We are asked to read an essay by Pierre Bourdieu from the course reader called ‘The social Definition of photography’.
Whether or not you are totally convinced by the argument, do you see ways in which his arguments could be applied to some of the more contemporary forms of visual artistic expression – performance, video and instillation art for example?
The essay has several points;-
- Photography as a new medium was automatically used to create images in the same style as paintings had been done for hundreds of years,
- It is seen as the authentic reproducer of nature and the natural because it copies it so well and is unemotional. The last paragraph in this section was difficult to unravel, I asked someone with a masters in English to translate and their notes turned it into a question which helped clarify it for me, so I think its is the unemotional factual depiction of the real really unemotional and factual? which it can’t be because someone has decided to create the record at that time and they have a purpose in making that recording. There is always an agenda whether it is perceived or not.
- Its inability to create beyond a single depth hasn’t led to another way of constructing an image.
- Because it is so easy to take a picture that a ‘peasant’ could do it it has a lesser value than if an artist had created it.
- Each picture is a construct of a socially pre-defined situation with the individuals in it positioned in a pose that does not break away from the way pictures like this are always taken (although I’d argue this is is incorrect, the pose is a thing that changes with the generations, thus the duck faced selfie is now the accepted norm but must have been new at some point) also, doesn’t this contradict the use of photography to take images of the natural as naturally as it can? The act of posing as the essay states, is deeply un-natural.
- The pose is then discussed as a means to convey the subject to the viewer, served up in an uncomfortable face on way that makes you self-conscious of how you look, obviously I am a peasant, because I hate having my photo taken and am body conscious (thanks for that Bourdieu).
- This leads to the wrongful representation of society, if the hierarchy of a positioning within a group photo is defined by society, this area has merits, a family shot is taken with the parents in a position of overriding importance, either guarding their children or seated in the most important spot, while this may convey the relationships within the family, it doesn’t state the strengths of all the individuals within that unit.
- Not all photos are relevant to everyone, which is true, we pick and choose which images catch our eye as they stream past on Facebook, it is also what allows us to admit that not all pieces in a gallery are appealing. But could it be they have been chosen incorrectly based on universal likes versus personal more limited likes? In which case is the curator wrong for including it or merely trying to open our eyes to something else?
- Taking photos for aesthetic purposes devalues them, the argument is a bit hazy here, but I think its to do with the purpose of photos really being to increase the value of the object/people in the photo, so by creating a photo purely because its a nice picture means it doesn’t fit into a category, it has no story explaining itself, its disconnected.
- photos values are based on societies views on the value of the subject, the photo is reviewed by a different hierarchy within these groups, so society is deciding what photos we take.
- He ends by saying that having grouped photos by class, can they not then show the sociology of the group that produced them, isn’t that a direct depiction of the culture? So you can get a true indication of society from photos, because society dictated what was acceptable to put in a picture?
I can see his point, the value of something that hasn’t taken a huge amount of energy that was completed with a medium that -as automated as it is- means even less effort by the creator, could be conceived as less than if the artist had studied a medium for years and the picture/sculpture took years to create. Having said that, the modern artist could potentially have still spent a grand amount of time learning how to pose the viewer, complete the idea in the plot and production values to give the piece its emotive effect/value.
Bourdieu’s attitude seems (like Benjamin, possibly a bit scared of the unknown future) a touch elitist and also ignorant of the fact that with modern installation art and the likes, by using the media as art to question what we see, maybe it is being used in away that isn’t traditional and conforming to the socially acceptable way of representing the world, my viewing of British art at Southampton gallery included a piece by Lawrence Abu Hamdan (A convention of tiny movements, 2015) that showed how we don’t need microphones because household items can be made into them, with a crisp packet being the most acoustically similar to how we hear through modern microphones. The piece as a wall sized poster picture of a supermarket next to a chair with a box of tissues on it that you could sit at and listen to a voice from, made its point about modern technology and a potential layer of paranoia, really well.
However, as a created piece, it didn’t consist of much. The picture was a black and white image of the shelves in an elevated view so several rows of shelves were visible. Some of the items on the shelves were in colour, the information written in a note on the adjacent wall stated that the coloured items where what had been found to have listening qualities so far and explained the message clearly.
The table and chairs didn’t seem to be bespoke and the electronics involved also didn’t strike me as expensive or complex, in fact most of the premiss of the piece was from information the artist had arrived at through an engineer.
But I still got something out of it, either as a knowledge that we far from understand everything, and that we will arrive at a point where if someone wants to find out about something, the chances are there will be an inconspicuous way for them to achieve it, which gave me a sense of discomfort as much as it intrigued me with its findings. So I’m not about to devalue it because it probably didn’t take him 6 months of morning till night work to complete.
Subscribing it as a socially accepted image as an installation piece is incongruous to the knowledge that it was constructed to go into a gallery, not on a wall in a private abode, and as John Berger wrote at the start of ways of seeing, most people who go to galleries are of a higher education level, which is I believe still mostly a class based attainment, so the peasants are not seeing the easy art anyway. The argument doesn’t fit the art.
Is it devalued because it is a social construct and not an objective item? One of the other students on the visit to the gallery pointed out that the background of the artists who’s work is shown in British art show 8 had an impact on the mediums used, and content of images,Lawrence Abu Hamdan, in this instance is from Beirut, his work as a result of this is not a floaty landscape or a comfortable piece about recycling.
Also, if I reach a point where my art sells, does it mean I have a better grasp of what is a universally acceptable image so that a gallery will pick it to show? or individual personal one that speaks loudest to someone so they want it on their wall and are prepared to pay?
Bourdieu, P(1965)The social definition of photography. In: Visual culture reader, Jessica Evans, Stuart Hall. London. Visual culture reader. pp. 162-180
Hamdan, LA(2016)A convention of tiny movements, 2015. [Audio, tissue box and print] British art show 8. Southampton gallery