Photographs versus Contemporary Art: Beyond the Pleasure Principle
I must apologize for the rather long silence, during which I have been traveling, meeting lots of people, while almost constantly in public, which has made it difficult to think, let alone to write. Actually, if I were producing a series of photographs rather than a blog, it would have been easy. I could have made thousands of them (even taking a selfie while giving a public speech—why not, it might have been considered cute!) and indeed post them on Instagram, as mentioned by my co-blogger Casey Smallwood, taking part in the “casual” art production so characteristic of our times. Blogging, as “casual” theory production, is much closer to this contemporary process of taking and transmitting photographs than, let’s say, writing an academic essay. But still it is not the same. The only thing that would come really close would be permanently recording oneself and others with a Dictaphone and immediately uploading it onto YouTube—something that, strangely, we are not normally doing, as if what we said to each other at that lovely evening with friends was less important, and easier to remember, than how we were dressed.
Contemporary photographic production, professional as well as not, with its generally indexical nature, mostly stays in this aesthetic register of “how” (things look), while contemporary art, typically, now ventures rather in the “non-retinal” direction of “what” (these things mean). This might sound unforgivably simplistic, and I say “now” even if there is, still, lots of object-based art for pure contemplation produced (and even successful on the market). But it is not in the spotlight of the display industry of biennials and prestigious group shows, nowadays. What is spotlighted instead is a contemporary art that is less of an object and more of an essay, a piece of writing, a bit of a theory, presented in “research installation” form with a vast spectrum of media, where photography can be also used—but, indeed, used rather than fully acknowledged in its “autonomy.”
Artists use photography as a medium and found photographs as tangible pieces; curators do the same. And if I am asked what kind of photograph more easily finds itself “used” in these prestigious group shows, I would say the least artistic one—the “crude” and “direct” one—or even the one totally outside the autonomous artistic field. A found snapshot or a newspaper photo has more chances. This has long been the case for artists like Hans-Peter Feldmann, but now curators seem to be shifting their interests in this direction as well. As a curator, I know very well that in a constellation of different artworks, where you are desperately struggling to make your point clear, you’d better have a series of simple photographs at hand—photos that will make a very direct political statement (sometimes more direct than the photographer actually intended). Coupled with rather incomprehensible installations, the plain faces of social types, August-Sander-like, work especially well and remind us of wars, conflicts, and class interests—of everything that remains hidden behind more abstract sculptural forms. Thomas Ruff's art suitably comments on pretty much anything, although aged faces work better. Landscapes and interiors, if socially concrete enough, can also take the whole trouble of talking. It seems that contemporary art shows, especially those of a sociopolitical kind, need this representational support where meaning seems more unambitious (though it might be an illusion). Art needs non-art or not-so-artsy-art (pure document or documentary photography) and gives it a prestige previously reserved for the “pure art field.” Paradoxically, non-art has become a new autonomous sphere reserved for those who can appreciate it.
I was once given a lesson on this amusing non-art arrogance. On vacation in a Mediterranean country, I visited a remote mountain church that interested me from an architectural point of view. Given the circumstances—beautiful weather, etc.—I permitted myself to combine aesthetic contemplation with a picnic. Suddenly, a fellow tourist arrived and started, frenetically, taking photographs of the church. Having noticed me, she immediately adopted an unnaturally serious and even haughty face, as if the process of taking photographs were extremely unpleasant to her and she was forced to do it. Perhaps she was an art historian or the like, trying hard to show that she was there on business and not for pleasure.
This had to draw a class line between us, certainly, but of what kind? Was she trying to tell me that her perspective was that of “disinterested” aristocratic high art, superior to my pragmatic tourist “interests”? In a way, the answer is probably yes. On the other hand, she seemed to be insisting that she was into “serious” (knowledge) production that had to exclude the dimension of pleasure, to withhold gratification. Her camera was subordinated to a function rather than to artistic will; paradoxically, that was giving her power and aristocratic supremacy. This was an interesting Kantian/anti-Kantian moment. Actually, with photography Immanuel Kant (rather than Roland Barthes) is often around the corner.
As is well known, according to Kant, the aesthetic field is beyond notions of “agreeable” and “gratifying”; it is the realm of pure, irreducible contemplation and therefore of a higher nature. As Pierre Bourdieu writes in his famous book Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, the “popular aesthetics” is the opposite of this “high art” attitude and privileges social use and ethics, through which every photograph is read. When Bourdieu compiled the volume in 1965, this working-class attitude was marginalized as an aberration of uneducated people, but since the 1968 turn and the increasing quest for the ethical and the socially useful in art ever since, direct photography has gradually acquired a strange status of something not completely artistic—and therefore indeed highly artistic.