Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Concrete Poetry

One thing that is very hard to fake is the harmony of chance, whether it be the self-ordering of the natural world, or the unintended by-products of human activity.  One of the great advances of 20th century art -- perhaps the greatest -- was to grant us permission to regard these non-intentional, aleatory markings and arrangements as an expressive form in their own right.  Much of abstract art is, to my mind, simply the attempt of professional artists to take credit for recognizing what is all around us.  "Appropriation" is not restricted to stealing other people's photographs.

As soon as you try to paint or draw this mysterious harmony it starts to evaporate.  Deliberate marks have their own beauty, of course, but to recreate deep harmony takes considerable skill.  In the end, it is hard to separate one's admiration of a painting from one's admiration for the talent of its painter, most obviously where hyper-realism is the goal (see the work of John Salt or Eliot Hodgkin, for example).  But few people grasp the extent to which an artist like Picasso was trying and failing, in his work, to escape the prison of his own boring facility.

Not so random marks on a wall.  They are simply there, to be remarked, to be used, or to be ignored.  No success or failure attaches to them.  Though it might be said that, in admiring them, you are merely admiring your own sensibility.  Well, and why not?  What else are you going to do with it?

The wonder of photography, in its purest form, is its ability to put in the hands of anybody -- anybody! -- the means to frame selections from the world and say, in effect, I saw this, and was moved to preserve it and to share it with you.  It's one reason why photo-purists reject image manipulation, going right back to the reaction of Group f/64 in the 1930s to the "painterly" conventions and tweakings of the Pictorialists.  It's like a implied breach of trust.  Though it's interesting how much emphasis purists tend to put on their skill -- particularly their skill at re-rendering a photograph to more nearly resemble their original "vision" -- presumably to put some distance between themselves and "anybody".

It's also why "found" photographs so often trump the deliberate work of self-conscious photo-artists.  They come to us with their mystery and their harmony restored, with any of the original photographer's intentions and associations shorn away, and with the perfect, open charm of a concrete object that has bobbed up into our consciousness from the hazy depths of the past. 

© 2011 John and Teenuh Foster 

1 comment:

Sean Bentley said...

Great post, Mike - very well stated.

FWIW, typically I try to "retouch" only insofar as I can restore the inadequacies of my camera's rendering of the actuality.