4. Photographers versus Contemporary Artists: Whose Crisis Is Deeper?
Veröffentlicht: 10.12.2014
in der Serie Photography versus Contemporary Art
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Photography and contemporary art are engaged in an entangled relationship with unresolved issues of power. Essentially, photography is one of art’s media, while art is one of photography’s applications. Exactly this is immersing both in an endless chicken-versus-egg causality dispute. Indeed, even if photography is obviously younger than art as such, contemporary art might still be younger than photography—it depends on what we define as the former’s beginning.

Some people, including me, would say that photography and contemporary art were born around same time, which might be the reason that still, at the end of the day, these two disciplines have many things in common, support each other, and coinhabit more or less happily, at least for now. One cannot say the same about photographers and artists, though: those characters of the contemporary cultural scene could hardly be more different and, in fact, bear considerable mutual distrust.

As is well known, contemporary artists who produce photographs outright refuse to call themselves photographers, even if the photos they exhibit are their own, and they tend to invest a substantial amount of personal time, and sometimes even manual craft, in their work. Photographers respond by sometimes depreciating artists with their perceivedly useless artwork showing no proof of decent technique. Artists who profess absolute freedom observe inexplicable quasi-religious taboos, considering it unthinkable to take a commission, to apply for biennial participation, or to pay for one’s own solo show, to name just a few; on the other hand, they tolerate more or less everything in terms of the final product. Photographers, on the contrary, do not see anything wrong with paid portfolio reviews or commissions, but they might have difficulty accepting digital alterations of documentary images, staged photographs posing as “real life,” or violations of some other rules that go far beyond aesthetics, ranging into the field of ethics.

Which of the two is experiencing the more acute identity crisis today? Contemporary artists or photographers?

This is an interesting question. For the uninitiated, contemporary art is still something completely enigmatic and elusive—“normal people” would find it difficult to define its limits and raison d’être. But insiders of the art scene are quite stable and comfortable in their unstable identity. Nowadays, young artists learn very quickly, in practice if not by the book, that what makes them artists is affiliation with specific institutions (nonprofit spaces, biennials, residencies, or international curators), while their work can take very different forms or even be physically nonexistent. Contemporary artists know very well who they are.

Photographers, by contrast, seemingly produce something very simple, easily recognizable (who cannot spot a photograph?), but they feel utterly lost in a myriad of very different professions. Introducing oneself as a “professional photographer” may give rise to many misunderstandings. In an era when anybody can make a photograph (and, most importantly, everybody does), it might seem natural that professionals are those who can make money with their photos, being commissioned by magazines, photo agencies, or even private individuals who outsource their wedding photos to a “professional.”

Relevant critical photography finds itself in a tiny zone encircled and endangered by selfie-obsessed iPhone owners on one side, and service professionals on the other (and hardly any of those sides is a “left side). It becomes more and more difficult to explain in a simple way how (and why) “photography” by Allan Sekula, Boris Mikhailov, or Wolfgang Tillmans is profoundly different from “photography” by the stars of news journalism or fashion magazines. Critical photographers who are committed to this name (and there are not that many who still are) are currently experiencing linguistic difficulties that can remind of difficulties of the early avant-garde, when artists had to claim that their discipline was not the “art” of a pompous academic painter but “art” in some other, yet undefined sense. Some of these artists tried to invent another name for their practice—and sometimes it was “photography” . . .

So, can one say that the situation of a critical photographer is vulnerable (maybe productively so), while artists, even critical artists, are enjoying an institutional and identitarian routine established half a century ago? Some photographers might think so, when they desert the photography field, but the stable identity of artists is also increasingly precarious, and in a completely new way.

Critical photographers, as I noted above, may be either amateurs or professionals. Artists, so it seems, did not fall into either of these categories until very recently. Such a thing as “Sunday art” or naive contemporary art was long considered an improbable contradictio in adjecto: it was indisputable that art required high intellectual sophistication, very conscious decisions, and knowledge of art history. On the other hand, professionalization in the sense of art realizing outside commissions was not seen as a serious danger to serious art either, since even radically politically engaged artists always stressed that this was their own, deeply personal choice.

But these assumptions about the contemporary artist—about his or her absolute consciousness and absolute independence—are now shaken. There is such a thing as amateur contemporary art nowadays: “folk conceptualism” is flourishing in social networks. There is “mass contemporary art”: a recognizable (mostly digital) language that is appropriated by advertisement, business presentations, or web design. And there is “commissioned contemporary art”: big exhibitions in large postindustrial spaces where a good many curators have asked (or at least dreamt of asking) artists for “a large-scale and rather darkish central piece of pyramidal form” or “a bright mural for a concave wall 5.5 meter long.”

Soon contemporary art might face the challenge of distancing itself from this instrumentalized “new applied art,” or even some sort of visual service—something that critical photographers have been doing for a long time already.

3 Kommentar(e)
Casey Smallwood
Abgesendet am 16.12.2014 um 21:40

Dear Ekaterina and Matthew,

Ekaterina, you raise very interesting questions with this. I'm not sure I can elaborate with any more clarity. What I can elaborate on are my thoughts on how those new applied art “applications” become a means of branding identity for the contemporary artist.

When someone asks me what I do, I give one of three answers depending on the situation. 1) I teach photography and video. 2) I am an artist working in performance, photography, and video. 3) I am an artist working with non-actors looking at acting in everyday life situations. The answer that takes all of the above situations into account, which often confuses this someone, is: I am a contemporary artist, or even just I am an artist.

