… It should not surprise us then if we find a similar explosion of mediocrity in photography.
[ … ]
Jeff Wall: I think it’s normal for any artist trying to produce good art, and therefore trying to situate himself in a lengthy tradition of good art, to dissociate himself from his “context.” “Context” is usually the term applied to the bulk of mediocre productions by those who are more interested in this sphere than they are in better artworks. And this interest today goes by the name of “cultural criticism.”
[line break added] Naturally, any good work of art rises in some sense out of its milieu — which is characterized by less good works by the average cultural production prevailing — and many people have concluded that somehow a direct and immediate connection must obtain between the milieu and the good, important work of art.
[line break added] They overlook the conflict, the process of dissociation that necessarily takes place between the good work and the milieu it arises in. A good work of art is not just the product of its context; it is something the context does not require, something that may not even be welcomed by it. But yes, as you say, every distinction must be achieved at the level of artistic form — there is no other effective way of drawing the demarcation line.
Boris Groys: Your introduction of the notion of mediocrity makes it sound as if we were viewing everything under the aspect of “quality.” Of course, quality is important. But the fact that what you refer to as the mediocre demands, in a certain sense, to be taken seriously is an insight we owe to the avant-garde, no less than the insight that we should be clear about the distinction between thought and thoughtlessness. …
JW: The aggressiveness of the avant-garde that you spoke of is an expression of this act of separation or dissociation. It is considered unacceptable nowadays to discuss this problem, in terms of quality, and yet to exclude the notion of quality is tantamount to siding with the “context,” with art’s cultural milieu, in other words with mediocre or bad art rather than with the exacting and exciting character and openness of good art.
[line break added] The avant-garde wanted to go beyond art, because for the artists that was the only chance they saw, within a culture that in their eyes was irretrievably corrupt and impotent, to do anything worthwhile.
We’ve seen hundreds of years of routine production in painting, sculpture, and graphics, in which not a glimmer of the thought or reflection you mention could ever be found. It should not surprise us then if we find a similar explosion of mediocrity in photography.
… In my opinion, there’s only one way artists can really take up a position here, and that’s in the actual creative process of their work. Whatever sets itself off against mediocrity as being in some way better does it precisely in the way it is made. And the distinguishing marks, as it were, have to be all over the surface of the work, they have to be everywhere.
[ … ]
JW: … I don’t think even the avant-garde could ever finally eliminate that spontaneous instant where one sees through the picture, prosaically or poetically, to the world beyond. One may take this as evidence for the avant-garde’s project having failed, and for the advent of consumer-oriented art, art that obeys the criteria dictated by popular culture and the entertainment industry.
… But I would distinguish between this problem and the question of the spontaneous uncritical response. As I see it, this spontaneous, “uncritical” response is part of the process of being critical. One might describe it as the indispensable moment of aesthetic pleasure, without which no deeper contact with a work of art is possible. There’s nothing to stop us doing an immanent critique of this aesthetic pleasure, but first we have to experience the pleasure.
[line break added] The pleasure that works of art can give, serious ones at any rate, is a significant part of art’s seriousness. The avant-garde experimented by placing obstacles in the path of this pleasure, and succeeded in making the whole process more complex and interesting than it was previously considered to be, but without entirely transcending it.