Medium Specificity in our Midst
J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan introduces the immortality of its title character through his shadow, which he needs, but which he has lost to the protective jaws of Nana, the dog. In the Disney version, the shadow, liberated from Peter’s body, has found its own posture, and only conforms again to his movements when Wendy sews it onto him. One of the realities of my perspective, is that despite a determination to speak roundly about mediums in terms of a generalizing tendency, my attention was, years ago, captured by one medium and it is to one medium that I return, again and again. I admit this right away in case I, like Peter Pan, seem to be soon trying to glue the shadow of the medium of photography onto its body with soap after others have understood it as inexorably freed.
In the early twentieth century, an artist would be most likely have been fluent with the deployment of one medium and literate in its technical matrices: Brancusi’s photographs supported his sculptural practice, even if through the lens of history, these stand on their own. Today, an artist more likely than not makes use of more than one material or technique, even in the making of one piece, let alone throughout the bulk of his or her practice. An artist is, in today’s context, fluent in the deployment of more than one medium, literate in the technical matrices of more than one medium, and aware of how the conversation surrounding one medium affects another. This is true even for those artists whose work is fairly consistently presented, say, as a photographic print, a video, or a painting; performance, sculptural installations, or any number of other strategies can be understood as an important part of the processes. Each of these mediums is to be understood in terms of what it means, ontologically as well as art-historically, in order that any one medium might be effectively borrowed and used.
Although a concerted focus on the parameters of any one medium is not a trend within contemporary art, medium-specificity exists broadly as a practice of election and narrowly as a practice of investigation, especially within the lens-based practices of photography and video.
This is an effect of modernism, even as it resists it (or need not bother resisting it anymore): the election of affinity towards any one particular medium as the appropriate vehicle for content or concept is a recognition of that medium’s (questionably evolving) capacities as well as of its (questionably evolving) reception. Today, such election occurs most frequently with respect to the lens-based practices of photography and video, suggesting an implicit acceptance of these mediums’ (or, as I will treat it, this medium’s) identities. When an artist—even one enrolled in the interdisciplinary or new genres department of some MFA program—chooses to confine a fruit of their project in the product that is a photograph or video, he or she tacitly acknowledges that product’s capacities, both presently and historically. This might seem strange, given the rejection of ontology that an interdisciplinary perspective might suggest. Decidedly interdisciplinary artists are not working on The Photograph, but they may choose The Photograph to communicate their work, and their work works upon it. Within photography departments (at schools, museums, and other institutions), the same practice might be identified, although there is more likely in this case a consciousness of working on The Photograph, even if other motivations—through references to other media and through content—are important. Either way, a consciousness of medium exists that is different from a mid-twentieth century medium specificity, but that relies upon recognition of the codes of the particular medium employed. Despite half a century, then, of the assumption of a deregulated field of practice, there appears to be a kind of natural law to the idea of the medium: something of which even artists who would not subscribe to a primacy of the medium in any way make use.
To suggest that artists today recognize, honor, and perpetuate the codes of any one medium takes this writing naturally back to medium specificity as it stood fifty years ago, with the sorting out of the particular natures of each medium, per Clement Greenberg’s declaration in Modernist Painting that each art has to “determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself”. To his mind, he said this not to “subvert” production, but rather to cultivate reflexive practice within each medium, using Kant as an example: “Kant used logic to establish the limits of logic” and “was the first to criticize the means itself of criticism.” This way of thinking often addressed essential material conditions, but not when his attention turned to photography. Unlike the characteristics that essentialize the medium and practice of painting, photography’s concerns for Greenberg were literary above all else: photography’s “triumphs and monuments are historical, anecdotal, reportorial, observational before they are purely pictorial,” ‘form’ in photography is reluctant to become ‘content,’ “the purely formal or abstract is a threat to the art in photography” and the most egregious of such work “has never been anything but abortive as art”. If this might discourage the development of a photography along its material codes, it does not depart from the way photography had been and did develop over the course of the next fifty years and is an ontology that remains largely at play in the way the medium operates today.
Photography was not Greenberg’s focus, nor was it the focus of Michael Fried at the time, whose thinking in Art and Objecthood (1968) embodied modernism at its height. In fact, through paintings and sculptures were the products Fried discussed in that essay, no specific medium was the object of Art and Objecthood, nor was medium-specificity, per se. In this text, Fried identified the protagonist of minimalist (literalist) work—and the antagonist of modernist work—as theatricality: a concern “with the actual circumstances in which the beholder encounters literalist work”. Of the more immutable characteristics in theatrical work is a sense of presence— through which the work demands to be taken seriously—and a “persistence with which [an] experience presents itself”, making the beholder into a subject and establishing “the experience itself as something like that of an object.” This latter condition Fried drew from Tony Smith’s account of an experience on a turnpike: a special experience that for some (such as Fried) might encourage artmaking, but that for Smith suggested the “end of art”. At stake in this essay was not any one medium or abstraction versus figuration, despite the work Fried championed otherwise at the time. At stake in this essay was the role of the beholder: is the work dependent on the beholder—“incomplete without him”—or is the work something that, as Fried says of Tony Caro’s work, “essentialize[s] meaning as such—as though the possibility of meaning what we say and do alone makes” the work exist as art?  Does the work stand on its own, embodying a clear sense of the author’s intention, or does it depend upon its reader to function?
