Progress and Problems, Part I

A couple weeks back Joerg Colberg published an article on Conscientious entitled “The digital revolution has not happened (yet)?” fototazo promptly went on a two-week summer hiatus and I haven’t been able to sneak in time for a response this week until now. I’d like to engage the conversation he raises, especially given his article comments on and takes a few cross-jabs at a previous post I published called “What Is Progress in Photography Today? (A Response).”

This will be a three-part post. Part II will be published Monday, July 16th. Today will take a look at the importance of progress in western art history and will set the foundation for the second post which will explore questions and statements about the “digital revolution” made by Colberg.

Before I get into this, let me say two things to hopefully head off some potential criticisms: first, that I would openly substitute another word for “progress” that conveys the same idea with less of a Manifest Destiny/colonialist overtone, but I’m going to stay with it for this post; second, this is obviously a post, not an art historical text, so the historical information is going to be necessarily fast-tracked and condensed and is being sketched in just enough to serve as a background for arguments made in the second post.

That being said, I would like to defend a notion of progress as ingrained in western art history of the last 500 years and argue that this has its merits.

As a contrast to the western tradition in the arts and in order to give it a counterpoint for definition, let’s relate it to the artistic tradition of Southeast Asia. Progress is not part of their historic art tradition; what's important is fidelity to existing models. The goal is to replicate - to the best of your abilities - the Buddha statues of the masters of the past. The judgment of your efforts and abilities rests in faithful reproduction, not innovation.

In contrast, going back to at least the Mannerists in the 1500s, we can argue innovation has always been a vital part of the tradition in the west. The Mannerists figured there was no way in hell they would be able to draw or sculpt the human figure any more naturalistically or realistically than a young Michelagelo, Raphael, or da Vinci so they started to play with form, to elongate necks and arms, to collapse perspective, and to use evocative lighting in order to differentiate themselves and their work from the masters of the High Renaissance. For the ensuing 500 years we've continued to build from our predecessors by challenging them and by looking to speak in relation to them and differently from them, not by repeating them.

I think this largely has to do with ideas of visual communication and the sense of the individual in our society - whereas Buddha statues are remade endlessly as an act of reverence in a society with a greater emphasis on the communal whole, in the west we have developed an artistic tradition to communicate ideas and as a method of individual expression.

Along these lines, in order to communicate ideas, I would argue progress is important. If I've seen 100 variations of an image conveying the same idea, I'm not interested in what its telling me anymore. It has no visual spark left because it communicates ideas in a method that I'm familiar with and, in turn, it teaches me nothing, or close to nothing.

Something that has a sense of visual difference about it will capture me. I'll flip through 100 35mm images of dead soldiers and bombed out towns in a newspaper because I have become – sadly - numb to them by seeing similar images ad infinitum. I see Richard Mosse's "Infra" images and I stop and look again at images of war. I pay attention to the event and the people and the horror of the content because my eyes are drawn in by a sense of something new to how the content is being communicated to me.

Do we need progress to have art? Absolutely not, but it’s part of an artistic social contract our society has constructed. Many artistic traditions, those of Southeast Asia to cite an example, but also many other traditions, show incredible art can be created with different prerogatives and different artistic standards for judgment and appreciation. We can make lots of photographs, endlessly, that are similar and they will still move someone, no matter how familiar the photograph. Additionally, making the well-known image for ourselves for the first time gives us a personal experience and brings us an excitement that have personal value.

But because - here in the west - our visual language and fine art have long been tied into the individual and visual communication, and to make an individual expression and to have communication we need to say something and say it in a way that's not repetitive, we can only hear the same story so many times before it's lost it's power, and we can’t expect by repeating well-known formulas for making images to have an impact on those beyond ourselves.