Image Fatigue, The Australian: “In a culture saturated with visual images and increasingly cynical about their manipulation, photography is losing its status as an art form, writes Sebastian Smee.

Sebastian Smee makes a daring attack at photography as a contemporary artform. For the sake of my photography artist friends, and to see if he had a point, I was compelled to take a look.

Smee suggests that photography is losing its positioning as an artform for two reasons. The first is an apparent saturation of images in our society:

Photography has finally become just another way of making images. So easy is it to produce these images that our culture has reached saturation point. Just think of all the wedding photos, baby photos, holiday snaps, news photos, fashion shots, forays into art, scientific photos, police records, studio portraits, passport photos and party snaps that come into existence every day of the year, all across the globe.

In short, I think this is bunk. Guy Debord has presented a compellingly convincing account of modern society completely consisting of the “spectacle” in the form of abstracted images. The very existence of so many genres of photography speaks of both the power and directed and mediated use they hold in our world. It seems all too obvious that in a world of images, the only way to express anything is also through images. Subverting our perspective of the world based on our acceptance of these images just seems all the more possible.

The second is based solely on Smee’s definition of Art. I’m not sure if he attempts to obscure his endeavour to authoratively define Art – it certainly doesn’t work. There is indeed so much argument over what art is, that it is ludicrous to try and slip his own definition in and base the rest of the article on it.

Here we go with his idea of art: First it must involve the required amount of effort to produce. If it doesn’t take sufficient artistry to create, then it isn’t art. This is often heard as the “My five year old nephew could do that” argument.

According to this way of seeing, it turned out that not all that much artistry did need to be involved in the making of a great photograph. It was in the nature of the medium to be interesting, if we would just let it.

I’d like to point out that there are many who would believe we can all be artists and – due to their unjaded capacity to wonder at the world – perhaps especially children. Likewise, Andy Warhol and his Popart posse has certainly engaged with ease-of-creation along with level of artistic input through mass-production and mass-appropriation, and managed to come out on top of the “What is Art?” debate.

His second Rule of Art is implicit in the argument against photographs/snapshots of the everyday as art.

A certain eye could be brought to the process of selection, certainly, but even there the random and the arbitrary could be just as fertile ground as the carefully composed, the congested with meaning. But of course, the mind easily tires of randomness.

…Which, I’d venture, is why our minds are urged to find meaning in the apparently meaningless. And so he doesn’t like this. For him, art must present a solid, concrete meaning and signification. He states the following as a question, but I’d suggest your reading would be more accurate to his intent if read it as a statement:

What is art, after all, but a dream of significance, of some things mattering more than others, a concentration and distillation of the great, formless everything that surrounds us into something more meaningful?

This certainly sounds like he wants art to present some kind of Grand Narrative, explicating those essential and important parts of existence for our appreciative understanding.

I sense that these two criticisms are connected, at least in the type of art that they discount. I would suggest there is value in an art that presents everything as meaningful: The whole world as necessary and interesting and worthy of awe. Just because it is impractical in our daily drudge to constantly boggle at the beauty of light interacting through your office window, or the swirls in your morning coffee, or the shear amazingness of existence, doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.

I have a strong feeling though that Smee’s insistence that photography has lost it’s former magic, stems from a personal issue with the modern photographic process. He uses the notion of photography’s “medium’s inherent aptitudes, its original, fragile relation to reality” many times in his article, mostly to say that contemporary artists are failing to take advantage of them, but never manages to go further into what these are… at all. What is obvious from his closing is what will break this fragile relationship:

[Of the work of the few contemporary photogs he likes] The liberties they take can be breathtaking: artificial staging, deliberate obscuring and ghostly distortion of the image. But somehow (primarily by resisting the siren call of digital manipulation) they manage to hang on to photography’s precarious connection to reality.

And so we see: He doesn’t like digital editing. Of course there are philosophical issues with the ability to completely “falsify” an image, but these have been entrenched in photographic theory for much longer than the existence of our present day digital technologies. There are also issues, emphasised by Smee’s insistence on artistic effort in photographic production, on the ease of duplication of digital technology, against which I would point again to Warhol. In my mind, this distrust of digitisation is tantamount to “When I were a lad, photographs could be trusted”.

While I will ambivalently confess to liking art that says something, I’m happy to accept this in the form of an expression of wonder, or even a self-reflexive engagement with art discourse. Of course now we enter a completely different world, and one that Smee doesn’t even begin to touch on: the difference between Art, and what the commercial art world will call Art for the sake of attracting an audience. It may very well be that, as Smee insists, photography is loosing its hold on the second.