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andre 17 Linda Andre The Politics of Postmodern Photography It is a commonplace assertion, nowadays, that we have entered the historical period of postmodernism in all the arts, even if there are still debates in some quarters over what that term actually means; yet there is, perhaps, no area in which the project of postmodernism has been formulated so coherently, promoted so ceaselessly, and has triumphed so conclusively as in the realm of contemporary art photography. From the moment in the late 70s, when a handful of photographers working in New York were first grouped together under the label "postmodern," to the present, within a mere 6-7 years, postmodernism has acquired all the weight of orthodoxy in the art-photography world. To take any other position as a photographer, or to argue for its viability as a critic, is to be ignored. To ask why this should be so is to raise some important issues for cultural theory concerning the interrelationship of art, criticism, and ideology. I want to trace the history of the phenomenon of postmodern photography, not as it if it were an inevitable, autonomous outgrowth, but as inseparable from the critical network which supports it— indeed, without which it could not exist. And I want to assess the claims made by the apologists for this work—not the least problematic of which are the claims that it is political. In the Fall of 1977, an exhibition called "Pictures" at the lower Manhattan alternative gallery Artists Space was organized by Douglas Crimp, who had just become managing editor of this country's most prominent journal of poststructuralist (or deconstructionist) art theory, October . The show apparently attracted little attention at the time; yet Crimp later published an expanded version of his catalogue essay in the Spring 1979 October. "Pictures" was the article that broke the news about postmodernism to a sophisticated art audience, announcing its art and its moment with a quite characteristic emphasis: Although the examples discussed and illustrated here are very few, necessitated by the newness and relative obscurity of this work, I think it is safe to say that what I am outlining is a predominant sensibility among the current generation of younger artists, or at least that group ofartists who remain committed to radical innovation} Crimp's first priority was to locate this work securely within the tradition of the avant-garde, which recognizes as valid only that art which breaks 18 the minnesota review with previous styles and thus advances the history of art. What is the nature of this break? Interestingly enough, postmodernism is not named as such in the 1977 catalogue essay, but the new sensibility Crimp discerned here was to be cited over and over as critics established the meaning of the word. The artists of "Pictures," he said, start from the assumption that ...we only experience reality through the pictures we make of it. To an ever greater extent our experience is governed by pictures, pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema. Next to these pictures, firsthand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial,2 As a result, ,.,,a group of younger artists sees representation as an inescapable part of our ability to grasp the world around us. It is not, therefore, relegated to a relationship to reality that is either secondary or transcendent; and it does not achieve signification in relation to what is represented, but in relation to other representations. Representation has returned in their work not in the familiar guise of realism, which seeks to resemble a prior existence, but as an autonomous function that might be described as "representation as such," For their pictures, these artists have turned to the available images in the culture around them. But they subvert the standard signifying function of those pictures, tied to their captions, their commentaries, their narrative sequences—tied, that is, to the illusion that they are directly transparent to a signifier.3 Not until the 1979 essay would Crimp first use the word "postmodernism" to describe work that used received imagery with supposedly subversive intention, work that seemed to be in accordance with this idea that there is no...


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