Photography, Elitism and Art: more thoughts about Photography in 1986
Updated: Dec 1, 2021
The artist is only the person who produces the work of art. It takes as much artistic talent to be able to view it meaningfully.
Homo sapiens are unique in that they dispute the authority and the finality of reality as it is perceived and interpreted by us. All other terrestrialspecies cope, with varying degrees of success, with what circumstances, ie the constraints of their situation, present them with. We try to change them, normally believing that we are improving the quality of our existence by doing so.
It is as if we have an earlier blueprint somewhere in our neocortex against which we continuously and meticulously compare the registered signals from outside. The inevitable resulting dissatisfaction leads either to the entropic state of apathy, or to the heroic, but somewhat infantile in its persistence, endeavor to change.
The conventional view has always been that only few individuals are inherently endowed with the ability to break the apathetic vicious circle and emerge as innovators, be it in the field of art or science (there is a growing body of evidence to prove that the border between the two is getting fuzzier and fuzzier). It is a notion that I describe as defeatist. It is this dominant dualistic notion upon which our society is founded and which is so helpful for the ruling institutions (family, school, society etc) in their abortion of change. It is the Divide and Rule attitude.
From here, Elitism as Art is only one step away, implying the privileges, but also the resentment and bitterness that result from keeping oneself in isolation. Rather than make up fantastic theories about innate differences our gaze should be directed towards the conditions that allow some to flourish at the expense of others.
Arthur Koestler, who saw the human existential predicament in vacillating between rationality and emotionalism as originating from a neurological flaw, discussed the Self-Assertive and Integrative drives as the primary forces in human life (not to be confused with Freud’s Eros and Thanatos drives and death which he rejected(.
The artist is the individual who is motivated by the Integrative, self- transcending drive.
The artist is motivated from within, in an attempt to escape their own constructed prison and to join and become one with the world in the true Oriental sense of the notion. From here the therapeutic value of art is derived.
Leon Trotsky wrote about utilitarian art as the only form that is worth indulging in. Art for revolution. Art for change. Art that is aesthetic politicized. Walter Benjamin and Brecht thought along similar lines. What they all shared is an optimism about the power of art, if only used in the right way. Art that serves no masters, or the wrong ones, is condemned to self- strangulation on its own vomit. Art must be Political, that is, engaged with our place in the public arena.
When photography first appeared, the space it occupied belonged previously to the graphic arts. Photography couldn't but use the same ground, the same set of terms and aesthetic theories that were prevalent at the time. It takes time for a new idea, as photography was, to establish its own identity, its own rules. Back then, photography was often accused of plagiarism, upsetting and abusing the traditional practices of art. As photography was immediately connected to commercialism, its market-place power was stronger that the other arts. It is this competition that generated the hostility between Photography and the traditional arts.
The process of commercialism also causes the public to relate less seriously to the arts. As I mentioned earlier, art should fulfil the function of a progressive force in society. If all it does is generate money and enhances personality-cults, then it no longer fulfils its potential and therefore deserve derision.
In fact, I argue that to exist within the capitalist society, art cannot be radical but only reformative. If it is radical it is ostracized or even censured. Society would only allow such art that maintains the status quo. It is easy to see from this why so often art is held in contradistinction to reality in our culture, for in most cases it has indeed turned to do just that.
Reintroducing reality (i.e., political awareness) into art will endanger its comfortable position on the supermarket shelf. How can art become powerful and radical again? Is it by being used by everybody in support of their personal growth?
As it can be applied by any individual, photography has unlimited functions and possibilities. In fact, one could argue that there is no such thing as Photography but only Photographers. In this way, the investigation is into individual achievements rather than pure form. Once photography is no longer sacred, it can no longer be abused.
There was a futile argument regarding whether photography is better than any of the other arts. I see no basis for qualitative comparison. It is like trying to compare a tomato to a strawberry just because the two are red!
Approaching the issue from another angle is that one of the problems in our culture is that everything happens too fast. The media has indeed turned the world into a village. The amount of stimulation we are exposed to has risen unprecedently but instead of making us content, it made us more desperate. We think we are happier because we know more, or so we are led to believe. Photography is one of the peddlers in this game. All forms of art continuously push to be original, to produce excitement and titillation, to provide us with answers to questions that have become burning. It is a problem of speed.
What has also happened is that through the credible photographic image people were forced to look at themselves. That can be unpleasant. But real alienation comes into it when other people portray you and tell you how you look. In other words, people no longer feel in control for their own images. Insecurity ensues. Most of the time people are shown at their worst. People-at-their-worst images mean hard cash.
Regaining control over how we look at ourselves can be achieved through the popular use of photography. The family album genre, once extracted from the lower stratum into which it has been pushed by the Professionals, can be instrumental. Through this genre, people can explore their own lives, their pasts, their place within a family, social and global context.
Authority interferes with human growth. Unfortunately, photography has tried to become authoritarian in its claim over truth. That claim has been shown to be false, again earning photography derision and disrespect. It is freedom from the notion of a single truth (single truth, single god, single partner etc.) that would allow photography to be more imaginative and exploratory. It would also ease the burden of having to be righteous.