With reference to the term ‘neo-avant-garde’ :


“A number of art historians and critics have used this term to characterize the work of artists, like Beuys, who appropriated early-twentieth-century artistic strategies initially developed by Dada, constructivist, and surrealist artists in order to partially negate the aesthetic object and thus empower their audiences. Often the term carries pejorative connotations, suggesting, as it does, that the recycled strategies employed by the neo-avant-garde artists pro- duce none of the critical and destabilizing effects characteristic of the “original” negations carried out by the artists of the historical avant-garde, the Dada, constructivist, and surrealist producers who wished to end the production and consumption of art as a specialized practice separate from the course of everyday life. Instead, in the hands of neo-avant-garde artists, recycled art-negating gestures become simple means of making seemingly new instances of contemporary art, products that do not seek to overturn the institution of modern art as a specialized sphere focused on its own history and means of expression, but rather that continue modern art’s traditional function as a privileged and fetishized commodity within the capitalist market economy.” 


- Matthew Biro, 2003. Representation – Event : Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys, and the Memory of the Holocaust

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Understanding and Australian Indigenous Art

Near the close of her essay, Jennifer Biddle writes, “…if there is one thing pursued in the material methods of Central Desert painting, it is the recognition of irreducible difference.” (Biddle 29) This statement can arguably be extended across all Australian Indigenous Art. Although, at first this might seem like something of a large generalisation, it can however, be seen as a common thread that runs across a diverse scope of Indigenous art, from contemporary artists’ work such as Vernon Ah Kee and the Lockhart River youth movement to work considered to be more ‘traditional’ such as Central Desert painting. All of the artists mentioned here deal with exploring the irreducible difference that they experience as Indigenous Australians.

This irreducible difference is not only a ‘quality’ or an ‘experience’ that is specific to Indigenous people. It is this irreducible difference that keeps their culture alive. The constant renegotiation of the ‘business of tradition’ reinforces their culture, which functions through differentiation as opposed to equality[1]. 

This understanding may seem confusing without first explaining the ‘business of tradition’ and how and why it is negotiated. The ‘business of tradition’ is perhaps referred to as a business because it involves an exchange, specifically an exchange of traditional knowledge; for example, knowledge of Dreamings, country, rituals and ceremonies. Knowledge is not freely available within Indigenous cultures (Biddle 27). Speech, painting or writing about something needs to be witnessed – checked with someone who possesses the appropriate knowledge (Biddle 27). This causes the members of an indigenous community to be in constant negotiation of past, present and future knowledge of traditions. All Indigenous concepts are difficult if not impossible to exemplify through the system of western language. Despite this, the ‘business of tradition’ can be grasped somewhat by the too simple an explanation given above.

To elaborate and exemplify the ‘business of tradition’ it is useful to also understand the Indigenous concept of country. The concept of country or ‘painting country’ is described vividly in Ross Gibson’s The Imagining, as a “…a lively thing always under negotiation.” (Gibson15).  It is unlike a European understanding of country that involves an ‘empty’ or ‘occupied’ understanding of a space–e.g. terra nullius. An Indigenous understanding of country is entirely different to that of a western understanding. Country is here, is not simply something that can be occupied, but something intrinsic to life. It can “…offer life to any human beings who are attentive enough to earn it.” (Gibson 18).

Pauline Sunfly Nangala’s Wilkinkarra (2007) is a painting that can be understood as ‘painting country.’ It is not a depiction of a picturesque and abstract scene (Gibson, 15), but a representation of country that has been depicted ingenuitively by the artist. Shape, form and colour have been used in a new way relative to the specific country referred to in the painting, and this is meant to produce a platform for analysis and thought. It posits a potential opening for an economy of knowledge. How did Nangala understand her country as bold shapes of orange outlined with black lines? This is a question that anyone can ask of the painting. In this way and in the way that Gibson describes, this means that painting country is relative to the past, present and future. This is because it asks question that cause the renegotiation of knowledge, and more importantly the process of the painting would cause Nagala to enter into the negotiation of knowledge with others who possess the appropriate knowledge (e.g. elders). Nagala would have to seek the counsel or witness of someone with the appropriate knowledge in order to paint as the practise of painting – that is who paints what and how it is don’t – is heavily regulated (Biddle 26). This is the negotiation of knowledge that is the ‘business of tradition.’

Another, perhaps more vivid example of a painting country is Doreen Reid Nakamarra’s Untitled (Marrapinti) 2008, which was on display as a part of the Gallery of Modern Art’s Across Country: five years of Australian Indigenous Art from the collection. The painting was displayed flat on a plinth as opposed to being hung on a wall. The size of the painting along with the dots that make up the surface appears to shimmer between peaks of sand in a desert, which allows the mind to wander in across its surface as it would a desert landscape. The flatness of the painting literally causes spectators to gather around it in a formation that encourages interaction. As a spectator, one faces others across the painting. This is both a literate and figurative representation of how painting functions in indigenous culture. It calls for the negotiation of knowledge.

To take this further, Gibson describes the paintings as not only figurative maps of country but “ tracts of moral philosophy suffused with the natural sciences.” (Gibson 15) The word ‘tract’ is specifically revealing, as it not only refers to an expanse of land or water, but also to a system of organs and tissues that function together. This exemplifies also the interconnectedness of painting, the ‘business of tradition’ and country. The painting exists as both a geographical reference, but also as part of a system of organs that functions together allowing for life. Painting here, allows for the continuation knowledge through the ‘business of tradition’ and therefore, the maintenance of Indigenous culture. This is another way of explaining how the irreducible difference in the hierarchy of Indigenous cultural knowledge separates and allows for Indigenous culture to survive. 

The ‘business of tradition’ in the way it is described above, does not seem evident in the work of contemporary Indigenous artists who don’t use their materials in a traditional manner. For example, the Lockhart River Youth movement of the 1990s took place after non-Indigenous artists took up residencies in Indigenous schools (Butler 92). The art that came about as a result of the influences of the artists in residence produced a non-traditional approach to Indigenous art-making. Whilst the art produced didn’t involve traditional methods, it still took up as its subject the irreducible difference felt by the artists as Indigenous people. Samantha Hobson’s Flying over the Reef (2001) can be likened to Central Desert painting by way of depicting an aerial view of country. However, the techniques used are not traditional. It arguably can still however, evoke the same negotiation of knowledge about country that Nakamarra’s desert abstract does.

