30 April 2021

Karen Kurczynski—Jorn's Distrust of Photography

Kurczynski, The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn
...distrust of the prefabricated image in fact led him [Jorn] at first to dismiss—shortsightedly—the artistic and critical potential of photography. Jorn writes that excessive faith in the progress and objectivity of science leads to the view that photography is the best art form, because it is the most objective and realistic. But there is no objective reality even in science, he argues, since it is always tied to the needs and interests of those who fund it. Rather than make art more objective, Jorn argues for the subjectivity of science. Writing in the late 1940s, he warns of the danger of considering photography a substitute for reality, the equivalent of armchair traveling instead of real experience. Jorn argues that the close connection of photography to reality is precisely what makes it the least artistic. He was unable to see the potential of photography as a creative medium because of its associations with impersonal, mass reproduction. Jorn reductively associated photography with the culture industry... While hopelessly limited for any contemporary understanding of photography, these views were typical of the 1950s. (198)
It seems once again that an opportunity has been missed and an opponent talked past rather than hit where it hurts: is "artistic" or "critical" potential really the issue, or is it rather that both potentials are in fact so shockingly vast in relation to the type of agency required that a certain devolution in the latter respect was now simply inevitable? The vast power of representation had in fact been democratized, and this rather directly and drastically cheapened initiative, intent, vision, subjectivity...it is hard to name an "artistic" or "critical" value that was not cheapened this way; that is, for the abundance of those potentials rather than their lack. Photography, in the moment that it was new, was too easy in proportion to the power inhering in it. This is not a denial that photographic skill exists, but rather that it was now both harder to distinguish from the ordinary and more widely dispersed and rather less scarce. Seems to me that these are material questions susceptible to material validation, whereas I cannot imagine successfully teasing out the objectivity/realism/science question raised here (certainly not only on the broadest of strokes painted here). The "substitute for reality" seems equally absurd on the surface, but I think it ultimately has been materially validated; in this case people can tell the difference but even so don't seem to care about the difference. But even here, the given discussion has suddenly shifted entirely to the consumption side of things; nothing is said about initiative, accessibility, technique, etc. as this pertains to creators, whereas it seems to me that the accounts of Jorn's chosen mediums throughout center around creation rather than reception. Continuing on, the word "impersonal" is used; this also demands that creation and reception both be explicitly accounted for; otherwise the impression is that of reactionary bluster rather than considered critique.
Jorn suggests that abstract art addresses our imagination more directly that the "indirect and superficial" art of photography. He writes that "visual art means first and foremost visual effects, and the most elementary, direct visual art is that which effects our power of imagination by means of colors, forms, and direct visual effects." (198)
Now we're talking! But there is again an unsatisfying, overgeneralized aspect betokening another missed opportunity. Is it photography itself which is "indirect," or is the photograph in fact the intermediary begetting an unduly "indirect" response in the subject? Is the problem in fact that the photograph is so direct (or perhaps simply suggests/imposes this conceit whether or not it is true) that the subject's imagination is subdued not for lack of "direct" stimulation but in fact for (the conceit to/impression of) an overabundance of it, thereby constraining the imagination inside thick walls of information rather than inviting it on an open-ended journey guided only by the occasional signpost? This analysis certainly is available re: representation and reproduction, as against abstraction/nonrepresentation and singularity. We may well read "elementary" as "leaves something to the imagination"; of course it is not just photorealism which fails this prescription precisely where nonrepresentation succeeds, but also language properly construed which fails where non-/pre-/supra-linguistic cognition succeeds. This is indeed a role (dare I moralize and say a Function?!) for abstract art and music; yet that aspiration to utilitarianism hits a snag if the ultimate, final, exalted end product of whatever particular process we are talking about remains representational, photorealistic, linguistic, communicative, etc. Seems that those types of thought are necessary, by definition, for any social intercourse at all, hence serial abstractifying exercises can be only a means, never their own ends, and in fact uniquely vulnerable to the conquering dictates of social ends which are contingent rather than absolute.

[from a notebook, 2018]

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