In this article Levi-Strauss writes about the relationship between aesthetics and politics in social documentary photography and essentially mounts a defence of the role of the aesthetic within this genre.
He starts by observing that the right in America have always recognised the subversive, and deeply political role, of the aesthetic in art and this explains their hostility to it. On the other hand, left-wing critics and theorists (Rosler et al.) have made ubiquitous a view that denies a central role for aesthetics in genres such as documentary. An example of this in mainstream writing would be Ingrid Sichy’s criticism of Sebastiao Salgado, which upbraids him on numerous fronts, but in particular accuses him of being more interested in the aesthetics of his images than in the plight of his subjects.
Levi-Strauss identifies the roots of this viewpoint to be the writings of Walter Benjamin in the 1930s but denies that Benjamin’s criticisms are applicable to contemporary photographers such as Salgado. His basis for this is that Benjamin had in mind a particular movement (New Objectivity) which explicitly presented poverty and political struggle as objects of “comfortable contemplation”, whereas Salgado’s work shows real solidarity with his subjects and aims to confront viewers with the reality of hunger, tragedy and suffering.
The difficulties of doing such documentary (issues of power, representation and communication as presented by Rosler) are not denied, but the author maintains that just because it is difficult, is no reason to not try and do it. He then returns to the heart of the matter: what is the role of aesthetics in documentary? He questions the view that aestheticizing an image renders it less authentic or politically valuable and asks why beauty cannot constitute a call to action. Any form of representation involves an aestheticization of the subject, as it involves a transformation of the subject. The choice of the artist is not whether to aestheticize or not, but rather how to aestheticize? The challenge is how to aestheticize in such a way as to make the work both politically valid and visually and conceptually compelling.
I found this essay to be a welcome counter-argument to Rosler as it chimes with my gut feeling that there is a place for aesthetics in this kind of work. However, his defence of Salgado seems somewhat weak. He claims Salgado works in solidarity with this subjects but fails to produce any real evidence of this. At one point he mentions that there are contemporary photographers guilty of the misdemeanors that Salgado is often wrongly accused of – it would have been interesting if he had named them, in order to see how Salgado succeeds where they fail. In short, I think Levi-Strauss if probably right (though maybe not about Salgado in particular) but his arguments are not strong enough to effectively counter those he seeks to oppose.
His characterization of these issues in terms of the left and right in politics is intriguing. The right would like an art that is devoid of politics and operates on the level of pure aesthetics, so it does not function as a challenge to the status quo. The left would like an art that does not allow aesthetics to distract from the political message, and challenge to the system, that is contained in the work. Levi-Strauss, as a left wing critic himself, says the latter it both impossible and undesirable, and rather that aesthetics itself should be employed as an agent of change.
There’s no real option other than to use one of Salgado’s images to illustrate this piece. The one above perfectly encapsulates all the arguments regarding aestheticization that are raised by Levi–Strauss.