This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
AulIov|s)· FalvicI Ma¸navd
Souvce· CvilicaI Inquiv¸, VoI. 38, No. 4, Agenc¸ and Aulonalisn· FIologvapI¸ as Avl Since
lIe Sixlies, ediled I¸ Biavnud CosleIIo, Mavgavel Ivevsen, and JoeI Sn¸dev |Sunnev 2012),
FuIIisIed I¸· The University of Chicago Press
SlaIIe UBL· http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/667422 .
Accessed· 02/11/2012 19·32
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The University of Chicago Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Critical
Arts, Agents, Artifacts: Photography’s
1. Two Modern Artifacts
The appearance of the idea of the ﬁne arts seems to precede photog-
raphy by barely eighty years. Thus Johann Wolfgang von Goethe could
react to it as a mediocre neologism, the product of philosophical hacks:
It occurred to someone who reasoned poorly that certain human
pastimes and joys, which imitators devoid of genius had turned into toil
and laboriousness, could be classiﬁed for purposes of theoretical trickery
under the rubric “ﬁne arts.” And so they nowstand in philosophical text-
books, but only out of mental laziness, being in fact no more closely re-
lated than the seven “liberal arts” of the old seminaries.
The year of this remark, 1772, was about the time that chemist Carl Scheele,
discoverer of oxygen, was spreading silver salts on surfaces, hoping to take
advantage of the discovery that they darken in the presence of light. Indeed
Goethe prefacedhis remarkwithanironic analogy toa magic lantern: tothese
arts as “projected through a common aperture to dance on the same white
wall, by the magic light of philosophy.”
By the time the modernsystemof the
arts appeared, photography’s optics wereinplaceandits chemistryontheway.
In time the ﬁne arts idea caught on, and while its denotation has changed, its
meaning and honoriﬁc use have proved remarkably resilient. This seems pos-
sible because the idea consists of four components, in shifting, interacting—
often conﬂicting—relationships, which may come and go as necessary
conditions. Each of these is explicit in the original eighteenth-century formu-
lations as: (1) art (craft) inthe productionof (2) ﬁne, beautiful (later, aesthetic)
entities, usually (3) representational or mimetic (termed imitation), where
practice of the craft calls on (4) mental powers of genius (imagination, origi-
Since we will have repeated reference to these, let us make a little
diagramthat connects them. The order is immaterial.
1. Quoted in Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts” (1951–1952), in
Aesthetics, trans. David Hills, ed. Susan L. Feagin and Patrick Maynard (New York, 1997), p. 382.
See Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, review of The Fine Arts in Their Origins, Their True Nature
and Their Best Application, by J. G. Sulzer, trans. Timothy Chamberlain, in Eighteenth-Century
German Criticism, trans. and ed. Chamberlain (New York, 1992), pp. 175–79.
2. According to Kristeller, the ﬁrst full, inﬂuential presentation of this idea was made by
Charles Batteux; see Charles Batteux, “The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle” (1746), in
Critical Inquiry 38 (Summer 2012)
© 2012 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/12/3804-0011$10.00. All rights reserved.
That cannot be all. As Charles Stevenson argued, terms vary in time and
place along two dimensions: of cognitive content or meaning (such as
the diagram displays) and of “dynamic” meaning.
The expression OK,
which came into use exactly when photography did, has little to dia-
gram, though its dynamic usage has spread greatly. Many terms have
little dynamic meaning. Thus the cognitive differences between graze
and browse or domesticated and tame are signiﬁcant regarding animals,
with important differences of extension over them, absent much dynamic
meaning. By contrast, the ﬁne(r) arts, les beaux arts, die schönen Ku¨nste, and
so forth immediately assumed honoriﬁc dynamic uses that have persisted.
By the time photography was introduced to the public at the end of
the 1830s, the ﬁne arts idea was already exhibiting resilience through
shifts of both extension and meaning. As to extension, one of Im-
manuel Kant’s candidates, oratory, dropped out quickly. Music has
always posed a problem for the mimesis constituent. In intension or
cognitive meaning the components soon began internecine jostling,
with shifting alliances—rather like ancient Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and
Aesthetics, trans. Robert Walters, pp. 102–4. The idea was dispersed by Denis Diderot’s
Encyclope ´die (1751–1772), notably in Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Discours pre ´liminaire (1751) and
its later frontispiece.
3. See Charles L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven, Conn., 1944).
4. David Hume’s repeated use of the term ﬁner arts in “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757)
expresses acceptance of the new grouping, whereas, for example, Benjamin Franklin’s pamphlet
“A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America” (1743)
pertained to the sciences.
PAT R I CK MAY NAR D is emeritus professor of philosophy, University of
Western Ontario. He is the author of The Engine of Visualization: Thinking
through Photography and Drawing Distinctions: The Varieties of Graphic
Expression, and coeditor of Aesthetics (Oxford Readers).
728 Patrick Maynard / Arts, Agents, Artifacts
Persia. Famously, the mental-content constituent, arising from “ge-
nius,” expanded in meaning and importance, at notable expense to
craft and mimesis—thus the emergence of romanticism, as a popular
term for creativity and self-expression. This is already well exempliﬁed
in John Stuart Mill’s 1833 essays on poetry and genius, which demoted
craft and deemphasized mimesis in favor of what he called “the expres-
sion or uttering forth of feeling.”
Thirteen years later, Edgar Allan Poe
responded with a craft-rhetoric put-down of genius and self-
expression, although he later emphasized beauty.
