Thursday, February 25, 2016

Photography and Art (Revised Modest Manifesto)

Anyone can make a photograph and the result is a commodity like any other that can be sold. The fate of such commodities depends, like others, on cultural fads, advertising, celebrity endorsements, and other forms of marketplace ideology of the moment—almost always in the service of profit, whether corporate, institutional, or personal. The trick to selling “art” is to give the customers what they want—to divine the current eros operating in the marketplace and meet the market “need”—no different from “stainless appliances and granite countertops” in current real estate ads.

Almost all “art” offered in “galleries” in every country of the world today belongs in this category: marketed commodities to meet current market demand: “Art” for interior designers, corporate offices, rich bored upper-middle-class consumers, “educated” in well-marketed, branded universities, speculative investors, and so on. Think of “critics” in the local media as enablers and lobbyists for their friends, and you’ll be getting close to the way the system actually works.

The question should be: “what uses of photographic technology generate ‘art,’ or more to the point, ‘fine art’?” This question requires an answer to a prior question not really addressed in most discussions of this topic: What makes fine art fine? It is assumed we know it when we see it. History suggests that we do not.

At this stage of my life and practice, I have concluded that no one has ever bettered Roland Barthes in answering this vexing question. In The Pleasure of the Text (67 pp. in translation), he deftly distinguishes between texts of pleasure (plaisir) and texts of bliss (jouissance). If we extend “text” to include photographs (“drawing with light”), then I can paraphrase his definitions, as follows:

Pleasure: the photograph that contents, fills, grants euphoria: the photo that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of “reading” it.

Bliss: the photograph that imposes a state of loss, that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), and unsettles the viewer’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with visual representation.

This approach  is not entirely new: the surrealists and others in the modernist tradition preached, as Ezra Pound put it, “Make it new!”

Viewing photographs of “pleasure” (landscapes, seascapes, lighthouses, old boats, ruins, children’s portraits, voluptuous nudes, sunsets, …you know the drill) gives a pleasure akin to making love to a long-time lover, who knows your every need, and meets it comfortably and predictably, just as you do hers.

Photographs of “bliss” are more akin to the enhanced orgasms (“jouissance” in French, and very much what Barthes had in mind) that one might associate with a wrenchingly disruptive erotic event that would never fit in a Valentine’s Day verse.

In my view most commercial and gallery art is of the “pleasure” variety, while fine art blissfully disrupts our zone of comfort and redefines the assumptions we hold concerning the effects of viewing in general, often redefining an entire genre: portrait, still life, landscape, abstraction.

Of course this disjunct (like any apocalyptic erotic event) has a relatively brief shelf-life. The scandal of Impressionist painting quickly became the cliché of every schlock painter selling on the street in New York, Paris, or Des Moines--or reproduced in greeting cards at the corner drug store.

To be clear, I would prefer to withhold judgment on the question whether an art of "bliss" is to be considered more aesthetically/experientially valuable than the art of "pleasure."  In fact, in most cases, I prefer to experience an accomplished work in a familiar genre, and evoking confirmation of former aesthetic pleasures with long-treasured associations and connections, than taking on the work of trying to accommodate the shock of the new, the provocative, the in-your-face boring work that is veering into new territory, challenging my ideas of what's ugly, what's banal, what's bereft of content.

Nevertheless, the existence of such work remains the source of my hope for the future of photography (and the arts in general): there will always be new clichés to smash.

This will not happen, culturally, in Portland (or Des Moines or Atlanta). It only happens in the big centers—Manhattan, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and so on. That is, even the most revolutionary break in the photographic tradition needs the massive cultural apparatus of museums, billionaire collectors, social networking, art magazines, and other power-brokers to launch a truly revolutionary vision into the historical culture.  Andy Warhol would not be Andy, if he had stayed in Pittsburgh.

So “fine art” is finally coopted by the market and turned into an art of pleasure. The trick is to be available to live in the moment when the experience is still disruptive—or if your motive is to make sales in the market, to be in the right place, the right age, the right gender, have the right friends, and a hell of a story (or resumé) to sell.  Bon voyage!

Coda:  READ Arthur Danto!

If questions like these have any interest for you, then you will probably do no better than to rush to buy or borrow books on art by the late Arthur C. Danto, who began his long teaching career at Columbia University as a philosophy professor with special expertise in Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, and ended it with several decades of remarkable work on the philosophy of art--while serving as art critic for The Nation. See, for example, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art.  Danto tackles the most vexing questions about what makes the difference between art works and commonplace objects with no discernable differences--without resorting to questionable appeals to internal subjective states and intentions.  Danto studied in Paris under Merleau-Ponty, whose essay, "Cezanne's Doubt," by the way, constitutes my other French touchstone (along with Barthes) for any constructive theory of art.