Posts Tagged ‘art’

Why Photography Matters As Art As Never BeforeI became interested in Michael Fried’s recent tome of photographic art criticism after reading an interview with him in Aperture magazine. I thought it would serve as good overview of the work of a whole assortment of contemporary  photographers. It certainly did that – and much more besides.

In 1967 Michael Fried published a controversial essay called ‘Art And Objecthood‘ where he trenchantly criticised the minimalist art of the time. His main concern was what he saw as the art world’s slide into theatricality. By this he meant the inclusion of the viewers experience of viewing an artwork into the meaning of the artwork itself – the explicit acknowledgment of the role and presence of the viewer (or beholder), and the shift in emphasis away from the intentions of the creator. Fried instead championed art (mostly Modernist and Abstract) which effectively ignored the role of the beholder, was complete in and of itself, and which functioned as a direct vehicle for the aesthetic concerns of the artist.

He went on to develop these ideas by way of a series of art history books which revealed the same concerns to be at the heart of developments in 18th century French painting. In particular, the anti-theatrical tradition sought to produce art which denied the presence of a beholder by producing work that portrayed people in states of absorption – turned away from the viewer and engrossed in some activity that demands their complete attention.


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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. (more…)

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from Documentary Now! Contemporary Strategies in Photography, Film and the VisDocumentary Now!ual Arts

In this essay Maartje van den Heuvel examines the engagement of documentary photography with the art world and argues that we should consider this in the context of an increased visual literacy in our society, with documentary increasingly being used to hold a mirror to this visual culture.

Documentary photography has undergone radical changes in the last two decades as it has become increasingly appropriated into the art world.  Many people have questioned whether this signifies a new path for documentary and to what extent it can still function effectively in this new domain. Maartje van den Heuvel asserts that while these questions are continually under discussion, it is unwise to attempt to analyze this as an isloated phenomenon, but rather we should be considering it in the wider context of an ever-increasing visual literacy among our artists and our society as a whole.

She explains that our culture is becoming increasingly visual with an associated increase in visual literacy among viewers, consumers, image-makers and artists. Visually literate artists use visual means to analyze, reflect upon, and dissect all aspects of this visual culture and doumentary photography is but one aspect to be considered in this way. Contemporary artists who work in documentary photography are therefore often better understood as artists using the medium and conventions of documentary photography to examine documentary photography itself, along with it’s role in society and culture, rather than as documentary photographers pushing their work into the realms of art. The essay examines the work of documentary photographers with this in mind, and seeks to demonstrate that this signifies a general increase in visual literacy.


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