Reprint: "What To Do With Invidious Distinctions?"
What to Do With Invidious Distinctions?
By Jim Johnson
Critical discussion of contemporary photography is shaped by a largely unchallenged distinction between “documentary” and “art”. We expect photographers practicing the former to concentrate on the realism, veracity, and accuracy of the images they produce, while those engaged in the latter are freed from such preoccupations, and so given license to experiment stylistically and substantively. We define the poles of this distinction relative to one another. Thus, while introducing a recent issue of PRIVATE (No. 33. Summer 06), critic and curator Roberta Valtorta announces that “the strongest and truest photojournalism today is that which outlives itself without straining to be ‘beautiful’. It stays truthful to its ‘primitiveness,’ its leanness, and far from aesthetics.” Her comment perversely echos photographer Luc Delahaye who, having spent considerable energy over the course of several years justifying his distinctly not ‘primitive’ or ‘lean’ depictions of war-torn Afghanistan, felt compelled to “officially” declare himself an artist.
That this documentary/art distinction has stultifying consequences seems obvious when I list some contemporary photographers whose work, for disparate reasons, I find compelling –Andre Cypriano, Josef Koudelka, Randa Shaath, Sebastião Salgado, Martha Rosler, James Nachtwey, Lalla Essaydi, Alfredo Jaar, Edward Burtynsky, Antonin Kratochvil, Susan Meiselas, Raphaël Dallaporta, The Atlas Group, and Miguel Rio Branco. The documentary/art dichotomy obscures the work of these and many other photographers insofar as each tramples back and forth across the bounds of truth and beauty, content and form, and so on we purportedly use the distinction to police.
In her early essay “On Style” (Against Interpretation & Other Essays (1966), New York, Picador 2001, p. 15-16), Susan Sontag identifies our predicament: “It is not so easy, after all, to get unstuck from a distinction that practically holds together the fabric of critical discourse, and serves to perpetuate certain intellectual aims and vested interests which themselves remain unchallenged and would be difficult to surrender without a fully articulated working replacement at hand.” Sontag was concerned with the distinction between style and content that is different from, if related to, the one that concerns me. Her diagnosis of our broad predicament seems right. Yet her insistence that we must replace the problematic distinction with some more or less fully worked out alternative is misguided.
Near the start of Art as Experience John Dewey observes: “Wherever continuity is possible, the burden of proof rests upon those who assert opposition and dualism” (New York, Perigree 1980, p. 27). The problem is not that we make and use conceptual distinctions. That is unavoidable in any ongoing critical or creative undertaking. The problem, as Hilary Putnam, among the most insightful heirs to Dewey’s pragmatism notes, is that with repeated use conceptual distinctions too often become “inflated” into dichotomies that come to muddle our critical and creative practices. In contemporary discussions the documentary/ art distinction has assumed precisely this invidious status.
Faced with this dualism, we should heed Dewey’s advice and shift the burden of justification onto those who deploy it. This strategy is attractive since, as Sontag intimates, distinctions become inflated into dichotomies in ways and for purposes that hardly are innocent. Our art/documentary distinction, for instance, assumed exaggerated proportions through the usually self-serving efforts of identifiable photographers, curators, collectors, and critics. One thinks here of how Stieglitz differentiated “art” from “document” in order to facilitate acceptance of his preferred brand of photography by institutions of the art world. One thinks too of how, subsequently, Walker Evans and his critical allies devised hegemonic criteria for ‘legitimate’ documentary in hopes of countering the success of Margaret Bourke-White whom they cast as his competitor. Additional relevant episodes, animated by other more or less unsavory aims and interests will come to mind.
While genealogical accounts warrant the burden-shifting strategy Dewey proposes, they offer nothing remotely like the full-fledged “replacement” that Sontag thinks necessary. So what? Once historians reveal a dichotomy as an artifact of the thoroughly political and economic concerns of those who promulgate it, why aren’t we justified in simply turning our backs on it and those who purvey it? We should aim not to replace the dichotomy but to deflate it so as to open space for critical reflection.
Steve Edwards’ Photography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2006) is exemplary in this respect. He concedes that the documentary/art distinction is “central” to assessments of contemporary photography. His argument unfolds around the dichotomy in ways that undermine it, repeatedly demonstrating how it confounds efforts to grasp photography and the various uses to which it has been put. Edwards thus pursues a deflationary strategy I find congenial. In so doing, he invites us to worry much less about whether some image respects the boundaries set by an invidious conceptual distinction and considerably more about two constellations of questions. First, who produced the image, how, and for what purposes? Second, what exigencies shape how others subsequently experience and use it? This is an invitation we should accept.
[This essay appeared in the inaugural issue of Art Signal (Barcelona), unfortunately deunct. Here is a link http://art-signal.org/en/que-hacemos-con-las-distinciones-odiosas/.]