Photography and Baudelaire

Photography and Baudelaire

Something else has been nagging at me this week that I wanted to explore. Last Friday, Jim Hart cited and commented briefly on an article called Paradoxes of Painting. I wrote a short comment on his site, and noticed that shortly afterward this article was flying high on Blogdex. Being the closet anti-social type that I am, I decided that I wouldn’t expand that comment into a documented entry since so many other people were apparently talking about it.

Then on Monday, Jonathan Delecour added some significant commentary from the perspective of a photographer, closing with words that just rang for me:

Fifteen years later, I have no idea whether the images were art or not. But they certainly met the need that Kafka wrote about for “those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” The only reason the pictures had such energy was that I had utterly lost interest in photography as art.

I wrote an incredibly long comment in response, and then promptly lost it due to my failure to provide an email address (I hate spam, and I give my site address since it includes an anti-spam email link). I thought his response to the old cliché debate about photography as art was just spot on. I can’t remember everything I said at the time, but I decided today to come back to the issues raised by the article, because either it’s an incredible coincidence, or it’s out and out intellectual plagiarism. I revisited Charles Baudelaire’s 1859 essay on photography today.

Paradoxes of Painting begins:

It is a terrible time for painting, but a marvellous time for painters. Compare today with (say) the 1950s. Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Henri Matisse were names that wielded Hollywood glamour with the public.

Baudelaire’s essay begins:

During this lamentable period, a new industry arose which contributed not a little to conform stupidity in its faith and to ruin whatever might remain of the divine in the French mind.

The “divine” which Baudelaire is speaking of is the art of painting, the “industry,” photography. During his time, photographs of prostitutes sold for more money than the prostitutes themselves. The commodification of desire which he addresses in this essay is much the same as the idolatry we now place on the memory of painters of the past. The battleground is that of mechanical reproduction which displaces and removes the “aura” from art, an issue taken up by one of Baudelaire’s most perceptive readers, Walter Benjamin, nearly a century later. But Benjamin gives full credit to his source.

Baudelaire observes, almost prophetically:

Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate each other with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet on the same road one of them has to give place. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude that is its natural ally. It is time, then, for a return it to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts— but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature.

At this time, photography was barely twenty years old. He asserts that photography is an aid to memory primarily, which could also be said of the written word vs. the spoken one. It’s a technology, and nothing more. The presence of the “divine” quality of art lies outside the medium used to create it. Baudelaire issued a rallying cry for a return to the core capabilities of photography:

Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is disolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory— it will be thanked and applauded. But if it be allowed to encroach on the domain on the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely on the addition of something from a man’s soul, then it will be much the worse for us!

Baudelaire’s core argument was much the same as the Prospect Magazine article. One only need substitute the “postmodern smirk” with the “idolatrous mob” and the plagiarism is perfectly symmetrical. Baudelaire later softened his perspective, claiming that photography liberated painting. Baudelaire was there first, and he deserves the real credit for the majority of concepts in that article. There was nothing original, save a comparison with photography’s effectiveness as an art medium with the power of a potato chip to knock a man down. To say this, in the context of an unrealized part of Baudelaire’s argument, is to chase fervently into the realm of the ridiculous.

Recall that Baudelaire compared photography to shorthand or printing. If we deny the camera as an artistic medium, following this logic, we must also reject the book. You’d have to read the writers longhand in order to experience transcendence from literature. Printing then, could be declared ineffectual, a “potato chip in the wind.”

Transcendence does not reside in any object, but in the soul. Intending transcendence does not by necessity assure its presence, either in a painting or a photograph. In fact, like Jonathan, I find it to be an impediment to its attainment. To argue over the “validity” of technology is just the same crisis which Baudelaire cites regarding poetry and progress. Progress will usually win, in the short term. It will create anxiety, as exemplified by Baudelaire’s initial response and the latecomer article in Prospect magazine, but like Shelley, I think poetry is a force that will never be denied for long. Baudelaire didn’t spend much more space than this single essay critiquing the capability of photography in the hands of a capable artist. He accepted it, eventually.

The questions implied in the Prospect Magazine article were hardly fresh or innovative. It’s just that same reactionary response to the challenge of technology that goes round and round. Then people forget about it and just use it, for whatever ends they like. It wouldn’t have bothered me as much if it wasn’t such a blatant case of theft of ideas.

The real paradox to me is how such shoddy scholarship passes for fresh news.