including photography!

Normally when I’m at Carleton, seeing the campus announcements Digest arrive in my mailbox produces a groan, or at least a sigh of resignation.  This is because the Digest always arrives around 2 am (standard central time), so being awake for the moment of its digital transmission is a clear indicator that I should actually be in bed.  Unfortunately, I was in the habit of experiencing this early-morning herald way too often last term.

But now that I am living in Barcelona, where everything happens seven hours in the future (and I do of course still check my Carleton email), seeing the campus announcements arrive is a good thing – it means I’m awake and functioning at a reasonable enough hour to take the time to caffeinate before catching the metro to class near Placa Catalunya.  (That being said, the fact that I am checking my email first thing in the morning/often enough to see this particular missive arrive is itself a rather interesting reflection of the centrality of the digital, technology, and of course the internet, to life in the modern Western world – a reliance that was made all too clear to me this morning when I arrived at class and discovered I had forgotten my laptop and felt utterly cut-off in both a social and academic sense…)

But what struck me about this issue of the campus announcements was not so much the way in which how my temporal shift influences my interpretation of how I receive them, but rather a minor semantic choice in one of the announcements itself:

“Send submissions of poetry, art (including photography), short stories, plays…”

I have no intention, as some photographers might, of taking any offense at the Manuscript staff for the implication that photography is in fact not art (as the need to specifically include it under this category suggests), but this minor detail reflects a major historical debate that I find fascinating, and this is an excellent excuse to revive it.

The question: IS PHOTOGRAPHY ART?  Back when Pictorialists like Rejlander and Robinson were exploring the newness of the medium in a way that would not forget the art of painting, with photo-composites and darkroom manipulations, photography was considered as something of a ‘hand-maiden to the arts’, to quote Rejlander.  The struggle to legitimize the practice in the face of accusations about its mere mechanical nature has shaped much of the history of photography since then, with movement away from such blatant manipulation in the late 19th century now coming full circle in the era of Photoshop, such that some current branches of photography are, to my mind, a sort of Neo-Pictorialism, although with differing goals than the original Pictorialists.  Modernism and Post-Modernism have removed the driving need for authenticity, or for strict adherence to a definition of art that is classically painterly or sculpturely – opening up expansively the extent to which photography falls into the classification of ‘art’.

The Two Ways of Life, Rejlander's most famous and controversial photograph, which is actually a composite of seven different images.

In trying to say whether or not photography, as a massive and polysemous practice, is art, we forget about the multiplicities of meanings and uses it can have.  Commerical sports photography is not Paul Strand is not Cindy Sherman is not the contents my most recent Facebook album.  Perhaps not all photography is art, and of course not all art in photography, but if art is that which is expressive and interpretable (even if that expression and interpretation is located, meaning-wise, in the viewer-interpreter), then by all means a photograph can be a work of art.

The underlying question, then, is what is art?  I want to claim that photography is not not art, but part of me has a hard time saying that most of the pictures on Facebook fall into the category.  I have further reservations about my own reservations, because I sense the cultural and societal construction of the meaning I attach to this word ‘art’ – or rather, an entire shifting discourse that surrounds it.  A discourse structure by the gallery, the art museum, the whole world of ‘art’ which privileges some things over others – high art over low, or when we wish to be provocative or transgressive, sometimes low art over high.  Perhaps in broadening a definition of art, we need to privilege the very fact that art cannot be simply segregated into low or high – there is a continuum, and the point along that continuum where any given practice or piece of art (including photography) falls is steeped in its own socialization and subjectivity.

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