Unreal Nature

February 7, 2018

Seeping Its Way Into

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:02 am

… It was largely accidental and ignoble.

This is from the editor’s Preface to Art and Photography edited by David Campany (2003):

Over the last three decades or so art has become increasingly photographic. Why phrase it this way around? Why not say photography has become art? Because that would suggest a kind of unity in the medium when in fact photography has ended up in art in diverse ways, for diverse reasons. This wasn’t the result of a recognition of a singular medium with singular credentials. Certainly photography has always had its champions who have spoken on its behalf, made attempts to give it an identity and tried to fashion it into something artistically unique, although they have rarely agreed on what it should be.

… By 1989 the photographic had been seeping its way into much of the most significant art practice for over twenty years, largely unannounced and rarely in the name of Photography. It had appealed to artists precisely because it didn’t seem to have an intrinsic character, a clearly definable identity. It didn’t belong to art: it belonged to everyone and no one, and what little baggage it had picked up in the hope of becoming a distinctive medium was intriguing but easy to ignore. It was photography’s lack of specialism that made it so special. And it still does.

… Art photography had always been wary of the popular character of the medium. Its aesthetic aspirations could be so easily thwarted by the colossal weight of its popular cultural ‘other,’ with its base indistinctness, simplicity, blank objectivity, industrial standards, entertainment value and disposability. These are things from which any art, traditionally defined, might wish to recoil. Yet these were also the very qualities that began to strike artists, with no vested interest in defending photography, as being significant.

… less flashy than Pop but perhaps more significant for the future development of photography in art was conceptualism. A largely retrospective term, it is applied to an art that wanted to put ideas, investigations and definitions first. It was a cerebral, theoretical and political practice that set out to examine the nature of communication, and the nature of art and artists. It wanted to see if an art was possible that did away with the mark of the hand, with the excesses of artistic selfhood, to deal with how meaning is made, both in the world and in art.

… Photography was essential to conceptualism but it approached it as a non-medium. There was no scramble to define its essence and no program about what it should be. Some of the most significant art of the late 1960s and 1970s was being made in a medium about which the artists didn’t really care too much, certainly not as guardians or spokespeople. And it could only have been made with that non-attitude.

… photography is inherently representational, inherently descriptive. It is thrown into the world (or the world is thrown into it) and is thus not at all pure or autonomous. Within conceptualism photography reflected on itself not by looking inwards to define a special or essential character but by looking outward to reflect on how mass culture understood photography, how it put its descriptive character to use in everyday life.

[line break added] This version of photographic modernism was the absolute opposite of Abstract Expressionism. It was ‘representational non-expressionism,’ a rejection of the self-consciously arty photograph in favor of the artless, dumb and plainly descriptive image. Within conceptualism photography restaged and estranged its social character. This idea is important in the sense that modernist art is usually thought to be all about the turning away from figurative representation.

[line break added] Photography’s modernism is a turning on representation. An impure reflection on its own impurity. But it took a while to realize that this is what it was. If conceptualism was the moment of photography’s modernism it wasn’t a modernism of the manifesto, of a declared intention for the medium. It was largely accidental and ignoble. It happened by default.

To be continued.

-Julie

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