Notes on Douglas Crimp’s essay

Postmodernism opens a breach with modernism and the institutions that support it: museums, art history and, in a more complex sense, with photography.

Postmodernism has to do with the dispersion of the work of art, its plurality in the sense of the multiplicity of copies (as opposed to pluralism, as freedom in the discursive, practical and institutional fields).

In 1970, experiments began with the art known as “performative” (a more precise term than the pejorative term “theatrical” or “theatrical”). These works were constituted in a determined situation and with a specific duration of time in which the presence of the spectator was assumed. The spectator was privileged instead of the artist.

The question of the presence necessary for the development of a performance posed certain difficulties in arguing the logic of representations where a presence was produced by absence. In order to define the term presence, it is based on a phrase from a ghost story by Henry James where he says: “The presence before him as a presence” and defines two contradictory types of presence, to which he adds a third meaning.

  • Presence: being there, physically, in front of you
  • The presence of a ghost, which is really an absence, is felt to be present.
  • Presence as an increase of being there (“Such an actor has presence”, to mean that it extends its presence beyond being there…)

This last case is illustrated by the performances of the multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, where the use of reproductive technologies causes her to be quite absent. Another example is Jack Goldstein‘s “Two Fencers” where two ethereal figures perform a show in front of the spectator, distancing themselves by means of reproductive techniques from the representation of the original.

This concept of presence is opposed to Benjamin‘s concept of the aura. If in the presence/absence of these performances there is an intentional distancing from the original, in Benjamin’s aura the authenticity is certified, the presence of the original. This attribute, authenticity, will be the subject of expert and art history scrutiny. The museum, which does not deal with copies or reproductions, will be the entity that certifies authenticity and validates whether the presence of the artist is detectable.

According to Benjamin, it is the aura that withers in mechanical reproduction. But the aura is not an ontological category but a historical one. The wearing away of the aura, its disassociation from the fabric of tradition, is the inevitable consequence of mechanical reproduction. An example of the Mona Lisa, whose original has been worn away by excessive reproduction, to the point where it is almost impossible to recover that value even with the highest degree of concentration.

It is inevitable that there are projects aimed at recovering the aura, especially in the field of photography, the main culprit of mechanical reproduction. Nevertheless, Benjamin gives aura to a few photographs, especially those that were taken before the commercialisation of photography. In these cases, the aura is the product of two factors: long exposure times and the non-immediate relationship between the photographer and the subject. The aura is not in the hand of the artist, but in the presence of the subject, a manifestation of a flash of fortune, of a here and now. For this reason, the specialist does not seek the hand of the artist, but the uncontrolled and uncontrollable intrusion of reality.

After 1850, with the commercialisation of photography, photographers began to simulate the loss of the aura with Pictorialism. Simulated aura.

However, Benjamin did not consider the question of reproducibility to be negative, giving it a positive social significance, especially in the cathartic aspect, which was destructive of traditional values and cultural heritage. In this sense he sees Atget as the initiator of the liberation of the object from the aura, through the sense of “emptiness” that emerges from his photographs.

The process of aura exhaustion has accelerated in the last decades (silk-screen printing, industrial manufacturing, repetitive works by minimalist sculptors). Everything seems to conspire against the aura… and since the museum is the institution responsible for sustaining these values, it is facing a crisis of considerable proportions. This has led to a certain nostalgic and revisionist mood in museum practices: programming classical authors and rescuing artists and minor works from history.

In the mid-1970s, and to confirm the previous diagnosis, museums promoted several attempts to recover the aura: the resurgence of an expressionist style of painting and the revival of photography as art. The new pictorial expressionism brings together styles and manifestations of a very different nature, but they coincide in their hatred (or rejection) of photography. For example, the text by Barbara Rose for the exhibition “American Painting” makes an open apology for the values of painting as a guarantee of the aura in the face of the threat posed by mechanical reproduction.

