A Manifesto as Introduction to an Intended Essay – Photography and Art

It has been a light-blogging day: errands to run, promises to keep, with dinner and wine to go before I sleep…

I’m thinking that my “appropriated” posts, lifted from online videos, essays, and news stories, reprinted for your pleasure here, need a frame and context–some attempt to say what I think I mean by “art,” “photography,” and other root metaphors of my current endeavors. And surely it is the same for issues in politics, humor, and so on (though those are not my immediate concern…)

I’m sure that YOU do not need this, but I do.  As a philosophy professor, I was always thinking in advance about how I might defend any claim I made, since a philosophical statement is only as good as its support.  Anyone can claim that, say, “Art is the Sublime, recollected in terror and awe, under the aegis of Beauty.”  But (a) what does that MEAN, and (b) what argument can you offer in support of this grand construal?  (Yeah, you are right, I just made that up.)

So I’m thinking I may spend a day thinking about such questions before I propose some of my views on the matter here.

A year or two ago I entered a comment on another (local) blog that asked the question of artists and photographers, “Where Are We Headed?”– and remembering it, thought that my rather quick, rather offhand comment on that blog might serve as a “Prolegomena to Any Future Big Idea on the Nature of Art, according to Exocentrist…”  So I am (lazily) printing below what I said then, most of which I still find agreeable.  You have been warned. There WILL be a post on “Art.”  But there will not be a test, so reading it is voluntary.

“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 question not really addressed in most of the posts here. What makes fine art fine? It is assumed we know it when we see it. History suggests that we do not.

After 25 years teaching courses on such matters in philosophy and cinema departments around the country—mostly in New York, I came to the conclusion that no one has ever bested 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 is not entirely new as a manifesto: the surrealists and others in the modernist tradition preached, as Ezra Pound said, “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.

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 gallery art is almost always 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.

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.

But this fact is the source of my hope for the future of photography: 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.

I show work as a “photographer,” but in fact I am a painter, using photographs as my medium to create very large photocollages in Photoshop. Two of my recent works are directly related to my decades-long obsession with these questions (and will be shown in May at the Addison Woolley Gallery): the first is Fauxtographie Factory Farm, which I intended as a satire on the cliché’s of “fine art” photography, only to discover that most people’s response was on the order of: “It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever done!” (Pleasure!) The second was a meditation on the question whether my mother’s snapshots of grocerymen in Oklahoma in 1952 could be considered fine art: Big Gallery Séance.
Both are available online in zoomable format by visiting http://www.photocollagist.com

So “fine art” is finally coopted by the market and turned into an art of pleasure. The trick is to be available to experience the moment when the experience is still hot—or if your motive is to make a sale 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 resume) to sell. Bon voyage.”

Hmm.  On re-reading this now, I’m not sure I’ll have much to add in an expanded version, but, trust me, there’ll be something

Happy time-change, and almost-Spring to all!