Identity Theory

I am pushing ahead with ideas for my Advanced photography course at the OCA and my chosen genre is Portraits in Series. My main project will be a photographic portrait series of athletes who have competed in all day endurance sports events called Ironman races. This is not a series of photographs of sports people rather and exploration of issues of identity, gender, nationality and race.

I have been thinking about the question of identity a lot. The more I read the more I have found personal resonances with contemporary thinking about the fluid nature of identity. I have recently bought a book on Identity Theory by Peter Burke and Jan Stets. The introduction states its purpose as:

All people derive particular identities from their roles in society, the groups they belong to, and their personal characteristics. Introduced almost thirty years ago, identity theory is a social psychological theory in the field of sociology that attempts to understand identities, their sources in interaction and society, their processes of operation, and their consequences for interaction and society. The theory brings together in a single framework the central roles of both meaning and resources in human interaction and purpose. This book describes identity theory, its origins, the research that supports it, and its future direction.

I hope that reading this book will help me to understand more about the subject and that this will inform and improve my photographic work. A post setting out a first draft of my Artists Statement for the photographic series which I have entitled I am an Ironman  can be read here

Sources

Burke, P. and  Stets, J. (2009) Identity Theory Oxford:Oxford University Press

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Project The Flaneur

In his influential essay, The Painter of Modern Life,  Baudelaire describes a character called the Flaneur,a man of leisure who is  able to experience the city as a detached spectator. The Flaneur was part of the crowd but could at the same time invisible within it. His character is based on an illustrator for the London Illustrated News, called Constantin Guys whom Baudelaire describes as ‘a passionate lover of crowds and incognitos’.

Deux grisettes et deux soldats (c.1860) by Constantine Guys

Baudelaire was putting Guys (anonymously) forward as a role model for the Modern artist. He saw Modernism as a concern with the ‘ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent’ , as opposed to the ‘eternal and immutable’. In Guys he saw someone who captured the essence of Modern life in his illustrations. In these Guys showcased his interest in the different ‘types’ in the scene and the importance of fashion His stamping ground was the Arcades of Paris which were covered shopping areas which allowed the Flaneur to roam freely within the crowd and to observe and ultimately record the scene.

Walter Benjamin posits in his description of the Flaneur that “Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the Flaneur abandons himself in the crowd. He . . . enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes”. In this way the Flaneur is dredging the scene for material for his next work. The Flaneur is associated with observation, with the gaze, rather than being seen as an active participant in the crowd. In this sense the Flaneur and Flanerie serve as an exploration of understanding the viewing habits of the mass-media audience.

What influence did this phenomenon have on the world of the artist

The fascination of artist with Modern life can be seen with the emergence around the mid nineteenth century of the Realist painters, although painters such as Courbet were concerned more with figurative and landscape subjects rather than urban life. The Realists were  followed closely by the Impressionists. It was Baudelaire’s friendship that gave Manet the encouragement to plunge into painting urban life, and in doing so to become the true painter of Modern life. The impressionists in general devoted much of their work to capturing the hurly burly of urban life and there is no doubt that Manet set the direction for this.

The Music in the Tuileries by Edouard Manet

With the increasing ubiquity of photography it could be argued that artists turned their back on representative art and moved towards abstraction. The preoccupation with the everyday did however remain. Cubism, Futurism and the many other ism’s of the early 20th century were concerned with subjects extracted from the world around them. Photography nevertheless has become the principle medium for realistic representation. It is interesting to see how the genre of ‘street photography’ developed. There are many parallels in my opinion between the flaneur and the street photographer, although Baudelaire object strenuously to photography’s use as an artistic medium. Henri Cartier Bresson’s stealthy movement within the crowd, capturing his ‘decisive moments’ with his Leica feels to me  very much like a modern day Constantin Guy.

It is also possible to view the Flaneur as a metaphor for the gaze. In this way the concept’s influence goes beyond simply the recording of the Modern or everyday. The Flaneur is most clearly a masculine figure and as such would be a subject of interest for post modernist artists concerned with gender, patriachy and the male gaze. The Flaneur has become a target for the critique by late 20th and early 21st century artists.