As for the aesthetic
component, while Mill was willing to ﬁnesse a case for beauty in terms
of self-expression, by the end of the century Leo Tolstoy’s self-
expression approach in What Is Art? would banish Poe’s beauty from
the answer as decadent hedonism. The pace did not slow in the twen-
tieth century, when, leaping ahead, R. G. Collingwood explicitly de-
moted craft in favor of expression, thereby taking down mimesis—as
were artists of the time—while Benedetto Croce placed beauty in the
mental expression of the beholder. We scarcely need reminding of what
came next: the historic phase of aesthetic or formalist counterattacks
against mimesis—later, even against self-expression—with which reli-
gious thinkers such as Jacques Maritain had shown little patience from
Beyond its multiple factors, the versatility of this eighteenth-century
meme seems partly owing to the resources it affords for forming new
compounds, as shown in our little diagram. As can be seen by adding
the numbers of the diagram’s squares, the square’s corner points, the
straight lines and the triangles, four components provide ﬁfteen com-
binations of one, two, three, and four at a time, most of which have
been realized in at least some visual ﬁne arts conceptions. If these
collections are also ordered to reﬂect general emphases, that number
increases to sixty-ﬁve; and even more if variations within each compo-
nent are introduced—for example, if genius is taken as applying to
peoples or epochs (as by G. W. F. Hegel), not just individuals—or when
within a given component, as is often the case with the aesthetic, com-
peting versions appear.
And so it is, at given times or places, that some permutations are for a
while ascendant, while others are only detectable in the background, but
5. John Stuart Mill, “What Is Poetry?” (1833), in Aesthetics, p. 162.
6. See Edgar Allan Poe’s possibly satirical “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846) and
“The Poetic Principle” (1848), The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John H. Ingram, 3 vols.
(Edinburgh, 1883), 3:266–78, 197–218.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2012 729
no hegemony proves permanent.
It was therefore not surprising when, in
recent decades, so-called conceptual arts reintroduced the idea of mental
expression after a dominant period of aesthetic formalism—if only, on
exhibition, to assume characteristic looks, thereby reintroducing aesthetic
factors. That within photography large format work would of late empha-
size representation is likewise not surprising. Thus in its practice, in criti-
cismand history, the ﬁne arts grouping suggests less an essence or a family
resemblance than a pinball game. Popular conceptions have proved some-
what less volatile. Through almost three modern centuries of great change,
the idea with its four components and honoriﬁc use, together with its
associated terms—artist, artistic, creative, and so forth—remained re-
markably stable for most people.
2. Nineteenth-Century Naysaying
Meanwhile, what of that other modern artifact, photography? Pro-
pelled by continuous technological innovation and expanding markets, its
reinventions and changes of use have been steady, with no end in sight. It
was photography’s mimetic, pictorial component that made it originally a
ﬁne-art candidate. But photography also hadanimmediate effect onvisual
art’s mimetic component and has put its craft component under consid-
erable pressure. Where the ﬁne-arts idea seems to have held quite ﬁrm,
however, is in its aesthetic and mentally expressive components. Thus, in
1857, the art historian Lady Eastlake (Elizabeth Rigby) addressed “the ar-
tistic part of our subject,” wondering “how far photography is really a
picturesque agent.” Her aesthetic misgivings about a “falling off of artistic
effect” were less decisive than her skepticismabout its mental component.
“The power of selection and rejection,” she wrote, “the marriage of [the
artist’s] mind with the object before him . . . the offspring, half stamped
with his own features half with those of Nature, which is born of the
union—whatever appertains to the free-will of the intelligent being, as
opposed to the obedience of the machine,—this, and much more, consti-
tutes that mystery called Art,” from which the mechanical nature of pho-
tography bars it.
The mentally expressive component included under the
“free-will” of agents has proved the most persistent source of resistance to
photography as ﬁne art.
Not only does Eastlake’s judgment bring forward one of our main top-
7. Leo Tolstoy reintroduced “true” “beauty” later in What Is Art? trans. Aylmer Maude
(New York, 1899), p. 23; Clive Bell tried to explain the signiﬁcance of form in terms of
expression, and so on.
8. Elizabeth Rigby, “Photography” (1857), in Classic Essays on Photography, ed. Alan
Trachtenberg (New Haven, Conn., 1980), pp. 58, 51, 66; hereafter abbreviated “P.”
730 Patrick Maynard / Arts, Agents, Artifacts
ics, agency, it serves as a valuable reminder about an ambiguity in another:
the idea of automatismas self-acting. For her, in a historic age and place of
industrialization, “mechanical” meant automatic, in the sense of causal
processes working regularly towards appointed ends with a minimum of
human guidance—as “an unreasoning machine” (“P,” p. 64). This intro-
duces the topic of chance. Chance operations are opposite to the mechan-
ical or automatic. Machines were introduced not only to save labor but
also to leave less to chance (consider the Otis elevator, deployed in the very
year of her essay). However, for Aristotle, in the age before machines, the
termauto´maton (self-action) implied chance. Indeed, in her aesthetic crit-
icism Eastlake also brought out the medium’s strikingly accident-prone
feature, its lack of “power of selection and rejection,” with emphasis on
photography’s propensity for unnecessary surface texture anddetail—that
is, noise (“P,” p. 66).
