The insistence on medium-specificity in the visual arts arose in the era of modernism has become associated with the art critic Clement Greenberg’s commitment to medium-specificity as a condition of artistic value. This was spelt out in the aesthetics essay in the Adelaide Art Photographers c1970-2000 book published by Moon Arrow Press (Adelaide, 2019). With postmodernism medium had become akin to toxic waste and too ideologically loaded. Is it possible to still speak of photography as a medium after the demise of modernism? If so, how can we understand contemporary photography as a medium?
The concept of the medium can be traced back to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 essay, Laocoon. Lessing dismantles Horace’s famous claim “ut pictura poesis” (as is painting, so is poetry), arguing that these media are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space. He refers to the media as two equitable and friendly neighbours who should not overstep their respective domains. Lessing contended that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.
Greenberg picks this up as and uses it to state that medium-specificity is a characteristic which distinguished Modern Art from the previous art forms. These theories consist in the emancipation of art from its classical role of pure representation. He defends and celebrates abstract painting as achieving the perfect expression of medium-specificity and purity–purity being the ideal state of medium-specificity, the work as uncontaminated by the influence of other media.
By escaping from the chains of recognizable subject matter, the abstract painter became free to focus on the materiality of the medium. Thus, painting became an autonomous force that communicated nothing outside of its own self-contained properties.
I am in the process of working on a third newsletter and the third online exhibition, which is one on abstractions in photography. I am a bit behind schedule due to Light Paths.
Light Paths is currently under construction. It is a community orientated website for art photographers in South Australia. It is currently in ‘coming soon’ mode, but it should ‘go live’ sometime during October. It is premised around the idea of encouraging art photographers to publish their work in progress re the current project they are working on (initially on the blog and then in a gallery); to go on 2 field trips per year; and to have an annual exhibition based on the work produced on and around those field trips.
I was absent from the book launch and the exhibition opening of Adelaide Art Photographers c1970-2000 at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts in Adelaide. It took place just after Australia had put in place the Covid-19 restrictions for social distancing and social gatherings. I was in New Zealand at the time trying to return to Australia before New Zealand closed its borders. After I returned to Adelaide I went into the 14 day mandatory quarantine. After the quarantine finished we entered a world of lockdown to ‘flatten the curve’ of infections to prevent overloading the health system. The lockdown tempo was set by NSW and Victoria, the two worst affected states.
I have yet to see the exhibition and the books are largely unsold.
The background to the Adelaide Art Photographer’s project is here.
Due to the Covid -19 restrictions the opening was sparsely attended, the book launch was minimal, and the exhibition was opened only for a few hours. Then everything was closed down. However, the exhibition does have some online presence. There are the exhibition images, a walk through of the exhibition images by Paul Atkins and Adam Dutkiewicz and the exhibition opening address by Paul Atkins. Meanwhile the pandemic rages on, many lives are on pause, while many others end.
I am currently reading Rebecca Dagnall’s practice based research PhD entitled, Landscape photography and the imaginary of an Australian Gothic. It was done in 2017 at RMIT, and consists of three photographic projects: In Tenebris, The road trip, and Absence and presence: states of being in the Australian landscape. This blog post refers to Dagnell’s research around Australian road trips.
Dagnall starts the research part with David Campany’s recent The open road — photography and the American road trip; a book that provides a history of photography on the road through featuring the work of twenty photographers to document how artists have pictured America since the decisive work of Robert Frank in the 1950s. She then turns her attention to road trips and photography in Australia.
There is still some fine tuning to be done, but we expect the pdf to be sent to the printers towards mid-November, with the book printed by Xmas. It will be launched in early March 2020 at an exhibition of photos in the book at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts in Adelaide. Copies can be purchased earlier through Moon Arrow Press.
This is the revised front cover of Adelaide Art Photographers with its referencing the 35mm Kodak film strips of the 20th century without its flap:
The book is a companion volume to the previously published Abstract Photography (2017) by Moon Arrow Press in 2017. The Adelaide Art Photographers book is around 180 pages. There are 20 photographers who have 6 pages for their portfolios and 1 page for their profiles. There is also an essay on aesthetics, which is understood in terms of a critical philosophy of art in the cultural context of the anti-aesthetic. The latter understood aesthetics to mean judgements of taste about the formal beauty of art; with the modernist autonomy of art being understood as a (negative) freedom of art from social determination in a capitalist society.
The anti-aesthetic movement in this period was reacting against Greenberg’s modernist reinterpretation of aesthetic autonomy into the task of medium self-definition through purification. This was via the transposition of the concept of aesthetic autonomy into a linguistic register in literary modernism–with T. S. Elliot being the main influence on Greenberg here. This modernism rejects the past, established art forms and their typical ways of being practiced in favour of some new manner of art making; it affirm this new manner as the uniquely appropriate way, of practicing a kind of art expressive of the modern world.