Unlike photographers, the identity of the contemporary artist is not reliant on a medium, or rather, no particular medium. You could say they establish their identity as an artist by their affiliation with institutions, research interests, and professional accomplishments – but also what kind of artist are they? What separates Thomas Kinkade from Damien Hirst, aside from the institutions the work is found in, is the function in which the work serves. Gallery work, typically, doesn’t function, while commercial art does. Photography has an inherent function, and as you say, photographers get lost in a myriad of “professions.” (Lecture-performances on the other hand, typically do serve a function, due to the institutional context and the medium being used).

Laura Letinsky is an artist, working with photography. Her photographs point directly to the history of still life painting with her careful but disheveled selection of objects and use of perspective shift – most often created by the technical aspect of photography’s large format camera movements. Recently she created a line of table service called Molosco. She has also photographed commercially for Bon Appétit, The New York Times Magazine, and Martha Stewart. Look at her website and you will see a seamless slideshow of her photographs behind the site’s navigation, which is in this order: Representation, Biography, Exhibitions, Recent News, and Additional and Related. Under Additional and Related, there is a link to the Molosco collection sold through Artware Editions. Nowhere on her site can you find a link to the commercial work made for the magazines mentioned above. Seemingly, she keeps the contemporary art world and the commercial art world separate when photography is the shared medium.

We know there is value information associated with both commercial art and contemporary art. We also know that a website serves as an always present public assertion of our [product’s] identity. Knowing who is looking at our sites and why they are looking – tells us how to direct an idea of our product, based on how we want to be identified. Laura leave’s the commercial work off of her website because, presumably, she doesn’t want the two to be evaluated by the same parameters. But she includes the the link to Artware Editions, where you find commercial works by countless recognizable art names.

Ekaterina’s question of “whose crisis is deeper,” for me – at this point at least – comes down to branding and the contextual framing of one’s “creative” identity. I mentioned earlier that I assess the situation before answering “what I do,” and I am sure most of us do – but I think that part is particularly interesting. It’s almost a moment in life where we use the framework of marketing or advertising (knowing the audience’s experience and knowledge) before packaging and delivering the product. The crisis, here, comes down to the ubiquity of knowledge surrounding physical mediums (photography, painting) - all of which can also link to “professions.” In a time where everything is seemingly supposed to have a use factor, does the non-medium-specific “contemporary artist” need to find a function for their work? Or identify with some cultural or political signifier that has a function?

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Matthew Jesse Jackson
Abgesendet am 19.12.2014 um 15:08

Dear Ekaterina and Casey,

Ekaterina writes, "Critical photographers who are committed to this name (and there are not that many who still are) are currently experiencing linguistic difficulties that can remind of difficulties of the early avant-garde, when artists had to claim that their discipline was not the 'art' of a pompous academic painter but 'art' in some other, yet undefined sense."

In a related way, Casey writes about the fact that --- almost by definition --- the artist today is defined not by allegiance to investigating the problems within a specific medium or within any already established conception of art-making. The whole problem today is how to mobilize a certain confusion of mediums and these mediums' typical medial expectations. One's ambition as an artist-photographer must then be to mobilize and manipulate the commonplaces associated with any other given medium --- and the institutional surroundings of that medium, but even this is only part of the story.

The larger issue at play here is that photography serves as the critical aesthetic glue that holds together all mediums today. In fact, every other medium, every institutional situation, all of them, everywhere, deploy photography to describe and explain themselves. For this reason alone, photography is definitely the ultimate art medium today and the dispute that both Ekaterina and Casey narrate --- between pompous/commercial "art" and undefined/contemporary "art" --- is played out primarily in the realm of language + photography, i.e, institutional publicity.

I also think that Ekaterina and Casey are narrating a similar problem with professional belonging within any contemporary photographic practice. I see it this way: there's a fundamental question of whether a given body of work will come to be known primarily "as pompous-professional-commercial art," or "as undefined-aprofessional-quasi-uncommercial art." And we don’t know yet which way a practice may go, because these oppositional categories themselves are mutating in odd ways. This lack of obviousness about the “critical” or “commercial” aspects of a photographic practice contributes to a profound sense of uncertainty --- an uncertainty about nearly everything photographic --- and it is the specific character of this uncertainty that is the source of the strongest art feelings today.

The takeaway: today, the degree of art feeling available from a work or a practice is a direct result of how you find out about a work in the first place. This is fundamentally new and it constitutes a direct challenge to the entire institutional and commercial infrastructure of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries --- I feel convinced that "The Reveal" of a practice is now the primary generator of art feelings today. Only if you find out about a work or a practice in a way that feels artful will the work or practice actually have punch rather than just giving you a kitschy Linked-In/Facebooked/Vined/Pinterested aftertaste. By this standard, within a few years, a work's appearance at an art fair will be a 100% unambiguous sign of its communicative capitalist kitschiness; museum publicity about a work will be a 100% unambiguous sign of communicative capitalist kitschiness; a grant from a funding agency will be a 100% unambiguous sign of communicative capitalist kitschiness. So, the main challenge to the artist --- to the photographer --- will be this: how does the public see the photograph in the first place. And, ironically, what a photograph is about will fade in importance, because we already have seen everything about everything.

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Max de Esteban
Abgesendet am 20.12.2014 um 14:54

Since early XXth century anything can be art. If an urinary is one of the most important pieces in art history, why a photo shouldn't be part of it? The discussion about the object is dated. As Ekaterina points, the problem (if there is one) is not photography but photographers. Art today is a quite precise curatorial-institutional discourse. Either one's work is/aspires to be engaged in it or most probably will never belong to it. It is as if lawyers (who write a lot!) complained because they are never up for the Literature Nobel Prize. And let's not hide the fact that our medium has all the traps that foster conservatism and yawn.

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