Unreal Nature

June 22, 2017

Swept Under the Rug

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… by now the urgency once ascribed to photography in the discussion of the politics of art has waned, swept under the rug with other unfinished business.

This is from the essay ‘Toward a Minor Photography: Annette Kelm’s Discrete Cosmologies’ (2010) found in Walead Beshty: 33Texts: 93,614 Words: 581,035 Characters: Selected Writings (2003-20015) edited by Lionel Bovier (2015):

Each act of depiction is the taming of an unruly past, a condensation of conventions, histories, and processes into a singular surface that is subsequently apprehended in a flash. And herein lies the double bind of the depictive in art: depiction is the most conservative of gestures — naturalized, instrumental, idiomatic — and simultaneously the most contentious artistic act.

[line break added] Its sheer ubiquity and legibility place it squarely at the intersection of art and daily life, the very terrain that represented art’s greatest revolutionary potential. Since the turn of the 20th century, no medium has embodied the conflict over the depictive like photography: as the most widely disseminated popular medium and the most conventionalized representational form, it has been the subject of both ritualized scrutiny and nostalgic re-entrenchment.

Yet it would be a mistake to claim that photography has been restrained by convention; rather it has no identity outside of convention, and no history that is not equally a history of convention. The identity of photography is situated in the inverse relationship between materiality and convention: as its material solidity has receded, dispersed technologically (a process initiated soon after its invention), convention has come to define photography fully. This condition is not unique among objects of theoretical discourse; it is a state shared by all media identified and isolated as a tradition.

[line break added] Yet the photographic has undergone an even more extreme alchemical transformation that encompasses both art and the public sphere: not simply becoming a discursive collection of conventions — for this is what it always was — but its conventions becoming subsumed within those of depiction, becoming inextricable from and unidentifiable outside the language of the depictive.

… by now the urgency once ascribed to photography in the discussion of the politics of art has waned, swept under the rug with other unfinished business. In the wake of this stalemate, the production of photographs in art appears to have suffered from a curious bout of self-inflicted amnesia: rather than being instrumental, it parodies the instrumental, abandoning any aspiration to a revolutionary project for the pictorialism of a premodern Beaux-Arts, retroactively inserting itself into the tradition of the autonomous art object or the taxonomies of the archival document and its thoroughly disassembled instrumentality. Its contingent conventions and its elasticity of distribution and reception have become concretized, inert, and stagnant, accepting the mute museum wall as its foregone conclusion.

… Thus we have a photographic discourse, theoretical or otherwise, that has become a moody precipitate of is headier days — a hermetic, over-crowded, over-theorized, and stifling field comprised of tired idioms; a discourse-driven example of what Theodor Adorno termed “late style,” which he likened to an aged piece of fruit whose surface is “furrowed, even ravaged,” showing “more traces of history than of growth.”

My most recent previous post from Beshty’s book is here.

-Julie

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