CS Part 1: The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism, Douglas Crimp, 1980

As with the previous post, I first looked at this during UVC. It is a less hefty, daunting article than Benjamin’s and therefore more digestible. My first encounter seems to have been about becoming familiar with information; names, concepts, era-specific concerns.


  • I have begun to suspect that artists are sometimes, perhaps even often, less radical than I had always assumed (and I am wondering if the general population also assume this about artists or was it just me and my naivety?) We tend to expect radical mavericks in our artists; in my imagination they are the people who question the status quo and hold a light up to societies’ assumptions. But, in fact, I sense a deep, (perhaps dishonest) conservatism ‘out there’ which stems from the institutions and their weight in terms of authoritative history – and I wonder if educational institutions, in particular, are guilty of perpetuating this. Do they keep artists in shackles? Perhaps the artists feel safe, as they focus inwards, making work that satisfies the institution’s demands and reinforces its authority, but which at times risk being irrelevant to anyone outside that circle. Crimp begins his article by examining this as he discusses postmodernism and the ‘return of repression’. He talks about postmodernism being a breach from modernism which is dictated by said institutions – namely “the first the museum; then, art history” (91). He suggests it is a fantasy that art is free from the dogma I have described above and that postmodernism aims to rupture that fantasy, in this instance by valuing the copy, the unoriginal, the appropriated. This was a direct response to Modernism, emerging in the 80s, and as an alternative and possibly an antidote to performance in the 70s, where ephemerality, as opposed to fixed longevity, was valued.
  • He goes on to question the dogma that only an original can contain presence; “it may seem a bit odd, because Laurie Anderson’s particular presence is effected through the use of reproductive technologies which really make her quite absent”. Today this looks like an early realisation that the direction reproduction is heading in means we will no longer be able to undervalue reproduction as something cheap and tacky, which we might do with the postcards of the Mona-Lisa. (And which people today do with Snap Chat filters for example.) Perhaps it’s already been written, but I am wondering how a short-story about an all-powerful ‘big Other’ which was conceived of and written in code, based on copies and reproductions, might look.
  • “The presence of the artist in the work must be detectable; that is how the museum knows it has something authentic. But it is this very authenticity, Benjamin tells us, that is inevitably depreciated through mechanical reproduction, diminished through the proliferation of copies” (94) There is so much work nowadays which relies on, queries, makes use of “copies and copies of copies”. I will be referring to Eric Kessels’s  2011 24 Hours in Photos project tomorrow in a workshop for 11-year-olds. Kessel’s work not only carries his presence but the presence of mass production, of the abundance of images, the and the literal physical weight of the spectacle and consumerism, as well as digital materialism (is there such a thing? I think so). The prints, usually only seen as data on a screen, are piled in a church illuminating the shift in power – from god to consumerism or the masses depending on which way you choose to look at it. Perhaps both are valid?  This conversation about aura and reproduction seems like it should be irrelevant today – perhaps it’s been usurped by the dull old insistence by some that analogue is valuable and digital isn’t. Although that particular nonsense might still carry weight in a few, but hopefully increasingly limited circles, I suspect it will need to give itself up soon as more and more people make work about code and its ability to self-generate, or which is interactive, or links up with the science that will take our reality wherever it is going. However, I’m not entirely sure the educational institutions – especially in relation to photography – are as caught up as they might be…
  • “It would seem, though, that if the withering away of aura is an inevitable fact of your time”… we humans will always mourn the passing of time and anything that tells us it is happening, such as technology developing (I wonder if those early wheel adaptors lamented the loss of a time when there was no such ease for older hardier humans who did without!) Even so, both Crimp and Benjamin are actually in favour of this withering away of aura (as each sees it) as it can be viewed as instrumental in the “liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.” (95).  However, it seems to me cultural heritage continues, to this day, to dominate and retains the world’s long-held structures in position, even with all the melting and blending of conceptual boundaries we know are taking place beneath the surface and above. (I’m continually reminded of the Royal Academy and its significant aura of respectability, power and the calm self-assured certainty it exudes.) Cultural heritage may be secular now in many instances, but it still dominates. 
  • “…then equally inevitable are all those projects to recuperate it, to pretend that the original and the unique are still possible and desirable. And this is nowhere more apparent than in the field of photography itself, the very culprit of mechanical reproduction” This feels like a much bigger conversation which I think relates back to the simple but crucial othering of self through language and what that means for us from the moment it begins to take place in infancy. Crimp quotes Sherrie Levine talking about walking in on her parents having sex, and then feeling the need as a child to split herself in two, as her original self remained distant and impassive, watching. But this is what it is to be human as Crimp describes too – we are constantly having to invent and perform what is expected of us as we struggle to recall earlier versions, which may become subsumed and altered by memory in any case.  
  • There is some attention to the painting’s ‘hatred of photography’. Again, we witness the very human addiction to groupishness. We critters will do this in relation to absolutely anything. Returning to my initial bullet point here – that artists are often not really radical at all. They conform to the same human shapes and patterns of behaviour as anyone else. The petty arguments and exclusions and cliquiness so typical of our species in painting or photography or fragmented groups within are a microcosm of what is taking place all over the world all of the time. What irks about it taking place here is the critical and superior way in which art and artists of all persuasions comport themselves. This article feels as much about that aspect as it does about anything else. I’m not sure how relevant this is but it feels important today, as hate and derision dominate, as superiority complexes clash on social media and then spill into the offline world. I keep meaning to write about The Goodness Paradox (2019) by Richard Wrangham and as reread this article, I was reminded of it. The desire to be in a group, even if the group claims to be about rejecting the main group, is such a powerful instinct. Wrangham’s thesis suggests that the ability to gossip about others meant that we were able to divert attention from ourselves (save ourselves) and accuse others who would risk being executed. The best way to avoid this would be to fit in. If you stood out, you attracted attention and your chances of being excluded/executed increased. Language at once reduces our reactionary aggression by allowing for time and planning but increases our more calculating aggression which is pre-meditated. Our need to be accepted equates literally to the difference between life and death and drives co-operation. With this instinct deeply embedded in our genetic coding, the arguments which rage between painting and photography, or analogue and digital, RA trained or self-taught feel critical because it’s about survival. And the institution is gargantuan and seemingly impossible to stand up against. But civilisation is too far developed to do without so they are necessary and useful – but there is always a loss. Crimp acknowledges the struggle, but equates it here to space on the gallery walls – the life, and death of certain mediums or styles or trends. As digital technology brings in sweeping changes, what can seem like petty and daft arguments to outsiders (and some practitioners) becomes more understandable. And there is a big shift towards self-publication as it becomes more and more possible and affordable. What does this mean for the institution?
  • I will leave any comments about Sherman until I have been to her exhibition with the OCA.


Wrangham, R. 2019 The Goodness Paradox (Kindle Edition), Profile Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.