Guest post by Virginia Konchan
Photography must annihilate itself as medium to be no longer a sign, but the thing itself.
Ben Gestâ€™s photorealist photography, comprised of stark, neo-classical tableaux, depicts alienated subjects engaged in workaday and domestic tasks, and carries a full fetishistic load in an image saturated cultureâ€”that of the evacuated figure, from painting, as well as the signature of the â€œauthor,â€ as declared dead by structuralist critics.Â The “surface reading” strategies of Sharon Marcusâ€™ and Stephen Best, Francois Dosseâ€™s call for the â€œdescriptive turn,â€ and Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman practice of â€œflatâ€ reading based on actor-network theory (the game model of human interaction) connect to the â€œflatâ€ or two-dimensional evacuation of depth fields, suggesting that as the text is now being â€œreadâ€ like a screen (the orthographic significance of the word alienated from semantic, affective, and cognitive percepts), so too are the visual images (in figurative art, the appearance of the other), we consume.
For Roland Barthes, this surface quality was a limitation of medium (the photograph is undialectical, as a denatured theater where death cannot be contemplated, reflected and interiorized: Â the foreclosure of the Tragic excluding catharsis), yet this slickness of surface is also a function of the occluded depth of capitalist subjects, wherein intimacy, futurity, and affect, because unable to be represented (priced, and sold), ceases to exist first as a cultural value, then, as a cultural experience (temporally, of duration rather than instantaneity). Â Â A privatized market first commodifies then distributes the sensible (Marx’s dream of the Â ‘liberation of the senses’ of unalienated individuals in unalienated communities) fueling desiring-machines to demand, yet never receive, aporias of meaning: Â presence, aura, soul.Â [i]
The digital reproduction of the photograph and the text share an analogous relationship, foremost in hierarchies between the word (letter, or sign) and image (symbol, or referent). Â Today’s medium specificity (Clement Greenbergâ€™sÂ belief that â€œthe unique and proper area of competenceâ€ for an art form corresponds with the ability of an artist to manipulate those features specific to a medium) is now metaphorized in the relationship between a reader and a text, or a viewer and an artwork, not as an encounter or relationship, but an interfacing, between user and electronic text, or screen (N. Katherine Haylesâ€™s media specific analysis in “Print is Flat, Code is Deep”). Â Barthesâ€™ descriptions of photography as “messages without a code”Â describes the limitation of the medium, for the photograph, yet this obviation of meaning has become an conscious aesthetic in post-structuralism, evacuated of content and intention. Â For Hegel, â€œartâ€ was only art in subordination to meaning:Â modern art, in a post-Reformation world, for Hegel, wasnâ€™t therefore â€œart,â€ but rather abstracted potential.Â Â [ii] Â Â The desire to decode photography’s â€œmessage without a codeâ€ Â may be what constitutes the dream of absolute (not reified) presence (Barthesâ€™ Winter Garden Photograph):Â the â€œthe text of pleasure” or sublime (dynamic or technological, wherein perceptual synthesis temporary collapses in experiencing the material force of a supersensible idea, whether of beauty or horror).
Affect theory provides aÂ rational-empirical account ofÂ what we know intuitively: Â the sublime has a life of its own.Â The jarring quality of paintings such as Edward Hopperâ€™s â€œNighthawks,â€ Edvard Munchâ€™s â€œThe Scream,â€ Francis Bacon’s apocalyptic friezes, and Frieda Kahloâ€™s self-portraits, fix such images forever in our collective imagination, for giving form to a mediated, yet still felt, aspect of human experience.Â Just as CÃ©zanne sought to capture the â€œapple-ness of apples,â€ and Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky the â€œstony-ness of stone,â€ any discussion of the sublime returns us to logos (language’s ability to embody, and evoke, objects).