Sources

Baudelaire,  C, Mayne, J. (ed.)  (1995) The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays London:Phaidon

Benjamin, W. (1989)  Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Harry Zohn, trans. (London, 1989)

Schwarttz, V. Walter Benjamin for Historians, Website, http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/106.5/ah0501001721.html , 22/11/2011

Bowness, A. (1994) Poetry & Painting: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Appolinaire and their Painter Friends Oxford:Clarendon Press

Project Photography: the new reality

Osip Brik’s article Photography versus Painting was written in the 1920s well after photography was invented but at a time when it would have been possible to consider what impact it had had on painting and representational art. Brik’s thesis is that representational painting had been outmoded by photography which is more accurate,  faster and cheaper. He spends some time discussing the issue of colour as it is his view that some painters  believed that the absence of colour from photography is a major weakness in its ability to portray reality. Brik counters this argument with the view that colour in painting is not in fact accurate and is the artist best approximation to reality. Below I set out my response to the article under a series of headings.

Have Brik’s points been taken up by photographers or painters?

Early art photographers made great efforts to emulate painting. They staged photographs. They used soft focus and other effects at the development and printing stages to demonstrate how the photographic medium can be used as a creative artistic tool. In the early 20th century there was a growing sense in Modernist photography that photographic images could be art forms in their own right. Paul Strand was one of the formative photographers working in this manner. Strand experimented with photographic abstractions evolving an aesthetic based on the objective nature of reality .

Wall Street, 1915 by Paul Strand

Strand’s work influenced a later group led by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams – Group f/64. The members of Group f/64 believed ‘that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself’. This quotation from Edward Weston illustrates the views of the Group, ‘The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh’. It seems to me that Group f/64 were truly operating in the spirit of Brik’s ideas.

As Modernist art photography developed curators such as John Szarkowski at MOMA in New York continued to stress the importance of emphasising ‘photographic’ qualities in photographic art. He championed photographers such as Garry Winogrand and William Eggleston, whose work was based on the camera’s capacity to capture slices of reality in a democratic way. Once again Brik’s idea that the camera has replaced painting in representational art seems to have been central to the thinking.

Throughout the 20th century photography has played a dominant role in the documentary genre. Photojournalism and more recently film documentaries and news have played an important role in the news media. Images have been used to create a sense of authenticity or reality for news stories. With the birth of digital imaging and the internet there has been an exponential explosion in the volume of images in circulation.

In the late 20th century post modernists began to question photography’s capacity to represent reality and Brik’s views on photography began to be challenged.

Resonances with Brik’s ideas in contemporary discussions on photography and painting

There is an ongoing debate about photography and reality. Today there is a broad consensus that photographs do not accurately represent reality. Assuming that they have not been digital altered at best they are a representation of a person or event which has been mediated by a photographer who determines what is included in the frame, the exact timing of the exposure, the viewpoint, the lens used, the lighting conditions etc. It is also now accepted that the context within which the photograph is viewed and the background and disposition of the viewer will both determine how a photograph is read. So when we talk of reality we need to ask the question who’s reality?

Digital enhancement and alteration is now prevalent, particularly in the worlds of advertising and celebrity. Most people these days do not assume that the perfect complexions of the celebrities they see in magazines is anything other than ‘air-brushing’.

The fact is that photographic reality is under question these days. That said photographs in the news media still hold on to an aura of reality. In the case of reliable sources people are still inclined to hang on to old adage that ‘the camera does not lie’.

Paintings influenced by photography

Francis Bacon – Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Francis Bacon made extensive use of photographs as a source of inspiration for his work. He had a particular interest in photographs concerned with movement. He clearly recognised and valued photography’s capacity to freeze motion and thereby allow the viewer to see things which might otherwise go unnoticed. He was particularly interested in the way photography reveals the subtle movements of the human body. Bacon like many modern painters used photography as an encouragement to distort reality or to represent it in purely symbolic terms. But he also studied photographs as a means of gazing at  the real world with greater intensity, which in turn allowed him to represent it with greater emotion and power.

The painting Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X is a good illustration of this. The subject is the pope seated on a throne. His purple cloak and the chair are clearly discernible. The lower half of the figure is incomplete with the pope’s body merging into the background. Very clearly this is not a photographic representation. Nevertheless the influence of photography is strongly present. The most striking element of the painting is the pope’s mouth or more specifically the sense that the pope is screaming.  The influence for this was a photographic still from the Eisenstein movie Battleship Potemkin which shows a nurse screaming after being injured in the eye. By copying the mouth in the photograph Bacon introduced a figurative element which in my view is the most powerful and important motif in the painting.

Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon

Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) Still from ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ (1925)

Gerhard Richter: Woman Descending the Staircase

Gerhard Richter made many black and white paintings which look from a distance just like black and white photographs – so-called photo paintings. On closer inspection the paintings are blurry with the fine detail obscured as would occur when a photograph is poorly focussed or if there is excessive movement.  Richter used black and white  ‘because all the newspapers, the daily diet of photographic material, including television, was black and white, …That’s why it imbued a sense of reality into painting that represented something completely new.’ In essence Richter was trading on the ‘camera does not lie’ adage. In practice his paintings are deliberately made blurry. From a distance they look like photographs, but close up much of the detail is obscured and invites the viewer to add their own interpretation to what they are looking at. The painting Woman Descending the Staircase is illustrative of Richter’s Photo Paintings. In this instance the painting also references an earlier painting by Marcel Duchamp Nude Descending a Staircase No.2. The Duchamp painting could be regarded as an illustration of how painters had moved towards more abstract figurative representation in the early 20th century. The work depicts the movement of a woman as she descends the stairs and is influenced by cubist and futurist painting. It is rather ironic that Richter takes this work and represents it in a photographic form using a medium which is not photographic.

Woman Descending the Staircase by Gerhard Richter

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp


Sources

Schmied, W. (2006) FRANCIS BACON Commitment and Conflict. London:Prestel

Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford:Blackwell

Richter, G.Website, http://www.gerhard-richter.com/ 15/11/11

Project Art as commodity

This project is concerned with the Marxist concept of Fetishism of the Commodity. Having read Marx’s original essay of the same name, the project calls for a number of questions to be answered.

Does the article help us to understand the art market?

Marx’s view is that the intrinsic value of products manufactured through the labour of the proletariat is fundamentally changed when they are traded by the owners of manufacturing entities. They become commodities and their value is no longer linked to the intrinsic value of the materials and labour of which they are made. Their value is determined by the market. As commodities they can achieve values which far outstrip their fundamental worth. Fashion, Brand sponsorship, advertising, packaging etc all contribute to the value of the commodity. In Marx’s words when something is commoditised it becomes fetishised.

The art market thrives on such fetishism or mystification. One of the best illustrations of how this takes place is the  Leonardo Cartoon of the Virgin and Child purchased by the National Gallery. John Berger describes this event in Ways of Seeing. An American wanted to buy the Cartoon and the National Gallery launched a nationwide appeal to raise the £2.5 million needed to buy it and keep it for the Nation. As a consequence the work has taken on a special significance and mystification. It is the most visited exhibit in the Gallery. It has its own special viewing gallery. More postcards of this work are sold than for any other work in the Gallery. None of this is because of what the work shows, because of its meaning, or for that matter because it is the only Leonardo cartoon. Rather the work has been mystified because of the high value placed upon it by the art market. The work has become special because of its market value. All reference to its intrinsic value has now been subsumed to the market.

Does the article help explain the work of artists such as Jeff Koons 

Rather ironically Jeff Koons is a former commodities broker. He has gained a certain notoriety in the art  world through his way of appropriating everyday objects with little or no aesthetic or artistic value and transforming them in to works of art for the gallery. You get the feeling that Koons is poking fun at the commoditisation of art and those who get sucked into this market. Koons work seems to divide opinion in the art market. In my view Koons’ works are largely ironic and challenge both the fetishisation of consumer goods and the commoditisation and mystification of art. Koons talks about the need for the viewer to overcome the sense of shame induced by the art world at taking pleasure from apparently banal imagery. Marx’s ideas are implicit in the critique offered by Koons’s work.

Some examples of Koons’ work

New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker  1981-7 is a Koons work owned by the Tate Modern in London.

New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker 1981-7

As can be seen this work comprises of several hoover vacuum cleaners mounted in a perspex cabinet. The hoovers are all brand new and it is this newness which Koons feels gives them their special appeal. Suspended in the glass cabinets they retain their newness for ever.

Winter Bears  1988 is a second exhibit from the Tate Modern London.

Winter Bears 1988

These Kitch ornaments now find pride of place in one of the top art galleries in the UK. The ceramic statues are made by highly skilled craftsmen to the highest artistic standards but the subject matter is banal in the extreme. Koons is perhaps challenging the conventional preconceptions of style and taste.

Three Ball 50/50 Tank (Two Dr. J. Silver Series, One Wilson Supershot) is a work owned by MOMA in New York. It comprises of three basketballs suspended in water in sealed plastic tanks on a steel frame. 

