(The relevant galleries are Adelaide + Port Adelaide Footnotes are in the pdf).
Art and photography converged in Australia in the 1970s. This was much latter than in Europe, where they converged in the 1920s in Soviet photomontage practices and in the dada then surrealist integration of photography into the very heart of art movements. The postwar convergence in Australia was actually a re-convergence by which time photography was a theoretical object as well as an aesthetic medium. Photography’s technical reproduction devalued traditional categories of art whilst establishing a place of its own amongst the artistic mediums, thereby creating a new experience of art. his required art historians to shift their focus from seeing Australian art as just painting and sculpture.
Art history, as an autonomous discipline delineated knowledge boundaries, linked to art galleries and curation, came late to Australia. Its foundations in the 1950s and 1960s were the 19th century century European tradition in the form of the Viennese School and the Warburg Institute. Art history provided the intellectual foundations for the applied art history in the art gallery or art museum with trained curators emerging in the 1970s. Consequently the emergence of art history in Australian universities was a byproduct of modernism. Art history and modernism were related developments: art history’s narrative was an organic one of a style of art is born, develops, reaches maturity then perishes; modernism was understood in American terms; ie., America rescued pre-war European claimed the heritage of European modernism, then made it their own with postwar American modernism in the form of Abstract Expressionism. From the 1970’s Australian public art institutions became champions of international modernist values with modernism being internalised as the corporate aesthetic of Australia’s public galleries. Modernism can be interpreted as a period style.
Aesthetic progress in the orthodox art history of photography has traditionally been interpreted as a linear history of styles: from naturalism to pictorialism, to modernism, to postmodernism, to contemporary photography. The idea is one of an inexorable forward march of artistic styles, each coming after the other, in a linear and identifiable progression. This art history interprets the continual flux of the history of art objects as formal structures whilst its canon of style is concerned with locating fruitful points within the history of photography. This model of stylistic differentiation determining innovation is built on the idea of the movement of a particular style as a narrative of nascence to maturity to decline. Art history was premised on the internal evolution of autonomous style according to a natural or historical law — art history without names as Heinrich Wölfflin termed it.
The roots of this orthodox art history are Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, and like Wölfflin’s foundational text, this orthodox art history is premised on the autonomy of the work of art whilst offering vague ideas about the historical change of forms. What is often forgotten is that Wölfflin’s insistence that the classic and the baroque amount to two world views, two fundamentally ways of seeing, different orientations to the world, different realms of feeling. Wölfflin’s art history is a history of seeing through art in which art can tell us how we see and understand the world. Art history for Wölfflin is about the forms of seeing, and it studies the basic principles (concepts) that govern the development of the visual arts. Different forms were better for expressing different epochs and this resulted in the cycling between classical and baroque, or linear and painterly, which changed each time they came around again.
In Wölfflin’s art history a change in style is the result of a change in eye; albeit one in which the successor of forms is not related to the historical circumstances that give rise to the individual art. It is a cyclical model of recurring modes of seeing with development being understood as an unfolding of hidden, intrinsic possibilities and principles. Every style has its own time and can never return in identical shape. The primary task of art history is to uncover these shifting optical possibilities that transcend all social-historical contexts. Wölfflin latter conceded that form and content are not separate from each other, but are interrelated: every new style of perception crystallises a new aspect of the world.
In the 1940s Clement Greenberg, in appropriating Wölfflin to save modernist high art and culture, held that the art of his time was at the risk of stagnating and perhaps dissipating altogether because so many different ways of seeing were available in the form of prints, decorative art and kitsch. The market and mass production had made art objects and kitsch so readily available that the true work art was at the risk of becoming no different from the decorative, wall paper or a magazine cover. The history of capitalism led in the direction of the swallowing up of art by the culture of the market. The opposition of culture and capitalist economy was fundamental to Greenberg’s modernism.
Greenberg agreed with Wölfflin, that different forms were better for expressing different epochs, and argued that representational art was inappropriate for meeting the demands of the mid-20th century. Non-representational art was the only possible option for the creation of good art at this time, and Greenberg situated his identification of modernism with non-linguistic visuality in a cohesive historical trajectory in which every new important work propelled art towards its end point of essential flatness. Abstract Expressionism, which Greenberg held to be the avant-garde art of its time, was the dominant way of seeing and understanding in the mid-twentieth century.