Time has made aspects of Eastlake’s review appear dated. Her spe-
ciﬁcally aesthetic reservations were soon overcome by technological
advances. As to expression, style features emerged even within the pho-
tography of her contemporaries, distinctive of them and their media. In
what now seems a characteristic style, David Octavius Hill had made nu-
merous salt-print calotypes of her in the decade before her review, while in
1857 we easily perceive an array of mentalities in Oscar Gustave Rejlander’s
Two Ways of Life, works by his former student and soft-focus follower Julia
Margaret Cameron, Francis Frith’s Egyptian photographs, and prints by
the French scientist and photographer Victor-Henri Regnault.
her essay Eastlake set out most of the issues concerning photographic art
that have accompanied photography’s fast-evolving history. As its repre-
sentational reach expands and new aesthetics appear, there seem to be
recurring qualms about the degree of its mental, hence intentional, content—
what Eastlake termed “artistic feeling”—owing to the mechanical pro-
cesses (“P,” p. 64). The reason is that intension, or cognitive content,
presupposes intention, purposeful, or goal-directed action. But the latter
seems compromised in the case of photography by automatism’s pincer
action. On one side, relevant aspects of the image may be there by chance,
while onthe other—owing to ever improving engineering design—by nat-
ural powers. Accordingly, with each technological advance, newproblems
9. Eastlake’s tactic is artistically to minimize image detail rendering as mere labor; see “P,”
10. Tintypes and the snapshot pistol camera were patented the year before Eastlake’s essay;
besides Rejlander, Frith, and Cameron, Roger Fenton, Gustave Le Gray, and Henry Peach
Robinson were at work; the next year Henry Fox Talbot patented photoengraving, and Fe´lix
Nadar made a successful ambrotype from a balloon.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2012 731
arise for viewers in locating the relevant intentions and thereby the mental
content in the space between these contraries. Digitalization, having intro-
duced the newest chapters in this story, promises many more to come.
Why does this matter? Photography has never needed a ﬁne arts label to
make its way. From its beginnings, most of what the nineteenth century
called its applications have had little to do with art. And aside from prac-
tical uses, a steady stream of photo inventions, to which there seems no
end, provides more and more “human pastimes and joys” to which, as
Goethe remarked, the ﬁne art label may be irrelevant. Closer toart, some of
the most admired photographers have not cared whether their work is
considered that way; some, such as Robert Capa and the later Edward
Weston, have resistedthe label.
SiegfriedKracauer suggestedthat we relax
the “formative” components of ﬁne arts in order to take in parts of pho-
Some consider photography to have surpassed, even replaced,
the visual ﬁne arts in our time. Others suggest that we enjoy photographic
works, and works using photography, not only without regard to their
being art but even to their being photographic, and there is surely merit in
That the photographic art issue is not so simply resolved may be indi-
cated by consulting our four components. Independent of any “modern
system of the arts,” as Kristeller called it,
each marks a matter of great
importance. Records prove all societies to be concerned, in varying ex-
tents, with matters of skill, mimesis, beauty, and self-expression (ﬁg. 1).
During the post-1960s art period, paleoanthropology provided inde-
pendent conﬁrmation of the importance of each, and its combinations, by
its criteria of what is termed behavioral modernity for the appearance of
modern humans. These include high levels of culturally acquired and
transmitted skills, exhibiting signs of deep mental content, notably as ev-
idenced by visual representations—with aesthetic factors counting heav-
This goes some way toward showing, generally, why the ﬁne arts idea
has proved robust. Its components largely deﬁne our species.
11. For evidence, see Patrick Maynard, The Engine of Visualization: Thinking through
Photography (Ithaca, N.Y., 1997), pp. 263–75.
12. Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography” (1960), in Classic Essays in Photography, p. 268.
13. See Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics
(I),” Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (Oct. 1951): 496–27.
14. From the American Museum of Natural History, Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of
Human Origins: “Over 30,000 years old, these images . . . provide some of the most powerful
early evidence of symbolic thought. Archaeological evidence indicates that there was a ‘creative
explosion’ of art, technology, culture and probably language at some time after about 40,000
years ago.” “While some other species can solve problems and communicate with each other,
only humans use symbols to re-create the world mentally and dream up endless new realities”
(“What Makes Us Human,” American Museumof Natural History, www.amnh.org/exhibitions/
732 Patrick Maynard / Arts, Agents, Artifacts
What of photography’s and the ﬁne arts idea’s normative dimension?
Could at least the honoriﬁc issue be eliminated? Many public museums
today grapple with the problem of selection, exclusion, and interpretation
of the ﬁne arts, including photographic media.
But, just as an individual
can retain only a few of his or her own artifacts, so too for any society,
whether of hunter-gatherers, pastoral nomads, bronze-age farmers, or
modern urbanites. At some cost, we learn to live with the losses. The ﬁne
arts largely denotes one class of keepers, and keeping entails investments of
permanent/humanorigins/human/language.php). Consider paleontologist Jean Clottes. Art,
“based on the way in which humans distance themselves from and reconstruct the world,” is
“the result of the projection of a strong mental image on the world, in order to interpret and
transform reality” (Jean Clottes, Cave Art [New York, 2008], p. 11).
15. For example, Madrid’s Reina Sofı ´a Museum’s collection “is intended to create
intertwining narrations that take the form of archives.” There “aesthetic autonomy is diluted by
the inclusion—all on the same level—of documents, artwork, books, journals or photographs,
thus giving rise to alternative narrations that give back to viewers knowledge, aesthetic
experience and the possibility of comprehending a historical moment” (“Mission Statement,”
Reina Soﬁa Museum, www.museoreinasoﬁa.es/museo/mision_en.html). Modern times have
been able to be more multicultural about its arts because they feature greater storage facilities,
but there are limits.
