A Currency of Visual Imagery
Today I was musing on the observation that image making is capable of being defined and regulated by the economies that regulate other forms of social discourse. It would seem natural, after reflection, that in a media-saturated, image-conscious culture the language of visual imagery would operate within a scale of valuation that governs other forms of economics. We place value upon imagery based on agreed upon conventions, and the dictates of the vagaries of the current taste in fashion.
This sense of value commonly placed upon image-making implies that imagery serves to operate within a cultural setting as the currency of social exchange; implicit is the notion that the more conscious a culture is of the importance of visual imagery the more highly inflated, and volatile, will be the resulting price placed on such imagery. This is in direct opposition to the notion that as image making becomes more and more democratized, its valuation will be diluted through the simple effects of the volume of scale.
These two seemingly oppositional forces coexist simultaneously and are in constant flux, serving to provide a continual field of change that become commonly interpreted as the irrational, unquantifiable effects of a fickle, middle-class, art-consuming public.
We exist at this moment in the state where the devaluating effects of image over-saturation, brought about by the efficiencies of a technologized mass image-making and reproduction industry, overwhelm any effects of cultural valuation possible through an educated, appreciative and critical audience. We may therefore begin to question the role played by, and even the very existence of, such an educated, art-conscious public. When artistic sensibility is intermixed, interwoven and hopelessly confused with mere popular culture there can be no further discussion or thought around the social contribution of creativity, other then a mass consensus that, if it's popular (i.e. it generates a positive cash flow) then it must therefore merit our interest and consumption.
This is the fatal flaw in the pursuit of art as popular culture: the currency of exchange, and measure of valuation, is monetary rather than intellectual. Therefore, no higher considerations of art are possible, aside from the measure of success in a monetary sense.
Lest we be accused of some high-art snobbery, it needs to be stated forthright that the world of the 'art gallery elite' is another strata of social valuation measured by exclusivity, whose access and measure of success is often a mirror image of mainstream popular culture, masquerading as a form of intellectual sophistication and pretension.
The problem with mechanized image-making in general, and photography in particular, is that the nature of reproducibility inherent in the technology makes it an ideal medium within which to deliver messages of social, political and consumerist ideology and propaganda. It is no mere coincidence that the century that saw the introduction of the language of universal photographic imagery was also witness to a continuous series of global mass-slaughters, and the threat of mass-extinction, unprecedented in human history.
The power of the photographic image in particular to simulate the sense of unmanipulated reality places it in the forefront of usefulness as a tool for mass manipulation by political and economic powers. The fact that photographic images have been used repeatedly throughout the 20th century as vehicles for state and corporate propaganda is a foregone conclusion that is impossible to contradict. This places the individual photographic artist, working in solitude independent of the institutions of mass media, in a precarious position. How does such a person, approaching their pursuit of creativity from honest internal motivations and an open dialog with themselves, work within a medium whose very fabric is defined by the dichotomy between a facade of veracity and an intrinsic quality that makes manipulation inevitable? Given the medium's intrinsic ability to deceive, how does one work in a manner that warrants an honest and open approach to the subject at hand?
On the one hand, it is possible to conclude that such an honest and open approach within the medium of photography is impossible, unless the artist himself be sorely deceived by the very medium that he has claimed to master for higher purposes. With this in mind, the only honest approach to the medium is one that acknowledges these intrinsic characteristics and purposefully takes advantage of the manipulative and deceptive tendencies implicit to the genre.
It is in this spirit that we must approach photographic-based art going forward from here: at its most transparent, it is merely an isolated moment in time as viewed from a cyclopean, one-eyed, Brunaschellian perspective, permitting the resulting visual document to be read on a factual basis when, in fact, there is little in the photographic image that is factual. Photography appropriates and co-opts optical wave front energy and presents it as a representative sample of the 'real world', through the faith that the viewer places in the resulting presentation as possessing an internal veracity all its own.
Visual artists must begin to use the photographic image for the purposes of deconstructing (to borrow an over-used term from the world of post-modernism) the camera-generated image in order to explore the mechanisms of visual deception intrinsic to the medium. It is through this process that the artist can begin to reveal to a heretofore naive public the power that has been placed in the hands of the image-makers of the power elite in this oligarchic society.~