Vernon Ah Kee’s work cannot be placed within this same system of understanding. Vernon Ah Kee’s Unwritten Installation(2008) is an example of Ah Kee’s work that does not deal with the notions of country or traditional knowledge in ways similar to the works described above. The work does, however, deal with the idea of irreducible difference in that it places the audience in a position where they are forcibly confronted with this difference, which has been undermined throughout history. The white space in Unwritten is like a thick but transparent surface against which the black faces struggle to rise to a point where they come into view. As a non-Indigenous spectator, a feeling of empty familiarity about the faces occurs where the faces are recognisable as indigenous, yet not familiar.  What Ah Kee’s work is doing is exposing the differences of Indigenousness and non-Indigenousness and in doing so, bringing his culture to light. The work is, in the same way as the works above, asking for witness of difference.

The western value of equality is deeply seeded in all walks of western culture and understanding. Biddle highlights that it is most evident in the basic structure of our language (Biddle 26). Our language and literacy is one that requires an alphabetisation that levels out the differences in foreign languages, allowing us to understand them within our own systems of thinking. Similarly, Ian Mclean’s Aboriginal art and the art world, berates the western art world for being a latecomer to the appreciation of Indigenous art (Mclean 22). What is overlooked in Mclean’s essay is the reason as to why the wester art world could finally ‘discover’ indigenous art; because it was finally able to find a way of placing it within its western understanding of art. What are missing here, and what Indigenous art tries to reconcile, is the acknowledgement of difference rather than an ‘understanding’ from a western point of view. Some even argue that an understanding is unreachable from a western viewpoint (Michaels 73). An acknowledgement of difference as opposed to an understanding has the ability to allow Indigenous culture to exist along with Western culture, as it does not involve the assimilation that occurs with understanding from a western point of view.


[1] “Differential rights operate, not assumed equality, and these rights authorise any inscriptive act. “(Biddle 27)

 

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Indigenous Australian Art and the Artworld

Australian Indigenous art – Aboriginal art – before the 1980s was not a part of an artworld prerogative. Aboriginal artists were not making ‘art’ for the same reasons that non-Aboriginal artists were. Art was created by Aboriginal people within the framework of their culture and subsequently, could not be understood as a part of the western idea of an ‘artworld.’ Ian Mclean’s How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art: writings on Aboriginal art, in particular in his essay Aboriginal art and the artworld, proposes that Australian Indigenous art is ‘always already’ postmodern. This proposition that Mclean makes puts forward the idea that Aboriginal art invented the idea of contemporary art.  This idea does not claim so much as assume that Aboriginal art was somehow ahead of its time, so much so that it invented the western idea of contemporary art before western art had itself invented it. Here, it is argued that it was not Aboriginal art that invented contemporary art, but western art historians, and anthropologists – including Mclean – that invented ‘Aboriginal art’, transforming it into something that could be understood within the framework of contemporary art and therefore, the western artworld.

 

Figure 1: Charlie Tjaruru Tjungurrayi, 'Natjula' 2003. Synthetic Polymer paint on canvas 183x155cm

Despite Aboriginal people comprising less than 1.7 per cent of the Australian population, it is estimated that there are as many Aboriginal artists as non-Aboriginal artists practising in Australia (Mclean 2011, 17). This figure at first seems staggering. Why this is the case can be explained perhaps by the motivation behind the majority of Aboriginal artists’ work. For Aboriginal artists, creating art keeps their culture alive by reinforcing their cultural values and creating respect and understanding from non-Aborigines (Mclean 2011, 20). To take this further, art – or more precisely, art making – preserves knowledge, and knowledge is life within Aboriginal culture. Take for example, the painting of Pintupi artist, Charlie Tjaruru Tjungurrayi, whose paintings can be seen to bear much resemblance to aerial views of specific parts of his country. They function in one way as a way of preserving the life giving knowledge as to the location of water holes in the desert. The act of creating his work, for Tjungurrayi is not only to record such information, but also to cause it to manifest itself again.

The concept of ‘art’ is a western concept. In this way Aboriginal ‘art’ “…was made for us and is meant for us (the fact that Aboriginal ‘art’ is only a Western invention)” (Butler 2010, 231). The majority of non-Aboriginal artists create works within – even if only to contest – the framework of the western artworld. The prerogative of the artworld and how art is known and meant to function, is present for the artist and the audience from the beginning. For Aboriginal art, it was not; theirs was not an ‘art’ as we know it – it was an intrinsic part of life, and its purpose was not for the culture of the artworld but for Aboriginal culture. Artist Richard Bell’s work makes this point (among many others) in his Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) (2003).

Richard Bell’s work, in particular Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem) (2003), can be understood as revealing the dynamic and underlying function of Aboriginal art. The text in the work is obscured by colours and lines, or further still, the signs of ‘art’ as the western artworld understands them to be. The first point of understanding is the text; its message is that Aboriginal ‘art’ as an idea is a white or western idea. Richard Bell’s work as an artist is dependent on and testament to the idea that the western artworld has created Aboriginal ‘art.’

Ian Mclean wrote ”… [that] the artworld itself was not converted until the late 1980s.” (Mclean 2011, 18). What is interesting about this statement is the word ‘converted.’ The wording here has almost religious connotations, suggesting that someone can become a ‘convert’ of Aboriginal art. Was it the artworld that was converted or was Aboriginal ‘art’ converted into something that could be understood within the context of a western artworld?

Something that is striking from the very beginning of the book, in the editors notes and right throughout, is the separation of the ‘worlds’ of ‘Aboriginal’ and the ‘artworld’. The book goes on, in the essay titled Aboriginal art and the Artworld, to specify when the artworld finally recognised Aboriginal art. It is said that “… A considerable number of individuals in the artworld had been interested in Aboriginal art since the mid-twentieth century, but the artworld itself was not converted until the late 1980s.” (Mclean 2011, 18) It can be proposed, and is perhaps more understandable, that Aboriginal art was not simply recognised, but canonised or transformed into something that could take part in the western artworld. It was the writing of anthropologists and art historians made a place for Aboriginal art in the artworld.

Ian Mclean also suggests that “European modernity built its legitimacy on a civilising mission in which peasant and indigenous cultures were retired as primitivist relics of anachronistic worlds…’ (Mclean 2011, 18). From an art historical standpoint, with an understanding of modernism and postmodernism from writers such as Greenberg and Jameson, modernity as an art movement was built exclusively on the limitations of its ‘mediums’ – wholly internal concepts: i.e. Painting. Modernism heralds a universal idea of ‘good’ art that comes entirely from the artworld itself. The art of indigenous cultures could not be understood yet within a western artworld framework – hence it was not prominent. The quote above assumes that Aboriginal art, like Modernist art, was made for the artworld and was, suggestively out of ignorance, strangely excluded. The “old hegemonic model of colonising modernism does not explain the triumph of Aboriginal contemporary art’”(Mclean 201118-19) because at the time, it had no way of comprehending it as part of an ‘artworld culture.’