Abstract Expressionism was an unconscious expression through forms, and not the conscious manipulation of forms as in Pop Art. The avant grade alienated the viewer making the art work more difficult, and this estrangement encouraged prolonged looking. Abstract painting is a model of how we know the world — it engenders a certain type of detached or disembodied vision and it constitutes a certain kind of subject.
The orthodox narrative structure of the developmental history of the visual arts including photography in Australia provides an illusion of coherence and continuity. However, it doesn’t appear obvious that the history the visual arts in Australia is a consistent, self-perpetuating history of styles —- art history as a sequence of waves within a continuous, inevitably unfolding progression. If there is a sequence, then it is one of style and fashion.
Postwar modernism in this sense is more a framework of assumptions rather than a particular style. For instance, as a discourse Australian art has been situated in opposition to morality and instrumental rationality. It was premised on traditional notions of aesthetics, such autonomy, avant-garde, aesthetic experience, formal subtlety, semantic complexity, taste, creative genius, the rare, original print with a high and timeless value, a commodity with high commercial value and a form of cultural capital; the divorce of art from aesthetics, creative intensity linked to masculinity, and artistic value being decided by art gallery curators and the art market.
Art was also traditionally constructed in terms of its nationhood, in the sense that those who wrote histories of Australian art did so with regard to some presumed quality of “Australianness” that defined that art, and which it was presumed all Australian artists had in common. Photographers linked natural light to landscape and place to national identity. This allowed Australia, as the young white nation, to distinguish itself from the grey British motherland and to look towards a bright, independent future.
The Wölfflin underpinnings of the orthodox history of art photography, which established a canon of Modernist photographers, assumed that the new art photography of the 1970s presupposed a modern and a dominate way of seeing that was appropriate to its time. This dominate mode of seeing was Baudelaire’s characterisation of modernity and its other half as the “ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.” If this characterisation held that the ever accelerating of the new is tempered by the universal and immutable (eternal) surviving while the outmoded is lost to oblivion, then the coupling of vision with modernism is one in which the skewering of vision in the modernist subject is convincing.
This regime of seeing presupposed that underneath the stylist changes in aesthetic discourse around photography in the autonomous art institution in the 1980/1990s was a duality: the realism of documentary/topographic photography was equated with positivism whilst art photography was equated with artistic agency or subjective vision. The latter’s all-seeing eye presupposed that the creation of photographs within this regime of seeing was mediated by the unconscious expression of the artist’s reaction to their surroundings. Instead of realising that photography marked a new beginning, which rendered obsolete the previous categories of art and aesthetics, photography was defended on the terrain of traditional art. Modernism’s defensive strategy avoided the basic question whether the invention of photography had not transformed the very nature of art. Modernism adapted photography to an obsolete ritual conception of art.
The above duality underpins the Candid Camera: Australian Photography 1950s to 1970s exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2010. Curated by Julie Robinson, the Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs, this remarking of the past through recovering some forgotten fragments from photography’s history, covered the photojournalism of the 1960s, social documentary and the subjective personal street photography of the 1970s. It included work by familiar photographers in the canon: Max Dupain, David Moore, Jeff Carter, Max Pam, Robert McFarlane, Mervyn Bishop, Rennie Ellis, Carol Jerrems and Roger Scott.
The exhibition catalogue states that the exhibition is a survey of Australian documentary photography in the post war period. It explores the influence of international trends towards social documentary and photojournalism on local photographers. It highlights the interest of successive generations of photographers in creating unposed, spontaneous and candid records of contemporary life. Candid in this context means the photography is done in such a way that the subjects are not aware they are being photographed at the exact moment the image is being made.
The exhibition’s main theme was modernist: to illuminate a common visual language for documentary photography, involving visual puns, juxtapositions, observations of absurd situations and the pursuit of the ‘decisive moment’ as popularised by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The exhibition’s research contribution was to identify the ways in which Australian photographers used these elements in widely varied ways, without yielding to the recognition of the existence of a multiplicity of disparate photographic styles and tendencies.
