During this week of studies, amongst other things, we were introduced to the basics of starting a photography business. Unsurprisingly, whether a domestic professional or an aspiring high-end professional, quality of work seemed to be the quintessential prerequisite for a successful career in the photography market.
And it is this aspect, quality of work, that I would like to address in this blog post.
For most nerds out there, quality of work is always intimately tied to the notion of aesthetics… and this is a good thing, as it allows philosophical ramblings of the most extravagant sort – and this is precisely what I am going to commit myself to doing in this blog post ☺
The entry for the word “aesthetic” in the etymological dictionary is as follows:
1798, from German Ästhetisch (mid-18c.) or French esthétique (which is from German), ultimately from Greek aisthetikos “of or for perception by the senses, perceptive,” of things, “perceptible,” from aisthanesthai “to perceive (by the senses or by the mind), to feel,” from PIE *awis-dh-yo-, from root *au- “to perceive.”
Popularized in English by translations of Kant and used originally in the classically correct sense “science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception” [OED]. Kant had tried to reclaim the word after Alexander Baumgarten had taken it in German to mean “criticism of taste” (1750s), but Baumgarten’s sense attained popularity in English c. 1830s (despite scholarly resistance) and freed the word from philosophy. Walter Pater used it (1868) to describe the late 19c. movement that advocated “art for art’s sake,” which further blurred the sense. [Whewell had proposed callesthetics for “the science of the perception of the beautiful.”]
As an adjective by 1798 “of or pertaining to sensual perception;” 1821 as “of or pertaining to appreciation of the beautiful.” Related: Aesthetically” (HARPER 2001-2019).
Now the rabid mob (who, let it be known, happen to be international, to the utmost disappointment of the Maltese kind), so keen to frown upon anything cerebral and philosophical, or, frankly, to anything that evinces a modicum of thought, are ever so keen to adopt and maintain the common association between the notion of aesthetics and the “appreciation of the beautiful”.
Interestingly, I believe it was a Maltese painter who started breaking down this insipid association.
In a painting done late in his career (shown below), artist Giuseppe Calì, practically painted a corpse hovering in mid-air. He evidently hadn’t lost any of his technical skills, as evinced, for example, by his unflagging signature bravura in painting the draperies and other minute details, such as the rose growing in the foreground. For an artist trained in the Romantic tradition, and having produced hundreds of paintings of exceptional beauty, this sudden and unprecedented turn in his career seems somewhat dramatic. In this painting, Calì, the renegade, educates us, and introduces to the masses the latest novelty: ugliness.
Now, having profusely tried and tested ugliness in the visual arts, we have entered a new age, one closer to the Kantian understanding of the notion of aesthetics. We shall term this new age the post-aesthetic age.
Barry Hartley Slater, in his online philosophical article about aesthetics, states:
“In all, Kant’s theory of pure beauty had four aspects: its freedom from concepts, its objectivity, the disinterest of the spectator, and its obligatoriness. By “concept,” Kant meant “end,” or “purpose,” that is, what the cognitive powers of human understanding and imagination judge applies to an object, such as with “it is a pebble,” to take an instance. But when no definite concept is involved, as with the scattered pebbles on a beach, the cognitive powers are held to be in free play; and it is when this play is harmonious that there is the experience of pure beauty. There is also objectivity and universality in the judgment then, according to Kant, since the cognitive powers are common to all who can judge that the individual objects are pebbles. These powers function alike whether they come to such a definite judgment or are left suspended in free play, as when appreciating the pattern along the shoreline. This was not the basis on which the apprehension of pure beauty was obligatory, however. According to Kant, that derived from the selflessness of such an apprehension, what was called in the eighteenth century its “disinterest.” This arises because pure beauty does not gratify us sensuously; nor does it induce any desire to possess the object. It “pleases,” certainly, but in a distinctive intellectual way. Pure beauty, in other words, simply holds our mind’s attention: we have no further concern than contemplating the object itself. Perceiving the object in such cases is an end in itself; it is not a means to a further end, and is enjoyed for its own sake alone” (HARTLEY SLATER n.d.).
