Thinking through: Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary by Allan Sekula.

Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary

(Notes on the Politics of Representation).

by Allan Sekula.

The following is my initial attempt at breaking down the ideas behind Allan Sekula”s Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation).

All words in bold and direct quotes from the text that I’m exploring.

My reading of this is that  “an artwork ought to be regarded, then, as contingent,” is important as all art is dependent on our interpretation which is often ideologically motivated.

“What I am arguing is that we understand the extent to which art redeems a repressive social order but offering a wholly imaginary transcendence, a false harmony, too docile and isolated spectators.” He is arguing here that the art that we view in our art temples (i.e. MOMA, TATE Modern, etc), actually let the social system that we have off the hook. Able to continue doing what it does without us thinking too deeply about how we will challenge this or can challenge the established status quo.

 “In capitalist society,artists are represented as possessing a privileged subjectivity, gifted with an uncommon unity of self and labour.” He  then goes on to say. “the recent efforts to elevate photography to the statist of high art by transforming the photographic print into a privileged commodity, and the photographer, regardless of working context,  into an autonomous autuer with their capacity for genius, have the effect of restoring the “aura,” to use Walter Benjamin’s to the, to mass-communications technology.” What he is exploring here is the photographer as star, that we have become accustomed to since he wrote this piece, with the development of art stars like Gursky, etc.  the photographers star creates problems as we tend to think more about the ‘artist’ and less about the subject in their images. He then has a little critique of the camera hobbyist in being unable to be truly creative.


“The problems of art are refractions of a larger cultural and ideological crisis, stemming from the declining legitimacy of the liberal capitalist world view.” This is only intensified since Sekula wrote this with the continued this advancement of neoliberal economic thought within our capitalist society and the further retreat of liberal thought and policies. This “these crisis is rooted in the materially dictated inequalities of advanced capitalism and will only be resolved practically, by the struggle for an authentic socialism.” This is not going to happen any time soon, as the road to a authentic version of socialism is going to be only achievable when the power of capitalism is either so implicit in our destruction as a species or enough people in society decide that enough is enough and that change has to take place for the sake of humanity.

“Artists and writers who moved toward an openly political cultural practice need to educate themselves out of their own professional elitism and narrowness of concern.” this is what my PhD is about, however, I have to be aware that it could also lead me down the road of being very elitist. “A theoretical grasp of modernism and its pitfalls might be useful in this regard.” I would also add a dam good idea of what neoliberalism, post-modernism, globalisation and some refer to it as late-model capitalism would also be of benefit.

“Modernist practice is organised professionally and shielded by bogus ideology of neutrality.” This is evident in our newspapers when they have to have’ unbiased’ coverage from people on both left and right of an ideological divide, however this does not really work when the debate has been shifted so radically to the right in the last 20 years. He talks about the political economic terms inherent in modernism’s in the division of mental and manual labour within advanced capitalism leading to specialisation and coordination of privileges in relation to manual labour which is fragmented and degraded. This separation of petit-bourgeois their desire for upward aspiration causes them to view the working class with disdain and contempt and I would hazard a guess now with our current economic climate even a little bit of fear. He also says that  “artists despite their romanticism and their slumming, are no exceptions.” This is something I need to be aware that I don’t do.

Further down the page she goes back to “the charisma of the arts Tower is subject to an overdeveloped bureaucratism. Couriers are “managed.” Innovation is regularised, adjusted to the demands of the market.” ….“Into a professionalism based on academic appointments, periodic exposure, lofty real estate speculation in the former factory districts of decaying cities, massive state funding, jet travel, and increasingly ostentatious corporate patronage of the arts.” So he is criticizing the art star and the system that they inhabit and the support structures that have sprung up around them to sustain an art market. “This last development represents an attempt by monopoly capital to “humanize”it’s image for the middle-managerial and professional subclasses (the vicarious consumers of high culture, the museum audience) in the face of an escalating legitimation crisis.” Remember he was writing this in 1978 and this is what we are still confronted with today in 2013.

“Political domination, especially in the advanced capitalist countries and the more developed neo-colonies, depends on an exaggerated symbolic apparatus, on pedagogy and spectacle, on the authoritarian monologues of school and mass media. these are the main agent of working-class obedience and docility; these the main promoters of phoney consumer options, of “lifestyle,” and increasingly, of political reaction, nihilism, and sadomasochism.” Here Sekula Is outlining why teaching and spectacle in both schools and mass media are actually elements in creating working-class acceptance of the circumstances of  lives being lived. He then goes on to say “Any effective political art will have to be grounded in work against these institutions.” His next statement is interesting “we need a political economy, sociology, and non-formalist’s semiotics of media.” This will mean thinking through how we organise our political thought, study of our societies through sociology and removing the formalism reading of signs within the media. “We need to comprehend advertising as the fundamental discourse of capitalism, exposing the link between the language of manufacturing needs and commodity fetishism.”  Advertising and advertising photography helps in creating demand for goods and/or consumer society turning items into objects that we just have to have.

“From this basis, a critical representational art, an art that points openly to the social world and to possibilities of concrete social transformation could develop.” Thinking this through means developing some form of art and in my case photography that is critical of the social  (Or at least engages with it) and economic circumstances of our world, that will be representational of that world.he then goes on to say that without some form of “coherent oppositional politics, through, an oppositional culture remains tentative and isolated.”