Mclean’s description of the artworld pre-conversion to Aboriginal art as negative and ignorant is revealed in his position towards comments made between art critics Adrian Searle and Antonia Carver. Mclean writes:

“For example, in 1997 the British critic Adrian Searle concluded a review of an Aboriginal art exhibition with the apology: ‘I don’t know how to read these images, except to say that they are beautiful, sensual, sensitive and so on.’ Antonia Carver astutely commented: ‘For most other artists, these kind of adjectives would suffice’, but Aboriginal art demands something more, and most critics know it.” (Mclean 2011, 20)

Adrian Searle clearly did not know how to talk about Aboriginal art within the framework of the western artworld vocabulary. Antonia Carver’s comment does not specify what it is that is that ‘something more’ that most critics know Aboriginal art demands. What she might have meant was that Aboriginal art needs more in the way that it ‘demands’ – or from a western artworld standpoint ‘demands’ – a way to think, speak and describe Aboriginal art so that it can be comprehensible to the western artworld. Perhaps this is also why such adjectives of beautiful, sensual, sensitive and so on hold for ‘most other artists’ -the majority or western artworld artists and not for Aboriginal artists; because these terms are western and therefore ‘suffice’ in describing western works. The underlying answer to what that ‘something more’ that Carver describes is, is that the western art critic who wants to ‘critique’ Aboriginal ‘art’ has to first invent a place to critique it from.

This is, of course, the way with anything new that is presented to the artworld. Take for example; Frederick Jameson’s essay Postmodern and Consumer Society. The essay is essentially trying to propose a framework that can make sense of the new developments at the time in art that were recognised by Jameson. On the whole, postmodernism according to Jameson is characterised by effacement, loss and destruction, and is therefore described in a negative light. This negativity is echoed perhaps by Mclean in his writing about the ignorance of the artworld towards Aboriginal art. The reason for Jameson’s negative point of view could stem from his position as an academic, who would be concerned with being able to be critical of the arts and able to make judgements as to their importance and quality. If within postmodernism, as proposed by Jameson, the boundaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture have been collapsed entirely, Jameson is faced with the problem of how he is supposed to be critical of something without a higher ground from which to criticise it. This can be seen as similar to why Mclean considers the artworld pre 1980 to be unenlightened and ignorant: because the artworld had not yet developed a way to talk about Aboriginal art as ‘art.’ This is perhaps the similarity between Aboriginal art and Postmodernism that is proposed by the system of thinking presented in this essay – Aboriginal art pre 1980 shares the same lack of recognisable boundaries as ‘new’ postmodernism did, subsequently neither art presented a place from where the artworld could criticise or understand it from. 

The essay Aboriginal art and the artworld by Mclean seems less about the reason for Aboriginal art beginning to have a prevalence in contemporary art and more about the western artworld’s struggle to find a comprehensible place for it within its own culture. This may seem contradictory to Mclean as he states on several occasions that the purpose of the book was to address why “…Aboriginal art suddenly [gained] prominence as contemporary art in the Australian artworld…[and how] Aboriginal aesthetic expressions [became] an integral part of contemporary art.” (Mclean 2011, 27) Mclean’s descriptions of the rise of Aboriginal art seem to reveal, unconsciously, that the reason was in fact because Aboriginal art was able to be contextualised into an artworld framework.

In the same book as Mclean’s essay Aboriginal art and the artworld is an essay by Rex Butler: The impossibility of an Aboriginal art criticism. Although the purpose of Butler’s essay was to give reason as to the impossibility of Aboriginal art criticism from a psychoanalytical standpoint, it also can be seen as exemplifying how Aboriginal ‘art’ is positioned in a certain way by western writers in order for it to be comprehensible in an artworld context. Butler writes using the work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye as an example of the impossibility of describing Kngwarreye’s work with a western art criticism vocabulary.

Figure 3: Emily Kame Kngwarreye Untitled (Alhalkere) 2002. Synthetic polymer paints of canvas 16.5 x 48m

Looking at the painting above, it is not hard to see how the western art criticism vocabulary can be readily applied to Kngwarreye’s work. From an ‘abstract art’ understanding, terms such as coherence ring true in the balance of the pink hues with the ochre hues spatially across the canvas. Butler proposes that such an understanding in western terms testifies to the idea that “all of these [western terms] are only an ‘illusion’ brought about by the failure of our own critical language, a sort of mirage or false ‘beyond’ reduced by its self-contradiction and turning upon itself in its encounter with the work.” (Butler 2010, 230). This understanding of Kngwarreye’s work would have readers think that Kngwarreye’s paintings represent a freedom from the system of thinking that is the western artworld – it is only abstract art as far as it is made to be so by the application of relevant western descriptive terms. As mentioned briefly at the beginning of this essay, art that is understood as a challenge or a destruction of the ‘system’ of the artworld only testifies to the existence of the very same system that it is trying to contest or destroy. For example, it is impossible to destroy something that does not exist. Further still, and as another example, if Aboriginal culture does not recognise the split between the mind and the body, and man and nature, then how would it be possible to conceive of an ‘other’ within an Aboriginal context.

With this being said, all of the points mentioned in the above paragraph are also, however, just additional failed descriptions - additions to the pile of western-based understandings of Aboriginal ‘art’. They are limited descriptions and limited understandings, relevant to the western and artworld but perhaps to no one else. These kinds of understandings of Aboriginal art do not broaden horizons of knowledge, but add on to the stream of western thinking that is already known to the artworld. This re-contextualisation is even true of Butler’s understanding, where “… thinking that at once that all of our available critical terms fail and that there are no others, that no matter how far we shift our conceptual bases to incorporate they we will always miss it…” (Butler 2010, 230). Essentially, the mark will always be missed – or just not entirely ‘hit’ – when looking out at Aboriginal work from a western understanding. 

If we are only to ever look at the world through our own understanding then we can never expect our horizons of understanding to be broadened. The gaining of knowledge is the understanding of something new. The point of this essay is not to suggest that there is a correct or incorrect way of comprehending or appreciating Aboriginal art. This essay does, however, suggest that Aboriginal art provides an opportunity for entirely new knowledge – an opportunity to be able to think of understanding the world from an entirely new perspective and the opportunity to gain an understanding of another culture. To focus on the questions of whether or not Aboriginal art is ‘cotemporary’ or ‘already postmodern’ is to overlook this opportunity. Ian Mclean’s claim is arguably valid – from a western artworld understanding Aboriginal art can be contextualised as ‘postmodern art’ or ‘contemporary art.’ This claim however, is almost already irrelevant. This is because the question as to whether or not Aboriginal art invented the idea of contemporary art assumes the viewpoint that Aboriginal art was always able to be contextualised into this question. The question itself provides the answer given in this essay, that Aboriginal ‘art’ can be invented into inventing the idea of contemporary art.  

