Photography – The Triumph of Style

Posted: February 21, 2018 in Uncategorized

It’s hard to overestimate he significance of photography in the work (and life) of critic Susan Sontag, perhaps one of the 20th century’s most photographed women. (Sontag spent the final years of her life in a long-term relationship with noted celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz, who documented her demise from cancer.) To elucidate this subject it might be valid to refer to the work of French art historian, novelist and statesman André Malraux – a figure whose ideas we’ll soon see critiqued in the comparatively recent writings of art historian Douglas Crimp.


André Malraux with his “Museum Without Walls,” 1950

One of Malraux’s very first texts, a 1922 preface to an exhibition catalog, already presents this notion of art as a vast semiotic system, a multiple chorus of meaning. In it Malraux had written: “We can feel only by comparison. He who knows Andromaque or Phedre will gain a better idea of the French genius by reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream than by reading all the other tragedies by Racine.

– Rosalind E. Krauss

In particular, one thinks of Malraux’s concept of the “Museum without Walls”. Taking the form of an enormous book, Voices of Silence, this museum was more properly to be understood as a strictly ideal space in which art works from multiple cultures and historical periods would be reduced to weightless and isolated photographic images, thus allowing for a free-association and comparison of a vast catalog of works in various media. Not that it makes strict sense, but my impression is that Wimsatt & Beardsley’s criticism is essentially an similar attempt to reduce all poems to pure data, disembodied word images.

Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara

If you think about it, photography, which reduces all of life and culture to documents, presents itself as the most anonymous, intentionless and affectless medium – that medium which, even more than language was for Shelley, is no medium at all, and consequently the very best medium to function as the “universal” medium through which to convert a host of culturally specific works of art into to a large-scale display of “global” culture. Photography converts the work of art into a sign, and the sign, like the commodity in Marx, obeys the law of universal equivalency and exchangeability. Or so Jean Baudrillard taught in his For A Critique of The Political Economy of The Sign.


  1. Collin Andersen says:

    “Museum Without Walls” seems a good choice for this piece. To me, the title runs parallel to the expression “a picture says a thousand words”. A closeup of handful of photos on the floor could could bear a sister title of “An Unbound Book” or “A Story Without Pages”. Museum is appropriate for this shot because the display of the photos has an aesthetic value in and of itself, much like how a museum draws.
    I’m a little surprised title selection hasn’t come up more in the writings we’ve covered thus far. Especially for the avant garde or other unpredictable displays, having a title can key the audience in on the subject or just as easily throw them off the trail. Some examples are Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” which suggests an interpretation of the paint splotches or a completely random title having nothing to do with the piece whatsoever that sharpens intrigue. It may not be on the canvas, but a caption is still part of the art.

    On a completely different thought, Photoshop throws an interesting twist into the analysis of photography as a medium. Photographs can be seen as a pre-textured canvas that addition layers of creativity can be applied. I would wager concurrent art critics are continuously trying to work new developments into the framework of art theory as they come.

    • I think the idea of that earlier critics were committed to medium specificity, which is to say, untranslatability from one medium to the next. Where as photography, here, is understood as a universal medium or mediator. Precisely because it is automatic and shows no traces of the photographers personal style, it can be used to reduce work produced in others mediums to pure image.

      Your observations on Photosphop seems appropriate, as Malraux and Sontag are still living in the analog era, in which a photograph is seem to be an ‘index’, a trace left on reality by light. With the advent of digital media, images are no longer direct traces of projected light, but rather mere accumulations of code, copies without an original. The word we use for such quasi-entities is “simulacrum”.

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