Unreal Nature

June 29, 2016

User-friendly Pap

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… photography inherited some of that portion of the American art audience too intellectually torpid to understand …

This is from the essay ‘American Photography in the 1970s: Too Old to Rock, Too Young to Die’ (1985) found in Lewis Baltz Texts (2012):

… the 1970s witnessed an intensity of photographic activity in America unequalled since the 1930s, and an acceptance of photography as a major medium of expression unparalleled in our history. Photography was one of the brighter spots in that otherwise bleak decade.

… Many of the reasons for photography’s art-world ascendance were shameful, or irrelevant. As the acerbic H.L. Mencken observed fifty years ago, no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. Mencken’s spiritual descendant, Tom Wolfe, further noted in his broadside, The Painted Word, that the American art audience, even at its most sophisticated levels, hankers deep down for imagistic art; if possible, figurative art, an art with recognizable forms and an anecdotal degree. Most photographs automatically satisfy this in some degree.

[line break added] While abstraction held the high ground in American painting and sculpture since 1945, it has remained, for a number of reasons, only a factional style in American photography. Critics, most of whom if trained at all are trained as writers, also prefer artwork that yields up to literary interpretations. It is, after all, easier to write about a Diego Rivera painting, or a Cartier-Bresson photograph, than it is to confront the obdurate materiality of, for instance a Carl Andre sculpture.

Thus photography inherited some of that portion of the American art audience too intellectually torpid to understand much less take interest in, the kinds of issues raised by the best American art of the 1960s. Photography appeared more easily accessible. Which it is, though only superficially. The fact that the most intelligent photographic works hold a range of problematic issues as demanding as those raised by any other art of major ambition, either came as a rude shock to this segment of photography’s public, or else was overlooked by it altogether.

… One of the hopes for photography in the 1970s was that it would attract the critical attention of leading writers and thinkers outside the photographic community. … However, almost without exception they failed to come to terms with photography in any but the most superficial way.

… The most egregious example was Susan Sontag’s On Photography … There is little doubt that On Photography, with its unsupported assertions, poorly reasoned arguments, and internal contradiction, is not Sontag’s finest work. Nevertheless the book became the nearest thing to a bestseller that photographic criticism had yet enjoyed, and most right-thinking American readers believed that they could learn everything necessary about photography, both as a cultural artefact and as a form of aberrant behavior, in the pages of this simplistic book.

… During the 1950s and 60s ‘concerned’ photography was perceived, at least by its makers, as form of activism. By the 1970s it became clear to more thoughtful photographers that it was, in truth, the antithesis of effective social involvement: a form of elitist play-acting, morally satisfying to the player, but without serious political or social consequence.

[line break added] If one wished to influence social or political issues, then images were no substitute for direct political struggle. Photography’s value lies elsewhere: in describing the surfaces of the phenomenal world in a manner unique to itself; hoping, at best, to contribute a precise, if necessarily limited, understanding of the objects and events in front of the lens, and some insight into the mind behind it.

[ … ]

… During the latter half of the 1970s American photography was overshadowed by one pervasive pseudo-issue. The Rush to Color, which blurred many of the existing lines demarcating areas of photographic practice and, in the end, cast a treacly pall over the entire enterprise.

… Despite radical differences in style, technique, and temperament, Eggleston and Shore shared a commitment to the use of color as a descriptive, as opposed to decorative, element in their photographs. They were among the last to do so and by the end of the decade it seemed as though their work, almost solely, redeemed the entire shallow, dismal affair that was America’s flirtation with photographic color.

The dominant, or at least prevalent, body of color photographs that one saw at the shank of the seventies was vapid, overscaled, coffee-table art, the end-product of photography’s first demand/supply style of photography: Soft Contemporary, user-friendly pap devoid of any content save color and any ideology save prettiness. … Photography had made its blood sacrifice to the twin altars of interior decoration and corporate collecting, and in so doing strained the credulity of its audience, perhaps the most credulous on earth.

… Having survived for so long in obscurity and privation, could the corpus of American photography endure success, even popularity, as well? The answer, from the perspective of the mid-1980s is yes, after a fashion. If our present decade seems less favorable to the enterprise of photography generally, it seems significantly more favorable to certain photography. This decade has proved more discriminating than the last: it could hardly be otherwise.

-Julie

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