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'Paris, Texas' and from the point of view of why a letter always arrives at its destination (Zizek)

Travis is lost because he cannot see himself if he does not first know what he is looking for. Travis, from the viewpoint of Zizek in Why Does a Letter Always Arrive at Its Destination? could be seen as here confronting the Real as Zizek would have it. Travis is encountering himself without mediation – he is encountering his Real self, and “…when we [Really] encounter ourselves, we encounter death” (Zizek, 1992 pg. 21). Baudrillard poetically describes this experience as

 “… the place of disenchantment par excellence, the place of a simulacrum of accumulation against death… a single moment without the fascination that supports them, and which comes to them precisely from the inverse mirror where they are reflected, from their continual reversion, from the apparent and imminent jouissance of their catastrophe.” (Baudrillard, pg.203-4)

The moment described here is Travis’ absence from himself and his death.

To go further in the connection of Travis with Zizek, the letter arrives for Travis, symbolically. His fears of loosing Jane – experiencing again the breaking of his family – and being left alone, manifest themselves through symbolical debt. Travis is trying to create once again the family that was broken from him when he was a child. His purchasing of the land Paris, in Texas, where he was conceived, and his attachment to Jane demonstrates this. And, in his realising that his family is again broken, in the letter that arrives for Travis, he is consumed (Zizek, 1992 pg. 21). He is faced with the empty, unreflective surface of the Real and he is lost. 

The question that is answered here is also why Travis chose not to re-join with his family. He can no longer re-join with his family because he has received the letter that has emptied it of meaning and purpose for him: he loves not Jane or Hunter, but space that they fill in a place that was before empty. Further still he himself is emptied of meaning. His family can no longer occupy the space that is Travis’ surface for his reflection.

The questions that are left here concern what is necessary for two people in love to continue to ’reflect’ upon each other; what are the limitations of this proposed understanding of love? Within this system of understanding, such answers might propose that there needs to be both an acceptance of the dependence that occurs between two partners, as well as a balancing of that dependence. If Travis were able to remain – despite becoming Jane – instrumental to Jane in her comprehension of herself, then perhaps their destruction would not have come about.

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Realism and Spirituality in Film

Reality and spirituality are two concepts often held on opposite ends of a spectrum. Spirituality exists as a belief held through having faith or hope; it exists beyond the plane of reality. However, It is in this way that the two concepts can be seen to overlap; a spiritual belief is only able to become manifest through being able to look upon reality from a higher place. The arts and their representation of things that are spiritual – take for example the religious paintings of the renaissance – can be understood as attempting to inspire faith by creating a realistic representation of something spiritual through means similar to the human gaze. The accurate depictions of religious scenes by Leonardo da Vinci, for example, allow a connection to be made between something spiritual and ‘reality’ as we know it. These representations allow us to comprehend places for things outside of reality within our understanding of it. 

The developments in technology that allowed for the invention of photography and cinema allowed for this connection between the image and reality to be strengthened tenfold, as the functionality of the camera only further emulated the workings of human perception. Therefore, making it easier for realistic - and therefore, believable - representations of things outside reality to be created.
André Bazin’s understanding of Realism and cinema allows for further exploration of the proposal that reality and spirituality can be understood as facilitating one another by means of the image – specifically exemplified here through the medium of film.
It is first necessary to understand what constitutes Realism as a style of representation before explaining its connection to spirituality.

The first essay by André Bazin in the book What is Cinema? (Volume I) is The Otology of the Photographic Image. This essay provides the foundations for understanding Bazin’s ‘Realism.’ Bazin begins by suggesting that the images of the world as created by the plastic arts – mediums and art forms that require the presence of a person in order to be created – preserve the ‘real.’ More simply put, Bazin proposed that images of the world in art that endeavor to represent the world as it is seen by the human eye preserve our belief of what is or has been real.

The ‘plastic art’ of painting, for example, along with the developments of perspective, allowed for accurate representations of the world as seen by the eye. Yet the plastics arts can still be seen to “… cast a shadow of doubt over the [images]” (Bazin, pg.12, 1967) presented to us as reality. This is due to the intervention of the human hand, which is required by painting and the plastic arts. Furthermore, paintings in themselves do not provide sufficient proof to sustain the belief that the person in a portrait actually lived.
In opposition to the plastic arts, Bazin termed the medium of photography and cinema the ‘mechanical arts.’ The mechanical arts are the only mediums that are seen by Bazin to derive an advantage from the absence of human intervention (Bazin, pg.13, 1967). An unmediated photograph, for example, is in theory simply a record of light as reflected off something that once existed in the world; and for this reason photographs can be seen to be more believable as representations of reality than paintings could ever be.
Therefore, the absence of the intervention of the human hand can also be said to only make the images created through mechanical mediums closer to what can be believed as ‘real’[1]. For example, a painting would cease to exist without human intervention. Human intervention, here, is then the very thing that challenges the reality of the reproduction of an image; an extremely ‘lifelike’ painting could be entirely fabricated and have not been created in the image of anything within the world.

It is also in The Ontology of Photography that there is the beginning of a connection found between the ‘real’ and the spiritual, more specifically, Realism and spirituality. This relation between reality and spirituality comes about through the process of death and the passing of time and their subsequent implications on our faith in what was once, but is not now, reality. Bazin suggests “…all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death.” (Bazin, pg.10, 1967). The spiritual death that is being referred to here is the absence of faith that something was once ‘real.’ This spiritual death is prevented through the ‘realist’ arts, and more effectively so through the mechanical arts, as they allow us to believe that the particular person, place or event represented in an image actually existed.
Effectively, realist art can then be seen to preserve faith in things that are not able to be currently and physically manifest in the world. This is because realist art endeavours to represent reality in a way that is closest to how we would perceive something naturally in the world. The realist image can therefore, be understood as preventing the disbelief of reality by presenting something again to be taken up as a ‘belief’ that we once held faith in. The faith that is intrinsic to meaning in realist images is how an understanding of reality and spirituality overlapping begins to be plausible. Believing in something is a notion that is a part of all things spiritual.

Faith and how it manifests and is maintained can be seen in the subject matter of both Ingmar Bergman’s film Winter Light (1962)and Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). Before exploring further how Realism is interconnected with spirituality, it is necessary to properly define what constitutes a realist film according to Bazin. Bergman’s Winter’s Light can be understood as exhibiting virtues of Realism as defined by Bazin. Conversely, Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003)can be seen to exhibit virtues of representation that function in opposition to Realism.

