essay by David Bate
Has anybody else noticed? Where did it go, is it hiding somewhere? Have
you seen it? ‘Postmodernism’, once the bee’s knees of
art criticism has vanished. Once upon a time, someone only had to say
‘postmodernism’ for people to either run as far away as possible
in fear and loathing, or rush adoringly to touch its feet. Fashion certainly
is fickle. Now all that are left are dusty books and fading bibliographies.
No doubt someone somewhere is still teaching ‘postmodernism’
(as a current issue) or writing another book on it, but who is going to
be interested in it now? This is not a negative question. My point is
not that postmodernism was or is irrelevant but that its disappearance
is important because it raises the question about what concept or concepts
it has been replaced with. In other words, the question is why has it
disappeared and what has replaced it? On what basis or theory might photography
criticism and current practices be based? Or, is it that nothing
has replaced it? Is theory no longer important at all? Could it be that
we are living in the first ideology free world? Are we seeing photography
in an ideological vacuum, so that we do not need any theory? Is that possible?
Is an end to the discussion of postmodernism the end of ideology?
Just because an ideology does not name itself, it does not mean that there
is not one. It may simply be that we have not managed to give a name to
this post ‘postmodern’ condition. If this is the case, that
we are in an ‘after’ postmodernism condition, what name can
we give it? Of course, any theory and the point of it is going
to be transient and eventually destined to be another ‘ism’,
fading into the background as another problematic emerges and the older
one is consigned to the bottom of the tool kit once its use value is exhausted.
It is thus useful to remember here that postmodernism itself originally
came into use as a means to discuss what had been a new problematic.
Postmodernism became a valuable critical concept because it identified
something that people were experiencing but which did not then have a
name. ‘Postmodernism’ was thus partly a project to write and
think how culture was being re-defined and was used in particular to describe
the preoccupations of a certain type of photographic culture. However,
in so far as those debates affected photography and its critics, the discussions
primarily involved issues relating to photography as art and, more tediously,
art as photography. But the issues at stake in the ‘pomo’
debates were broader, more fundamental and far reaching than simply those
that preoccupied the art theory in the late 1980s (rejection of modernism).
How to quickly define what these arguments were?
The idea that we are ‘modern’ is a characteristic of every
age and Western culture has long been driven by the idea of constant progress
and change as a positive value (even if there are those who always oppose
it). What went out of the window with postmodernism was the idea of originality;
the ‘original’ new was rejected and replaced by the concept
of ‘reference’ and ‘quotation’. So to be ‘post-modern’
meant, in one respect, the end of the new. The idea of finding something
authentic and original was discarded. Indeed, ‘newness’
in postmodernism was regarded as the product of re-combining one or more
different elements from within existing culture. ‘Mixing’
was not just something to be done on turntables, but with styles of architecture,
music, food, furniture, with genres of film and photography and so on.
‘Newness’ came through a referencing of bits from various
existing cultural elements that were usually kept separate. Thus an image
(then called a ‘text’) had to use, quote or refer to other
‘texts’. While this was an old social process (one that the
cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss had long ago defined
as bricolage), to be post-modern you had to wear your
‘intertextual reference’ on your sleeve for all to see.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #54. 1980. ©1997
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thus, to give an example, we can see how Cindy Sherman became a key figures
in this respect of postmodern reference. Sherman’s early work referred
exclusively to the imagery of trashy Hollywood films (of which there have
been many). Of course, much art has traditionally been dependent on reference
to other previous ‘texts’, but this was about situating your
work within a historical tradition of great artists (sic). That was simply
where you started, but now the reference was almost to anything other
than art (a tendency shared by avant-garde art in the early 1900s.) Cleverly,
Sherman’s famous early photographs were captioned as Untitled
Film Stills. ‘Untitled’, indicating that you can give
them any meaning, then ‘Film Still no…’ instilling
the notion that the image does indeed refer to an actual specific existing
film’ (Hollywood ‘B movies’ in Sherman’s work).
In short: ‘here is a picture from a film, but I am not going to
tell you which one’, a message complicated by the fact that the
photographs were not actual films stills. This was ‘intertexuality’
in action. In this semiotic game, the audience is given a reference which
spirals off to yet another representation, not to ‘reality’
itself. And even worse for the opponents of such works, the reference
to other images came from rubbish ‘mass culture’, elevating
it to the realms of ‘high art’ even if it was to criticise
it. (The difference between this and modernism is obvious. Even the revered
1930s photography critic Walter Benjamin, who appeared so positive about
the then new mass cultural forms of photography and film, took the advice
of his fiercest critic Theodor Adorno to remove the section on Mickey
Mouse from the second edition of his famous essay The Work of Art
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction because of the damage it would
cause to his argument.)
