The relative aestetics of photography

Text by Razvan Ion and Eugen Radescu

The easiest accessible example related to artwork and relativism is the expression “the art of beauty” and “beauty” itself. Beauty is the essence of aesthetic relativism, as well as the concept of ugliness. Who makes such a statement? Is it not an incorporation of a personal system of reference into a private aesthetic code? Is it not the aesthetic relationship of a personal relationship between viewer and artwork, the object itself?

Apparently, the photograph is the one providing the evidence, being into a more obvious relationship with the outside reality than other mimetic objects. Conceptually speaking though, photography sets forth issues of reference as valid as any other work of art. The environment, in which the art object, namely the photograph, is presented, provides the relativity of appreciation of an artwork. If it takes place in a gallery the result is spectacular. Most of the viewers, influenced by the opinion of critics and curators, will probably speak about the artist’s genius. The opinion of the viewer is ‘perverted’. If we show an insignificant work of a known author on the street, it loses value from its display and becomes irrelevant. This statement can become an inference: any work of art has the meaning we confer upon it (whether we like it or not); the environment/gallery where it is presented becomes a necessary condition for us to confer this meaning, to apply an aesthetic judgment. If there is no display environment, the work of art has no meaning. The subjective acknowledgement of a work of art leads to confirming a personal aesthetic, a playful judgment, personal taste, all those being subjective matters. “Taste is the faculty of judging and appreciating an object or a mode of representation by satisfaction or displeasure, independent of any interest. Beauty is the object of such satisfaction”1. The act of appreciation is essentially an illusion. The world validates real beliefs, and the viewer determines the artwork. One can observe the center of aesthetic reflection during centuries and describe a fluctuation of the system of reference depending on the studied period.

Another example is the portrait. A person is as difficult to photograph, as it is to analyze. To capture the phantom twin becomes a premonition, relative knowledge, thus the subjective image shown is at the mercy of the viewer. Is a portrait a pragmatic act? We cannot state that the portrait boils down to an act of reduction, projective from a physical point of view. The image has to symbolically incorporate the phantom twin; the objective aspect underlying the image, an attempt that often fails. The most perplex artistic exercise is to reproduce identity, it being in fact a replication of the artist’s identity and not of the subject, a projection of a personal, implicitly subjective, point of view. The feelings of the artist have to be rendered at the same emotional amplitude. But the artwork is relative, but relative to his or her own person.

Isn’t photographic language the name that we give to a visual form of subjective expression considered real and perceived subjectively? Famous artists are erroneously judged by means of an apparent aesthetic of color, shape, and technical performance. The substantiality of the message is lost to the viewer forced by the explicitly shown “beauty” (in the case of exclusively “aesthetic” artists) or unconsciously (influenced by a certain attraction for the appearance of reality). Interpretation considers that the sensorial experience of the artwork is underlying and is based on this premise. The task of the viewer is to reduce the content in order to discover the essence. The task of the author is to diminish the subjective impact of the artwork in order to reveal the content.

If beauty is the content of the subjective appreciation itself, aesthetics, regarded until the present moment as the science of beauty, cannot be such a science, because there is no study or science having as an object that does not have an objective existence. Can there be a universal objective code according to which all options, feelings and opinions of a viewer of artwork are referenced? It would be an ‘objectivation of the viewing subject’. How valid can such an objective code be? It would only permit us to see what exists and how a certain work of art is, but it cannot impose us to analyze what a work of art essentially is. An object is aesthetic as long as it causes an aesthetic appreciation. The appreciation of a work of art, namely a photograph, is a consequence of my personal perception, of the connection that is established between me - the viewer - and it - the work of art, and not the intrinsic purpose of the work of art. I do not look at a photograph so that I like or dislike it, but I like or dislike a photograph because I see it, I perceive it and I can pronounce a judgment about it. The judgment is related to my personal system of values.

If an excessive stress on content gives birth to an arrogance of interpretation, a more extended and detailed description of form can lead to silence. The best critique, not often encountered, is the one that dissolves the observations on content in the ones on form. The function of critique should thus be to show us how something that is really is and that it is what it is, rather then showing us what it means.”2
Its passing into the arts has altered the descriptive function of photography. I don’t believe that it had an exclusively descriptive function not even a century ago, because someone could offer ‘a priori’, the conditions of a descriptive activity he or she would be offering as apodictic truths.

Photography works according to the principle of the relativity of human creation, it is strongly anchored in context and represents a point of view, as many other possible ones.
Text first published in ionone art /2003

Gérard Genette, L’œuvre de l’art. 2 La relation estétique, Editions du Seuil, 1997. 2 Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

1. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, Dell Publishing Co. Inc., 1981.
2. Gérard Genette, L’œuvre de l’art. 2 La relation estétique, Editions du Seuil, 1997.
3. Walter Benjamin, Iluminationen - Ausgewählte Schriften 1, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1955
4. Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, Philosophical Papers I, Cambridge University Press, 1991
5. Jean Baudrillard, Le paroxiste indifférent - entretiens avec Philippe Petit, Grasset, Paris 1997.

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