The emphasis on the enigmatic, quirky and surreal is a form of romantic irony that plays with ambiguity and paradox, constructing meaning and illusion. This radical impulse of modernism establishes the photographers as both artist photographers and as self-conscious modernists playing with the pictorial conventions of the snapshot’s documentary codes. Romantic irony within the art institution is an internalized critique of photography’s realist conventions of representation — of the fictions of mimesis — that foregrounds and contains contingency.
The Candid Camera exhibition functions within the modernist aesthetic tradition since Robinson works with Szarkowski’s modernist conception of photographic picture making being based on selection and not synthesis. The touchstones are Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand’s incorporation of romantic irony with their street photography to play with photographic language through visual puns, juxtapositions, and observations of absurd situations. The modernist photographer solves formal aesthetic problems posed by the medium in relation to tradition — other and earlier photographs. The conceptual centre of art photogpraphy is the artist’s creative vision.
On Szarkowski’s account, photographs are taken, whilst paintings are made. This accepts the positivist underpinning of photography: namely, the assumptions of nineteenth century positivism with its foundational conception of the transparency of photographic language and its associated correspondence theory of truth. The use of romantic irony is a self-critique of the conventions of documentary photography. It is artistic vision that makes the photographs works of art, not political opposition to capitalist society located in cultural activity, or art’s subversive power.
This modernist irony works within the documentary codes, and it assumes that world of things standing over and against the boundless inner world of the artist’s subjectivity who is seen as the creator of all things. The artist’s emphasis on ambiguity and paradox assumes an arbitrary relation between subject and object, and the irony of an enlightened modernist art demonstrates its freedom by denying that anything is intrinsically valuable or serious other than the self-reflexive work of art.
The modernist’s construal of art results in the work of art being its own self-reflexive theme, means that art photography becomes alienated from truth. It is no longer the place where the truth of who and how we are and how things are for us occurs. The art institution pushed a realist photography into the background as an obsolete style; current documentary premised on realism was pushed back into the everyday, ordinary life or the commonplace. Realism was not able to transcend the historical moment: its forms were inappropriate to express the demands of the late 20th century.
During the 1980s postmodern photography and art remained outside truth and morality; and as a result, art photography was increasingly dislodged to the periphery of society. By the 1980s realist photography in Australia had been squeezed between the postmodernism adopted by the professionally trained artist-photographers, and those who used photography as an alternative to established art practices, and who allied themselves to the conceptual art movements in the art institution. A realist documentary photography was artistically homeless. This was an early indication of art’s authority and critical function becoming a problem within contemporary culture.
How can documentary photography overcome its homelessness, find a way out of aimless wandering in the ways of being outside truth and morality? Where can it find a path to its journey home? How can documentary photography overcome its homelessness, find a way out of aimless wandering in the ways of being outside truth and morality?
The anti-modernist feminist photographers exhibiting in the 1970s at the Ewing and George Paton Gallery in Melbourne under the directorship of Kiffy Rubbo opened up a way. They highlighted how the emphasis of modernist photography and art on experimental self-purification of artistic mediums was no longer formative of their experiences of themselves, or their being in our society. Modernism’s stress on artistic autonomy, evaluative judgment, medium-specificity, and the like was deemed to be restrictive. Their work rejected the idea of the perfectly realised print as a single masterpiece in favour of a sequence of (fragmentary) photographs; established a more direct relationship between art and life; developed new ways of photographically seeing bodies and relationships; placed an emphasis on the personal as the political; and combined the domestic and conceptual in sophisticated ways.
