Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Reality Aesthetics

Can art truthfully represent reality? As a young photographer, I often grappled with that question. I always believed photographs said something; the photographer cuts away unnecessary details and emphasises others to emphasise something aesthetically, symbolically, to communicate the image, its subjects, the context, mood, message, the meaning. I was trying to speak through my camera lens, to say something about the world, to get at some truth. But, what truth is there in the highly selective expression of photography? There is the understanding, that although the image represents a mere two dimensional fraction of the world in time and space, what presents itself on the emulsion truly existed and was there to be documented. It legitimates the photograph. Some of the most official representations of reality are in photographic form, such as passport photos. Undercover police rely on photographic evidence of consorting and offending criminals. They are accepted as accurately presenting a truth.
I wanted to present abstract truths, esoteric statements about culture, life, being, and nothingness. These things exist. They exist in the spaces we fill, the interactions between us, the structures we build. There is physical being, and there is the understood being. The physical is there to be observed, recorded. What we understand of these experiences is to be interpreted whether by the naked eye, the words we use to describe it, or the photograph that tells you what it wants you to know. The photograph also demands we be the modern scripter, to make of it what we see, bring to it our own set of mimes.
Why the artful presentation of knowledge? What purpose does it serve if the message is received differently by each observer? The dramatic commentaries on the world, idealised expressions, allow for our existential appraisal of its meaning; this is why I see myself come to life in the protagonist of my favourite novels. A good photograph will at the same time present an argument forced upon the reader, and also be completely open to the reader’s agency to interpret it (or look away) based on his/her understanding of the world, their beliefs, their rigor in scrutiny.
Becker argues that even the most thorough representations are subject to “selection and reduction.” It is trade off one makes with the tools chosen. As a sociologist, there are many stories to tell. These expressions of social theory are one’s representations of the world. It is limited by academic rigour, acceptable methods of social science research, a sociological language, a sociological imagination. It is nuanced by political, philosophical, or idealistic intent; it persuades the reader to get on board to a train of thought. The reader is free to make of it, and the world it describes, in whatever fashion they choose.
Herein lays the art of sociological writing, the creative craft of working through the medium’s rules, and modes of expression, to represent a social fact. We know no writing will ever convey the full realism of whatever it is describing, but we are empowered by the perspective that a method will give to the subject. It is the limitations of representation which make it art, and give agency to the reader. “No truth, no art.”

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