Agency and the arts

I’ve been reading a thread about the role of artistic intent that seems to have sprung up here and there. I’m not interested in the role of intention in the reading of art so much as I am in the link between intention and agency. Specifically, I wonder why it would trouble some people that being mindful of the image being made (implying a conscious intent to represent something in a specific manner) must be classed as either relevant or irrelevant to the final result. Joerg Colberg phrases it in this way:

Photography, of course, has become an established part of art – the implications of that have important consequences for how we understand photography. If photography is an art form (and not, say, a technical craft to produce images) then this means that we need to treat it like an art form.

But it also means that we can use practices well-established in the art world to approach photography, and we might learn something very valuable. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we have to treat photography just like minimalist art – each art form clearly deserves to be treated according to its own characteristics. But we better stop thinking about photography as if it was a technical craft to produce images.

I am confused. The Aristotelian definition of techné is an ability to make with a consciousness of what is being made. The invocation of photography as a “technical craft” reads as techné for me, which makes it no different than say, the ability of the sculptor or painter. So why then should the craft of photography (because it is “technical”?) be excluded from consideration? The only way that I can get this assertion to make any sense is if one classes “art” as an activity that requires the absence of any mindfulness of the potential result. In short, a photographer is denied any agency in his products (photographs). He is merely a conduit through which verities or falsehoods “flow” on their way to an interpretive community.

This is all quite counter-intuitive. I like making things. I like to think I have some awareness of what I am doing. I do not care whether it is classed as “art” or not, and if it means that in order to be considered as such that one should surrender any sense of photography as a craft, well, count me out on that one.

Of course, on the interpretive (reading) side, then the consideration of the artist’s agency (whether in the form of technical ability or communicative success at conveying their intent) is always optional. On the making (techné) side intent is never superfluous. Without intent, it is no longer making—it is finding.