The identification of modernism with the pursuit of aesthetic judgements of taste and value in art was rejected. The modernist emphasis on aesthetic value premised on identifying medium-specificity with the pursuit of such values was replaced with art criticism. Along with the judgement of art being replaced with art criticism there is an emphasis placed on art as distinct historical object of experience. What emerges is the necessary conceptuality of the art work and the lived experience of historical time that had been buried by formalist modernism. The fragmentary work of art as process becomes a privileged site of reflection of historical experience
This process of an overcoming of the Greenbergian modernist tradition with its historicity of the purification of mediums provides a path to realist photography’s journey home. Overcoming in the sense that this art tradition is retained, but that its limitations and the confines of its specific meaning and possibility are no longer the final limits of meaning and possibility. The question of artistic mediums remains historically open to the development of new mediums there by taking us away from the arbitrary emphasis on painting and sculpture. This tradition would no longer hold us captive, and an art tradition or discourse overcome in this way can be transformed through recollecting what has been concealed or displaced — eg., the modernisms of the Russian avant gardes, Duchamp, Dada, Surrealism, conceptual art and post object art.
The temporal logic of modernism as a culture of negation: it valorises the new as something that gives historical meaning to the present the product of a constantly self-negating, temporal dynamic. If our historical culture is a culture of constant change; one of perpetual disintegration and renewal, then it also preserves (negatively) what it has overcome: it produces the old as remorselessly as it produces the new. If modernism grows old and becomes a tradition, the culture of negation is also one of reflecting on the historical and social nature of the categories used to understand, classify and appreciated works of art in a given cultural situation.
One way to unlock documentary photography being an outmoded outcast from the art institution in the modernist’s form of the enlightenment of art is pick up the idea of art criticism, and to question the assumption that the referential (indexical) nature of photography is transparent and natural. It is to question the positivist conception of photographic image as mechanical and an accurate imprint of pre-existing reality — a transparent window on the world.
This modernist and postmodernist conception of realism places an emphasis on the “automaticity” of photographic images in relation to their sources because the automatism or mechanicity is widely taken to be the distinctive basis of photography. Since cameras are mechanisms that automatically generate images, the agency of photographers is importantly excluded from the formative process. Positivism then counterposes the mechanical production of photographs to the agential creation of paintings. If what specifies photography as an art medium is its automaticity, then taking advantage of that automaticity curbs authorial agency. Hence the high value placed on human subjectivity in the art institution: it is the ground for the opposition between creative freedom in art and the compulsions of the capitalist market.
The problem here is despite the art institution’s emphasis on language, and the contingency of the endless play of fiction though visual puns and juxtapositions, the art institution’s understanding of art and realist photography is premised on photography’s closure to hermeneutics. There is a blindness in the art institution to how the endless ambiguities of interpretation depend on the notions of understanding, interpretation and the hermeneutical circle in photography.
Understanding in hermeneutics is the sense of applying a certain meaning to the situation that I find myself in, through reconstructing the meaning of the object and situation. Martin Heidegger argues that to select is to understand the event, person, object, or text against a background of cultural meanings. So the word ‘photography’ as a pictorial representation is understood in terms of its difference to the medium of ‘painting’ in order to highlight that the photographic images are intrinsically connected with the real. This has to do with automatism and the mechanical nature of photographic technology and this connection is not mediated by the subjectivity (beliefs and feelings) of the photographer. The emphasis is on the epistemic character of photography vis-a-vis other pictorial representations.
All this refers to a body of cultural ideas circulating through photographic tradition and history since the origins of photography; as expressed by people such as Eastman, Stieglitz, Emerson, Bazin, Barthes and Cavell. A world has been opened up, and this fore-structure of understanding — or a particular horizon or background of meanings — then shapes how we interpret photography as the staged process of both the production of images by framing, composing, the exposure, control and manipulation of light, and the post-production process of printing the negative. Our being-in-the-world is a photographically given world — newspapers, magazines, the advertisements of commodities —- of an immense collection of photographs that present themselves as objects in a consumer culture.
This shows that we are thoroughly steeped in the sentiments, commonplaces, and political currents of our time — in a circle of understandings and interpretations. All meaning is context-dependent and permanently anticipated from a particular horizon, perspective or background of intelligibility. Consequently, we are beings-in-the-world, and the way we project ourselves is to a large extent dictated by our context. From an hermeneutic point of view, the correspondence between photos and things is neither linear nor universally valid, but depends on a horizon, an opening or a background of theories, practices and cultural meanings within which any interpretation of pictures and images becomes possible.
