Thoughts on Photography, Education and the Art Market
As a committed sceptic of the gallery space as a site for the meaningful and ethical publication of photographic works, I have become increasingly interested in alternative methods of dissemination and audience engagement. I have found that putting this into practice as an HE educator first requires some analysis of what brings people to higher education.
Working with students publishing final year degree projects I try to encourage them - with mixed success — to engage more with the people and places that their work is made about. An example of this was a collaboration between a film and photography student last year, who made a documentary work about a council estate and its residents’ struggles with the stigma of living in an area with a local and national reputation for criminality and anti-social behaviour.
They understood that this work did not belong in an art or photographic gallery space, which would only have served to create a further ‘them and us’ divide between the looking and the looked at. Instead, their photographs were exhibited and the film screened in the community centre at the heart of this estate, and, whilst they had fewer visitors than the degree show in the city, it will live much longer in the memory of the community that participated in its creation. It could be argued that it was ‘useful’.
In his essay ‘uses of photography’ John Berger talks about the distinction between public and private photographs
‘The private photograph — the portrait of a mother, a picture of a daughter, a group of one’s own team — is appreciated and read in a context which is continuous with that from which the camera removed it’ (Berger, 2009)
In contrast to the contemporary public photograph which is severed from its context, and re-presented as images which playback to the audience as ‘the memor[ies] of an unknowable and total stranger’ (Berger, 2009)
So, if we now consider the public display of photographs, would it be unreasonable to assert that, removed from the physical or social contexts in which they are made and to which they are a response, these works are transformed into a commodity for the art market? As something to be read and understood in a different context? As an object with a financial value because of the reputation of the author? As something to be looked at and understood in terms of aesthetics, or, at a push and in some circumstances, something which provides evidence of a generalised and non specific human problem which we are viewing second hand — a substitute for political and social memory (Berger, 2016. P58) - a confirmation of us as spectators of an anonymous ‘other’, an ‘other’ unlikely to be found in the gallery context in which the pictures are shown, highlighting the social divide which creates the conditions in which the art market can exist.
Banksy’s art shredder, an attempt to critique and poke fun at the art market only highlights the possibility of the commodification of abstract ideas, and strengthens the market by publicly demonstrating its ability to commodify protest. The destroyed artwork takes on a different value, and is now precious as a museum specimen, a physical reference to the moment of an ideological victory of the dominant culture.
The moment at which capitalism flexes its muscles by purchasing the very ideas that undermine it, it insulates itself against meaningful protest.
How do we resolve this? How do we manage to make ‘useful’ work if we cannot be financially recompensed for our time? Such art could only be made with the luxury of spare time as well as the will to make a difference. Particularly if we have spent most of our lives in an education system that increasingly pushes as its primary objective ‘employability’. It makes it difficult for the ‘native’ student/citizen of such a culture to separate creative activity they have ‘trained’ in from an exchange of money.
The problem starts with the kind of people we are taught to be and the environments that are created around us. Things such as citizenship studies and ‘British’ values in secondary and further education and the disease of entrepreneurship — a byword for the economic exploitation of social need, rather than a quest for collective social action — are churning out target driven, career hungry citizens for a consumerist society, actively discouraging critical analysis of the ideological economic milieu in which we function.
‘School subjects that appear to have a clear employment or economic utility have been promoted at the expense of those which help inculcate critical thinking.’ (Diboll & Gholami, 2018)
Many courses of education, from primary through to higher education are preparing children and young adults to contribute to the dominant ideology highlighting the financial rewards of conformism, incentivised and reinforced through aspirational broadcasting through state media (because there is no free media, only ideological media) which celebrates individualism and the free market. This feeds through into higher education as studies in professionalism, an extension of conformism programmes, how to get ahead of others etc... This ‘stealth’ control over curriculum hides in areas such as graduate attributes, allowing establishments to maintain a veneer of critical dignity whilst effectively becoming ‘hollowed out’ (Cribb & Gerwitz, 2013) and ‘part of a social reality that is “identified with an economic value system that shapes all reality in its own image” (Patrick, 2013)
As we emerge into the second quarter of this new century art and education have been highjacked by the neo-liberal agenda. They have been transformed into commodities, funded and targeted on selling dreams to dreamers rather than encouraging informed and critically engaged citizens with a tangible role to play in a democratic society.
So, how do we function as artists? How do we function as educators? To start, we must fight. We must understand, and we must help others to understand, that the purpose of art is not to sell art. We should try to define what our roles are.
To be an artist is to be engaged in a critical discourse with the ideas and structural organisations which affect human communities, and to produce artefacts which present our findings to the communities they concern.
To be an art educator is to help people to make and understand the artefacts that artists present, in order to be able to respond.
When all aspirations are monetised, and the ultimate aim of many young people is to accrue wealth as easily as possible, it is difficult to know how to respond to their needs. A living can be made producing photographs, and if we are to help students become conscious photographers we have to continually evaluate the social and the ethical values that hold us together.
First we must convince them they don’t need to be rich, and that survival in their field is a reasonable first step.
They can photograph weddings and make portraits of people that want portraits. They don’t have to work for wedding or makeover machines. They can do this quietly by themselves and be just fine. They can reflect their own values in the work they make. They can do this and be happy, they could even look to make work in their spare time which addresses something, some social problem or injustice that has affected them or those that they encounter. They can use photography to document it, photographs ‘addressed to those suffering what they depict’ (Berger, 2016) contributing to ‘social and political memory’, to empower those concerned.
We can help them get by, and we can even help them get by whilst challenging the imperious dogma of consumer capitalism as it works hard to grind them down.