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.

Pumping and Dumping (the Art Marketplace)

Postmodern theory has proposed that all the questions that thoughtful photographers had begun to ask in the late 1950s and early 1960s — about the non-neutrality of photography, about lens-based observation and photographic seeing, about the tension in a photograph between its transcriptive, descriptive, translative, and interpretive aspects — were insignificant, and had in any case been answered satisfactorily.

T’ain’t so, methinks. Those questions endure, still open, and such answers as we have for them — in the work of of Arbus, Friedlander, and Winogrand, among many others, along with the theories of Szarkowski and some of his successors — remain provisional, as perhaps they always will. Now that, in effect, all of those individuals have gained admission to the pantheon and all the results of their theory and practice have entered the canon, we stand poised at a particular moment of stasis: the pause between several generations that grew up with this work and its makers as living entities and those generations now to come, who will treat them as a distinct chapter in the medium’s history and exemplars of an established tradition to either draw from or ignore. What they had to say to the last third of the twentieth century is in any case indelibly inscribed on the record. Let’s see what the next century makes of them.

AMERICANSUBURB X: THEORY: A. D. Coleman, “Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander & Garry Winogrand at Century’s End (2000)”

Coming of age as a photographer in the late 70s/early 80s, I was railed against postmodern critics such as Andy Grundberg and Peter Galassi (still do, in some respects). A.D. Coleman was a breath of fresh air, and reading his constant columns in Photo Metro and elsewhere, I had the feeling that I wasn’t completely alone in appreciating both a rich tradition and new frontiers for photography. I met Coleman at an SPE conference a few years ago, though, and I wondered how he could be so consistently luddite and backward about the future of photographic education. Mainly, judging from his web presence, I really don’t feel like he “gets” the internets.

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The web that coheres the world

I watched Black White +Grey last night and was fascinated. It put a face on Sam Wagstaff that surprised me—I haven’t often considered collectors as thinkers. The root of aesthetics is pleasure, and Wagstaff is pleasure’s poster-boy. The film makes it clear that he received great pleasure from photographs, and the short clip above defines that pleasure as private and non verbal—in exaggerated discomfort, he brands it onanistic.

The uncut interview was taken from a symposium at the Corcoran museum occasioned by the exhibition of selections from his collection in 1978, and the credits of the limited footage list a tantalizing line-up of commentators. Several sections of Wagstaff’s comments during this symposium fascinate me, not he least of which the profound separation between photography and A-R-T that is echoed and riffed upon by virtually every modern commentator after the photo secession. But I must save that for later; what interests me most for now is the relationship between photography and language.

Exploring the Sam Wagstaff papers online after the film unearthed a typescript titled “Pictorial Logic” from another speaker, photographer Fredrick Sommer that runs parallel to Wagstaff’s comments. It also deals with the relationship between words and pictures, deserving full transcription below the fold.

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Helen Levitt, No-Nonsense New Yorker

The photographer Thomas Roma, a friend of hers for almost 25 years and one of her poker companions, recalls Levitt telling him about a visit from a woman researching a biography of Walker Evans. [Belinda Rathbone? J.W.]

“She wanted to know if I had ever had an affair with Evans,” said an indignant Levitt, who told the biographer, “of course not.”

Then Levitt looked back over her shoulder at Mr. Roma and smiled, “Of course I slept with him. But it’s not for me to say those sorts of things.”

WSJ, 4-01-2009 [Thanks Cheryl!]

House Calls is an excellent book, by the way—I’ve been binging on William Carlos Williams lately and this is yet another little moment where a person can only think that it’s a small world after all.

San Francisco (belated comments)

I saw several shows when I was in San Francisco several weeks ago. It was weird to go to a city during a conference (CCCC) and not attend, but there has been very little of interest to me at that conference for several years. I’ve presented there many times, and while it’s nice to see friends I just couldn’t justify paying the fees just for that. My days as a composition teacher, I’m afraid, are drawing to a close. I might dig into that a little at a later date, but for now I wanted to talk about some of the shows that really bothered me. First up, at San Francisco Camerawork there was a video installation that sent me wandering out of the room quickly during the first piece I saw. The description of “Test Patterns: Recent Video From South Africa” seems interesting enough:

Video is a distinctly post apartheid medium. Artists in the United States began working with video in the 1960s, but South Africans hadn’t even seen television until 1976. The government had banned it previously, fearing it would expose the country to the dangerous ideas of the non-apartheid world. And it was not until the 1980s that television was available in any language other than English or Afrikaans. South African national identity under apartheid, as it was portrayed on TV, belonged strictly to the whites.

The breakaway of video from its exclusive use as a television broadcast tool and into the hands of activists and artists is significant in South Africa. If television had been the preserve of white national identity, video became a way to develop diverse narratives about South Africa’s past and to recalibrate contemporary ideas of citizenship and belonging in the post apartheid era.

The exhibition will be presented in two parts. Part One explores ideas of memory and identity under colonialism and apartheid. Part Two surveys post apartheid South Africa as it struggles to define a new national identity amidst the significant challenges of skyrocketing unemployment, HIV/AIDS, corruption, instability, migration and xenophobia


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Refinishing the Cherry


The fairing compound used to create the precise spherical form of the cherry, has, after 21 years of Minnesota weather and a constant stream of water covering its surface during the warm months, reached the end of its useful life and is beginning to show signs of failure. Upon close inspection of the surface of the cherry, a network of hairline cracks are present, and if left untreated, will continue to widen and lift away from the surface of the cherry.

After reaching bare metal, the surface of the cherry will be sprayed with a yellow oxide epoxy primer, followed by a coat of gray epoxy primer. Layers of a green immersion-grade fairing compound, the same product used to shape the hulls of ocean vessels, will be spread over the surface, allowed to dry, and be hand-sanded, building the cherry back to the appropriate circumference and re-creating is perfect spherical profile.

Walker Art Center
latest images

The Boom is Over. Long Live the Art!

Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.

Such changes would require new ways of thinking and writing about art, so critics will need to go back to school, miss a few parties and hit the books and the Internet. Debate about a “crisis in criticism” gets batted around the art world periodically, suggesting nostalgia for old-style traffic-cop tastemakers like Clement Greenberg who invented movements and managed careers. But if there is a crisis, it is not a crisis of power; it’s a crisis of knowledge. Simply put, we don’t know enough, about the past or about any cultures other than our own.

Holland Cotter, NYT

Handmade Nation

From the trip to Milwaukee last Thursday/Friday

The weekend before last, I was reading about a benefit for a film called Handmade Nation. As a person with an interest in most things DIY, I made a mental note about it. It was a project conceived by an owner of a shop in Milwaukee called Paper Boat. Though the project is in progress, it dovetails with my current research obsessions in a profound way. The connections wouldn’t really be apparent to most people not inside my head.

My interest in Henry Hamilton Bennett and the Wisconsin Dells doesn’t have anything to do with the hype surrounding him as a “pioneer photographer.” It has to do with his copious records of the circumstances surrounding his photographic gallery. He was a small town artist, struggling to make a buck as technological and social circumstances changed at the turn of the century. He was only one of thousands. It’s hard to estimate how many artists struggled to profit from newly opened local markets during the settlement of the American West. We have often been, to a large extent, a handmade nation.

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