turning back to the image

The reception of  the 1960s and early 1970s conceptual art  in Australia (eg., Art and Language, Ian Burn etc ) can be read as a dissent from, or a disdain for, the image as icon. This reception  can be interpreted as part of the  denigration of vision tradition  that Martin Jay maps in his Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought  text.

This dissent was  directed against the  view that  vision  has  a superior capacity to provide access to the world and  it often expressed a hostility to the hegemonic regime of Western visuality and its society of the spectacle.  Pop art, for instance, was anchored in the one-dimensional celebration of the society of the spectacle and the primacy of the image as commodity  that relied on the work of many commercial photographers in the advertising industry.  Conceptual art was a critique of the politics of visuality qua spectacle; a critique of the political economy of the sign premised on a fear of the  image's political impact--its seductive power.   

Conceptual art as an anti-aesthetic tradition  was an  anti-pictorial, anti-visual movement with undercurrents of iconophobia and scopophilia.Christinia Barton in her essay The Photographic Legacy of Post-Object in Image and Text puts it this way:

Although photography is a mode of (mechanical) representation it served as an alternative to those traditional [art] practices. There are I believe six qualities, conditions or potentialities of photography that post-object artists were drawn to in their specific critique of the historical meaning and function of art. In light of these, it could be claimed that the photograph and its derivatives provided a means to supplement without separating post-object art from the social environment that was its raw material, and to more seamlessly insert it into a discursive field. They are: the an-aesthetic dimension of photography; its ubiquity, its reproducibility; its heterogeneity; indexicality and finally its reflexivity or self-criticality.

Barton goes on to say that:

In the 1970s it was exactly photography's freedom from the baggage of fine art that was the draw for artists searching for an alternative to the aesthetic tyrannies of late modernism. While art photographers were arguing their case for a place for photography in the pantheon of high art, on the grounds of its intrinsic formal qualities, post-object artists were merely using the camera as a recording device in their moves away from that institutional framework. They were disinterested in the aesthetic qualities of photography or the technical aspects of its production as ends in themselves. Rather photography was undertaken largely without the requirement of skill or specialist technical knowledge, in the mode of the amateur snapshot or the scientific record, often not by the artist themselves, but rather by someone else, charged with the business of documenting the action. As well as distancing themselves from the craft of photography or any aspirations to photography as Art, artists were attracted to the medium on the grounds of its ubiquity.


Instead of ditiching or dismantlng the image photography can deconstruct it by reconsidering the art of image-making--to go back to the picture rather than turn away from it fully aware that our   lives and desires are mediated by images in the mass media.