An example of the background of theories in the art institution is Renaissance perspectivism, a technique for representing three-dimensional objects and depth relationships on a two-dimensional surface. In modernity this visual paradigm or scoptic regime was underpinned by the Cartesian detached, disembodied, neutral observer. The entire picture is transformed into a window in that we are meant to relive as if we are looking through this window into a space. The plane surface of the picture is akin to a transparent glass pane of a window, framing and disclosing a view of a scene that lay beyond it. The camera is then understood to be a way to correct the distortions due to perspective, and this leads to a robust realism.
Another example of the background of theories in the art institution is the tradition of documentary photography. Realism appears to be relegated to the museum of pre-modern styles and devices, safely locked-up in the toolbox of 19th-Century art history. Realism was taboo, documentary was to be deconstructed, and given the collapse of the difference between the signifier and the signified (reality is swallowed by the sign), the emphasis is placed on fiction, performativity and constructedness. Yet there is a diversity in this documentary tradition: nineteenth century trade views, Atget’s Paris, Bernice Abbott’s views of New York, the American social realism of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, Walker Evans, the New Topographies of the 1970s that questions the inherited notions of realism as transparency.
From a hermeneutical perspective the various meanings of a photo or photos is context-dependent and therefore unstable. Understanding is primarily related to the issue at hand, rather than to the photographer’s intention, and it suggests a basic agreement of what the situation is about. Thus the street photography in The Bowden Archives, which is fairly straight forward in its realist approach and rhetoric, is about representing a decaying, vanishing industrial suburb in Adelaide. The work shares a certain understanding of what de-industrialization is, in that other readers know what the text is talking about.
Hans-Georg Gadamer argues that this common understanding or agreement is the basis for a dialogue or conversation in which the reader is taken up by what she seeks to understand, how she responds, interprets, searches for words, and thus understands. Her understanding may fail of course, for what she seeks to understand — an industrial working class culture. This may be foreign to him, and it may need to be translated for him to understand. Understanding consists in translating something said in another horizon into our own horizon. If all meaning is context-dependent, then translating, as a recontextualization process, involves inevitably a production of new meanings.
Since it is not possible to ignore and to jump out of one’s own horizon, understanding operates through an integration of a strange horizon — eg., a working class culture in The Bowden Archives. For Gadamer such an integration means, on the one hand, that our own horizon is transformed and, on the other hand, that the other horizon, being illuminated by a new perspective, transfigurates itself. Understanding consists therefore in a process of a conversation with other people, and it is through this otherness that our prejudices and biases are gradually questioned and deprived of their distorting character.
This hermeneutical turn with its dialogic model of understanding means that the photos in The Bowden Archive are not a neutral and objective account of Adelaide in the 1980s. These fragments are an interpretation from a particular perspective. The realist photographer in our increasingly visually orientated culture is an interpreter, not one transparently gazing onto the world.
An interpreter within layers of interpretations. The Bowden Archives as a book is a reconstruction from the archives into a historical text. I cannot get back to the Bowden in the 1980s, nor can I understand the photographer as my then contemporaries might have understood me. To understand the archive is to interpret this body of work as a process or project, as that means understanding and interpreting what the photos mean to us now.
The image/text works within multiple horizons of cultural meaning: that of the text; the meanings of the author with a philosophical bent; the culture of modernity; a conception of the art institution as a structure of mediation; and a concern to ensure a space for a critical art within a society of the spectacle in which the cultural industry is a particular segment. Art’s use-value is seen as a resistance to the exchange value of cultural industry, but it is a form of resistance that takes place within an art institution that becomes part of the cultural industry.
This opens up a series of debates about the form of art’s resistance: is it the Adorno one of determinate negation that emphasises art’s enigmatic, sensual character as a resistance against the conceptualisation of instrumental reason; that of Debord and the Situationists’ ‘practice of détournement (“rerouting, hijacking”) to reveal the illusoriness of the society of the spectacle; or the emphasis on the mnemonic as a resistance to forgetfulness.
