From the perspective of 2021 the historical image-texts in The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia look back on what has been, prior to the emergence of digital technology, social media and its user generated content. Then the technical apparatus necessary to photography’s objectifying role as representation, was simultaneously the medium of interior and individualist subjectivity in a photography whose Romantic stress on originality, creative spontaneity and expressive freedom of the ironic artist weakened or even displaced a mimetic conception of art.
Photography as a medium in the late 20th century flipped back and forth, appearing both as an apparatus of transparent and mechanical reproduction, and as an aesthetic mode for the exploration of interiority. The European/North American photographic canon, as defined by the art institutions, was shaped by and expressed a historical aesthetic defined by a formalist modernism. This aesthetic modernism promoted the artist rather than artisan, art rather than craft as the means to explore an authenticity aligned to subjective intuition and unique vision. Language and images came to be seen as non-referential: an autonomous and self-expressive structure rather than representation and communicative.
With the demise of modernism into pluralism or an anti-aesthetic postmodernism the field of photography expanded. It became apparent that a photographic image has different modalities of existence: an art object, a mirror, a document, a commodity, personal snapshots, a personal portrait, a mirror with a memory. The mirror within the frame brings with it a history of reflection; one in which the visual arts have traditionally worked within, and struggled with, the terms set by a particular philosophical tradition first enacted within Plato’s Republic in the well known discussion of art in Book X, and continued in the Ion.
This discussion assumes that the relationship between a name and named is a mimetic one, and goes to argue that truth cannot pertain to painting. Paintings (and the visual arts) cannot present the essential being of that which is presented only the appearance. Platonism holds that knowledge of appearance does not entail knowledge of essential being: painting is the imitation of an image; a mimetic representation of an image or presentation. Paintings as imitation can only ever be correct depictions but never true. The trope of irony was used to block both the referential function of language and our attempts to make it referential, whilst the fragment challenged philosophy’s traditional patronizing attitude to art.
In the 1970s the photographic literature was sparse and photographic scholars were thin on the ground. By 2010 photographic studies had become fully absorbed in the knowledge economy, there were photography specific journals (History of Photography, Photography & Culture, Photographies, and Philosophy of Photography), and the world of academia was open to the study of photography and to the use of photographs as sources. Photography runs in all directions, permeating diverse aspects of society. It became acceptable to explore the historical links between photography, philosophy and aesthetics as a philosophy of art to see that photography spawned its own layer of theory. This opens up a space to recover a ground between philosophy and art in which the art object isn’t rendered redundant by theory (theory augments art without replacing it) established by the Jena Romantics.
Photography moved from the peripheries to the centre of the art world with postmodernism in the 1980s. By 2000 a once marginalized, minor and irregularly seen visual medium had shifted away from the contingent, the candid and the unstaged to the foregrounding of language and a patchwork of stylistic fragments. We have an aesthetic in which the text was in charge: the texts and images have have no concern beyond themselves and the conditions of their own production. By the end of the 1990s it looked as if photography’s triumph marked the end of a particular pictorial paradigm of analogue photography as the realist depiction of things. What emerged was a computational turn with its networked digital image, social media, the free flow of photographs as data, big data and machine learning. The photographic is now the visual regime of post-modernity.
The interpretive model that has dominated art historical accounts of photography (that is, since Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography which approaches shifts within photographic art practice through the lens of medium specificity) looked increasingly outmoded. The radicalism of 1968 highlighted that there was no univocal modernism with its universal modernist narrative; as was suggested by The Field exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 1968, which equated the linear logic of the modernism tradition with what was then currently fashionable in New York. Associated with the recognition of many different modernisms was the dissolution of the traditional linear art history of modern art with its avant grade notions of formal innovation and experimentation; and a shared recognition that artistic autonomy was in some sense bound to its own history.
The emergence of aboriginal art with Western Desert painting (Clifford Possum, Rover Thomas, Paddy Bedford, Emily Kame Kngwarreye) meant that art historians could no longer assume that the metropolitan perspective of a Paris or New York defined contemporary art. These contemporary painters highlight how our historical present is a coming together of different times, a coexistence of different temporalities and various ways of being in time. They undercut the claims about the primacy of the unrestricted autonomy of the artist with a notion of artistic practices as a form of social discourse. Artistic subjectivity entails intersubjectivity. Works of art are public artefacts — that is, there for others within a world of shared norms and values. Works of art engage their audience with a shared and public content.