Realism, according to Bazin, in film is best defined in Bazin’s essay The Evolution of the Language of Cinema. Bazin begins the essay by distinguishing between two kinds of cinema, specifically observed between 1920 and 1940, proposing that there are two kinds of directors, “…those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality.” (Bazin, pg.24, 1967) By “image,” Bazin is referring to the actual image presented to spectators on the screen – the screen itself is here understood similarly to the entirely constructed and artificial surface of a painting. Therefore, directors whose faith lies with the image would endeavour to create meaning through adding to the image of the screen itself – e.g. sets, props, makeup and editing techniques used for dramatic or narrative effect.  Directors who put their faith in reality can be understood as subscribing to the style of Realism, the opposite of the heavily expressionistic, mediated and manipulated style faithful to the ‘image’. Simply put, a film can be seen as being Realist if its endeavour can be understood as striving to represent the world in a manner that is as close to the world as it is humanly experienced. Subsequently, film techniques that respect the ‘real’ passage of time, depth of focus that emulates that of the human eye and editing techniques that endeavour to emulate perception as opposed to controlling it are lorded by realist directors.

Lars von Trier’s Dogville is an example of a film that does not subscribe to Realism, as Bazin would have it. There is little in the film that strives to represent its subject matter in the way that it would be seen ‘realistically.’ The set is the town of Dogville.  The town’s appearance is entirely abstract, apart from pieces of furniture. White lines drawn on an artificial surface make up the boundaries of buildings, windows, doors, and plants and even contribute to the narration of the story by specifying with writing the owner or occupier of the space. The angles of the camera do not emulate the human eye. For example, the opening shot looks down from directly above the ‘town,’ and zooms in on the top of Thomas’ head. The film almost perfectly evokes Bazin’s idea that “…[between] them, director and cameraman have converted the screen into a dramatic checkerboard, planned down to the last detail.” (Bazin, pg.34, 1967).
But it is not primarily the deliberately mediated artificiality of the set that is what makes the film unrealistic. The essential point of difference between the film and reality is the way the meaning in the film is communicated to its spectators. Meaning, as it is presented to us in the world, is not laid out in a way that confines and guides what the spectator interprets. Thoughts of others are not given away by an unseen narrator, as they are in Dogville, but shown ambiguously in the countenance of the flesh or in other ways equally as opaque. Meaning in Dogville is not transparent but crystal clear, explained in entirety.
It’s not that the film does not allow for further analysis, this is not true. Further analysis could be undertaken for example, by applying outside understandings –such as a psychoanalytical understanding – to the film. What cannot be further analysed, however, and what is unrealistic about the transfer of meaning in the film, is what the spectator is supposed to understand about what takes place in the film. This is to say that the level of ambiguity of meaning is not as it is in reality. There is no question of belief in what is happening in the film – it is constructed deliberately in this way. 

A film in contrast to this would be Bergman’s Winter Light. Almost all of the meaning within Winter Light functions through things that have their genesis in reality. Bergman does not construct the surface of what will appear on the screen in a theatrical manner. What he chooses to depict is certainly constructed in that he chose to depict one thing as opposed to another in a certain frame and light, but the difference lies in the way he does so – the Realist style. Most everything in the film – except for the sequence in which Tomas reads Märta’s letter – emulates human perception. The film – which is roughly ninety minutes long – gives spectators the feeling that they have witnessed the events of the film in roughly the same amount of time. The focus of most shots are deep, allowing for ambiguity as naturally encountered by the human gaze. The expressions of the faces on the actors do not allow for any kind of insight further than that of which an expression gives. The narrative of the film is not conveyed through montage where the “… meaning is not in the image, it is in the shadow of the image projected by montage onto the field of consciousness of the spectator.” (Bazin, pg.26, 1967) And all of these stylistic choices make Winter Light understandable as a film that endeavours to depict its contents through ways that emulate human perceptions of reality.

With the realist aesthetics of film explained, the question of how realist images connect the notions of spirituality and reality can now be properly addressed. As mentioned, but not elaborated upon in the introduction, spirituality can be achievable only through means of transcending from reality. The characters of Tomas in Winter Light and the young priest in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), known as the priest of Ambricourt, both struggle with their shared occupation. Their occupations directly involve inspiring faith in God and subsequently, their own faith. Both priests falter in their faith, experiencing doubts. In one particular scene in Winter Light, Tomas looks at the images of Christ in the décor of his church and proclaims them as ‘ridiculous images.’ The very purpose of these images, however, is to inspire the idea that what they represent is not so ridiculous. Religious images are made to inspire faith in something that is not inside of the system of reality, as humans perceive it. This is how images in art – specifically realist images – demonstrate that spirituality is linked to reality. The likeness of an image to the way we naturally perceive reality allows us to place something into our understanding of reality, to believe and have faith that something else – other than what we know – is real.

Conversely, Winter Light as a film –and arguably all realist films – functions in this same way, that is through the likeness of an image to reality whilst not being within our perceivable reality. Winter Light requires ‘belief’ in a way. Realist films in a way require their spectators to believe that the images they are seeing – which mimic that of their own way of seeing the world – have their genesis in reality. This is true at least in the way that realist films function to create meaning. We have to understand the notion of a facial expression as we encounter it in reality in order to take meaning from what is happening in the film.
In this way also, realist films can be seen to function on the premise that reality is out there, it exists and films can interact and/or react to it (Nitzan Ben-Shaul, 22). For example, from a cognitivist perspective, spectators of a realist film are “…active agents processing the projected film data out of constant awareness that the film is a reproduction rather than reality itself. “ (Nitzan Ben-Shaul, 22). This is to say, it is not that spectators believe that the events in Winter Light actually took place, but that spectators have to be able to entertain the idea in order to be involved to an extent with the film that they can derive sensical meaning from it.

All of these ideas demonstrate how reality and the realist aesthetic in art – specifically here, cinema – evokes question of faith and belief, and in turn spirituality. This bringing together of two notions that seem to be opposites, namely spirituality and reality, is not for no end. Arguably, reality and spirituality are intertwined because for the humans they have to be in a way. If one takes reality in all of its harsh and immediate banality to be what is taking place, there needs to be in place a certain level of illusory constructs that people can have faith and believe in order to create purpose for life. Reality in itself is not enough to create meaning – as has been established indirectly above.

To exemplify the purpose of reality’s tie to spirituality one can consider again the character of Tomas in Winter Light. The harsh light shed on Tomas’ face after Jonas leaves him, despite his invitations to stay, can be understood in the context that everything for Tomas in that moment is so well illuminated (too well illuminated), so much so that nothing exists beyond his very existence. Without faith, and not exclusively speaking faith in reference to a God, Tomas’ life is void of meaning and subsequently, purpose. There is no reason why Tomas would or would not follow in the actions of Jonas and commit suicide; there is no reason for him to do anything. A life without ambiguity, without mystery, holds no interest to its occupier. This idea can be seen also in Jean Baudrillard’s concept of seduction. One such analogy provided by Baudrillard relative to a life lived in total illumination and without ambiguity is the analogy of the children’s game, hide and seek.