(Francis Bacon, “Study after VelÃ¡zquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” 1953)
The absence of meaning in photography is its power, conveying its â€œmessageâ€ through semiotic rather than semantic means. Â In writing, an absence of meaning can take, according to Derrida, three forms:Â mathematical meaning; agrammaticality (â€œabracadabraâ€); and the social contexture of meaning (preestablished symbolic and linguistic codes), implying that the limitations for what one can “say” are scripted, in photography, by medium, and in the text, by culture as well as genre: Â the associative logic of poetry requiring a different reading strategy than that of linear prose.
Modernist paintings, like Egyptian hieroglyphs or the intricate symbology found in the Lascaux caves, complicate the boundary between image and text (Cy Twomblyâ€™s abstract expressionist paintings were inspired by texts from StÃ©phane MallarmÃ© to Alexander Pope, incorporating baroque themes and titles, such as Apollo and the ArtistÂ and traces, or erased marks of textual inscription). Â Belgian surrealist artist RenÃ© Magritte, of course, creating the watershed moment in art history when the act of visual representation was, in his 1928 â€œCeci nâ€™est pas une pipeâ€ rendered counterfactual (ironic) through the insertion of text.
Flatness is not always the imageâ€™s refusal to yield meaning:Â it can be its apotheosis.Â As AloÃ¯s Riegl says:Â â€œBas-relief brings about the most rigid link between the eye and the hand because its element is the flat surface, which allows the eye to function like the sense of touch; furthermore, it confers, and indeed imposes, upon the eye a tactile or rather haptic, function . . . ensur[ing], in the Egyptian â€˜will to art,â€™ the joining together of the two senses of touch and sight, like the soil and the horizon.â€Â [iii]
During the 1920s, Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov explored the technical potential of montage, developments new media theorist Lev Manovich claims to underlie the aesthetics of contemporary video.Â Eisenstein believed montage could create ideas or have an impact beyond the individual images (two or more images edited together create a â€œtertium quidâ€ or third thing making the whole greater than the sum of its individual parts). Â Â How is this â€œtertium quidâ€ experienced in a photograph, or, for that matter, a text? Â Gestsâ€™ figures are â€œall endâ€ (terminal subjects, trapped in contingency) and flat to the point of disappearing from the surface of the plane.Â To say, however, that flat images are a â€œrealistâ€ or photorealist art, or that visual art depends upon language to enter signification has troubling implications, refusing to consider the bounds of perspective (from the artist, the medium, and the spectator). Â Yet, in exploring photographyâ€™s medium (indexical and reproducible), we can begin to understand how the assignation of â€œpost-photographyâ€ relates to that of â€œpost-literacy.”
EvenÂ Dickinson understood depth perception (phenomenologically, and politically, in the granting of subjecthood, rather than treating the other as an object or manipulable industrial machine – vending, milking – in the service economy) to be predicated upon metaphoric hierarchy:Â â€œ . . . We can find no scar,/ But internal difference,/ Where the Meanings, are–“). Â Â The rise of the image and subsequent degradation of language to emoticons is a function of technocapitalism, advertising and marketing blitzes, and bipartisan racketeering, whereby independent thought is crushed by neo-fascist fears of the unknown (the wizards behind the screen?)
Rather than aspiring to the denotative powers of text (a Gordian knot, interpretatively), highly stylized photography (Gest, Thomas Struth, David LaChapelle) suggests a desire for the image to become purely connotative, appropriating the iconicity of the mirror (the only purely indexical object). Â Struth: Â â€œPhotographs that impress me have no personal signature,â€ and yet this depersonalized aesthetic doesnâ€™t impede the sheer pathos of his museum photographs, juxtaposing spectators at the Louvre with, for example, the shipwrecked figures in ThÃ©odore GÃ©ricaultâ€™s Raft of the Medusa. Â Struth’s museum-goers observe rather than participate in history (religious and mythological narratives), formalizing Western Artâ€™s debt to Christian symbolism, but not attempting to subvert or parody this tradition.