In essence then, ‘postmodernism’ was the name given to this
phenomena of ‘new’ representations coming into existence by
more or less explicit reference to other representations, not to any first
order reality. It was like that sometimes dizzying experience of looking
up a word in a dictionary, only to find its meaning referred to an equally
unfamiliar word that you then have to look up, which in turn refers you
yet another unfamiliar term and so on. Post-modern culture enjoyed this
play with signs of never-ending reference, where the more you played the
less anyone seemed to know what reality it was touching, as they perhaps
once imagined they had. The theory of postmodernism was that these types
of process and strategy had also reached mass culture in epidemic proportions,
such that we had all lost touch with what we thought reality to be. With
Cindy Sherman, the fact that she appeared in her own pictures, albeit
always as ‘someone else’, meant that there was nevertheless
a clear rule for the game, that the pictures were always anchored, as
it were, to her (even if we could never know who she ‘really was’).
But the fear about postmodern culture was that there was no longer any
anchor to reality at all, that ‘reality’ had disappeared into
an endless chain of other representations.
For the Marxist critics, postmodern culture was either a reflection of
changes in the economic system of capitalism (Frederic Jameson) or a conspiracy
by semioticians and poststructuralists to avoid real class politics. (Jean
Baudrillard’s writings obviously cut across those tendencies with
his own ‘postmodern’ strategies of writing, so that we do
not know ‘what he really thinks’.) For the cultural conservatives,
postmodern culture was also destroying the important distinctions within
society about what was good culture (classical music, theatre, painting,
novels) and what was not (pop, television, photography and video, tabloids
and celebrity magazines). Even the implicitly accepted institutional values
of advertising appeared to be breached when companies like Benetton in
the early 1990s started to buy serious photojournalist photographs of
political events to use as tragedy images on their advertising billboards.
The ‘lack of sincerity’ that was already institutionalized
in advertising imagery (except in charities) meant that Benetton had suspiciously
broken with the assumed expectations of audiences and their tacit complicity
with the rules and values of advertising in general.
There are many such examples across culture, where the accepted values
about photography in an institution are breached by what I would call
‘genre-switching’, where one genre of photography is switched
for another one (usually a genre regarded as most irrelevant, indifferent
or ethically opposite to that institution) to pull the rug out from under
the viewers feet. This type of traffic in visual codes between and across
institutions was read as the cause (and symptom) of a spiraling instability
of meanings across those institutions which mediate the world to us.
The examples I have given and many others were only the tip of a larger
iceberg. Increasingly, it seemed, this postmodern culture was leaving
behind ‘reality’ proper for a mediatized world. That is to
say, postmodern culture was characterized as an environment of frenzied
inter-textual reference, now epitomised by the www, where you
can spend days without ever returning to where you started. Where what
you experience and see reported there are things that can be as real or
as meaningful as you choose (or not) to believe. Whether or not such claims
were exaggerated have never been resolved, since the argument over them
has long since disappeared along with the notion of postmodernism itself
(and optimism about cyberculture).
What has happened in photography theory, criticism and practice then?
Has postmodernism been replaced with, if anything, something else? Has
the enjoyment of photographic artifice dwindled? Has the tendency to explicitly
refer to other media texts disappeared? Has genre switching vanished?
Are those postmodern strategies, issues and attitudes still valid? If
art has been a crucial site for such debates we might, symptomatically,
© Walker Evans, Interior Detail,
West Virginia, Coal Miner’s House, 1935.
Lets start with a local instance: the major first photography exhibition
in 2003 at the Tate Modern in London called Cruel and Tender,
with a sub-title, the Real in the Twentieth Century. Basically,
the exhibition demonstrated two key strands of art photography, one German
emanating from August Sander, the other American Walker Evans (a few English,
European and African photographers were also included to balance the books).
What both these ‘origins’ and most of the other works in the
exhibition had in common is, despite their particular differences,
a concern with descriptive photography. It is thus Walker Evans who was
really at the centre of the exhibition, not only because he admired and
borrowed from August Sander (his composition and editing techniques),
but because Evans’s work encompasses the breadth and range of most
of the other subsequent types of photography in the exhibition. Walker
Evans (1903-1975) photographs are not only descriptive, they are also
eclectic in style and subject matter. Look across his photographs
and you can see an insistent interest on the everyday, the ‘vernacular’,
the ordinary things in life that epitomise existence; shop fronts, shoes,
signs and so on. Having visited Paris in 1926-27 and being fluent in French,
Evans absorbed the cult habits of the street observer, the flaneur,
wandering on a whim, a practice that he took back to the USA and incorporated
into his own ‘brutal’ type of photography. What interested
Walker Evans, he once confessed to himself in 1935, was something, ‘a
little bit shocking; brutal’. Always using a slightly harsh light,
which gives harshness to the objects in it, Evans’s photography
suggests a kind of inner harshness to reality. Whatever it is, people,
buildings, spaces, objects, words or any combination of these, he photographed
them in a ‘cruel and tender’ manner. Indeed, the main title
Cruel and Tender was borrowed from a 1938 review of Walker Evans
photographs. Thus, in the exhibition, Walker Evans stood as a kind of
prototype or template model photographer for the more contemporary descriptive
photographer, like Andreas Gursky, seen in the exhibition.
