Friday, June 5, 2020

The Object Under Consideration

In the relatively early days of photography, Duchamp selected a urinal, named it Fountain, and declared it Art.

This was in a sense a watershed moment in the Art world, and had an impact on Photography As Art. Duchamp in one fell swoop declared that craft, that labor, that skilled work, was not required for Art. One need not make a thing at all for it to be Art. Any object that, because of an artist's declaration or perhaps for other reasons, has Art-like properties is Art.

The photograph, with its depressingly low skill requirements, with its unfortunate reproducibility, with its potential for simply happening by accident, was suddenly liberated from stodgy requirements, and was free to be Art.

Well, in a sense. The liberation began much earlier, and was never much of a sudden event, but still, the idea has a certain soundness. This is an old story, well worn.

It occurred to me this morning that at the same time a second thread of thought was launched, one rather less fortunate.

Duchamp's experiment also suggested that the object itself didn't matter much. What mattered was intention, context, authorship.

We can draw a pretty straight line from Fountain to the modern approach to photographic criticism. The modern conceit, despite protestations to the contrary, is that the picture itself hardly matters. What truly matters is who made it, why, and for whom.

I am the first to allow that context, authorship, and politics absolutely affect the way we grasp a photograph. The nude selfie made by the feminist, even if pixel identical with the nude made by the male pornographer, will take us differently — if we are aware of the facts of its making. Intention, context, and authorship do indeed matter, when we know them.

Still, the object under consideration, the photograph and its contents, have largely gotten lost here.

The result we have arrived at today is that the apparent job of a critic is to project his or her politics onto whatever random collection of pixels swims into their view. They don't notice details in the frame, they don't care about the ground truth, they just open their mouths and let words fall fecklessly out.

These are maybe not quite the droids we were looking for.

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