F I GURE 1 . Bison licking ﬂank, ivory atlatl fragment, Magdalenian, ﬁfteen- to twelve-
thousand BP. American Museum of Natural History, New York.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2012 733
wealth and effort. The much-contested question is which—including
which kinds—to keep. From the very ﬁrst artwork until now, works are
considered ﬁne art because they are exemplary, mainly according to our
components in their combinations. It may be said that here expression
takes ﬁrst place. For even anthropological critics of the arts label—notably
of Western ideas of beauty—hold that all societies mark out those well-
designed artifacts of substance and action that make strikingly percep-
tual—that is, expressive of—their deﬁning cultural ideas, whatever
their other functions.
Like languages, religions, and other forms, ﬁne
art is a matter of cultural identity, the importance of which needs no
arguing in our time.
We could not avoid considering many photographic
3. “Photographic Art”
Perhaps this historical perspective can help us begin to separate a
recent tangled pair of art impulses: those regarding antiart from artists’
critical investigations of ﬁne art’s different components. For example,
regarding photography, some recent works have addressed aspects of
photographic representation and aesthetics in popular media without
touching issues of photographic ﬁne art.
Having noted the compo-
nents of the idea of the ﬁne arts and their variability, we are in a better
position to see that challenges to the aesthetic in an art need not be
challenges to that art itself. These challenges may only reﬂect compet-
itive aesthetics or conceptions of photographic art that put less weight
on aesthetic matters. As we have seen, the ﬁne arts grouping, like the
gait of Eadweard Muybridge’s famous horse, moves along as different
combinations of its four feet distribute its weight—even, given the in-
ertia of its institutions, for brief periods when none do. Thus antiaesthetic
movements need not be antiart; speciﬁcally, antiphotoaesthetics develop-
ments need not be anti–photo art. Conversely, well-known rejections of pho-
tographic ﬁne art positions—notably from an art as craft basis—have not
Defenders of art photography have responded to such arguments in
16. See Clifford Geertz, “Art as a Cultural System” (1976), in Aesthetics, pp. 109–18, esp. p. 118.
17. It is reasonable to debate how much of any group’s resources should be given to
preservation. Most production—certainly most photography—must be ephemeral. Yet mixed
societies disagree about deﬁning identities, a fact reﬂected in museum policies.
18. A notable conceptual art case in point was the exhibition, The Pictures Generation,
1974–1984, on the “return to recognizable imagery, exploring how images shape our perceptions
of ourselves and the world” (“The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984,” Metropolitan Museum of
Art, 2009, www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2009/pictures-generation).
19. For example, see Peter Henry Emerson, The Death of Naturalistic Photography, in
734 Patrick Maynard / Arts, Agents, Artifacts
terms of skill, aesthetics, and, primarily, self-expression—mainly by
what may be called arguments from composition.
Even over the last
few decades, as photography has found a place in most museum col-
lections, several distinctions seem worth keeping in mind. As men-
tioned earlier, some of the conceptual gallery art of the recent period
has used photographic images, or photography in mass media such as
television and advertising, without being either itself photographic or
concerned with photographic ﬁne art. Some artists attempt to make art
out of existing photography by using “the non-art nature of photogra-
phy as a new resource . . . for artistic practice.” Also “many artists
valued photography in all the respects in which it seemed to evade,
rather than mimic, art with a capital ‘A.’”
But we must beware of
equivocation on the term photographic art. Art that exploits aspects of
photographic use need not be photographic art. All arts exploit aspects
of other arts to make new ones, and the aspects of anything likely to be
useful to artists are often the nonessential.
New art often consists in
changing the subject.
What of speciﬁcally photographic art in this period? It was making its
own way into private collections, galleries, museums, and the study of art
history. To be sure, practice, exhibition, and criticism also addressed self-
expression, skill, and aesthetics with a skepticism as pronounced as the
nineteenth-century naysayers, if with less respect. Uneasiness about photo
arts has tended to reveal an ongoing reservation about mental content. Let
us consider one clear expression of a common form of recent reasoning
against photographic ﬁne art.
“Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art” and “The Death of Naturalistic Photography”
(1891; New York, 1973).
20. For compositional arguments, see Classic Essays on Photography, especially Edward
Weston, “Seeing Photographically,” pp. 169–75; Alfred Stieglitz, “Pictorical Photography,” pp.
115–23; Paul Strand, “Photography and the New God,” pp. 141–51; and anon., “Is Photography a
New Art?” pp. 133–40. See also Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of
Traditional Values (Millertown, N.Y., 1981).