In a 1987 interview the key art theorist usually cited in debates on modernism,
Clement Greenberg, was challenged by a member of the audience to qualify
his earlier seminal (modernist) views on art photography. Greenberg admitted
he never figured out what it is that made a good photograph (the technique,
the subject, the process, etc), but, reiterating his views written in
1946, he still prefers Walker Evans photography over Edward Weston. He
preferred Evans because his work grasps an ‘instantaneity’,
unlike Weston whose work for Greenberg lacked interest in subject matter
and ‘concentrated too much of his interest on his medium.’
We find, strangely, that the thesis of a contemporary exhibition at the
Tate Modern also supports Clement Greenberg’s taste for art photography.
Both choose Walker Evans as a key reference figure for contemporary art
photography. Whether or not this indicates a return of the values of modernism
(the straight and pure photograph) to contemporary art photography, this
is a return to description, originality and actuality
- precisely all the things that were strongly rejected by postmodernism.
The photographs by Walker Evans and much of the work in the Cruel
and Tender exhibition brings us to a renewed interest in expressive
realism. The photographs by Walker Evans are, as Greenberg remarks, ‘anecdotal',
they describe. We might say they are cruel anecdotes, but that is to exaggerate
their affect on us today. Yet I think there is something in that exhibition
that is indicative of what is emerging to replace the problematics of
postmodernism. Let me try and give an example of what I mean.
© Andreas Gursky. 99 Cent. 1999.
Each Walker Evans photograph, no matter how fabulous, is usually presented
within a series as a ‘poignant’ part of the whole. Every image
contributes to an accumulating evidence of life ‘itself’.
Of course the conventions of photographic realism have developed since
the time of Walker Evans and so have the technological means of producing
it. Andreas Gursky’s large scale photographs were simply impossible
to produce when Walker Evans started photography. Yet the same structure
of description operates across them, despite all the technological and
social historical differences with Evans and others. What they both share
(with different techniques of course) is an ‘awesome’ description.
The effects of these anecdotal descriptions is primarily to evince reality
though the photographic instant of ‘here it is’ and ‘this
is how it is’. The picture throws at the audience a defiant description
where the accumulation of anecdotal detail actually inhibits the communication
of a specific message. Indeed, emphasis on description is itself an age
old rhetorical device, developed in a photographic discourse. ‘Description’
in a legal or even poetic sense of literature emits a kind of presence
of reality and it is hardly different in photography. Descriptive photographs
work in a similar way. Like someone who speaks and describes something
endlessly, in either a boring or interesting manner, they force insistently
the presence of the thing described onto their audience. What you take
away from the descriptive picture, what it does to you, is not so much
a specific message, but rather contemplation without meaning.
This is different from the culture of postmodernism. The postmodern culture
of frenetic mixing and semiotic activism meant that meaning was crucial.
This has itself faded and the ‘what was here’, the ‘presence’
gained in contemplation of the photograph is returning to a primary place.
In place of a ‘fast’ surface culture, a slower culture, more
concerned with effect and display has emerged and not just in the visual
arts. Take the television programme Big Brother as example: who
would have imagined that there could be huge audiences – millions
- watching a group of young volunteers trapped within a totalitarian environment
in a quasi-psychology experiment. A cruel and tender spectacle indeed.
The whole construction of a reality for the cameras is so it
can display and describe it, to insist on its reality through realism.
No reality without representation is certainly true here. The spectator
languishes in the long descriptions of ordinary lives, the endless insignificant
events and anecdotes. The main function of the filming is not ‘character
assassination’, but to produce a reality as though this is ‘as
it really is’, to make reality certain through realism
and without interrogating it. The more an audience watches, and this is
one of the features of such productions, time for contemplation,
the more the anecdotes and detailed descriptions of the actions of people
become real. This phenomena of descriptive photography and television
may well also account for the recent interest in cruelty. Cruelty is certainly
a topic on people’s minds. It is not only Susan Sontag’s book
Regarding the Pain of Others (more obviously related to a set
of political/ethical issues), that asks questions about what photographs
do to their audiences. Questions about what pictures do to their audiences
need to be asked and this is what photography criticism and theory needs
to ask too. The turn in contemporary culture away from postmodernism is
towards representational rules of certainty and a newer kind of ‘neo-realism’.
Is it perhaps the effects of this realism that are now being experienced
by spectators as cruelty inflicted upon them and which we can do nothing
David Bate makes photographic work and lives in London where he also
Course Director of the MA Photographic Studies at the University of Westminster.
His book Photography and Surrealism was published by IB Tauris
(London) in 2004. His photography is shown at www.daniellearnaud.com.