Sadly, the libertarian moment of 1968 did not usher in post-capitalist, libertarian or post-patriarchal future. The 1968 project to transform the world had failed, and many of the survivors of these struggles moved into the spaces of relative freedom and autonomy represented by the university. Though the legacy of the radicalism of the 1970s is diverse and contradictory, the specific historical moment of 1968 did not thwart the development of capitalism, even if this radicalism did erode the power of a conservative patriarchal culture for several decades. Thankfully, the philosophical insight that we embedded in the embodied practices of living in the world displaced the representational paradigm that is premised on an autonomous subject for whom the world is out there and can be known through an image.
In Australia the repressed current of topographics in photography broadened a realist documentary photography into placing an emphasis exploring the landscape in terms of a human altered landscape. In the US this meant photographing the change in American suburbs and the phenomenon of newly built tract house estates: not only did the urban sprawl became a subject of photographic debate but also its effects on the adjacent environment. What emerged from this topographical perspective was a tradition of critical photographic landscape depiction in urban centres in France, Germany and the Netherlands that were independent of each other, with various time-lags between them, and was shaped by different photographers.
From this perspective the original label ‘New Topographics’ in the US neglected the immanent references to the environment made by photographers starting in the 1980s. These references come to mind: Richard Misrach’s Bravo 20, The Bombing of the American West and Petrochemical America; Lewis Baltz’s San Quentin Point; Martin Manz and Reinhard Matz’s Unsere Landschaften (Our Landscapes); Wout Berger’s Poisoned Landscape. The New Topographics movement contributed to establishing a critical environmental representations in the canon of artistic photography. This type of ‘environmental photography’ has adapted the 1970s New Topographics exhibition’s subtitle of a ‘man-made landscape’, to point out the negative influence of humans on the Earth.
In Adelaide Brian Medlin in his ‘Ecological Crisis and Social Order’ in the Level-headed Revolutionary, argued that humans need to recognise their place in the natural world, embracing all of nature:
“We shall never be safe in the world for as long as we think only of our own safety in it, that we shall never properly cherish our resources while we think of them only as resources. Amongst the many bad features of this limited perception of the world, the worst is that it readily goes over into an adversarial attitude to non-human nature … The non-human world is to be valued, but not simply because it may serve humankind. Nor is it to be valued as an extension of ourselves. Not even as a means of self-realisation. It is to be valued for itself, because it has value in itself. Until we win our way back to a proper reverence for non-human nature, we shall remain lost in a world growing ever more hostile to us”.
Nature is historical in the sense that it constantly changes and because it has been profoundly – often negatively – affected by human history. Capitalism has a destructive and self-destructive relation to nature. The damage we have inflicted on non-human nature has been extensive, and it could assume catastrophic proportions if we continue to behave as we do now. We are now destroying not just what we are trying to preserve but need to survive.
Climate heating spells the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history. What was once regarded as a necessary, natural condition, underlying the contingent changes of history, now appears to be an effect of human history.
So how do we win our way back to a proper reverence for non-human nature? We can unpack Medlin’s argument for valuing the natural world for itself and not as a resource for us, by turning to Adorno’s account that the two central causes of pathologies of social rationality are that of instrumentalization – coming to cognize and experience objects only insofar as they further our practical project; and secondly, the intensification of socially expressed self-preservation – only relating to objects insofar as they have economic value.
Adorno held that it is crucial – for aesthetic, normative, and epistemic reasons – that art resist the social form of reason, in which objects only appear in relation to their economic fungibility and instrumental value. And this entails that the artwork must be radically autonomous; it must refuse all appearance of economic or instrumental value. Autonomy, then, is the crucial feature of art, in Adorno’s view. It is only autonomy which lends art the power to realize and express our needs; and to stand against the instrumentalized model of reason exterior to it.
Why the central importance of art? Adorno argues that the truth content of art is inseparable from the sensuous particularity of an art work because the kind of knowledge implicit in art works is different from the knowledge of objects given by the natural or social sciences. The instrumental rationality in the theoretical and conceptual ways of knowing the world for self-preservation, and the control of nature, is one that creates modern science, economics and bureaucratic rationality. To do its job it needs to get rid of sensuous materiality, concreteness, and the experience of those things. For Adorno it was the radical afunctionality of the works of art that conferred upon them the capacity to embody and articulate resistance against the contemporary world of universal exchange.
