Sunday, December 09, 2007


The publication of academic research traditionally occurs in written and printed form (catalogues, textbooks and specialist journals) or in the spoken word (lectures). The text generally reveals itself to be authorial and autonomous, while the image (the reproduction) becomes a ‘pictorial visualisation’ of the text in the form of a supporting, documenting and yet mute commentary. The reproduction is seldom the springboard for a critical analysis.* Here we might recall the historical and almost forgotten essay by Heinrich Wölfflin, ‘ Wie man Skulpturen aufnehmen soll’ (‘How we should receive sculptures’) (Zeitschrift für Bildende Kunst, 1896, 1897, 1914), an early critical analysis of reproduction par excellence. But in Wölfflin’s time it was still very unclear who the author of a reproduction was supposed to be – the tasks of photographer and art-historian were generally performed by a single individual, as in the cases of Richard Haman and Arthur Kingsley Porter, both pioneers of art-historical photography and the illustrated art book. In the 1920s, sculpture and architecture were what we might call the ruling disciplines of art-historical photography.

Reproduction in the extended sense means less the depiction of an object than the recording of a spatial reality. Both methods have their shortcomings: despite the democratic recording of every detail, photography can only provide a single view. In the case of Paul Thek’s installation photographs, this fact is painfully apparent. The method of critical contemplation is restricted to the precise observation of the only details revealed in the photograph.

The transposition of the content within the context of the research project ‘’ takes this into consideration. The goal is to collect as much pictorial information as possible, to compare and contextualise it. Since the result will necessarily be incomplete, no attempt has been made to effect a three-dimensional virtual-reality reconstruction with CAD and rendering programmes. Instead the structural advantages of the internet and online databases have been exploited. The goal was to find a form that corresponded as well as possible to academic ‘manual labour’, and one which responded self-reflexively to its own activity. This happens on the one hand within an approach descriptive of the photographic image, and on the other with the open design of the web portal that transparently encourages communal exchange.

* One recent example – although here too the critical analysis only made it to a footnote – might be mentioned here: ‘I am referring to the reproduction of the works in the 1978 Museum of Modern Art catalogue on p. 164. In other reproductions of this work [Sol LeWitt’s ‘Buried Cube’, 1968], the photographs are rectangular and include more visual information. It seems to me that the MoMA reproduction matches LeWitt’s other photogrids more closely.’ Quoted from Mark Godfrey, ‘From Box to Street and Back Again. An inadequate descriptive system for the Seventies’, in: Open Systems. Rethinking Art c. 1970, ed. Donna De Salvo, London: Tate Publishing, 2005, p. 49.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

We the Priesthood?

What purpose does art writing serve?—a self-reflexive question for this forum to be sure; yet we can’t fail to notice that it is one begged again and again by cultural critics who every once in a while decide to turn their attentions to our modest yet flashy corner of the industry. But what to do when the swipes come from within our ranks? During an otherwise favorable review of Arthur Danto’s Unnatural Wonders from a few weeks ago, Jackie Wullschlager, chief art critic for the Financial Times, had this to say:
A system so needful of interpreters surely lays contemporary art, its makers and consumers open to the same abuse as medieval Catholicism, when an ignorant congregation depended on a substantial class of (mostly self-serving) priests and pardoners as intermediaries to the confusing, elusive concept of God…[Commentaries on art] are written by today’s priests and pardoners, each carrying a mix of truth-seeking, vanity, ambition and the conviction that their own big idea is the route to aesthetic understanding.
What are we to make of this? To my own ear, this dismissal echoes the sentiments of the “anti-theory” crowd which grew very vocal in the 1990s. But is it more than this? Why, for example, does it always seem to be writing about art, and contemporary art in particular, that is singled out? Why must art be more popular or, to push the point, more “lay” than either science or philosophy, the two disciplines with which it undoubtedly shares a genuine creative impulse? Or to push it even further: Is this a call for evangelical aestheticism?–i.e. the only way to true “aesthetic understanding” is through one’s own personal relationship with art?