This point of philosophy—rather than of art history or of criticism—manifests forty years later, for Fried, in one medium in particular: photography (and video.) Fried’s text of 2008, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before, outlines the ways in which art photography of the contemporary period asserts its authorship and by extension, its completeness, its to-be-looked-at-ness, its lack of existential need for a beholder. That this is today a photographic phenomenon is clear, but that it is not a phenomenon of other mediums seems not to be quite the point; it is a turning point for the Picture that perhaps only photography could achieve. Fried cites Walter Benn Michaels as saying that photographers have made efforts to establish their work “as pictures” and therefore photographers in particular have picked up a thread previously knitted to painting—per Fried’s own scholarship through Manet and Courbet. Although Fried discusses the artistic strategies of Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Thomas Demand, Thomas Struth, and other photographers in ways specific to their practices of photography and in fact says (in his conclusion, of the practice of Thomas Struth’s family portraits) that some of this work is “inconceivable outside the medium of photography”, the essential point of Fried’s scholarship in this case seems to re-establish the relevance of the question of authorship to the particular technique of photography (a phrase I borrow from Michel de Certeau’s definition of the philosopher.) The ontology at issue here is that of the Picture; the Photograph is an evolved Picture.
Asked to respond to Fried’s book on photography, curator emeritus at the Getty Museum Weston Naef, expressed a belief that medium-specific study should begin with a study of the individual medium’s materials:
“The interpretive method that Fried championed for studying painting and sculpture of the 1960s was first to understand artists’ materials and how they behave, then to think about what this means for the resulting work. …The early writing would have been a good model to follow [in Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before], since creative decisions about materials and process are as fundamental to the art of photography as they are for the art of painting.”
The problem with Naef’s perspective here, which he goes on to remedy by listing the material processes behind some of the photographers whose work is unpacked in Fried’s book, is not just that he misstates the object of Fried’s championship as an interpretive method instead of as this essential issue of the beholder, but that he presumes a material identity for the photograph that is not widely shared. When an interdisciplinary artist borrows the Photograph for use in a project, he or she does not borrow a type of film, a length of exposure, or the idea of cameralessness; he or she borrows the philosophical question of authorship in a posture specific to the loaded history of mediatic depiction.
I too believe that it is important to understand an artist’s materials and that photography has at its disposal many magics that go beyond content and composition. I do not, though, believe that these materials and processes are what the medium widely represents to those within its exclusive practice or to those who elect to use it but who operate outside of photography’s exclusive practice. That is not to say that the medium cannot evolve to represent more than the Picture in the hands and imaginations of artists, but it is to say that within and without the discipline, the Photograph is used to depict. Jeff Wall has said that the photograph “cannot find alternatives to depiction”, that “it is in the physical nature of the medium to depict things”, that photography through reportage “elaborates its version of the Picture, and… is the first new version since the onset of modern painting in the 1860s, or, possibly, since the emergence of abstract art”. This idea comes not just from Wall’s experience as a photographic artist nor his research and thought on the subject, but from Greenberg and from John Szarkowski. It is an idea that translates into the far reaches of how photographs are used in sculpture and how they are written about. It is how photographs are seen and used, even when their concerns appear abstract, and even in a deregulated field of interdisciplinary practice.
In 1964, MOMA mounted the exhibition, the Photographer’s Eye, and the catalogue essay by John Szarkowski notes that “to quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft. His central problem is a simple one: what shall he include, what shall he reject?” For Szarkowski, this is a question of authorship, not of journalistic editing, although he did not look down upon journalism: “the factuality of [the photographer’s] pictures, no matter how convincing and unarguable, [is] a different thing than the reality itself” Throughout the 160 exhibitions John Szarkowski produced for New York’s MOMA between 1962 and 1991, it is the “unadulterated” act of “visual editing” that characterized the medium as he saw it. In a time during which materials—paint, flatness, rectangularity—might have characterized the essential components of painting, the likewise material components of photographs were not to be understood as the essential components of the photograph. “You’re not supposed to look at the thing,” said Szarkowski. “You’re supposed to look through it. It’s a window” (2006). In terms of Greenberg’s “effects exclusive” to the medium, Szarkowski, and the work of artists he championed, including that by Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and William Eggleston, suggest that a) the photograph is uniquely transparent, materially, as an object and that b) the practice of photographing is uniquely one of inclusion and exclusion—i.e. of intentionality, despite the effects of chance, which also uniquely define (for Szarkowski, and, in 1980 in Camera Lucida, for Roland Barthes) photographic practice.