The hermeneutical turn allows us to critically dismantle two central strands of common understanding of documentary photography in the 1930s or 1940s. These are the “universal language” myth (photography constitutes a language in its own right that can communicate to all the people on the planet), and the transparency of representation myth (a photograph “was what it was” and it had a direct relationship with seeing). This dismantling enables us to open up the concealments brought about by our “hardened tradition” of documentary photography.
What is opened by this dismantling is an awareness that the metaphysical presuppositions of the positivist equation of seeing and knowing, which was eroding in the 19th century, were displaced onto the analogue photograph. The camera’s technological mode of production, and its indexical relation to the real, promised to purify the gaze and the image from both the contaminations and seductions to which they were otherwise prey. Hence the entrenched idea of the intrinsic truth of the photographic image and the neutrality of the medium.
What is also opened up by this dismantling is the mind’s eye of the photographer as a detached neutral observer: a subject characterised by its disembodied, objectives and ahistorical vision. This Cartesian perspectivalism unites individualism, transparency and the abstract monocular vanishing point of Renaissance perspective. It is replaced by the embodied photographer appropriating the tradition to which he/she belongs, and applying their fore-understandings to the historical realities confronting them as interpreters. By engaging in interpretive acts from within the realist tradition, the photographer as interpreter participates in the tradition’s historical being, borrows from its stock of meaning, and perpetuates, as well as questions the prejudices constituting the historical formation’s lifeworld. This sheds new light on the scars of the past as well as reflecting critically on the present.
The critical dismantling of the calcified documentary tradition is not a rejection of the realist tradition as it involves a retrieval of some aspects of this cultural tradition. This retrieval is understood as a creative and active process to transform and to appropriate creatively the contents of the realist tradition. The old dividing between modern art and realist documentary was reinforced by the widespread and influential theoretical attack on both documentary photography’s assumptions about truth and on photographic realism as a positivism,. This divide is replaced by an image making in realist photography that is shaped by indexicality, interpretation and an agenda project. This recognises that the meaning of a work of art is not bestowed at the moment of its creation, but is re-created at every moment of its reception in radically changed circumstances.
This clearing provides a space to recognise that photography was the dominant artistic form of the twentieth century in relation to which other art practices derived much of their specific contemporariness. The photographic form (chemical photography, cinema, television, video and digital imaging) became the dominate visual form of global capitalism in late modernity. The expanding field of the photographic is beyond Greenberg’s medium specificity as these various related technologies are post medium.
Interpreting The Bowden Archives as fragment and project directs us towards the exploration of the possibilities opened up by past photographic works in the realist tradition in Australia, including its repressed topographical current. When we engage with a text constructed from the archives we are ipso facto interpreting it in the very act of trying to come to an understanding of it. There is no hidden truth in the text since, as with human memory, we can no longer verify the original experience or sensation of the photograph. Since we live within a circle of interpretations layered on interpretations’ around realism, this moves us beyond the caricatured ‘strawman’ version of realism as a simple referential naivety — the transparent window on a stable world —held by modernists and postmodernists.
The fragmentary photographs of Bowden and Adelaide are not a passive reflection of an event, process or object: they are a specific historical form of embodied meaning that express our sense of ourselves as beings in the world in terms of sensuous appearance. In modernity art is a form of critical reflection: it is reflective as it involves thinking about art. Art’s truth content is of the world whilst also offering critical reflections upon it. In mediating between thought and the sensuous art can offer uniquely valuable and revealing forms of experience in relation to the sovereignty of Enlightenment rationality. In doing so art in modernity as a species of enquiry involves thinking about art, the practice of art, and its social relevance at the most basic level. Hegel’s conception of art in general is that it is a means by which society realises it self-understandings.
Hegel’s point is that in modernity artists stand within the culture of critical reflection and its relations, and they cannot abstract themselves from this culture through an act of will or ironic detachment. For Hegel art can never be described in isolation from the socio-historical context in which it is embedded: on the one hand, art is penetrated by society and on the other hand, society is underwritten by some process or principle. This principle was the self-reflexive process of Geist, an intersubjective principle of self-consciousness, which progressively refines its awareness of itself and its freedom through history.
