[Archive] On Art, Photography, and the Contemporary Age

Originally Posted July 2019

The New York Times today has an article featuring a panel of art people discussing and attempting to create a list of “the 25 works of art that define the contemporary age.” I find this article — and the exercise — highly problematic.

The article notes the questionable exclusion of works in significant genres: “Few paintings were singled out; land art was almost entirely absent, as were, to name just a few more categories, works on paper, sculpture, photography, fiber arts and outsider art.”

Naturally, given my own focus in producing photographic art, I find the exclusion of photography most troubling. The relationship between “art” and photography — Is photography “art?” — has never been clearly resolved. What I find significant here is that the Times’s article does not question whether photography can be art. It merely argues that there is little or no photography that “define(s) the contemporary age.” No doubt, the attempt to reduce a list to twenty-five works surely leads to exclusions with which many will disagree. There is photography of art, but that doesn’t count. The list does include Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” But one could well argue that even that does not really qualify as art photography; the “art” is more precisely a performance art, the photographic series serving to document it. Otherwise, there’s no photography.

In what it calls an “Interlude,” the article offers two photographs that could be considered and surely are “art” photography: “Untitled Film Still #14” of Cindy Sherman’s; and “Embrace” by Robert Mapplethorpe.

I find the article problematic for other reasons. It seems to me that the panel spends a lot of time debating “contemporary art” without ever considering or agreeing on what is the “contemporary age.” Or, rather, perhaps the panel’s choices reflect each participant’s personal view of what constitutes the contemporary age.

I think there is a host of well-known photographers whose work clearly reflects various elements of our contemporary world. I would include more work by Mapplethorpe. Then I would look at — to name but a few — Hiroshi Sugimoto, Wolfgang Tillmans, Gregory Crewdson, Sebastaio Salgado, and Jeff Wall.

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