The core thesis of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is that a modernist art practice criticises an abstract, instrumental rationality as a mode of domination by remaining a repository for an alternative mimetic rationality. Modernist art becomes the voice of sensuous particularity against abstract rationality — art is a refuge for mimetic comportment. Mimesis is found in modernist art because art is a sphere which in Adorno’s time is free from the demands of self-preservation and the pursuit of profit.
In Aesthetic Theory Adorno suggests that aesthetic agency can help us recognise the value of the non-human world in so far as the image of natural beauty can lead us out of simply viewing nature as an object to be dominated for the purpose of self-preservation. Nature is something we have learned to master to such an extent that it is almost obliterated. Our experience of nature (first nature) is mediated through a world of images, norms and conventions in our social world (second nature), and this prevents us from stepping outside this and returning to a time when nature is free from domination. Things become complex because our social world presents itself as first nature, thus creating the illusion that things – i.e. social conditions and relations – are naturally ordained. In other words, our image of first nature is, in fact, retroactively modelled from the standpoint of second nature, so that (in a way) there’s always already something mythical about the encounter with what we misperceive as natural. We are stuck in a second nature which deprives us of all contact with first nature.The natural appearance of society can be awfully hard to see through. The natural appearance of society can be awfully hard to see through.
Art now “stands in for” first nature. The view in Aesthetic Theory is that natural beauty does not appear in nature; it appears in the work of art. So it is only as second nature – as art – that natural beauty appears beautiful. That art beauty has replaced natural beauty means, in short, that beauty, which once used to reside in the landscapes, plants or bodies, turned into something produced by the subjects. But the closest we can get to this absent nature is art, and more precisely natural beauty, which contains both a memory of something lost, and a promise of something yet to come. It means, that the memory/promise that nature contained is now preserved in the artwork.
It is the aesthetic experience of natural beauty in art that for a moment; breaks the illusion that second nature that appears to be unchanging; in that moment it becomes clear that everything could be different. It helps to dislodge our instrumental concepts, opens us to non-cognitive experience (one without instrumental concepts) and to be able to relate to the object—a landscape—on its own terms. We see that the world can be in certain states that are not for the subject. History is suspended. There is a promise of something else that is not yet—relating to nature in a non-dominating way. This is a rationality that does not dominate nature as an adversary out of the anxiety of self-preservation and through subsumptive identity thinking; but one based on a living bodily experience that then reflectively and mindfully listens to and is responsive to its object for its own sake. It discloses a world to us that is rejected by the conceptual network of instrumental reason.
The reason behind this argument is that the underlying conflict between an instrumental economic reason (an extrinsically formed capacity to produce universals) obscures the non-identical (the individual particularity of things that is supposedly lost when they are subsumed under a general term). It is mimesis that discloses the non-identical that remains in the sense that the ‘non-identical’ is what is left behind by the conceptual apparatus of instrumental reason, which presses experience and judgment within increasingly constrictive bounds, into which experience, judgment and ethical life do not in fact fit. Mimesis serves as a constant ‘return of the repressed’ – it is through mimesis that we find the possibility of the irruption of these suppressed experiences, impulses, and so forth. Mimesis’ functions as a short-form reference to these non-instrumental phenomena—the non-cognitive qualities of aesthetic experience help us to make sense of the world.
The non-identical is no longer viewed as the isolated particular which it is forced back into being by the identity-thinking of economic reason. The particular is now seen as standing in a pattern of relations to other particulars, a historically sedimented ‘constellation’ which defines its identity. The non-identical is disclosed through a mimetic rationality, which holds the promise of resistance to a dominate order as a mode of contact and engagement: one that is marked by awe, respect and supplication, but also, to the contrary, productive of an affective bringing-close, which moves humans toward the rhythms of nature.
Art for Adorno is rationalized through and through, and itself a species of identity thinking. But it is also a product of identity thinking that harbours the illusion of a resistance to identity thinking; and the existence of that illusion within the work of art makes a difference that matters to the truth of the work of art. Mimesis stands for the fuller experience of reason that is repressed and denied by identity thinking, yet still operative within it. Artworks are true—and their truth is aimed against the falsity of our way of thinking.