If someone told you that their goal was to write the greatest novel ever written, would you call them unambitious?
Jörg Colberg writes a popular photography blog, and recently he’s been posting a series of self-proclaimed “provocations.” The gist of them seems to be that photography is in the midst of an existential crisis. This crisis is, from my point of view, entirely manufactured in the minds of a very small group of critics. The thrust of the charge is that everything has been done, and photography is now simply rehashing the past without doing anything genuinely new. In particular, photographers have failed to properly explore digital photography as anything more than a slightly more convenient and improved analog photography:
That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. We’re seeing that already. It’s a very comfortable, a very comforting take on the medium. But it seems so free of ambition. Or maybe more fairly, the ambition contained in that approach seems to be so, well, small. Where’s the passion in “a photographer’s ability to present fresh visual conversation flowing from the creative combination and balance of technology, form, content, context”? (…)
In a nutshell, I’m wondering when we’ll see more people explore this, yes, new medium: Digital photography - not as an extension of analog photography, not as something that’s more convenient than analog photography, not as something that can simulate old-timey photographs on your smart phone, not as something that can produce “multimedia”, but as something that can do things that analog photography cannot do. Given the potential that still lies dormant in digital photography we might be in for a surprise - assuming there are enough artists willing to look forward.
The novel is the latest new literary form to gain a major cultural impact. I might get smacked by the literati for saying this, but I don’t think it’s far from the truth. The novel is hundreds of years old—Don Quixote is twice as old as photography itself! While there are plenty of experimental writers out there, the traditional novel remains an incredibly vibrant medium. Any frustration regarding the introduction into the aether of yet another novel is offset every time a great novel comes along. If everything that can be done in photography has already been done, what are we to make of the novel, which has been around for twice as long, and has been regarded as a serious artistic pursuit at least three hundred years longer than photography? The notion that aspiring to create something great in the genres and media that constitute “traditional photography” is unambitious is as silly as claiming that someone who wants to write the greatest novel ever lacks ambition. Thousands of years can pass and we still won’t have exhausted the creative potential of traditional forms of literature or photography.
Colberg has chosen to illustrate one of his posts with the image above, from one of his own series. Far be it from me to claim that his critical remarks are invalid if he can’t come up with anything better than what he’s critiquing. That’s a terrible argument. But if we are to use this picture as a clue as to the direction Colberg would rather see photography move, it’s a terribly narrow and navel-gazing vision indeed. This interpretation is supported by Colberg’s praise of Thomas Ruff’s “jpegs”, which like Colberg’s image above basically consists of a blow-up of low-resolution jpegs from the internet, thus highlighting compression artifacts, pixelation and other properties of low-res digital imagery. (That review starts by declaring, unironically I presume, that Ruff
“might be one of the most creative and certainly inventive photographers of our time.” Colberg does add some critical remarks, but dismisses them by saying that he’s “
being overly critical”.)
Let’s assume that this is the sort of thing Colberg considers to be exploring digital photography as a medium distinct from analog photography. If it is, it’s precisely the sort of metaphysical ping-pong that is largely responsible for the alienation the average public feels from modern art. It is art that is about nothing but art. But why should we care about art? Surely it is because art adds something to our existence, perhaps by amusing us, enlightening us, or putting us in certain desirable or useful mental states, or by reflecting and expressing our feelings, desires and struggles? Perhaps we should appreciate art because, like David Foster Wallace said of fiction, “
it’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” Ruff’s art isn’t about what it’s like to be a fucking human being. It’s infinite layers of abstraction removed from the lived life of real people. It doesn’t concern real stuff except as reflected in mirrors that reflect fifteen hundred other mirrors in succession, each time diminishing the light beam until there is nought but a faint ghost-photon left of reality. Plainly speaking, it’s self-absorbed art that is concerned only with other self-absorbed art.
To devote your time to this kind of art, in my opinion, is choosing to turn away from everything that matters. Now, I don’t look down on people who care about things that most people find bizarre, disgusting or completely unimportant, whether it’s growing the world’s longest toenails or making meta-art about meta-art. But Art, unlike toenail growing, has a reputation as being this universal thing; this kind of art, however, is the opposite of universal. It’s a niche within a niche.
