In my case it was a lifetime achievement, in other’s it is an annual event, this first stroll of mine to the Church Fête in the village on the last Saturday in August. Settling amongst these ‘cast outs’, as these purveyors were from the Church, to ply their trade in the ample grounds of the Vicarage – though no doves were visibly on sale, I was surprised to be considering Crimp’s essay on ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism’, whilst pondering the acquisition of tea and cake and in conversation with our local Rector Graham, whom it seems, is off for three months ‘study leave’, but will be back for the Christmas rush after what is, apparently, the annual ‘lull’ in the church’s normal business of ‘hatch, match and dispatch’.
Crimp talks about a few things in this essay that I found interesting: the notion of auratic erosion, first suggested by Benjamin as the essence of difference between painting (or perhaps all ‘fine art’) and photography, its diminution due to the effect of multiple manufacture, authorship and, as this essay was written in 1980 how the photographic “image” contests the previously understood notion of where to assign the currency or perhaps the substance of ‘awe’. I think the timing of the essay is interesting for I have the feeling that that question gained prevalence through the seventies, though I have no certainty of it.
Graham is off to study pictures, specifically work depicting the time before Christ was born; he has previously studied works of antiquarian art some of which was housed in museums and galleries, but others in situ – frescoes on walls. It seems important to him to view the original works, that closeness to the artist is important to this man of faith. Crimp talks of the ‘presence’ in art, how the ‘connoisseurship’ of the medium seems to elevate the ‘original’ from the copy or reproduction. And the sense of how I see this, this overturning of the judgment-seat of art , is that the mechanics of the ‘art-world’, this ‘apple-cart’ contrivance between museum/art historian and money/status was firmly up-ended by the introduction of photography as a means to communicate other than, though not necessarily excluding, the mechanical reproduction of that set out in front of the lens.
When Graham views the recumbent Bathsheba (he mentioned a version he is looking forward to seeing again; he wants to view the expression of one of the women in the frame whose expression has remained with him – the study is called ‘Receptions’ – how the viewer receives/interprets imagery) it will be important, perhaps vitally important, that the authorship uncontestable, that he is viewing the strokes made by whichever ‘master’ made those marks. As Crimp mentions the collusion of vested interests that hold to that notion that the original is the ‘enemy’ of the mechanized production that threatens the ‘inherited ideas’ that the possession of ‘aura’ is mandatory for ‘art’. The mitigated presence of the auratic bursts the bubble that presents a crisis to contend with; namely that photography will begin to compete with ‘Art’ for gallery space. Well three and a half decades after this essay was written photography does compete, and whilst the ‘art-market’ is still relatively buoyant, it has been joined by reproduced imagery under the auctioneer’s gavel.
I wondered when I first read the essay whether it was a criticism of painting as an art tradition, then I thought perhaps it was a critique of Art Historian’s but I now think it is perhaps a celebration that finally another form of visual art has entered the canon. The once artless mechanical master of reproduction has been seen to not be able to replicate faithfully or faithlessly but to reflect and shine a light by receiving it, open up discourse to an audience that isn’t only privileged. As the author suggests; “Postmodernism is about art’s dispersal, it’s plurality… (not) it’s pluralism.”