As is well known, the orthodox modernist response to photography’s taking away the responsibility for representational content from painting was an affirmative withdrawal into painterly autonomy through abstraction in the form or spiritual or painterly values. The more radical avant-grade response was the rejection of painting altogether in the the form of the readymade. Photography was seen to have usurped painting’s aspiration to objectivity in painting’s older tradition of the naturalistic representational function. That left photography’s representations as truth telling.
Most of the critical emphasis to this crisis of painting in the 20th century has been on painting and the way that photography is used as a ready-made source for paintings i.e. painting as photo painting. But what if photography starts working with abstractions in the form of painterly values? Does that negation of painting’s specificity signify a failure to reconcile art and politics? Does it imply a turning to high culture and the traditional values of art and a rejection of non art and popular culture where most of today’s photography is situated? Is it a response to the anti-aesthetics of the 1980s and 1990s that celebrated cultural and vernacular forms that denied the idea of a privileged aesthetic realm?; an anti-aesthetic that is willing to discard the aesthetic as an outmoded modernist category in its desire to overcome modernist formalism.
One way to begin to address these question is to accept that form is a dynamic social category linked to new technologies, economic structures of exchange, social relations of production as well as the intrinsic artistic forming of the always already historically shaped material.This is a challenge to the model of the aesthetic as a timeless privileged realm’, which exists at a non-cognitive remove beyond history, and which functions as the consolation of art construed as a mere ‘escape’ from reality.