost), and that the fantasy of collapse is perpetuated by methodological issues which are independent from the practice of photography, specifically how aesthetics are written about and categorized, rather than practiced. The crisis is a bugbear. But stopping here would be a denial of the significant and radical implications of the theorization of photography, and prevent a history of this impact. Just because it may be exaggerated or misplaced, doesn’t mean that this “crisis” isn’t a symptom of an actual problem. Thus I would propose an approach similar to that of Peter Bürger when he discusses the problem of autonomy, i.e. no matter how false autonomy might be, it still bears investigating because,

… [autonomy] describes something real (the detachment of art as a special sphere of human activity from the nexus of the praxis of life) but simultaneously expresses this real phenomenon in concepts that block recognition of the social determinacy of the process.

Bürger goes on to argue for a need to historicize the concept, accept it as a phenomenon, but also to keep it at arms length, to not subscribe to it but rather outline it as a historical phenomenon. I would propose something similar in relationship to photography as a discrete medium and the implications that arise from attempts to theorize it as such, and that also, the issue of photography and loss, or photography and death, or photography and non-meaning “expresses (a) real phenomenon in concepts that block recognition of the social determinacy of the process.” In other words, that the methodological challenge photography poses to structuralist, psychoanalytic, or art historical approaches is misunderstood as being a quality of a medium in crisis rather than a crisis in the system of differential media. Thus one could accept the situation as it was most recently described by George Baker:

Critical consensus would have it that the problem today is not that just about anything image-based can now be considered photographic, but rather that photography itself has been foreclosed, cashiered, abandoned—outmoded technologically and displaced aesthetically.

Certainly there is consensus on this point, but it may be more accurate to see this “outmodedness” as being a quality of differential media analysis, rather than its chosen object. The way forward I would offer, would be to historicize the theories of this collapse, while in practice, ceasing to use terms like photography, painting, and sculpture as categorical delimiters, and use them instead to indicate certain historical understandings of aesthetics and art objects. In short, to understand the ideological implications of their use, while denaturalizing them in the process. When one discusses a particular class of objects, one could speak about them, as I said in an earlier post, from the perspective of distributive, and political effect, rather than abstract ontological identity.

For the remaining posts, I will be primarily concerned with approaching the social and political distributive systems of art, rather than analyze the use of the term “photography”. When that term does arise, I mean it in the sense of an accumulation of discourses centered around the photograph, and not the practice of producing, or distributing photographs. When I write about the production or distribution of photographs, or things which are photographic (as in like photographs), I will do so specifically in terms of educational, journalistic, or art systems (etc.).