Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Friday, April 30, 2010

Super-tired litany

In response to the question "is photography over" which was the focus of a recent symposium under that title at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, symposium participant and curatorial heavy-weight Charlotte Cotton enumerated what she called the"super-tired litany" of the "national and regional collections of photography," namely:

•  road trips

•  street poetry

•  illustrations of political and social issues

•  light-weight conceptual art

•  the inoffensively and classically stylish

•  the outputs of the persistent and charming

•  the cheap stuff that contemporary art curators
   and collectors aren’t interested in, and

•  the downright over-produced

Other participants — among them Vince Aletti and Peter Galassi — responded more cautiously to the symposium's motivating question, but controversy is more fun, so let's run with Charlotte Cotton ….

Wadsworth Avenue & 192nd Street, Northeast Corner

Another of the participants, Philip-Lorca diCorcia suggests that the real question is not "is photograpy over" but rather should be "is art over"? But it seems to me that Cotton's "super-tired litany" gets closer to the heart of the matter with its implicit though tactfully understated suggestion that the real issue is whether curating is over (since the "super tired litany" of the "national and regional collections" can only be a litany of their curators).

And in fact Cotton comes right out and (almost) says it:

It's about time for photography as a culturally institutionalised, ghettoised, and, frankly, dull and acquiesent, photo-art-market-serving "discipline" to be over.

What is stake here, materially speaking, is neither "art" nor "photography" but rather the market value of one kind of portable decorative wall-hanging: namely the photographic print (other kinds of portable decorative wall-hangings include tapestries, paintings, drawings, engravings, etchings, lithographs, silkscreens, and so on — and, yes, I include both Monet and Marimekko in this category, and moreover include them as peers).

Is the photographic print "over"?

There's nothing like the prints that Atget himself made — or I think so, anyway — they're just "magic." Or are they?

Goethe says somewhere that once a work of art has achieved some level of historical recognition it becomes impossible to judge it as a work of art: our awe of its status precludes our being able to respond to it directly for what it is — or was.

One might go further, drawing on Schiller but going "too far" — or at least further than he went (and why not? going "too far" is always, at least in these contexts, more fun than not going far enough).

Which would be to say that all poetry, even all art, eventually beomes sentimental, "reflective," in proportion to how well it fares in its subsequent history, at least in the sense that an effort to experience it as it was before "greatness" was bestowed upon requires an effort of reflection on the part of the viewer (or reader or listener) that was unnecessary when it was first made.

And that is subsequently doomed to be no more than a kind of hypothesis that we try to incorporate into our immediate experience, our actual perception of the work.

But I like to think the Atget's are great anyway.

However — they look even better well-displayed on a good monitor, and so does every other photograph that I know of, no matter how much I admire and even love the print. (I know, I know, you don't agree with me about this ….)

So, yes, the photographic print is over, though of course there will remain a market for photographic prints, just as there remains a market for all sorts of antiques that are for the most part valued for reasons other than their immediate use for the purpose(s) for which they were made.

What the digital technologies have done, in this regard, for photography — much more than the printing technologies could ever do for the hand made portable decorative wall hangings — e.g., Vermeer, Vuillard — that are still the mainstay of the world's galleries and museums — is to render meaningless the concept of "the original."

Which is why photographic prints have so little of what Walter Benjamin called — satirically, I believe — "aura" (unless they have a provenance of exceptionally bankable vintage, such as Atget's prints of his own work) and why digitally produced and displayed images have no "aura" at all.

The Benjaminian "aura" of an "original" derives from its monopoly on being itself, from which, in the manner of all monopolies, flows its potential for monopolistic pricing in the market — here as an embodiment of "greatness," "power," "status," "achievement," and all the other hieratic accoutrements of our kind of society and its cultures (not necessarily to imply that there's any other kind available to human animal).

Without which the curator's role in the art-world that is photography must surely evolve into something altogether different from what it has been for the 200 or so years of the museum's existence — and the 100 or so years of photography's presence in the museum — to date.

No comments:

Post a Comment