21. “Aesthetics after Philosophy—2010 Conference,” Warwick Department of Philosophy,
agencyandautomatism/. For a defense of beauty aesthetics, see Roger Seamon, “FromThe World Is
Beautiful to The Family of Man: The Plight of Photography as a Modern Art,” Journal of Aesthetics
and Art Criticism 55 (Summer 1997): 245–52. For a subsequent defense, see Adams, Beauty in Photog-
22. See Kirk Varnedoe, A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern (New York,
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2012 735
4. Newer Naysaying
A crucial example of photo-arts efforts within museums is a 1964
Museum of Modern Art exhibit, The Photographer’s Eye, and the cata-
logue by its curator, John Szarkowski. To establish a particularly pho-
tographic aesthetic, in support of his case for photo art, Szarkowski
chose ﬁve aesthetic features, which, in order to illustrate, he mixed
equal amounts of “vernacular” photographs with those by leading art
photographers. His catalogue opened: “This book is an investigation of
what photographs look like, and why they look that way.”
according to Janet Malcolm, the project backﬁred, proving to be “a
shattering experience” for photo-art advocates, because it showed that
vernacular photos could be the “aesthetic peers” of alleged art photos,
thus refuting the idea that “in the hands of a great talent [genius], and
by dint of long study and extraordinary effort [craft], photography can
overcome its mechanical nature and ascend to the level of art.” She
added that this impression was conﬁrmed in the following decade,
leading up to the conceptual period. In Malcolm’s account, photo-art
advocates’ responses took two main forms: ostriching by the “photog-
raphy establishment”; and its “opposite,” rejection of a “masters of
photography” approach through imitating the “most inartistic” of ver-
nacular photography, amateur snapshots. However, the latter turned
out to be the “fake snapshot,” which looks just like “avant-garde art.”
Thus she saw art photographers in a situation of “despair,” between
“the dead hand” of earlier art aesthetics and a “snapshot school,” whose
adherents might not even consider themselves photographers.
Whatever validity this account has as history, it fails as aesthetics,
through an error of decontextualization—which, ironically, became a
standard objection to aesthetic approaches to photography in the follow-
ing decades of “social documents” photo criticism and history.
gument falls at its ﬁrst, aesthetic, post. We begin with photos accepted as
art, such as Szarkowski’s six Westons, then seek vernacular ones that re-
23. John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye (New York, 1966), p. 6.
24. Janet Malcolm, Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography (Boston, 1980),
p. 64; hereafter abbreviated DN. Malcolm refers to “the heavy-breathing traditions of Stieglitz,
Steichen, Weston, et al.” (DN, p. 67).
25. Edward Steichen had been criticized for the decontextualizations of his traveling 1955
MoMA show and best-selling book, The Family of Man (New York, 1996). Ansel Adams “truly
detested” Steichen’s quality and scale of reproduction and “became ill” on seeing his work
turned into “expensive wallpaper” (Ansel Adams and Mary Street Alinder, Ansel Adams: An
Autobiography [Boston, 1985], pp. 209–10).
736 Patrick Maynard / Arts, Agents, Artifacts
semble them. But in selecting art photos one already looks for those that
will have vernacular correlates. So, for example, nothing by Ansel Adams
or Alfred Stieglitz was chosen.
Such egregious sampling bias, even when
expanded by “thousands of vernacular photographs that have since been
unearthed,” defeats empirical validity (DN, p. 65). The situation is worse
regarding aesthetics, “what photographs look like,” for inselecting vernac-
ular cases with the canonic in mind, the former’s appearance will be af-
fected because we look at them differently. A small percentage of their
masses will, largely accidentally, look interesting in ways established by the
Poor reasoning fromperceptual data is also encouraged when, in shows
and catalogues, photographs are taken singly rather than in context of the
photographers’ bodies of work. This, too, will affect the way pictures ap-
pear, something particularly true of photographs. Photographers—unlike
novelists, playwrights, and ﬁlm directors—rarely make artistic impres-
sions by single works. That is because of a general point regarding percep-
tion. Experience with a variety of cases is usually necessary for telling one
kindof thing fromothers of very similar sorts, whichintime becomes easy.
Not learning to tell at a glance one size or kind of screw or nail from
another, one is moved to a different area of hardware. The same goes for
many occupations. Technicians learn to read X-rays, gauge (reversed) col-
ors in color negatives, feel and hear wheel-bearing problems. All this be-
comes more speciﬁc with art—although not uniquely so—when we
consider seeing in a work what has been done, which is more difﬁcult in
most photography than in most painting and drawing, where facture is
visible. The phrase “what has been done” brings us back to the topic of
agency; to address that, we now turn from more historical to more philo-
26. Szarkowski would defend the ﬁne-art idea in terms of what artists do with this common
form, as suggested on the last page of his introduction; see Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye,
27. We pass over as hyperbole the line, “it almost seems as if every master photograph
strainfully created by an art photographer has an equivalent in the unselfconscious vernacular
of commercial or news or amateur photography” (DN, p. 64). See references to two anthologies
of essays including similar indistinguishable arguments in Maynard, “Photo-Opportunity:
Photography as Technology,” Canadian Review of American Studies 22 (Winter 1991): 501–28,
esp. n. 14. Perhaps the most thoughtful, researched critique of the earlier attempt to place
photography among the ﬁne arts, at times using indistinguishability arguments, is Ulrich F.
Keller, “The Myth of Art Photography: A Sociological Analysis,” History of Art Photography 8
(Oct.–Dec. 1984): 249–75 and “Myth of Art Photography: An Iconographical Analysis,” History
of Art Photography 9 (Jan.–Mar. 1985): 1–38.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2012 737
5. “Assembling Reminders”: Agents and Artifacts
Among our components, craft and expression stand out as what might
be called the formative pair.
Both straightforwardly concern agency.
Thus, craft values involve admiring the way things have beendone, not just
the way they turned out. This is because artworks are, as the term says
twice, things produced on purpose, not just aesthetically interesting hap-
penings, which are far more abundant in nature. The more general term
for them is artifacts, which also makes the point twice. It may seem too
obvious to state that photographs, too, are artifacts. Yet, as Ludwig Witt-
genstein remarked, “the work of the philosopher is a gathering of remind-
ers for a particular purpose.”
