28 December 2006

Alfred Stieglitz and his ironic legacy

I am putting together the syllabus for a course on "Art & Politics" that I will teach in the spring term here in Rochester. I’ve been reading a bunch of things and frankly find it mostly way too opaque for even pretty smart junior and senior undergraduates at a fairly selective college. So the task has been a struggle and a revelation.

Among the things I am planning to assign is an essay by Martha Rosler that appeared in Artforum (September 2004). Now, as far as I can tell this journal basically is a vehicle for gallery advertisements, a sort of "art world" Cosmopolitan or Vogue. The ratio of advertisements to text or image is extremely high and much of the art or analysis that does actually appear makes "shallow" seem kind. In any case, in the 9/2004 issue the editors went out on a limb and commissioned both essays and art from a number of interesting folks for a special section on "The Art of Politics." Unsurprisingly, the editors admitted their own "deep seated resistance"to the notion that art and politics might somehow go be mutually illuminating, let alone closely related. Rosler's essay is interesting generally, but for my purposes here is especially so because she levels the following, accurate criticism: "Electronic art forms have offered a moment of activism .... and often provided sophisticated political analysis, available online, of course. ... Activists and hacktivists have stepped into the space vacated by video, whose expansively utopian and activist potential has been depoliticized, as "video art," much like photography before it, was removed from wide public address by its incarceration in museum mausoleums and collectors’ cabinets."

The final part of Rosler’s lament, at least, seems to me pretty persuasive. So, we can count among the consequences of the concerted effort by Alfred Stieglitz and his acolytes (abetted by others) to dichotomize photography into "art" and "documentary" at least two rather large difficulties. First we operate with a caricature of documentary practice (which too many documentary photographers have bought wholesale) as unconcerned with aesthetic matters and focused exclusively on objective fact. Second, we are complicit in the practice of consigning photographic "art," including what by any account would occupy the documentary category, to the institutional black hole of the art world. (When I say 'we' I include myself - check out the list of "photographic locations" in my side bar. Conventions are very difficult to resist!) This predicament generates even further ironies as, for example, The Documentary Photography Project of the Soros Foundation offers "distribution grants" in hopes that photographers might collaborate with others to generate "innovative, nontraditional methods to present their work to specific audiences to stimulate constructive social change." In short, Soros wants to pay to wrench photography out of the grasp of the museums and galleries and collectors.

[Footnote: You may think it unfair to blame poor Alfred for all this. Here I am working from the historical analysis of Alan Trachtenberg's wonderful Reading American Photographs where he busts Stieglitz for his self-promoting efforts to establish this invidious dichotomy.]

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

... Activists and hacktivists have stepped into the space vacated by video, whose expansively utopian and activist potential has been depoliticized, as "video art," much like photography before it, was removed from wide public address by its incarceration in museum mausoleums and collectors’ cabinets."

those mausoleum/museums, to me, need to be overcome, or at least turned into institutions that serve the public more than they do an elite few.

incarceration is a good word. great works are put into funereal--and overly quiet--atmospheres, where they are strangled by too much awe and reverence.

28 December, 2006 23:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right, Art Forum is akin to a fashion rag, but Martha Rosler is awesome. Be sure to check out her Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001.

Another artist who has written extensively on the nexus of art and politics is Adrian Piper. (see Out of Order, Out of Sight, Vol. I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992).

Also, you might want to use some passages from the book/interview between political artist Hans Haacke and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: Free Exchange.

Finally, the exhibition catalog The Interventionists: Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life does a pretty good job of summarizing the Tactical Media phenomenon, and would probably be the one most accessible for junior/senior undergrads. You could maybe use one of the introductory essays, one of which (I believe) is written by Gregory Sholette, another artist who has written extensively about art and politics.

29 December, 2006 10:52  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Ryan & Jason, Thanks for the feedback. I have both Rosler's newish book and the book from Interventionist exhibition. The Irony is that the latter was confined (not entirely successfully) to a museum at MassMOCA. My parents live near there and anything that brings life and economic support to Northern Berkshire Cty. is needed badly. That said the confinement of art into museums is a persistent issue - Dewey complained about it in 1934 and Critical Art Ensemble (et. al.) still are struggling with the predicament today. The same irony applies to Rosler writing for Artforum. How do you reach a wide audience? Little art publications are, by definition "little" ....!

30 December, 2006 10:47  

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