“What a thrill to hide when you are being looked for, what a delicious fright to be uncovered, but what panic when, too well hidden, the others become discouraged after a time and abandon you…. You are forced to abandon yourself when they no longer desire you. This is hard… Nothing is more sad than having to beg for existence and to come back naked before others.” (Baudrillard, Please Follow Me, pg.108)

Tomas may as well abandon his life, as it is empty of desire, with meaning too well hidden by the harsh illumination that occurred when his faith in things beyond the emptiness of pure reality was destroyed.

At the end of Winter Light it seems as though Tomas finds faith outside of the banality of existence that is reality in the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion as it is retold to him from the perspective of Oolaf the sexton. Tomas is able to identify with the story of Jesus Christ once more, as he is able to see it within his own understanding of reality again. This is because Tomas identifies with the image of Christ because it subscribes to his understanding of reality. Bergman himself said of Tomas in Winter Light that for Tomas, “The mirror is clean. There stands a newly scoured vessel that can be filled by mercy. By a new image of God” (Sjoman, pg. 238, 1975).

Reality then, has to invoke questions of spirituality, because reality is not enough on its own – it does not provide people with a way to live. The emptiness of living in reality without beliefs and faith that in turn, create meaning in life, leads to the idea that spirituality is necessary. Spirituality can therefore be understandable as intrinsic to reality.


[1] The definition of ‘real’ here is something that has/had its genesis in the world.

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On what then to do after you have read and understood the exhausted and impenetrable horizons of Zizek/ Marx/ Freud and have no idea what the point of ‘continuing’ their work, using it, or expanding upon it would be, or what it would even mean to do so: 

“The specific concepts that Marx and Freud introduce, class and the unconscious, are not simply empirical, demonstrably either true or not, but rather challenge the very limits of scientificity. In a way, they ‘double’ what is by an undemonstrable yet irrefutable hypothesis that not only lies within the existing discursive field but also resituates it, giving all the elements within it a different meaning. As a result, these concepts are present when they appear to be absent (the field as it is is only possible because of them) and absent when they most appear present (any naming of them from within the current set-up is only to stand in for them). So what could it mean, therefore, to relate to Marx and Freud, to continue their work, as perhaps Althusser and Lacan did? It must mean that what they do has a similar quality, that it does not so much either follow or refute them as ‘double’ them, at once completing them and showing that they must be understood for a entirely different reason than the one they give themselves.

http://www.lacan.com/zizek-butler.htm#6

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On the confusion felt after reading Zizek as to the purpose of reading Zizek:

"Example after example is supplied, but the principle that makes them examples is not itself given. Appeals are implicitly made to Lacan’s authority, but the source of that authority is never mentioned. The truth of Lacan’s theories is urged by showing how other people’s theories support that truth but without explaining why these theories have the same object. One concept is defined in terms of another, which is then described the same way, ad infinitum. What’s being explained is mixed with what’s doing the explaining in a circular fashion so striking that it may well count as both a novelty and a technical innovation in the history of interpretation."

Edward R. O’Neill, “The Last Analysis of Slavoj Zizek” in http://www.lacan.com/zizek-butler.htm 

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The photograph touches me if I withdraw it from its usual blah-blah: “Technique,” “Reality,” “Reportage,” “Art,” etc.: to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness.

Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida
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Essay extract about Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood… 

It is through their expectations of art and preferences for a certain kind of experience that both Fried and Benjamin’s systems of interpreting art come about. For Fried, the experience that he desires from art is one that allows the viewer to experience ‘grace’ from his/her absorption of a work of art[1]. This grace can be described as a state of mind in which the viewer transcends or overcomes a “…metaphysical dualism which in traditional epistemology and everyday parlance has installed a seemingly irreducible gap between mind and body, matter and form, male and female, self and other, and self and world” (Ross, Roberts and Beaulieu 2000. p289). 


It is understandable that Fried’s and Benjamin’s conceptions of art can be associated with the past, as art today does not wish to be situated within a transcendent world; for example, art of the past aimed to achieve some form of communication with a higher being (Bourriaud 2007. p47). The beauty of a Caravaggio painting, for example, ignores the beholder as it aspires to be in communication with something of a higher level of being[2]. Even in the latter movement of Abstract Expressionism, art still remained separate from its audience, not in the hope of achieving communication with a deity, but rather to create or comment on a dialogue between “man and the world” (Bourriaud 2007, p47). This is not directly true of all art of the past, but a separation between the artwork and the beholder and also the art and the world can certainly be observed. For example, paintings are hung, sculptures put on plinths, in order to illustrate their separation from the world. Minimal art and contemporary art for Fried, and arguably for Benjamin, is art that does not permit a reflection that can only occur when there is some kind of distance between the artwork and the spectator.
This distance or separation can be likened to the distance described by Benjamin that constitutes ‘aura’ (Benjamin, 1992 pg.216). The separation that Fried advocates - and within this understanding, the distance that Benjamin advocates - allows the viewer to be suspended as such from the reality of life, and it is at this moment of suspension when Fried’s ‘grace’ is achieved and Benjamin’s aura can be most keenly felt. This suspension from reality and the literality of everyday life causes the viewer to forget the distinctions present in ‘everyday parlance’ as the art work is set apart from its own literality and therefore the literality of human existence. The ‘aura’ of a work of art therefore allows a viewer to experience a state in which they are elevated from the distinctions of everyday life and can be in connection with a higher state of oneness. This connection between Fried and Benjamin can be further supported by Benjamin’s idea that art was originally and ideally “…meant for the spirits” (Benjamin, 1991 pg.218), cult and ritual purposes. Cult, spiritual and ritualistic purpose to art directly supports the idea that the art Benjamin describes aspires to be in connection with a higher state of oneness.

The principles of art today are then – within this system of understanding – capable of destroying ‘aura’ and ‘grace’, which enables the viewer to aspire to a higher state of being as ritualistic, cult art would propose. Put simply, contemporary art does not advocate art that produces a transcendent state of oneness for its viewers. Contemporary art takes on its own state of ‘otherness’ as its subject, therefore causing viewers to experience a division of self (self versus other/object). Benjamin and Fried’s preference for a certain kind of art can therefore be connected with an art of the past that wished to achieve a transcendental effect and a state of ‘grace’.