For Sekula an initial question is: “How do we invent our lives out of the limited range of possibilities, and how our lives invented for us by those in power?”  He then talks about getting outside of the “art world” otherwise we are faced with limited choices or as he puts it “a poverty of means” and referring to how we get artwork that is confrontational of the established elites out into wider audiences and even be part of those wider audiences in creating the work in the first place.

 “Folklore of photographic truth” in discussing the notion of photography’s connection was truth. I personally think this was originally started with  Henry Fox Talbot in his book Pencil of Nature. However numerous articles and books have been written contesting the concept of a photograph never lies as it is always a socially contested document. “The rhetorical strength of documentary is imagined to reside in the unequivocal character of the camera’s evidence, in essential realism. The theory of photographic realism emerges historically is both product and handmaiden of positivism. Vision, itself and implicated in the world of encounters, is subjected to a mechanical idealization. Paradoxically, the camera serves to ideologically naturalize the eye of the observer. Photography, according to this belief, reproduces the visible world: the camera is an engine of fact, the generator of duplicate world of fetishized appearances, independently of human practice. Photographs, always the product of socially-specific encounters between human-and-human or human-and-nature, become repositories of dead facts, reified objects: from their social origins.” This is important in our conception of photography or what a photograph can do or be used for. As images can be used to  “convey a variety of messages under differing presentational circumstances.” He goes on to say that “the only “objective” truth that photographs offer easy assertion that somebody or something – …. was somewhere and took a picture.”

Sekula goes on to criticise and say that documentary has brought has in fact helped with constituting the system that we currently have in place  “and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world.”

“A political critique of the documentary genre is sorely needed.” He goes on about how artists can learn much from both the successes and mistakes that arose from working within the progressive era and from the new Deal. He talks about the Workers Film and Photo League and also asks a question “how do we avoid a kind of estheticzed political nostalgia in viewing the work of the Thirties?” This is something also that I have to consider, as I will be looking at what went before and how these people worked as photographers.

This question will be critical to my PhD.  How do we produce an art that elicits dialogue rather than uncritical, pseudo-political affirmation?   Without asking this question directly it is something that I will be considering throughout my research.

This is something else that I will have to consider in making work is to the subject itself. “Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” He then quotes  “Roman Jakobson’s categories, the referential function collapses into the expressive function.” This is something that I need to consider as I had taken at face value the idea of an art based documentary practice or as Walker Evans has been quoted as saying ‘documentary style’ of photography. Thereby making the possibility of the author being primary instead of the subject other thing that we’re looking at (the social circumstances) become less important. “A cult of authorship,  an auteurism, takes hold of the image, separating it from the social conditions of its making and elevating it above the multitude of lonely and mundane uses to which photography is commonly put.” Sekula discusses Diane Arbus and ways of reading her work. He talks about promoting the artists humanity versus the ordinary person, exoticizing the person into ‘other’ as a result of photographers especially documentary ones looking downwards with the cameras  “toward those with little power or prestige.” 

In 1978 he was already writing about the fusion of news or is he termed it public affairs and entertainment.

Sekuka then says  that  “A small number of contemporary photographers have set out deliberately to work against the strategies that have succeeded in making photography a high art. …  Their work begins with recognition of talks is operative at every level of our culture. That is, they insist on treating photographs not as privileged objects but is common cultural artefacts. The solitary, sparely captioned photograph on the gallery wall is a sign, above all, of an aspiration towards the esthetic and market conditions of modernist painting and sculpture. In this void, meaning is thought to merge entirely from within the artwork. The importance of the framing discourses marked, context is hidden. These artists, on the other hand, openly bracket their photographs with language, using text to anchor, contradict, reinforce, subvert, complement, particularize, or go beyond the meanings offered by the images themselves. These pitches are often located within an extended narrative structure.”  He then quotes Martha Rosler’s The Bowery into inadequate descriptive systems. As an example.

He discusses the use of text with image and at the time talks about video and sound film and video etc thereby letting text which can be used to work with or against the images or as he  says “An image can be offered as evidence, and then subverted.”. ….  Still photographers have tended to believe naïvely in the power and efficacy of the single image.” He alludes to museums  and the art market encouraging this belief.  Commenting  that “even photojournalists like to imagine that a good photograph can punch through, overcome its caption and story, on the power of vision alone.”

For the rest of the article Sekula discusses work by other artists. One point he says “I think “marginal” spaces have to be discovered and utilized, spaces with issues can be discussed collectively ….. photographers ought to consider “vulgar” and “impure” formats such as the slide shows.” I now think that we have more spaces that we can use, the Internet if we can build a community around projects allows away through the clutter and in his mention of slideshows we now have multimedia audiovisual presentation methods that did not exist when Sekula was writing this.

He discusses Fern Tiger and her work in Oakland working on an extended documentation of class structure and conflict where  “her working method involves a lot of prolonged contraction with the people she photographs. She makes return visits with prints is part of an attempt to overcome the traditional aloofness of the merely contemplative sociological observer or journalistic photographer.”

Sekula also says “the subject of liberal esthetics is compassion rather than collective struggle. Pity, mediated by an appreciation of “great art,” supplants political understanding.” this is something we as photographers and committed documentary photography has to find a way to resolve otherwise we are only part of the system that also helps with repression and the increased sense within community that if I give a little that is enough. However, it is not enough we have to find a new form of politics if we are to make social justice and equality central to our lives as a society.

Sekula ends with a short chapter  that says “I’m arguing, then, for an art that documents monopoly capitalism’s inability to deliver the conditions of a fully human life.” And ultimately for a socialist transformation of society.

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