[For those unremitting in their quest to save the world from academic faux pax, below are Kant’s own explications of the beautiful inferred from the first, second, third and fourth moments of a judgement of taste:
“Taste is the ability to judge an object, or a way of presenting it, by means of a liking or disliking devoid of all interest. The object of such a liking is called beautiful.” (KANT 1987:53)
“Beautiful is what, without a concept, is liked universally.” (KANT 1987: 64)
“Beauty is an object’s form of purposiveness insofar as it is perceived in the object without the presentation of a purpose.” (KANT 1987: 84)
“Beautiful is what without a concept is cognized as the object of a necessary liking.” (KANT 1987: 90)]
Appropriating the above words by Hartley Slater, images are nowadays to be “enjoyed for [their] sake alone” (HARTLEY SLATER n.d.). A particular example of work, filched from the post-aesthetic age, that arouses this kind of perceptual pleasure is the stunning Instagram profile, Dialogue D&A, by David Campany and Anastasia Samoylova (@dialogue_aandd). Recently, Samoylova posted a photo on her personal Instagram profile (a profile which, necessarily, has much in common with the profile she co-authors with Campany), showing a biggish woman from behind, sporting dyed hair, wearing tight black, (what seem to me) latex pants and wearing a very skimpy bra top. A follower of Samoylova’s profile seemed in earnest concern about this particular photo and asked what the purpose of this photo was and whether it was meant to be mocking the subject portrayed, to which Samoylova curtly and aptly replied that the purpose was: “to look, as with all the pictures” (SAMOYLOVA 2019).
In her revelatory chapter “Photographic Evangels”, from her book “On Photography”, Susan Sontag states:
“It is not altogether wrong to say that there is no such thing as a bad photograph—only less interesting, less relevant, less mysterious ones. […] The role of the museum in forming contemporary photographic taste cannot be overestimated. Museums do not so much arbitrate what photographs are good or bad as offer new conditions for looking at all photographs. This procedure, which appears to be creating standards of evaluation, in fact abolishes them. The museum cannot be said to have created a secure canon for the photographic work of the past, as it has for painting. Even as it seems to be sponsoring a particular photographic taste, the museum is undermining the very idea of normative taste. Its role is to show that there are no fixed standards of evaluation, that there is no canonical tradition of work. Under the museum’s attentions, the very idea of a canonical tradition is exposed as redundant” (2005: 110).
The photographic apparatus enables one to leisurely snap away, as the founder of Kodak himself, George Eastman, rightly sensed and capitalised on when devising his 1888 Kodak advertising slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest” (WIKIPEDIA 2016).
I end this post with characteristic charismatic irony, mind-boggling ambiguity and a healthy dollop of dark humour (please do see picture below) ☺
HARPER, Douglas. 2001-2019. Online Etymology Dictionary [online]. Available at: http://www.etymonline.com [accessed 5 October 2019].
HARTLEY SLATER, Barry. n.d. ’Aesthetics’. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource [online]. Available at: https://www.iep.utm.edu/aestheti/ [accessed 5 October 2019].
KANT, Immanuel. 1987. Critique of Judgement. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. USA: Hackett Publishing Company.
SAMOYLOVA, Anastasia (@anasamoylova). 2019. #Miami downtown, October 3 [Instagram post]. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/B3IfrrFFBuK/ [accessed 6 October 2019].
SONTAG, Susan. 2005. On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks LLC.
WIKIPEDIA. 2016. ‘You Press the Button, We Do the Rest’. WIKIPEDIA 3 October [online]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Press_the_Button,_We_Do_the_Rest [accessed 5 October 2019].
John BALDESSARI. 1966-68. An Artist is Not Merely the Slavish Announcer. Whitney Museum of American Art [online]. Available at: https://www.whitney.org/WatchAndListen/1092 [accessed 5 October 2019].
Giuseppe Calì. 1919. The Assumption of Our Lady. Facebook [online]. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/prevarti/photos/a.207525882648946/1326241217444068/?type=3&theater [accessed 5 October 2019].
Screenshot of Instagram profile. October 2019 at São Pedro de Alva. Photograph by the author.