Absorption, which with reference to Fried’s Art and Objecthood can be understood as leading to the state of ‘grace’, can only be achieved when the work is not seen to acknowledge the audience (Ross, Roberts and Beaulieu 2000. p27). According to minimalist artist Donald Judd, the goal of minimalist art work is to hold the interest of its beholder (Fried 1967. p154). It can be said then, that the audience plays as much of a role in the artwork as the actual work of art itself. For Fried, this implies that the “…boundaries between “art” and “life” become murky, [and therefore,] the critical distance of the viewer is effaced” (Flatley, 2004, 54). Minimalist art can then be seen to solicit a relational experience for its viewers. For example, the questions one would ask of a minimalist work in this context would then be something like “What do I think this object is?” and “How do I feel about this object?” This then is the actual content of a minimalist artwork; that is it is one’s relationship as a viewer to the object that makes up their experience of the work and is the subject of the work. On this level of audience acknowledgement – that is making the audience an actual part of the work – theatre becomes the actual subject of the work. Therefore, ‘theatre’ in art disallows the viewer from being absorbed by the work. This type of experience, which Fried suggests takes place when looking at minimalist art or when experiencing ‘theatre’ in art, can be seen as an intrusion upon viewers, as the distance that allows for reflection and subsequent absorption has been taken away. Benjamin’s anecdotal explanation of the camera man as a surgeon illustrates this idea also, as both surgeons and cameramen “…greatly [diminish] the distance between [themselves] and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body.” (Benjamin, 1992 pg.227) The cameraman and the minimalist art work can be seen to work in this way, penetrating their spectators. The spectator is absorbed by the artwork instead of himself/herself being the instigator of the absorption (Benjamin, 1992 pg.218).

This idea of an art that absorbs the spectator and that does not aspire to connect to a higher state of being can be understood within the context of contemporary art. Much of the contemporary art within the Gallery of Modern Art’s 21st Century: Art in the First Decade relies on the participation of its audience or on concepts that exist outside of the works to create meaning. To give a specific example, Carsten Holler’s Slide (2010) provokes a relational response from viewers. For example, it provokes questions such as ‘how can I understand this as art?’. Viewers are asked to literally become a part of the work as they slide down the slide. Left/Right Slide, like much of the work within the exhibition, does not create meaning from internal contents. For instance, what the work is about cannot be understood from within the work itself. Rather, what is to be taken from Holler’s work is to be found in one’s own experience of the work as a beholder. Latifa Echakhch’s  (2007) is another example of an art work that relies upon an external source of content. The actual physical contents of the work – specifically the compositional aspects of the work such as colour – are empty of meaning. The meaning of the work is to be found in a conceptual reflection of the materials of the work in conjunction with the title of the work that “references the labour strikes, human rights demonstrations and war protests of the 1960s…” through use of carbon paper that was once associated with the reproduction of political flyers (Gallery of Modern Art 2011). This is the antithesis of a typical aesthetic ‘felt’ response that is solicited by Modernist art, and also by any artwork that is ‘cult’ and ritualistic as described by Benjamin. The viewer cannot behold Echakhch’s work or Holler’s work and extract meaning, but rather they have to acknowledge themselves and their own experience of the work when in search of the meaning. Hence, the spectators are absorbed by the work and not, as Benjamin would have it, the other way round. For this reason the beholder is necessary for art that functions on its exhibition value to exist (Benjamin, 1992 pg.218).

This understanding of artworks that function on their exhibition value highlights the significance of what is lost when artworks no longer function on cult value and possess an ‘aura’ as described by Benjamin. If one is to side with Benjamin for an art that privileges ‘aura’ in search for a higher state of consciousness and rejects the presentness of everyday parlance, there is a place for fear about the future of post-modern contemporary society. Both Benjamin and Fried’s negativity towards a theatrical art is perhaps due to the idea that “[f]or the alternative to modernism and its sensibilities of ‘grace’ [,that Fried advocates,] is the literalness of lived life, isolation from oneself and other, a loss of belief in the possibility of knowing…” (Ross, Roberts and Beaulieu 2000, 81). This idea of isolation and ‘loss of belief in the possibility of knowing’ can be understood as a disregard for reaching a higher level of being, or ‘grace’.
In the final paragraph of Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism and Consumer Society, Jameson expresses his concern for a society in which established boundaries and separations between ‘high’ and ‘low’ do not exist. His concern, and perhaps also Benjamin’s, is that how would such a society – or at least how will art – be able to progress and develop without aspirations for a higher state of being? In this system of thinking there is a concern that the proclamation of the exhibition value of art is not concerned with achieving a higher state of being and could result in the impossibility of progression or a “…series of perpetual presents” (Jameson 1982. p125). It can be said however, that to be concerned about the loss or lack of ‘aura’, originality and boundaries between high and low with art – and generally speaking society – testifies directly to the existence of these things. If the ‘aura’ that an art object can possess was truly eradicated, how would one be able to speak of it, even if only to question its existence? Perhaps the ‘aura’ of works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction is this feeling of loss that seems so difficult to explain and be close to.

 [1] The absorption here is the absorption of the viewer into the work as opposed to the viewer absorbing the work in the way that Benjamin describes: “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art… In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” (Benjamin,1992 pg.232)

[2] This concept of artwork ignoring or acknowledging the beholder is also explained by Fried himself in the introduction to his book Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before

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Anne Marsh’s A Post-Medium Condition, an essay found in her book Look: Contemporary Australian Photography since 1980, portrays indexicality within photography as something which is collapsible and conservative. Marsh condemns Rosalind Krauss’ push for a return to a focus on the “…idea of the medium as a physical support or “recursive structure…” as conservative and counterproductive. Instead, Marsh praises the interdisciplinary, performative and diverse nature of much contemporary art today (Marsh, 2010, p.375). The aim of this essay is to demonstrate a system of understanding that shows the value and intrinsic nature of indexicality and the importance and indispensability of medium[1]. Shane Fitzgerald, Steven Lojewski and Fiona Macdonald are three contemporary Australian photographic artists whose works demonstrate the function and necessity of indexicality within photography. Their works can also be seen to exemplify conscious, self-critical modes of art-practice that consider their mediums – a mode of art making for which Krauss advocates and Marsh dismisses. Importantly, the works of Fitzgerald, Lojewski and Macdonald can be understood to utilise and project meaning through the connotations and functions that are attached to photography as a medium. 

Indexicality is intrinsic to the process of extracting meaning from photography. In Frederic Jameson’s essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society, the idea of understanding without indexicality is explained. Indexicality describes features or indicators that provide context. We make meaning, generally speaking, from the interrelationship of words or signifiers (Jameson, 1982, p.119). The process of making meaning from photography can be understood in this same way. It is the indexical qualities of photography – the things that we recognise as coming from the world, whether they really do or not – that produce meaning within photographs.  In images, for example, indexicality can be understood as a reference to something real (from the world) or something that gives context. The breakdown of these inter-relatable signifiers or, for the purposes of this essay, the breakdown inter-relatable indexical qualities constitutes a state of what can be described as ‘schizophrenia’. The schizophrenic, according to Jameson, doesn’t have a concept of past, present or future and therefore “… is condemned to live a perpetual present with which the various moments of his or her past have little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon.” (Jameson, 1982, p.119). Their ideas and perceptions cannot be focused and therefore they have a more intense experience of the world, however, this increase in intensity is seen as a loss, as a disconnection with meaning and altogether, reality.