Let us see whether, just by reminding
ourselves that photographs and artworks are artifacts, and thinking about
what that means, we can clear away some of the problems concerning their
agency and indicate what remains.
The crucial idea appears to be purpose. As artifacts, artworks are things
largely made on purpose by agents. Understanding themthat way, we take
them in terms of purposes. Thus a ﬁrst intentional result: since artworks
are artifacts, they are perceived and comprehended in terms of agency, and
their relevant features are takenunder intention, inthe sense of being there
on purpose, normally for purposes. Since this is how we perceive them, it
affects their aesthetics, in the normal sense of that term, as delight or the
reverse, for its own sake, in the perceiving.
Beginning with the on-purpose part, let us consider another philoso-
pher’s reminder of what we already know. Explaining art generally (on the
way to ﬁne art) Immanuel Kant observed that when we notice some lum-
ber in a bog we take it quite differently fromits surround.
This is because
we understand a board to be “ein Werk.” That has two meanings in terms
of purposes and agents’ intentions—or, as Kant says, thoughts. We expe-
28. Aristotle held that good use of any art requires not only abidance by its general rules
but individual talent and judgment in their application because rules are of the universal but
action is always to the concrete and particular; see Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. David
Ross (Oxford, 1980), esp. book 6, ch. 7, 1141b, pp. 144–47.
29. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen (Basil, 1953), 1.127; my trans.
If . . . in a search through a bog, we light on a piece of hewn wood, we do not say it is a
product of nature but of art. Its producing cause had an end in view to which the object
[has to thank for] its form. [Even] apart from such cases, we recognize [an] art in every-
thing formed in such a way that its [activity] must have been preceded by a representation
of the thing in its cause (as [with] . . . bees), although the effect could not have been thought
by the cause. But where anything is called absolutely a work of art, to distinguish it from a
natural product, then [a] work of man [ein Werk der Menschen] is always understood.
(Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith [Oxford, 1911], p. 163. I
have slightly altered the translation.)
738 Patrick Maynard / Arts, Agents, Artifacts
rience aspects of the board as being for purposes—to be nailed up. Such is
also true of living parts of the bog; however—this is Kant’s point—unlike
them, we take the artifact’s being these ways as on purpose: cut and milled
for that. The artifact stands out from its surroundings because, with rec-
ognition, we look at its aspects differently.
Regarding for purpose, comprehending functional aspects or what are
termed affordances of artifacts in intentional terms appears to be a basic
feature of human cognitive development by around nine months.
Sensory-motor affordances are the aspects of entities that we exploit to
help us do things. By imitation, guidance, and trial and error, children
learn a multitude of them. In addition, some such things acquire what are
called intentional affordances. These are artifacts. According to Michael To-
masello, a child watching an adult using an everyday artifact soon identiﬁes
the user’s goal, what she is using the artifact “for.” By engaging in
this imitative learning, the child joins the other person in afﬁrm-
ing what “we” use this object “for”: we use hammers for hammer-
ing and pencils for writing. [The child then] comes to see some
cultural objects and artifacts as having, in addition to their natural
sensory-motor affordances, another set of . . . intentional affor-
dances based on her understanding of the intentional relations
that other persons have with that object or artifact [and] the world
through the artifact.
Things then appear to a child differently, and asking what an artifact is
for—what we are supposed to do withit—becomes a normal way of asking
what it is. Sharp edges are then experienced as blades, rounded parts as
handles, pools of water as troughs, collection pools, baths, not just pud-
dles, and so forth. The emphasis upon “for” in this story is thus a strongly
social one. However, Tomasello’s story appears incomplete. It presup-
poses Kant’s aspect of artifacts, that they are made or adapted, by intent,
for use affordances. After all, children also learn how we use natural affor-
dances of things like water or our hands, which are not artifacts. The facts
31. For my related arguments, see Maynard, “Scales of Space and Time in Photography:
‘Perception Points Two Ways,’” in Philosophy and Photography: Essays on the Pencil of Nature,
ed. Scott Walden (London, 2008), pp. 187–209, “Working Light,” Philosophy and Photography 1
(Mar. 2010): 29–34, and “What Drawing Draws On: The Relevance of Current Vision
Research,” Rivista di Estetica 51, no. 47 (2011): 9–29.
32. Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.,
1999), pp. 84–85. For earlier and later related accounts, see Tomasello and Josep Call, Primate
Cognition (New York, 1997), and Tomasello, Why We Cooperate (Cambridge, Mass., 2009).
Tomasello gives little attention to the on-purpose aspect of artifacts. There is also a signiﬁcant
distinction to be explored between ﬁxed and makeshift artifacts.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2012 739
that in a fewsocieties ants have affordances for eating or that stars are used
for guidance does not turn them into artifacts. Failure to grasp either sort
of purpose would count as a disability, what psychologists call an associa-
tive agnosia, of not knowing meanings—akin to being unable to recognize
objects or faces by sight or touch or to integrate movements into actions.
Consider relative abilities or inabilities to experience things in terms of the
for-purpose group, as
(1) affordances (a) for self, (b) others,
(2) ﬁxed (for example, organic) affordances (a) for self, (b) others,
(3) intentional (ﬁxed) affordances (a) for one’s group, (b) others (for
us, for them); or in terms of the on-purpose group, as:
(4) being on purpose: made or done by agents,
(5) being on purpose for other purposes (other than just doing it).