Three Ball 50/50 Tank (Two Dr. J. Silver Series, One Wilson Supershot)

Here again Koons is idealising everyday objects and placing them in the gallery context. One is left wondering if he is mocking the art establishment. The basketballs have not been treated in any way so that over time they will deteriorate. Perhaps Koons intended this to show how ephemeral commodity goods are and by association art is.

Examples of other artists working in a similar way

Andy Warhol preceded Koons by many years and was arguably the first to transform everyday commodities into art objects. His silkscreen print of Campbells Soup cans are an example of his work.

Campbell's Soup Can 1964 by Andy Warhol

Warhol was a ‘Pop’ artist and took everyday items and reproduced them in an artistic form and sold them as works of art. By doing this he and his fellow artists were effectively striking a blow against the art establishment who made a clear distinction between highbrow and lowbrow art. Rather ironically Warhol’s work is now extremely valuable.

Katharina Fritsch is a German sculptor whose work resembles that of Koons. ‘The Rat King’ is one of her best know works.

The Rat King by Katharina Fritsch

In this work she sculpted a ring of life-sized rats. Each rat is eight feet tall, and perched on its hind legs. Facing outwards they cautiously raise their tiny front paws in suspicious guard. Inside their circle is a knotted configuration, made by the intertwining of each rat’s tail. The work takes an apparently  banal subject – the rat – and by the use of scale and repetition creates an image which has an unsettling quality. The work capitalises on our unease about rats and their historic role in spreading deadly disease. Kitch takes on a mythic quality!!

Sources

Mirzoeff, N. (ed). (2002) The Visual Culture Reader Second edition. Oxford: Routledge

Berger, J. (1990) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin

Tate Modern, London, http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ArtistWorks?cgroupid=999999961&artistid=2368&page=1 14/11/11

Tate Modern, London, Past Exhibitons, Katharina Fritsch  7 September to 9 December 2001, http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/fritsch/default.htm 14/11/11

Museum of Modern Art, New York, Collections, http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=79809 14/11/11

Project Ideology and interpellation

This project involves reading an essay by Althusser entitled Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses (notes towards an investigation) and explores a number of questions arising from this work.

How does Althusser’s structuralism show in the essay

Structuralists work from the point of view that all signifying practices can be analysed to determine their underlying structure. This analysis would reveal the patterns that characterise the underlying system. In the essay Althusser looks at the concept of ideology, analysing the underlying structures which determine how they work. He proposes  two opposing  theses of how  ideologies might be structured and analyses the pros and cons of each. This method of analysis is known as binary opposition and is often used in Structural Analysis.

What does Althusser mean by ideology?

Althusser’s fundamental definition of ideology is Ideology is a representation of an Imaginary Relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. This definition begs the question of why do men ‘need’ this imaginary representation? A simplistic and historic view is that it is because Priests and Despots have tricked people into believing that by obeying them they would be fulfilling the wishes of God. Marx’s ideas follow on from those of Feuerbach. He contended that it is the workers themselves who become ‘alienated’ or separated from their real conditions of existence, resulting in a condition which Marx calls ‘false consciousness’. Althusser proposes an alternative structure based on the concept of Ideological State Apparatuses.

Althussers’s view is that ideologies have a material form made up of the practices and systems of the particular ideology. At the heart of an ideology is what he calls an ideological ‘conceptual’ device or dispostif. This might be a belief in God, or Duty or justice etc. Individuals believe in these concepts and because of this they freely participate in the practices and processes of the relevant Ideological State Apparatuses. For example, an individual who believes in God, will freely participate in the practices of the Church, which is an Ideological State Apparatus. Althusser proposed that individuals are hailed or interpellated by the ideology and are transformed from individuals to become ‘subjects’.

Overt examples of Althusser’s ideas in contemporary Visual Culture

One example which immediately came to mind is the idea that photographs represent reality. This is a myth which the media has sought to perpetuate, which is also supported by the fact that individuals associate photographs with real events or people in their own lives. Notions such as ‘the camera cannot lie’ have entered folk law and have been used by the media to  sway public opinion. As photography developed and printing of photographs became technologically possible photographs came to be used with text and to support a particular line of argument and to add legitimacy views expressed. These days the use of digital film capture in still and moving form are used in the same way by all media channels. The approach has also been used in Advertising, where  idealised images of models and celebrities are proffered as the ‘truth’ and entice individuals to believe that they too can look like their idols if only they buy the clothes, perfume etc etc.

Sources

Althusser, Louis (1978). Lenin and Philosophy. New York:Monthly Review Press.