A Crisis of Construction 

April 15, 2012 

That we construct our own reality is a fiction. To construct reality, we would have to be apart from it, outside of it, in order to construct it. This is absurd. Yet this is the state of a lot of contemporary art and contemporary art photography. It is a double fiction, because its sincere belief that we construct our own reality has become a 'reality' in itself. It is like the old saying, "tell a lie long and often enough, it becomes a truth." We could argue that, like novelists, we dream up characters that have believability and that these characters interact in real-life plots, and that this can reveal truths about ourselves and our world. Yes it can. It is still fiction if the photographer’s own truths are not expressed. 

A contemporary course curriculum for art photography states: "Consistency adds believability to your work and persuades your audience to suspend its disbelief." Two critical questions immediately arise: Why do the audience need persuading? And: can they actually suspend their disbelief? The only answer to the first question is an inherent problem in postmodernism (and a latent relic in modernism's realism): the audience does need to be persuaded because it finds it hard to believe a double fiction. So let’s build up consistency so this double fiction becomes a truth. 

This is why a lot of student work, as art or as photographic art practice, lacks believability. It is underdeveloped and still at the intellectual concept stage. It is also largely political, intentional or not, because it seeks to stake a claim: I am making a statement. The implication is this statement must be relevant to modern society, because I have been taught to make a statement in context, in the framework of a practice. I stake a claim in the human business, that is, in commenting on the social, political, economic and gender constructs that I find myself in. I am a product of this, and to ignore this is to lack relevance or meaning. What I am really doing is staking a claim in the business and territory of art. That I need to stake a claim of territory and to persuade people is the art of politics. And politics, as we know it, is often the art of deception and double speak. 

The contradiction is the assertion that I am making a statement that is relevant to today’s society or culture is stating that what I am doing has context. This is to say that I am part of a whole (society/culture), the context. The part is commenting on the whole. This contradicts “we construct our own reality” because the part can never construct the whole. 

The second question: can audiences actually suspend their disbelief? In general, they may be able to, in relation to much contemporary photography, but no they don’t. They fail to do so because the double fiction lacks an inherent grain of truth: a genuineness grounded in lived experienced. A believability that stems not from intellectualised notions of making a statement and attempting to persuade, but congruence in meaning. 

The critic Michael Fried summed this up as "the difference between seeing and being shown."1 

In attempting to show, the intentions are theatrical. And the theatrical is to set up actors on a stage. This is ok in itself, but the conundrum arises when this theatricality is covered up with the belief of making a relevant statement that needs to persuade its audience. In theatre, suspending disbelief is necessary. Actors who overact draw attention to themselves and the fact that this is fiction and theatre, and the effect of the whole (i.e. the play) is lost. In art and photography, the question is begged: if it is relevant, then what is the need for persuading? 

Roland Barthes wrote about the punctum ("that which pricks me... [wounds or disturbs]" 2) and stated that the punctum is what is not intended by the photographer. Such intentions are "functions, which are for the Photographer so many alibis."3 

They are what he called the studium; that is, studied. Studied means intentionally laboured. "These functions are to inform, to represent, to surprise, to cause to signify, to provoke desire."4 

The power to disturb or wound has become a large, calculated focus of much postmodern art and art photography, along with the need to make a statement ala Barthes' functions. Indeed, a double fiction needs an alibi, for the consistency of these intentions has become banal. 

I am not criticising here any photographic course, nor art photography per se. My intention is to foster discussion. I do agree with the need for a contextual framework for photographic art practice, for without one, nothing gets produced. (Without the contextual framework of words, thought and language, how could we as human beings communicate?) Yet what is the need to produce? For whom are we producing? If we are making statements that have the need to persuade others then all we are doing is producing a product to be consumed. My statement is for your consumption. You need to, or should, consume it. Now I am trying to construct another reality on top of my notion that we construct our own reality with a notion that I can influence yours. Artificiality upon artificiality. Art for art's sake? 

What needs to be transcended in a lot of art photography or photographic art practice is such artifice itself. The artifice of deliberate intention is too clear, the contradiction of the double fiction is exposed, and so the suspension of disbelief fails. The opposite occurs: a steeper rise of disbelief.And so photographic art practice in a postmodern sense creates its own endemic double bind. Here, art is eating itself, like the Ouroboros snake eating its own tail; however, without art being re-born. It is, to borrow Fried out of context, "a crisis of unsustainability." 5 

Fried's essay points to seeing and being shown. As John Berger put it, "we only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” 6 

So any photograph is a choice, a selection, a part. A scene or subject is abstracted out of the whole, and is thus a fiction. 

Modernist photography pedalled this fiction as reality, that the photographer was the objective observer photographing the world as it is. Postmodernism exposed this fiction, and in doing so it has created its own. 

So where does this leave photography, and in particular art photography? If my intention is to create photographs for the gallery wall, am I not producing for others to consume? Do I thus need to be relevant and make a statement to avoid not being consumed? Do I need to persuade the suspension of disbelief? Can I deliberately create the anti-theatrical as in Fried's implied wish? How do I stage the unstaged? 