This faith in the photograph as simultaneously fact and fabrication, plus this conviction that the photographic object is transparent, is what enables artists throughout the Conceptual period of the 1960s and ‘70s to elect the photograph as the medium through which they could communicate. The photograph’s role “in, or as, Conceptual Art” (per Jeff Wall’s essay of 1995), the photograph’s participation in reportage before and after the period of the 1960s and ‘70s to which Wall refers, and the solid footing that the photograph gained at MOMA under Szarkowski as a product like reportage but not of reportage: Each of these roles, for the Photograph, provides it with an identity that artists both working and not working on the Photograph borrow.
This same period during which Fried established authorship as a central issue of artmaking and during which Szarkowski sanctioned an unadulterated—but still highly authored—photograph at the Museum of Modern Art saw the development of the question of artist as author in a different respect as well. Roland Barthes, in his essay of 1967, “Death of the Author”, writes that any “text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.” He goes on to explain that these multiple citations come into “dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation” and then locates the one place in which the “multiplicity is collected” as the reader—not the writer: “the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination.” One kind of artist working with the Photograph, at this time, became a reader, and in so doing, did not represent the death of authorship, but in enacting a certain kind of self-reflexive photographic phenomenon, re-represented mediatic imagery. The Pictures generation was of course named for the interest of the artists involved in reworking media culture. Cindy Sherman shot film stills starring herself; her film stills were acquired in 1995, following Szarkowski’s departure from MOMA, when Peter Galassi turned the attention of the museum’s photo department—and the institutionalized identity of the Photograph—towards more and more explicitly authored photographs. This does not represent a turn away from Szarkowski’s “unadulterated” photograph, but a building of the understanding of the intentionality of the photographer as author.
If an artist today works with photography or video, they work from inside the logic of lens-based mediums; an awareness of this logic and the historical contexts of lens-based mediums is key to each of these projects. The notion that medium specificity still exists in the multiplicity of today’s art practices may or may not be surprising. Certainly, our institutions preserve departments for the various mediums, even as they speak of their shows or students in interdisciplinary terms. It should also be fairly comfortable to think of interdisciplinary artists as electing affinities with particular mediums. Work across a spectrum of mediums is made possible by the turn toward fabrication and paid labor initiated in the 1960s; part of the luxury of such election is validated by an understanding of the medium as an institution with its own identity and regulatory matrices within which meaning is made. Why is a photograph an appropriate means of communicating this idea? Why fiberglass? Not only the material itself becomes a part of the metaphorical underpinning of the piece, but the fabricator him or herself: Why must I employ this kind of commercial craftsman or another? What does his or her particular skill represent on a cultural level?
Even those artists who choose to work in one primary medium must by needs of our contemporary supply chain employ others in their process who are more familiar with the minutiae of the medium’s matrix. A photographer who chooses to work with film trusts a lab to develop it and sometimes to print it. A painter may not mix his or her own pigments. A sculptor in the Unmonumental tradition of the last ten years might use materials that are inexpensive so as to be able to manipulate them his or herself, but, as Charles Ray put it, “Does fabrication begin with the materials an artist selects? Is an artist who uses plywood alone in his studio working with unseen fabricators?” Surely, the plywood was made by someone in a factory and bears with it its own commercial connotations that are part of the meaning of the final piece. The artists in these cases are making use of the skills of others whose lives are closer to the materials qua materials.
It is possible to regard and test a medium from within that medium, and yet in doing so to regard and test its equals and opposites: a photograph, showing sculpture, is not sculpture, and a photograph showing performance is not performance. The nature of a Modernist photograph is to show, and so the photograph of sculpture or performance is still a photograph. What of a photograph that behaves like sculpture? What if it knocks about on the floor or changes in time? Relationships between mediums are useful, even when an artist is trying to suss out the identity or particular nature of the primary one at hand. Photography’s fairly simultaneous origin by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in France and William Henry Fox Talbot in England is an example; “lacking other ways to make understandable their prodigious discovery, both inventors described their creations as types of drawing”.Part of what drove these men towards capturing imagery photographically was the choice they had between it and the act and results of drawing, just as part of what drove Moholy Nagy to experimentation in photography was the alternative it presented to painting. Sculpture drove Thomas Demand to photography. There is a difference between where these artists and others came from, mediatically, and where they arrived; in that very difference and in that election is the specificity of a medium.
Although there are other specificities to contemporary artmaking, not the least of which are responsive attitudes toward site, viewer, or market, medium specificity is necessarily still at play. It is at times liberated from the body of the individual artist—one may not be necessarily a photographer or a painter—but the mediums themselves bear with them as much specificity if not more than ever before. Deregulation of the practice of art has ostensibly meant the removal of critical rules that constrain the operation of individual artists, reducing institutional control of how art is made and shown. This has not necessarily been the case, though; a natural law of each medium guides the election of that medium by individual artists, whose practice is no longer constrained by positive (man-made) law.