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.

Blurbing Books

It is hard to get used to sitting still at this time of year. Krista reminded me that last year at this time we were in Northern California. I should be in Northern New York right now, but I’ve been procrastinating and writing here, trying to catch my stride again after having my breath kicked out of me by the (expected) death of my mother. I am starting to feel like my mind and eyes are working again, and there are a few things I meant to say something about that I keep forgetting.

As I mentioned in my confession about changing paths, I think I want to rediscover making photographs again. It’s been a long time. Many of the people I read in the beginning of this public writing exercise were also “lapsed” photographers (who knew that was such a large category?). One of them, James Luckett, published a book this February called Suginami. I confess, I’m one of the ten or so people who must have rushed to buy it. We really don’t know each other, but I was really interested about in what sort of quality a Blurb book might be capable of—because I’ve been thinking about making a few books myself, of past and future work. Thinking about this book and searching out the links lead me to an interview with James that points directly at the sort of feelings I’m having about such an enterprise:

James: I’ve never had any real idea of an audience. I can think of about ten people – relatives and friends – who might purchase a hard copy of Suginami. Beyond that, its hard for me to imagine anyone wanting to own the book. It’s been about eight years since I’ve made any real physical object that might be of interest to another. Nearly everything over those years existed publicly only in digital form on the Internet, a fairly passive sort of dissemination. So if I do have any kind of audience, that’s what I imagine, people out there sitting at a terminal browsing the Internets staring at rastorized ephemeral bytes. To think of my work taking up space, as something to physically contend with, manipulate, is a little unsettling. I worry about the responsibility of sending things into the world.

I haven’t started printing again yet, but when I relocate to New York I plan on it. James’s story is eerily similar to mine; I didn’t print for a forensic lab, but I did do a lot of work in medical photography and popular snapshots at a high volume lab in Arkansas as well as slides from x-rays, etc. while I lived in California. I stopped photography just prior to entering graduate school rather than after, and I changed relationships and states (and am about to again [edit: just states, relationship fine- sorry love). Our styles couldn’t be more different, or desires in what we expect photography to be/do. But one thing is common—I also worry about the responsibility of sending things out into the world, not to mention the weight of simply being in the world. I feel a lot lighter now, than I did eight or so years ago when I started this, and perhaps it’s really time to make something.

The Blurb books are pricy, but judging from James’s book and another limited edition, A Night at the Met by Larry Fink (an old hero of mine), the possibilities are good. I’ve read only one horror story so far, and when I get settled in New York I will definitely look into it more closely.