Calls to Action

Calls to Action

The attitude after the peak of the postmodernist critical explosion of the 1980s is reflected by Richard Bolton’s 1989 anthology The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. The efforts at critical deconstruction of the context of the emergence of documentary photography in the 1930s revolved around the political, rather than the cultural environment:

Important reforms no doubt lie ahead, but any recognition of the politics of representation will require a recognition of the importance of politics itself. Arguments for change in the art world, and for change in the history and interpretation of art, also imply the need for change in the world beyond the institutions of art. But how much can art actually change society? The pessimistic responses that this recurring question usually receives indicate just how far we have adjusted our expectations, how much we have accepted the separation of culture and society promoted by late modernism. But a better question might be: how can art best change society? After all, most artists hope to create change; few actually work self-consciously to further the status quo. Most positions within modernism have at some point been considered “radical”— even the much-criticized strategy of autonomy. How, then, do we determine the best ways to create change? (xvii)

Though Bolton hints at the possibility of a rejection of the aesthetic as an island apart from society, his embrace of the futility of attempts to change the masses reflect the sort of elitism which cultural criticism is prone:

Perhaps it is obvious, but few think that this radical practice will be achieved by creating a persuasive art that inspires “the masses” to action. In fact, one might guess from the arguments in these essays, the rhetoric and realism such persuasion requires would be met with great suspicion. Instead, politicized photographic practices and histories must grow out of critical thinking, and must encourage critical thinking in others. This critical thinking, however, cannot be seen as yet another autonomous process; it must be welded to a political context, provided with a material and social forum. It is hoped that this book will bring us one step closer to such an understanding of art. A socially motivated, critical practice will undoubtedly have limits, but we have yet to approach them. As of today, when asked how much art can change society, we can answer with confidence: “Much more than it does.” (xvii)

One of the most interesting things to me about the critical path across the 90s is the way that the context has been broadened to examine not just the political context of the institutional structures (such as the FSA) but also the political context of the popular media. Somehow, critics now seem to recognize that photographs outside these structures seem to critique and render problematic the strictures of the dominant discourse. The ability of critics to suddenly discover what has been in front of their faces all along never ceases to amaze me. This same critical discourse (itself a form of “dominant discourse”) now aims to reshape the world in its image of endless radicalism. In the introduction to Liz Well’s 2003 collection of essays on photography, the echo of the same call to arms is even more diffuse than Bolton’s:

As photographers, curators or critics we can move from thinking about photography to thinking about the world differently, and indeed, reconsidering our place and contribution. Not only do we want to ask how photographs operate, we also want to ask how photography can be used to resist dominant structures and practices. (2)

The answer, of course, is that photography outside of dominant structures and practices always resists those structures and practices. How obvious can that possibly be? What sort of call to arms is this? To resist mass appeal, to withdraw, is the easiest way to resist these problematic structures. If such resistance is institutionalized, it becomes the dominant discourse. Such calls to resistance are absolutely meaningless.

What’s left then? Why not concentrate on how photographs operate? Why all this carping about context and comment? Because it gets you tenure, I suppose, and creates a nicely sealed island of endless suspicion. The dividing line between art and rhetoric I think was best demarcated by W.B. Yeats, paraphrased from memory: “An artist creates to persuade himself, a rhetorician to persuade others.” To call for acts of resistance is by its very nature to call for autonomous action. I really don’t understand why critics resist this so.