Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How important is positive aesthetic value in making photography art?

Louise Lawler Monogram -- Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Termaine, New York City
Sherri Irvin says it is not very important. She admits (in "Artwork and Document in the Photography of Louise Lawler" Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70:1 Winter 2012 79-90) that it was crucial to photography's gaining acceptance as an art form:  the photographs of Julia Cameron being "formally stunning."  Irvin denies however that "aesthetic value is necessary" for photographs to be art.  Although I do not know whether positive aesthetic value is necessary, I was somewhat surprised (actually, rather stunned) by Irvin's key example for her case, Louise Lawler's photography of artworks by famous artists in various contexts (i.e. in collections, storage spaces, etc.).  She says "a number of Lawler's photographs do not even tempt us to think that they might be art by virtue of their formal or aesthetic features.  Some of her photographs of artworks in corporate or auction settings are, in my judgment, aesthetically ordinary, even drab or depressing.  An example is Who Says Who Shows Who Counts (1989), which shows Warhol's Wicked Witch on the wall of a boardroom... This is not a criticism of Lawler's photographs as artworks: they are designed to make us attend to and reflect on the institutional framework within which artworks circulate, and sometimes that institutional framework is a very drab and ordinary one."  (86)  You can see a good image of this work here.  What struck me when looking at Lawler's photograph was that it has strong aesthetic qualities.  The terms "visually powerful" and "striking" come to mind.  "Aesthetically ordinary" seems, in my judgment, to be way out of place.  Of course if I walked into the boardroom portrayed I would probably think it was drab (but for the prominent Warhol).  But this photograph strikes me as rich in meaning in a way that the boardroom itself could not be (for example:  the single marker pen standing up on the table seems to reverberate with the Wicked Witch theme.)  So I would opt out of the "us" in Irvin's phrase "do not even tempt us."  Perhaps Irvin and I have very different understandings of the term "aesthetic."  By her combining it with "formal" one gets the sense that she believes that the only aesthetic values are formal values, for example harmony or symmetry (I am never quite sure what falls into the category of formal values.)

Irvin goes on to give a second reason why positive aesthetic qualities are not important in making Lawler's photographs art: :  "even when her photographs clearly do traffic in positive aesthetic value, as many do, very often it is the kind of aesthetic value that creates an association with nonartistic forms of professional photography" for example evoking interior design photography.  The example she gives for this is  Monogram -- Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Termaine, New York City 1984I could not find an internet copy of the black and white version of this work, the one that  Irvin gives in her essay.  This is a shame since that version is much better than the color version I got from above. Although the colored version given above does look almost indistinguishable from something in an interior design magazine, the black and white version shows the hanging ropes above and the air duct grating also above the artwork (which is a Jasper Johns flag painting).  Those elements make the work far more interesting formally, especially in juxtaposition with the bed below.  In neither photograph is the aesthetic value of the work the same as the aesthetic value one would find in a very similar looking design magazine photograph.  The aesthetic value of the illustrated version for example is influenced by the title as well as by its presentation to the world as art.  Irvin thinks that the important thing that makes art art is what brings it into the institution:  "when a set of objects was created by a person who is clearly aware of and engaged with the artworld, that engagement should be the focus of our inquiry"....presumably our inquiry into how it comes to be art.  So Irvin's conclusion is "at least with regard to works of our contemporaries, positive aesthetic value is not normally a key criterion in determining that they are art."  (86)  I should also add that Irvin has no problem with outsider art being entered into the realm of art because of positive aesthetic qualities, but only as a last resort if there is nothing that connects such art to an artworld institutional context.

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