Above are a few images that could be said to explore the nature of analog photography in much the same as Ruff and Colberg explore digital photography as a medium. These are electron micrographs—properly speaking, not photographs, since no photons are involved (the depicted objects being too small)—from the series AgCl (unexposed silver salts) by Marte Aas. Unlike Ruff’s images, this series actually gives me something. Aas is exposing the artifacts that make up analog photography—but that’s relatively uninteresting, even to me as a photographer. I know digital photographs are made of pixels and analog photographs are made out of silver salts (and assorted other chemicals). Exposing this fact doesn’t inform me of anything I didn’t already know and has limited appeal otherwise. The appeal of Aas’s images, rather, is the fact that we’re looking at silver chloride molecules. Molecules! Some of the smallest objects that make up the universe! That shit is incredibly interesting to anyone who’s ever taken any interest in science. It has to do with what it’s like to be a human being—or a rock, or an unexposed film for that matter. It’s something that a regular person can relate to.
Here’s an issue: meta-art only offers something to an audience that has only bought into the idea that Art is valuable as Art, unmoored from reality. But most people, I reckon, would find that hard to accept—their acceptance of art as valuable is tied to the ways art ties into reality and lived life. The traditional answer to this from the art world is that obviously the layman is uneducated and ignorant of the intricacies of Art that make Art valuable qua Art. But if you look behind the smoke screen, this is nothing but an unfounded premise, a value proposition one must either accept or reject, and it’s one that is very hard to justify without arguing in circles.
Above is John Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs. It’s a chair, a photo of a chair, and an enlargement of a dictionary definition of the word “chair.” It’s one of my favorite works of art. At first glance, it might seem like the quintessential work of meta-art. But really, what does it say about art? Not much at all. When I see this, it brings up a series of associations regarding objects and abstractions, and what we mean when we talk about chairs or people or stones or numbers, and a whole slew of other issues that, while highly abstract in nature, nevertheless contain a clear connection to everyday conversations and things regular people might do and think on a regular day. If this work of art is supposed to say anything about Art, it’s a failure. But as art that addresses abstract issues goes, it’s a triumph. It’s as abstract as Ruff’s JPEGs, but it’s a more benign kind of abstraction that calls attention to the way abstraction itself works, and perhaps, at least to this viewer, reminds us of the quagmire getting caught up in abstractions can be. There is, after all, only one chair that can be sat on in Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs. And may we never forget that.
That’s not to say that all art that is concerned primarily or entirely with art itself is worthless. In a discussion on Mills Baker’s blog, I defended Duchamp’s readymades. I’ve been rather critical of meta-art in this post, but Mills expresses a more extreme version of this view, in which, as far as I can tell, all such art fails to do what it is that art is supposed to do. I can see that view, since it seems to be a rather natural extension of the line of reasoning I’ve laid out here, but I wouldn’t go that far. Art is, after all, a big part of modern lives. And I can see the need for periodically exploding our sense of what art is and how art works, just so we don’t get too stuck in our ways, or become a kind of cargo cult around old techniques and dogmas, forgetting how and why these techniques came about, what purpose they served beyond themselves.
But the thing is, this can only go so far. Once you have exploded the boundaries of art entirely, so that anything and everything has the potential to be Art, you can’t go further. There is nothing that is greater than everything. If anything, today’s meta-artists should perhaps focus on narrowing the scope of art. Wouldn’t that be a shock to the current generations of post- and post-postmodernists? Duchamp’s works have value because of the changes they wrought to the art world and our understanding of art. Making new readymades in 2012 isn’t just silly, it’s irresponsible. It’s cargo cultism. It’s like programming a computer by punch-card when there exist text editors and assemblers and compilers and interpreters.
Art, divorced from reality—Art qua Art—is a really narrow subject. That’s why it’s not the future of Art in general or photography in particular. We may only need one Duchamp per century. For there to be one Duchamp there might need to be ten thousand failed Duchamps. But we certainly don’t need ten million.
Most artists should be doing what they’re already doing, which is making traditional art that is about something other than Art.Jun 23, 2012