This is in fact, where the art lies. It does not lie in persuading the audience to suspend disbelief. The more one tries to do this, the more one fails. It is more in the ability to create a work that lacks artifice, that comes from a genuine outward expression. (In a sense, all things created by human beings, as opposed to those that appear in nature, contain artifice). This has been the classical focus of Chinese and Japanese art. The ability to create that which appears to be a natural and spontaneous expression. The ability to create a thing that is self-so: it is, in essence, of itself, and not contrived. To do this, in the words of Alan Watts, is to "get out of one's own way." 7 

This was the ultimate aim of calligraphy, swordsmanship, rock gardens, flower arranging, haiku and the art of the tea ceremony: an intentional spontaneity. This contradiction is the heart of the artistic and therefore human struggle with self. That which went beyond artifice, self-consciousness, and pointed to a vital presence beyond words and thought. A skilled photograph is more than a suspension of time, more than the sum of its content. It is not opaque. It is not looked at, but enables you to look in. 8 

The postmodern conundrum then, which is as ancient as it is modern, is essentially and existentially how to extricate oneself from the context that forms one's worldview and construct of self, and how to transcend this entanglement, to go beyond self. Otherwise, like postmodern art, "...he will conclude all that, and much more, perhaps without ever realising he is merely confirming the syntax of his mother tongue." 9 

The more we try to suspend disbelief, the more we raise the sceptre of 'why?' As D.T. Suzuki said, "Why is a word useful only in a world of relativity where a chain of causes and effects has some meaning for human intellection. When we desire to transcend it, the question ceases to have sense." 10 

To transcend self is the value of art, that is, to the point that art takes us out of ourselves, out of the isolatory intellect. This is very different to the suspension of disbelief. Great art suspends us. It leaves us feeling richer in spirit, more connected to the whole, not less. "An idea, however worthy and desirable in itself, becomes a disease when the mind is obsessed with it." 11 

Nothing is transcended; this is the general state and failure of much postmodernism. 

Transcending self may be the domain of spirituality and religion, yet it is also the domain of the human inner struggle. The historical lofty aims of art to represent “beauty, truth, genius, civilisation, form, status, taste etc” 12 do indicate the culture and worldview of the privileged few in which these works were created. Postmodernism seeks to do the same through antithesis, through negation. In doing so, it reeks of artifice. "...we are now confronted with the pale horizons of so much conceptual art to which little but the vaguest, most superficial and indulgent, fleeting thought has been given lazy spontaneity seems to be the condition of so much of this stuff." 13 

To go beyond the double fiction of photographic art practice is a necessary struggle. Mature work achieves this. It is not about rebelling against the modernist view of art for art's sake. It is part of an individual's grappling with his or her own inner contradictions, along with a notion of self and meaning and place in the world. It is this natural desire to 'work out' these contradictions that generate works of art that reveal, that allow us to see, rather than the contrived convention of being shown. "Art is not about attacking or criticising or subverting, or any of these tired slogans. It is about truth, and in the course of speaking about truth it may surprise or shock us with what it makes us understand." 14 

To use deliberate artifice is, in Allen's words, "...to put the cart before the horse so often that we assume that to be its proper place." 15 

What does postmodernism affirm? The myth that we construct our own reality? "The most powerful and misunderstood function of art is what we could call the critical power of affirmation. It is by the strong affirmation of truth or value or the ideal that art can exercise a critical role in respect of what falls short of the values upheld.” 16 

Postmodernists may question whose truth, whose value, whose ideal, but in doing so this is just a clever way of negating anything and everything and asserting that nothing can be affirmed. This becomes an almost atheistic and dubious quest to assert and affirm the self as artist, or art practitioner, yet at the same time appearing to be an upholder of nothing. It is not a constructive quest, but one of deconstruction. It is a hypocritical quest, in that I reflect and question the values of the dominant consumer culture, and I offer up my theatrical results for consumption. It lacks a genuineness grounded in lived experienced, in the struggle for a deeper understanding or connection to the whole. 

References 

1. Fried, Michael. 'Barthes's Punctum' in Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2009, p. 146. 

2. Barthes, Roland.  Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (translated by Richard Howard) Vintage, London, 2000, p. 47 and 41. 

3. Barthes, Ibid, p. 28. 

4. Ibid, p. 28. 

5. Fried, Ibid, p. 145. 

6. Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. BBC and Penguin, London, 1972, p. 8. 

7. Watts, Alan. What is Tao? New World Library, California, 2000, p. 50. 

8. Based on a comment by Ansel Adams: "A photograph is usually looked at - seldom looked into." Original source unknown. 

9. Castenda, Carlos. The Active Side of Infinity. Thorsons, London 1998, p. IX. 

10. Suzuki, Daisetz T.  Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton, NJ, 1993, p. 156. 

11. Ibid, p. 153. 

12. Berger, Ibid, p. 11. 

13. Capon, Edmund. I Blame Duchamp: My Life's Adventures in Art. Lantern, Camberwell, Victoria, 2009. 

14. Allen, Christopher. 'Shock, Horror: Monanism, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, to July 19' in Weekend Australian Review, February 12-13, 2011, p. 11. 

15. Ibid, p. 11. 

16. Ibid. 

Text copyright 2012 Darren Harris 

www.darrenjharris.com

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