(Thomas Struth, Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg, 2005)
Reading demands, as Guy DeBord says, making judgments at every line; Â how does this description of literacy accord with an accurate perception of the imago, as a two-dimensional object?Â [iv]Â Modernists’ dream to find forms of representation adequate to experience of phenomenal â€œreality,” once declared a failure, in morphing from the rejection of authority, the subject, and meaning, to a worship of the object, now worship the frame (material context) itself. Â For visual art the context of the image is doubled:Â the literal frame, as well as the cultural space in which the work is displayed, distinguishing it as an objet dâ€™art, worthy of consecration in a public space.The shifts, in constructivist and futurist movements, between art’s use-value (e.g. painter Alex Rodchenkoâ€™s poster art, furniture, wallpaper and fabric), to lâ€™art pour lâ€™art, had aesthetic and economic implications (the feared aestheticization of politics and politicization of aesthetics): Â today, conceptual art trumpets its value-lessness as a form of waste aesthetics: Â resistance to cooptation by the market, and utilitarian ideals.
Following suit, Gest’s figures, while ranging in age, largely white and middle class, are pictured in nuclear family couplings, or alone, tending to tasks in well-appointed homes and state-of-the-art kitchens, en route to work, or at the workplace itself.
(Gest, â€œJoe Finishing Lunch” 2005)
In Gest’s work, these quotidian scenes (shaving, shelving books at a library), are a form of anti-epic: Â representing the habitus of daily living. Â In â€œBen and Dawnâ€ (below), the couple is preparing dinner:Â Dawn manifesting the vacuity of non-presence, and Ben, absorption in his task (forming meat patties). Â How to read these allegories in which narrative is supplanted by the gaze (either off-center or vacant)?Â Â Gest heightens the post-Enlightenment collapse of progress narratives and a unified self by refusing the viewer a vanishing point or horizon line: Â his subjects’ expressions are frozen in shock or ennui. Â The unmitigated solitude of many of Gestâ€™s subjects also suggests the impossibility of self-knowledge or consciousness, particularly of class.Â Mired in transitional situations, and rarely facing the camera directly, these subjects, as they water the lawn, or pause before exiting a brand-new SUV, manifest an innocence of themselves as complicit agents in or victims of commodity cultureâ€”or, as posed subjects. Â Sentience is indeed on display in Gestâ€™s portraits, but this sentience is often in the service of material entrapments rather than the subjectâ€™s experience, shown benumbed in these portraits of status quo maintenance without the promise of deliverance (through class ascension, religion or theater). Â As Baudrillard says, we live in a â€œjungle of fetish-objectsâ€:Â in order for an art object to free itself from fetishization it must first emerge as a â€œnewly victorious fetish,â€ then work to destroy itself as a familiar object by becoming monstrously unfamiliar.Â â€œThis foreignness is not the strangeness of the alienated or repressed object,â€ he adds.Â â€œIt excels through a veritable seduction that comes from somewhere else . . . by exceeding its own form as a pure object, a pure event.â€Â Â [v]
The fantasy of art qua object is a desire for it to eventually become, in a Zarathustrian sense, Â event: Â Brechtian theater, Jerzy Grotowskiâ€™s â€œtheatre laboratoryâ€ (Teatr Laboratorium), the Opernhaus Wuppertal of Pina Bauch. Â Michael Fried opposed art and objecthood in his 1967 essay relating objecthood to theatricality, wherein the reader or viewer is necessary to bring the interpretive act to completion: Â in other art forms, however, the line is easily blurred. Â A wholly intentioned work of art, or Frankensteinian, bioengineered production of human life (dramatized in movies such as Synechoche, New York, The Truman Show, and the Tom McCarthy novel Remainder) enact the fantasy of a subject with the power to micromanage contingency (i.e. weather), creating others as a pure extension of the author-producer’s will (the sinisterÂ sine qua non of formalist aesthetics)? Â FromÂ Remainder:Â Â â€œOpening my fridgeâ€™s door, lighting a cigarette, even lifting a carrot to my mouth: these gestures had been seamless, perfect. Iâ€™d merged with them, run through them, and let them run through me until thereâ€™d been no space between us. Theyâ€™d been real; Iâ€™d been real without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour.â€ Â Â McCarthy contemporizes the Wagnerian dream of the â€œtotalâ€ work of art, by attempting to solve for indeterminancy in plot, language, nature: Â the post-industrial spectacle of by which citizen-consumers, are already, albeit unconsciously, enthralled.
