I've been thinking lately about what kinds of photographs I actually like. For a guy who spends so much time complaining that other people don't seem to like photographs, I myself seem to like precious little. Which isn't quite true, I like a lot of photographs. I just don't like most photographs.
At some point in the last 100 years or so it was brought home to critics of all stripes that there was never going to be devised a particularly firm basis on which to criticize things. Aesthetics was supposed to be a firm and objective basis, handed down by God or the very structure of the universe, but then it turned out not so much. As a mathematician, I am pretty familiar with this. A contemporaneous program to place mathematics at last on to firm ground, with a certain and unshakable foundation, was blown up spectacularly by Kurt Gödel. It is now clear that things like Truth and Beauty and The Sublime are all mere constructs of whatever system they arise in, be it a system of logic or a system of culture.
The post-modernists (post-strucuralists? somewhere in that mess of post-whatevers) seem to have stumbled across this at roughly the same time. It is not hard to discover, all you need is a 5 year old who responds to every ever-more-detailed explanation with "but, why?" and in a few minutes you will see the futility of it all.
Mathematicians dealt with this by saying "well, I guess we should agree on a system to live in. Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory everyone? Very good. Moving on..." and the post-whatevers seem to have dealt with is in a somewhat less organized way which allowed the writing of an infinite number of papers that don't say anything.
That doesn't mean that there are no ideas that aren't stupid in play here. Yes, it's true that the merits, of any, of a photograph are relative to the culture that produced it, and the culture in which it finds itself. This does not mean that the enterprise of judging a picture is hopeless. It does not mean that author intent ought to be ignored. It does not mean that everything is subjective and that therefore you can say anything as legitimately as anything else.
What I like is, therefore, not based on any firm logical ground. It is based on a vaguely systemized set of ideas which feel right to me, and as such it doesn't land on any specific critical ideology.
I think Art is, at its best, an attempt to communicate something, to share something, to show me something. As such, the authorial intent does matter. In some sense it is my job, as the consumer of Art, to work out my best guess at what the author means. I described this as "story #4" within the last few days, I guess.
I also think that Art exists in the gestalt of society, and that it is useful to make an attempt to guess what others are likely to see in a piece of work, so see as the post-modernists might say, what is "coded" in the piece. A writer might use the phrase "strange fruit" and mean only a particularly lumpy orange, but that is also a reference, in contemporary America, to lynchings.
As a consumer of Art, I also bring myself to the table, and I am a more or less functional thinking creature with my own history, memories, ideas, tics. As such, Art is going to hit me in, to some degree or other, a unique kind of way.
I try pretty hard to bring all of these things together into my own personal understanding of what a piece means. I bring all these together into my judgement of whether something is good or whether it is bad.
I like Art in which I can discern the author's voice, that perhaps indefinable thing the artist is trying to communicate. If the artist seems to me to be saying nothing, or nothing coherent, I am likely to judge the work Bad.
If my guess as to the reaction of a more or less normal person in my cultural milieu is that the reaction is likely to be superficial, or empty, I am likely to judge the work Bad. This particular case covers an enormous amount of ground, by the by. Most photography which is broadly identified as good is in fact just pleasing. The reaction of a normal person is positive, agreeable, but shallow.
Finally, while I try to be charitable about this and use a lot of first person phrases, if it doesn't hit me personally in a good way, in a complex, enlarging way, I am likely to think the work isn't very good. In part, I like everyone else am prone to generalize my reaction to everyone else.
My insistence that Art should provoke some kind of complex reaction leads to a lot of acrimony when I trot it out in public, which isn't very often.
There's a tremendous amount of appealing photography out there. Most people who style themselves photographers appear to be satisfied with their own work, and the work of others, if it is graphically pleasing, has nice colors, or a beautiful girl, or a cute kid in it, or any of a handful of other things. These people get kind of grumpy when I wave my hands dismissively and say "tut tut, but it's all shallow, innit?" which I do.
I find these pictures appealing as well, I like them in the same sense that everyone else does.
As a guy who spends an unhealthy amount of time looking at pictures, especially pictures made by bottom-tier Serious Photographers, I also know that these things are common as grass. I sense a difference between these common, appealing, pictures, and the pictures that appear to me to be saying something, that appear to be making a strong play to enlarge me.
As such, I feel these two categories ought to be distinguished, and there is no way I know of to distinguish them without appearing to be saying nasty things about the common, appealing, shallow pictures. One can temporize and say Of course they're appealing and pleasant and you're welcome to love them but... and all anyone ever sees if the material after the word but, and they interpret the whole thing as a personal attack.
And so, I stopped caring much about what people think I mean. I dub the common, appealing, material as "shit" and the stuff I like as "good" and I am done with it.