Of course we always come up short perceiving some of these potentials,
and it is possible to perceive without exercising some of them, more or
less, at certain levels, without mental disability. We should not over-
look the complementary disability: well-known conditions of the over-
attribution of meaning. Many aspects of artifacts are neither on nor for
purposes, but occur—as already stressed—by chance. Understanding
them requires grasping this. It is therefore no wonder that issues of
chance should affect our understanding of works of art, ﬁne art, and
photography. This is conﬁrmed by difﬁculties audiences have with fast-
changing experimental arts and art from other cultures. Audiences are
often at ﬁrst uncertain about what aspects of these works are for—why
they are there—and so cannot distinguish among accidents, mistakes,
lack of skill, and incompletion. In the terms just introduced, audiences
may not at ﬁrst sufﬁciently grasp the intentional affordances of such
works, but in time they usually do, as the recent great success of mu-
6. Applications: Artifacts and the Components
Before turning to speciﬁcally photographic agencies in these terms,
let us consider the bearing of these simple facts about artifacts on our
earlier components theme. Regarding aesthetic experience, we can
identify the inﬂuential idea of an aesthetic attitude, which is often used
to minimize the three other factors—the idea that we can disengage
from the entire list of purposes above and perceive a thing “for what it
is” (to use the most common expression). Whether or not that is prac-
ticable, we surely do take more or less interest in things that way.
However, since aesthetic interest is delight or the reverse in experiences
740 Patrick Maynard / Arts, Agents, Artifacts
of perceiving, and given that (1)–(5) characterize perceptual experi-
ences, there seems no reason why that kind of perception cannot be
aesthetic also. For what it is is an artifact, and we experience it as such.
This accounts for our normal readiness to count functional apprecia-
tion of functional things as aesthetic.
Regarding mimesis, research in pictorial depiction now prevalent in
philosophy and the perceptual sciences needs reminding of another
important fact about perceptual context: artifact perception. Over-
looking the fact that depictions, photographic or not, are normally
understood as artifacts, these researchers miss the important differ-
ences between looking at things and looking at depictions of them.
Notably, they forget that we look at depictions, but not real scenes, in
terms of their depictive artifact for affordances and in terms of a highly
distinctive on purpose; that is, we look to see why certain aspects of
artifacts were put or left there—and for what they are doing there, in
terms of pictorial purposes. This explains much of the hesitation about
photographic arts. Mechanical and accidental kinds of automatism
usually make identifying what is in an image on purpose, for goals,
more problematic for photographs than for other kinds of images. But
another reminder is that, as remarked, it becomes easier to see what an
image maker is doing, doing distinctively, in a given work when we
have experience of a wider body of cases.
Here photography seems to come in for a special forgetfulness that
artifacts, just at the level of being for-purpose things, are, like living
nature, typically multifunctional and for the same reason: efﬁciency.
To be for something hardly entails not being for anything else.
fourteen-thousand-year-old multifunctional stone tool likely shows
affordances for cutting, scraping, spooning, and tamping—all com-
bined in smooth actions, as with a modern palette knife (ﬁg. 2). A
photographic designcan, too, while also working as a trace for detecting, even
for seeing, a situation—again all together, possibly interacting with and
changing one another. Unfortunately, forgetting this second simple fact has
beena stultifying premise of much of the philosophical photoaesthetics of the
recent period. Multiple functions of course complicate answers to the ques-
tion“what’s that for (doing there)?”—more sowhen, as normal, they interact.
To this story needs to be added chapters on chance, since, as with other visual
33. For Paleolithic tools another reason might be that their reﬁned, specialized diversity,
which is also indicative of modern humans, arose from millions of years of multifunctional
matrix single stones.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2012 741
arts, photographic acts include using—
inviting—chance for depictive, aesthetic, and
7. For Show
Let us review what a brief consideration
of photographs as artifacts has revealed
about their expressive content. Intentional
content enters our experience of artifacts in
two ways. We experience artifacts as having
come about through intelligent agency that
allows for and exploits accidents, and in
terms of cultural uses. In the latter way we
experience them, as Kant also argued—
although too broadly—socially, as repre-
sentatives of communities.
Tomasello remarks, “the world of cul-
tural artifacts becomes imbued with in-
However, works of ﬁne art are special kinds of
artifacts. How can photo art—any art—so greatly expand the artifac-
tual, intentional bases we have sketched? Showing that would be too
ambitious an undertaking for this essay, especially as it would require
examples. Brief indications of two large topics must sufﬁce.
A notable feature of artworks among artifacts is that they are largely
fashioned for showor display. Museums and their exhibitions—for exam-
ple the British Museum’s “A History of the World in One Hundred Ob-
jects” (actually, one hundred artifacts)—put a variety of things on display,
many of which were not originally for that purpose. Being for display
means, generally, that features are present for the sake of being perceived.
This wouldnot likely holdfor the intentional visual affordances of the little
ancient artifact shown in ﬁgure 2 or the big modern one in ﬁgure 3. But it
does hold for that in ﬁgure 1 and entirely for the three ﬁgures themselves;
they are as they are in order to be looked at in certain ways.
Therefore, when we wonder what some aspects of a visual artwork are
for (“what’s that doing there?”), this normally includes visual display—
how they are designed so as to appear to us. Artworks tend, according to
Michael Podro, to sustain recognition of such intentional affordances for
34. See Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (New York, 1951), §40, on sensus
35. Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, p. 86.
