Unreal Nature

May 28, 2008

Photograph as Autonomous Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:35 am

The quotes below are taken from an article, Poetry as a Unique Art Form   by David Vessey which contrasts the ideas of John Dewey with those of Hans-Georg Gadamer on whether poetry should be ranked superior to all other art forms. I am not interested in that comparison, but I am going to respond to selected quotes by arguing how I feel that they are true or not with reference to photography (which was in no way the intention of the original piece).

Gadamer regularly claims that the distinctive feature of poetry is its autonomy. By this he means that poems “interpret themselves insofar as one need no additional information about the occasion and the historical circumstances of their composition.” Poetry, like all language and all art, transcends the context of its origins. Unlike most prose, though, a poem stands alone as a unitary object to be interpreted in its uniqueness. Any additional information about the author or the context of its creation are only legitimate tools of interpretation to the extent the poem itself bears that interpretation; but even then, additional information only provides mere clues to the ideality of the poem, it never constitutes the poem’s meaning.

I think this could be an excellent description of the split between photography-as-record vs photography-as-art. If you have participated in any of the old-timer pure-indexical-photography versus contemporary/digital fine art arguments that happen over and over again online, you will recognize the above as nice parallel to the position of the latter.

Importantly, in contrast to Dewey, Gadamer doesn’t understand poetry as first and foremost a kind of communication. For Dewey there is a connection between the emotions of the artist and the emotions of the reader, at least to the extent the poem is successful. For Gadamer the poem stands on its own; its meaning is its own, rather than it being a vehicle for its author’s meaning. As he puts it, poetry doesn’t report, it testifies; it stands on its words.

To flesh out the meaning of poetry’s autonomy Gadamer appropriates Paul Valéry’s currency metaphor. Everyday prose is like paper money: it is purely symbolic and its value comes from its ability to be substituted and exchanged for objects. Poetry is like a gold coin, useful for exchange of course, but valuable in its own right, even after the images on the coin marking it as currency have worn off.

Again, more of the record vs art difference.

…  in poetry the words have an intrinsic value that doesn’t vanish in their meaning. Poetry does not lose its textual presence in revealing what it reveals. Whatever insights we may gain from a poem, the poetic words retain their power to reveal and also show the potential for further interpretations. We recognize when reading a poem that it is these words, these sounds, that are producing the effect, and unless the poem is particularly mundane, it is only because of these words that the poem has the effect it has. That the meaning of a poem doesn’t leave the words behind is part of its autonomy. Along the same lines, Gadamer points out that no poems are every really translated. What happens instead is new poems are written in a new language that tries to capture the power and meaning of the original poem—this is why the best translators of poems are poets themselves. However, the translation is always a separate poem, autonomous as well.

… Finally, to add to Gadamer’s account of poetry as autonomous, consider what we do when we interpret a work of art. We seek to make the meaning explicit by finding words that best express what the work expresses. We try to match the subject matter as revealed by the work of art with the subject matter as revealed by our own words—we don’t expect perfect success in this project, but we don’t let our limitations leave us inarticulate either. In poetry this situation is changed slightly, but significantly. We already have words expressing the subject matter of the work—the poem itself—and we seek new words to express the subject matter in the same way. The activity of interpreting a poem is not one of becoming articulate about what is expressed by the poem, but of translating the meaning of the poem into prose. But no translation of the meaning of the poem could express the meaning as well as the poem—the best expression in language of the meaning of the poem is the poem itself. So the process of interpreting a poem is not one of finding new words to express the poem’s meaning, but finding our way into the meaning of the poem’s own words. The words of the poem are irreplaceable in an interpretation; this is the core meaning of Gadamer’s claim that poetry is autonomous, and its status as such gives it an “essential priority” with respect to other art forms.

I disagree with Gadamer here. While the poem already has its own (best possible) words and sounds, those words and sounds must reference forms and imagery by which we, to rephrase Gadamer’s words; “seek to make the meaning explicit by finding [mental forms/images] that best express what the work expresses.”

Visual arts turn that on its head. They provide their own (best possible) forms and imagery from which we do indeed, as he says, “seek to make the meaning explicit by finding words that best express what the work expresses.” The forms and lines within an art photograph are irreplaceable; the meaning of those forms as”things” does not leave the forms behind. Same thing as poetry only approached from the opposite end of the stick.

[Thanks to Felix Grant for finding the attribution of my previous Value of the Mirror  quoted article (Professor Naoko Saito, of Kyoto University) and thus leading me, indirectly, to this excellent piece by David Vessey.]





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