Aesthetic Theory 101 : Black and White Abstraction

In Art Museum, Black and White Photography, Exhibits, Photo Print Collector on January 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm


American Folk Art Museum “Self-Portrait” by Mose Tolliver

Interesting and thought provoking article in the New York Times today investigating representational/narrative vs. formal approaches to appreciation and criticism of art.

In this essay by Ken Johnson, he examines a “folk art” survey exhibit at  the  American Folk Art  Museum. The museum curator Brook David Anderson asks the viewer in this exhibit to focus on the “the thing itself” i.e. how the paint is applied and materials are organized to produce a work. Shorthand: The art object is abstraction with artistic merit unto itself. This formalist approach is supported by a whole body of aesthetic philosophy.

Mr. Johnson then proceeds to forcefully challenge this position by arguing what is lost or gained by learning more about the piece, the artist’s history and the context of the work.

Now, it is not our place to take a stand in regards to the totality of these arguments but in fact there is a position that does apply to our contemporary view of Black and White photography. We are concerned not so much with the merits of informed viewing (we don’t want to poke a hole in the MFA industry) but it is important to realize  Black and White photography does function as an abstraction of “color based” reality. And fundamentally, as an abstraction, it is the image, not the artifact “print”, which must be the starting point for evaluating a photograph.

The Print, the history, the narrative … all can add to to the aesthetic experience, but appreciation must begin with the image. We will explore the implications of this position in future posts.

See Ken Johnson’s article: Inside, Outside, All Around The Aesthetics

For another take on this exhibit please see the Financial Times review by Ariella Budick: Approaching Abstraction

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