This re-edition of a classic dispute is symptomatic of the threat posed to painting by the acquisition of an aura by photography. It is not an ideological question, it is an economic competition in which the budgets and the space of the galleries and museums are disputed.

But how can photography be granted an aura? This requires the collaboration of a new kind of expert (not of the kind of Benjamin or Barthes), but one who, in addition to knowledge of art history, has the ability to perform chemical analysis that detects ancient printing processes and, more importantly, analysis of style. But this leads us to the subjectivation of photography.

It is therefore up to the “connoisseur” to determine what a unique style – the hand or eye of a certain author – means for authenticating a photograph. Following an old debate about which photograph is more authentic, whether it is straightforward or manipulated, the author suggests that under the banner of subjectivity there should be room for all kinds of photographs, those whose source is the human mind and those whose source is the real world. In the origin of each of them there is an artist, and therefore he can find his place in the spectrum of subjectivity.

The postmodernist practice of photography operates in complicity with these modes of photography as art, but to subvert them through processes of displacement of the concept of aura, showing that the issue now has to do with the copy, not with the original. A group of young artists tackle the claims of objectivity of photography through appropriation. In their work the original cannot be located, it is always deferred (example of Sherrie Levine). Photography is representation. The desire for representation exists insofar as it can never be satisfied, insofar as the original is always deferred.

Therefore, the representation happens in the absence of the original. With this reasoning, even Weston’s work is a representation and therefore a copy of an original (the real object).

In the spectrum of photography we have at one end the direct photography, taken directly from the original (I don’t understand very well the argument here, since I don’t consider Levine’s photography direct, although she doesn’t manipulate them) and the directional photography. In this section we include the works of authors such as Duane Michals, Les Krims or Cindy Sherman.

Cindy Sherman operates in the fictional mode, with the intention of exposing the undesirable aspects of fiction. The fiction Sherman reveals is the fiction of the self. Sherman recreates the ambiguity of the self that is both actor and creator, creating a contingent self of the possibilities of a culture of which it is a part. Sherman uses art not to show the artist’s self, but the ‘self’ as an imaginary construct.

He closes the essay with a note on photography in the advertising environment, pointing out its manipulative nature. He pretends to be a documentary, when in fact he has a fictitious character. By stealing and manipulating these images and introducing them into the artistic sphere, Richard Prince highlights the fictional dimension and points to them as ghosts of fiction. And he concludes by pointing out how, in this case, the aura does not certify a presence, but an absence. The aura is the presence of a ghost.

Postmodernism in my own practice:

Some of the ideas pointed out by Douglas Crimp about photographic practice in postmodernism within my own work are not unfamiliar. In fact, in the last assignment of the Digital Image and Culture course I used the work of Julian Sander -one of the greatest exponents of modernist photography- to articulate a discourse on the culture of banality on the Internet: the 60 photographs corresponding to his book “Face of our Time” were re-photographed using Instagram filters. Although this work initially raised some doubts in my mind about the legitimacy of appropriationism – not entirely clear-cut, and certainly debatable according to different legal interpretations – I understood that this kind of practice was part of a post-modern discourse of subversion of the original along the lines of the works of Sherrie Levine or Richard Prince. In the opinion of the experts, Sander’s work enjoys that auratic privilege described by Crimp in his essay, endorsed by experts and historians (and all the current museum paraphernalia – modernist heritage – at the service of certification of authenticity); intervening these images, through the use of Instagram filters, captured in an unrepeatable instant while introducing a factor of chance that makes the reproduction unique and generates a kind of pseudo-aura that the reproduced image already lacks (after 100 years of continuous reproduction).. Furthermore, having privileged Instagram as a space for representing the project, my proposal moves away from the museum environment and defines its context to social networks, where the dynamics of visualisation are at the antipodes of the gallery’s liturgy.

Images credits:

Douglas Crimp © University of Rochester / Matthew Mann

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