The idea of ‘schizophrenia’ supports the idea that indexicality is central to photography and our ability to extract meaning from it. Shane Fitzgerald’s Arpeggio IIII (2006) and Steven Lojewski’ photographic series Urban Dilemmas (2001) are two examples that can be used to demonstrate how indexicality is intrinsic to photography. On first glance, Fitzgerald’s Arpeggio IIII appears to be some kind of alien landscape, however, it is essentially a painting made with light. The references to a landscape of some kind within the image can be described as material signifiers. What we understand of Fitzgerald’s work (although due to its process is free from the photographic restrictions of actually depicting reality) comes from the interrelationship between indexical qualities. We understand the image as a landscape because Fitzgerald gives us signifiers such as spaces that are understandable as ‘sky’ and ‘land’. The inter-relationship of these context giving features provides us with the idea that the image is of a landscape, and from here we are able to take our understanding of the image further as we recognize that the landscape is fictitious. Fitzgerald utilises the conventional expectations of photography that cause us as viewers to seek out literal representations within the image in front of us. Although the image does not have genesis in the real world (Marsh, 2010, p.378), it still functions and must be able to function upon indexical qualities in order to produce some form of meaning.

Lojewski’s Urban Dilemmas series heralds back, in a way, to the work of documentary photographer Eugene Atget. Lojewski’s photographs are, like Atget’s, for the most part devoid of people. However, more importantly the images are fashioned in a particular way as to conjure a certain understanding of and sympathy for the urban landscape. Marsh remarks that “… to get a good picture one mediates the image, which mediates the world.” (Marsh, 2010, p.378). However, it would be a partial and possibly incorrect to recognise the camera as the only thing that mediates the world. As we look and perceive, we too are mediating the world as we can only understand what we see from points of reference found in our systems of understanding. Our visual perception has the ability to mediate or intervene. The difference with the camera, however, is that it has the ability to freeze the image and therefore reproduce its intervention. To further this idea, Marsh also comments that “…photography has captured our imaginations: we dream in photographic terms, we live our memories in pictures…” (Marsh, 2010, p382). If we think about photography as similar to our vision in its ability to intervene or mediate, it is realistic to say that the idea for photography did not capture our imaginations, but rather our imaginations captured the idea of photography. With this understanding, Lojewski’s Urban Dilemmas (like the work of Atget) can be set apart from simple documentary photography that aims to produce images that are within “…a scientific medium, an objective truth.” (Marsh, 2010, p.378). Lojewski’s images push the urban landscape into a new historical role, and in this way they produce a new culture. This understanding, of course, would not be possible without the use of the indexical qualities intrinsic to photography. Lojewski has taken the unmediated indexical qualities of the urban environment, and mediated them in such a way – for example, by constructing them in a way that plays up to  ideas beauty using composition and colour – that  they produce an understanding of the urban landscape as beautiful. Both Fitzgerald and Lojewski utilise the intrinsic qualities of photography that cause us to want to connect the image with literal representations of our world to create meaning.

The point of the two examples of Fitzgerald and Lojewski is to reveal that the medium (in this case photography) induces meaning (Bowman, 2011, p.614). It is not possible to say that the medium does not affect the meaning or ‘message’ within a work of art. A meaning without a medium is simply not communicated. In the cases of Fitzgerald and Lojewski, the medium of photography is chosen in order to convey their meaning in the most effective way possible. It is the indexical qualities of photography, our assumption for literal representation of the world that is tied to photography, that makes photography the ideal medium for such ‘messages’ as Fitzgerald’s and Lojewski’s. Broadly speaking, the medium provides grounding for art, and for meaning in the sense that it provides practical rules for making meaning (Foster, Krauss, Bois and Bochloh, 2004, p.534). Without medium or a “…self-critical mode of art-practise – one which considers the medium and engages with it in an experimental way” (Marsh, 2010, p.381) there arises the possibility of arbitrariness. Like the heightened sensations that the schizophrenic experiences from having complete freedom from restrictions of understanding, so too can art without the restrictions of a medium be understood to produce a heightened experience from a total freedom. However, Jameson points out that this total freedom can demonstrate a disconnection from reality or a loss of grounding, and subsequently, a negative feeling of loss.

To give one final example of the necessity of indexicality to both photography and meaning, Fiona Macdonald’s work , although contrary to the understanding of it proposed by Marsh, considers its medium and uses it to induce meaning. Fiona Macdonald’s Museum Emotions (2002-03) is a conceptual work that places “local artist celebrities and museum curators from Melbourne in a stylised farce of the art world…” (Marsh, 2010, p.381) in the form of a ninety minute film . Marsh proposes that Macdonald undoes the medium she uses from within, implying that the medium is undermined somehow by Macdonald. An alternate understanding of Macdonald’s work is that she utilises the medium in a critical way to actually form the conceptual meaning within her work. Marsh points out that Macdonald often shows her work in such a way that one sign plays off another (Marsh, 2010, p.381), referencing the idea that Macdonald considers her medium and the indexicality or the signs within it that give it context. Every attempt to undo or describe the medium of photography (or film) can only be done within the system of understanding that is photography, which in process is so similar to the way that we ourselves perceive, mediate and create meaning from the world around us.

In the concluding paragraph of her essay, Marsh states that “The real issue – the one that traditional art history would prefer not to encounter – is that photography has dispensed with the essence of its own medium and in infiltrating all of the other mediums it has questioned the very notion of medium specificity” (Marsh, 2010, p.382). Medium specificity is questionable, and arguably destructible. A self-critical use of medium is questionable, but arguably not destructible at least in the sense that it will always hold importance. The important thing, the interesting thing, is not whether photography – or any medium for that matter – can remain as a specific medium, but what its capabilities are as far as its ability to communicate meaning. Taking the example of Fiona Macdonald, An artist can still be self-critical in their art-practice without using a specific medium or formal medium in a traditional way. To advocate for a self-critical approach to medium is realistic in terms of producing art that is capable of carrying meaning. The medium, whether this be photography, another formal medium or a broader form of technical support, is forever important to the successful communication of an idea. As shown through the examples of Fitzgerald, Macdonald and Lojewski, medium can incite meaning and most definitely has an impact on perception. Therefore, it is reasonable within this system of understanding to recognize the validity of an advocation for a self-critical mode of art-practice that considers medium.  


[1] Medium here does not just refer to formal or traditional mediums, but to any form of ‘support’ for meaning.

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