Hegel argued that art in modernity could no longer play the role it had, for example, played in ancient Athens. The intensification of abstraction in modernity means that art’s sensuous embodiment of meaning comes to be superseded (sublated) by a critical reflection articulated by religion and then philosophical conceptualization. Geist (of which art is a part) autonomously reaches a level of abstraction and complexity which art’s semblance is no longer capable of handling. Art as a practice regulated by some common goal – some underlying narrative of getting ever-closer to an agreed on end – has dissolved. Art’s peak historical moment is a thing of the past for us. Art is no longer the most effective way of making sense of complex reality that is oriented around the task of “realization of freedom.” However, philosophy today does not plays a major determining role in public life: that role is taken by science and technology.
Hegel refers to the dissolution of Romantic art with its exploration of subjectivity to the limit, in the sense of this historical stage fading and something new replacing it. A post-Romantic art breaks with tradition, creates its own content, and is a form of intelligibility. It is a question that invites us to self-critically reflect on our social values and commitments. For Hegel, a post-Romantic art now abides with this loss and seeks to articulate and exhibit it. Art is now obliged to self-reflexively display its own senesence, and to explore what meagre resources this state of affairs might have left to it. This implies a modification of artistic practice itself as art reflects on – and ‘point beyond’ – its own inadequacy and epistemic limitations in relation to the external world. Art’s future is one in which aesthetic agency negates the one-sided negativity of Romantic irony and self-reflexively explores its own potential and limitations.
Art has a local character and a niche status within modern life engaging in eye-level insights into the local domains of human experiences; to those dimensions and issues that seem least suited to the abstractions of philosophy, namely a concern with everydayness in general. The energy and interest the artist invests in mundane and ordinary subjects suggests that it may deserve our own attention in ways we had not expected. Thus Dutch genre painting animate the everyday with an appearance of vitality and provide signifiable and vivacity to the little things of life. These paintings function to establish an intimacy between viewer and represented subject.
A work’s ‘vivacity’, ‘liveliness’ or ‘vitality’ (namely, Lebendigkeit) enlivens subject matters that might otherwise appear to be trivial, boring and mundane, and which at first sight, seem hardly worth an artist’s attention. There is place for though art is a intuitive, sensible mode of intelligibility that does not consist in propositions, arguments and syllogisms, it nevertheless enables us to make sense of ourselves in a way that resonates with what is coming into a sense as being more important than the conscious deliberative capacities of initial subjects.
This opens up a path for which photography is most suited to being ‘prose of everyday life’. The fragments highlight the industrial nature of Adelaide before the first decade of the 21st century; fragmentary pictures of the working class life in the 1980s that connect us to the forgotten history of one of Adelaide’s industrial era—and draw our attention to the significance of a rustbelt.
The pictures make visible through the remnants of industrial capitalism what had become invisible in history. These fragments are evidence of past lives, failures and destruction that make visible the darker side of industrial modernity. They place us outside of ourselves and our memory in much the same way that we are outside of, but a part of our another person’s memory. They enable us to glimpse the forces and situations beyond our recollection, and help us to interpret the fragmentation of experiences, and decipher the hieroglyphs of modernity in the darkly, haunting past of industrial Adelaide.
Art as a form of reflective sense making is a shift away the modernist conception of art photography being a form of self-expression and a celebration of personal liberty from certain norms and conventions. A plurality of sedimented content is embodied in the photos: they are a force-field of tensions of social, cultural and economic forces of a historical moment bought together into a constellation.
Aesthetics. Lectures on Fine Art, G. W. F. Hegel, trans. T. M. Knox, 2 vols., Clarendon Press, Oxford 1975
Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buchloh, Thames and Hudson, London, 2005
Being and Time, Martin Heidegger, trs. Joan Stambaugh, Suny Press, Suny Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Albany, New York, 2010
Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter, (edited) D.P. Michelfelder and R.E. Palmer, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1989.
Hegel on the Modern Arts, Benjamin Rutter, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010.
Heidegger’s Typology: Being, Place, World, Jeff Malpas, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2006.
Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, Benjamin Buloch, MIT Press, Camb. Mass., 2003.
“Photography Meets Feminism: Australian Women Photographers 1970-1980s,” Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne, 2017.
Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Sheed and Ward, London, 1989.