Fried turned to photography with the 2008 publication of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Â exploring works by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky, asserting that the poles of anti-theatricality and absorption are central to the turn by recent photographers towards large-scale works â€œfor the wall.” Â The tableaux vivant of these photographers, and the work of Gest in particular, attenuates the politics of spectatorship by rendering the viewer complicit in the subject’s performance not of self-consciousness, but the lack thereof. Â In Gest, we observe, voyeuristically, subjects in media res, orÂ engaged in repetitious labor (domestic and corporate): Â these scenes may be â€œfor the wallâ€ but their very nature is theatrical (constructed), forecasting the transition from art as object, to event.
(Gest, Kate Fixing her Earring, 2005)
Narratives of subject formation (or, in painting, a reconstitution of the figure, whether rendered as grotesque by Dana Schultz, or pornographized, in Egon Schiele), continue to be elided by the neoliberal death of extra-aesthetic context, heralded by Francis Fukuyama as the end of history (therefore allegory, Manichean and otherwise, and narrative): Â the fracas of the negative sublime (eco-catastrophes, Warhol-inspired readymades, appropriated and digitally reproducible art).
Art-as-event (the â€œrevised sublimeâ€) has the potential to loosen the hypnotizing Â inertia of the image, encouraging passive spectatorship, and the dangers of pure formalism (the reduction of art to ornament, or frame, and language to citational and ironic metacommentary, ceasing to exist in or interpolate with the world) allowing space for critical reflection, eroticism, and presence-as-grace.
Whether all art is reification, as Hannah Arendt said, or whether the war is still being waged between aesthetic reification and the counter-concept of aesthetic use value (both prey to commodity fetishism, whether by cognitariat aesthetes and/or the market), the final criteria for artistic “value” or proof of art’s autonomy may not be decreed by the moral majority (popular or critical opinion) or its price tag (floating or fixed), but its participation in a sacrificial economy, for the purposes of extirpation: Â to reject the bankrupt calculus of credit economies and fiat aesthetics to risk annihilation, so as to rise from the death of ontological and literal debt (posthumously, for Van Gogh) into the shock ofÂ signification (G.H. Hardy’s aesthetic criterion marrying unexpectedness to inevitability): Â the real.
[i]Â Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York:Â Hill and Wang, 1980), p. 90.
[ii] Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York:Â Hill and Wang, 1978) p. 45.
[iii] Â Qtd. in Gilles Deleuzeâ€™s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis:Â University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
[iv] Â Guy DeBord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso Press, Brookyn, 1998), p. 29.
[v]Â Jean Baudrillard,â€œSimulation and Transaesthetics: Towards the Vanishing Point of Artâ€ (International Journal of Baudrillard Studies), web, Vol. 5, No. 2:Â July, 2008.
Virginia Konchanâ€™s poems have appeared inÂ Best New Poets, The Believer,Â The New Yorker,Â andÂ The New Republic, her criticism inÂ Workplace: Â A Journal for Academic Labor,Â Quarterly Conversation, New Madrid,Â andÂ Boston Review, and her fiction inÂ StoryQuarterlyÂ andÂ Joyland, among other places. Â The recipient of grants and fellowships to Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, Ox-Bow,Â and Vermont Studio Center, Virginia is co-founder ofÂ Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary. Â She lives in Chicago.