abstraction, Art, photography

Note: Photography as a medium

January 3, 2021

The general idea is that it is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself and that an artwork is defined by the qualities of the materials used. So in photography  Stieglitz, Weston, and Strand argued that in order for photography to be taken seriously, it must operate only according to its own capabilities: it must not aspire to imitate the aesthetics or materials of painting. The art of photography became defined on strictly medium-specific terms with   John Szarkowski, the curator at the Museum of Modern Art. In his book 1966 book The Photographer’s Eye describes in detail the properties that define the photographic medium. He argues that the photographs he presents as exemplars have nothing in common but the shared vocabulary of the medium.

The history of any artistic medium is driven by the necessity to discover the underlying truth or essence of that medium. Once this truth or essence is discovered, there is seemingly nothing left for a particular medium to do. Consequently, orthodoxly modernist, media appear no longer able to produce aesthetically convincing works of art.

Minimalism and Conceptualism’s response to this condition is to show that their generic categories – Minimal objects, Conceptual Art – no longer implied a specific medium. It is this that inaugurated the whole period of post-modernism, in which the form in which the artist presented the work was not important and what counted instead was what the artist said through it.

Rosalind Krauss in  A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the  Post-Medium Condition (2000) takes the breakdown of established forms as her starting point to return to, and rethink, the idea of medium. How do art forms develop once their established forms can no longer be taken for granted? This is the ‘post-medium condition’ with its empty pluralism of the 1990s. Krauss argued that a sense of medium was necessary to produce aesthetically convincing art. If the classic modernist media (painting, sculpture, drawing and film) are no longer possible as the basis for aesthetically convincing art today (the post-modernist critique of modernist medium in its literal or material Greenbergian sense), then medium is still nevertheless possible and indeed necessary as the basis on which to make art.  

It is possible with a different conception of medium, in which it is not a matter of any underlying fact or essence that defines a particular medium, and therefore there can be no implicit teleology whereby it is realised and comes to an end. Cavell inThe World Viewed reworks medium as something like a series of conventions of the kind that organise and make possible ordinary conversation. Each new work – or at least each work that counts as new – is at once a following of the rules and a certain testing of them. The medium for Cavell is ultimately a matter of how the artist or rather artwork speaks meaningfully to the spectator in the continually differing circumstances of everyday life; albeit using the medium or the rules of art in a new way in different circumstances.

Krauss reconstructs medium as a discursive system rather than a function of material attributes, for example, the physical substance of pigment on the physical support of canvas. The medium of a work of art is, therefore, both the historical evolution of a discursive field (such as ‘avant-garde painting’) and, what one might term, it’s present ‘conceptual support’ that allows an artist to place their practice in a critical relation to a given medium.

Artists take the particular constraints and possibilities of the medium in which they make work and using them to shape both the work and our responses to it. Each seeks to release the particular expressive possibilities implicit in their chosen medium–say through the coming together or even passing beyond of the older media of painting and photography to produce something of a new hybridisation of existing media brought about by their gradual ‘transformation or cross-breeding’. 

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