5. Notes on Photography & Language

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“Photography is no art just like the language is no art—says Susan Sontag (On Photography, 1977)—but it is possible to make as much art with photography than it is with the language”. Here, a nuance: it is possible to speak about photography like we do about the language only if we refer—etymologically—to their potency. The language is a bunch of concrete expressions of an abstract system—parole et langue—and only in those terms the comparison is possible, although not definitive: the abstract system of the language is in photography concrete technique. Both words—language and photography—designate the existent concretions but, on top of them, other ones about to come. Neither language nor photography can exist totally. If we discuss photography as one of the means of art, the proper noun is not “language”, but its supposedly artistic expression: “literature”. We name two things with the same word: “photography”: technique, concretion, potency; and “photography”: discipline and tradition with aesthetic means. Is literature an art? Or the second meaning of the word photography, is it? These questions seem to be as anachronistic as the very notion of art. The great masters of the photographic tradition, necessarily men of the twentieth century, like Edward Weston, Paul Strand or Alfred Stieglitz expressed their indifference to this pseudo question. First, because the modern spirit, which has reinvented and spread the idea of democracy, makes every specimen of the human being equal—theoretically at least. Every man, in democracy, should be representative of the rest; each of us represents us all. Art, though, based on the Aristotle distinctions between men and better men, has proved to be expired. The art is faced now by the pure expression, neither of the best nor of the most beautiful, but the single pure true expression. Truth and its contradictions—in nuances and overturns—overcomes the best, which exists beside the worst. And this “to exist” should be in present progressive: what is, passes: it is being done. Nevertheless art remains. Scared. Its status is not the same it was and it couldn’t be. Art does not represent the equal men, but democracy promises to do it. We see more of the truth in non-artistic expressions, more of ourselves. The corpse in the newspapers, the mug shots in police files, the portraits of Bibi Aisha and Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, all of them seem to be more eloquent than the permanent exhibition in Sammlung-Boros, although not much more than the very building.

And second: Because professionalization of art has proved to be art’s perdition. This is true for every artistic discipline. Tomás Segovia, in an essay about the Octavio Paz poem Sunstone (Lecturas de Piedra de Sol, Readings of Sunstone, 2007), asseverates that the poet does not want to write masterpieces anymore. What is needed is to write poetry—again: eloquent expression about something true, according to conventional rules—and maybe to see every now and then a decent piece being born. Here a decent piece or a good one, even a masterpiece, will be a representative one. This is why the classic nineteenth century novels, the major and best expressions on their own genre, seem to be now very little in front of the development of the novel-essay, the novel-diary, the novel-memoir. At the same time, old novels based on minor conventions of the genre are seducing us all again. If we don’t want and even cannot abolish the notion of art, the modern world looking for a democratization of the spirit—different of the supposed and faked of the state—forces us to never use a priori the term “art”; this means: the specific performances of the so called arts must gain with quality and eloquence its inclusion, not in the Parnassus of fine arts, but in the discussion about it. As much art can be done with photography than with literature, and no photograph or poem is art definitely. This is why we should think, neither accept nor refuse immediately, a statement like the one Stockhausen made about the 9-11 attacks in New York: “what happened there is, of course—now all of you must adjust your brains—the biggest work of art there has ever been”.

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August 2010

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  1. Pingback: 6. Notes on Photography & Language | I Repeat Myself When Under Stress

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