F I GURE 2 . Fourteen-thousand-
year-old stone multitool. British
742 Patrick Maynard / Arts, Agents, Artifacts
In so doing, they draw on a remarkably wide range of
mental and psychological contents. This seemingly inexhaustible play of
engagement and reward is a main reason why such works may be candi-
dates for continuing display. A prominent kind introduces a signiﬁcant
component of art where, as Podro emphasizes, “sustained recognition” is
of subject matter in ﬁguratively representational works—which photo-
graphs mostly are. In sketching a case for photographic expression, we
have to omit close examination of the representational component as well.
Representation introduces an additional power for greatly increased men-
tal content through guided imagining of perceiving subject matter. As
noted it is this kind of content that archaeologists take as most indicative of
modern humans’ mental powers.
8. Digitalization: Some Sweeping Generalizations
Let us conclude by brieﬂy recovering our historical perspective. Digita-
lization has illuminated this whole story by complicating it. Thus the most
36. See Michael Podro, Depiction (New Haven, Conn., 1998), pp. 5–28.
37. I argue an account of depictive content in Maynard, Drawing Distinctions: The Varieties
of Graphic Expression (Ithaca, N.Y., 2005), esp. chap. 14.
F I GURE 3 . Photograph of Robert Burley, Still Revolution, Museum of Contemporary
Canadian Art, Toronto.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2012 743
stated concern about photographic digitalization, in art and otherwise, is
that, by encroaching on the two kinds of photo automatism it makes the
boundaries of agency more difﬁcult to perceive. If previously the main
worry was about how much chance and nature did, there is now a worry
about what photographers have done with the workings of chance and
nature. The solutionwill likely be, as before, that withincreasedexperience
we ﬁgure things out. For, with the question of what’s that for? with such
artifacts typically comes another common question relating to agency, but
not so often mentioned in aesthetics: how was that done?—for photogra-
phy, no less with current large digital displays than with early daguerreo-
types. On our topic of agency, it is too often overlooked that a main
function of art museums is to give us ideas about how things can be made.
Our vision is interrogative not only regarding purposes but also regarding
materials and methods. As we look, inquire, and ﬁnd out, our perception
Consider the following example: a digital photograph of a courtyard
wall at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA),
displaying an enlargement of part of Robert Burley’s photograph of the
implosion of silver-processing buildings at Kodak Park, Rochester, be-
ing photographed by Kodak employees with digital cameras (ﬁg. 3).
Typical of artifacts of mental content, we have three nested works of
display: mine, the installation at MOCCA, and Burley’s original, each
of which includes other displays. (The implosion itself is likely not a
display since, unlike ﬁreworks, its impressive perceptual affordances
do not seem intentional as such.) The installation has a mental quality
of wit through the way it engages and sustains subject recognitions,
notably in its play of picture plane with textured wall, its trompe l’oeil
game with images of wires (none actual) at wire height on the wall
across a window opening. The implosion photograph, which holds us
by the recognition-content of curiosity-vision, gains expressive con-
tent by being one in a series for that event and part of the larger Dis-
appearance of Darkness project. This artist shoots ﬁlm, edits digitally.
Such works are analogue, continuous-tone, “chromogenic” (RA-4)
prints, standard to negative color printing, but adapted to digital ﬁles
by Lightjet laser exposure on 75 x 100 cm photographic sheets, devel-
oped normally but digitally enlarged.
That brief report sketches a
38. See “Still Revolution,” detail of Implosion-2, Buildings 65 and 69, Kodak Park, Rochester,
2007, from Robert Burley’s Disappearance of Darkness project, 2010. For details see
39. For Burley’s account of further technological steps with a similar project, see
744 Patrick Maynard / Arts, Agents, Artifacts
hybridization of processes, typical of visual arts for centuries, only
stages of which bear on our sense of what has been done artistically. But
what seems signiﬁcant about the digitalization, here as elsewhere, is its
ampliﬁcation of those powers of hybridization, once all the informa-
tion is translated into its controllable common currency.
cludes information about nature, mechanism, chance, and artists’
From their beginnings, photographic inventions have continuously
raised questions about the roles of intelligent agents, chance, and na-
ture. We began by considering these through the idea of ﬁne arts as a
historical artifact, like photography. However, as most artifacts have
alternatives, so does ﬁne art: an alternative of wide use, which has also
been well articulated in a variety of cultures. This is what might be
called the idea of the manifestation work. In the terms of the modern
arts idea, one might say that with manifestation the expression com-
ponent is expanded beyond individuals, human groups, even beyond
In its traditions, it is nature or reality that is taken to express or
show itself in works, which are then considered less as artifacts regard-
ing than as manifestations of reality—usually as exemplifying parts or
aspects. With such works, concerns about human agents’ intention,
self-expression, and identity recede, as do distinctions of art and chance.
One historical effect of photography’s automatisms may be understood as
of manifestationtending to replace self-expression. Indeed, that blender of
formative elements, digitalization, arrived at a time when many artists had
become less interested in the art tradition that we have been examining—
one well expressed by Hegel, in which, individually or collectively, we seek
identity and freedom through art by setting ourselves apart from nature.
Photography had already lent itself to this older manifestation conception,
to the puzzlement of many who were only accustomed to the ﬁne-arts
grouping. Perhaps a sense of that has troubled us regarding photography.
Digitalization may change that.
40. For a fuller account, see Timothy Binkley, “The Vitality of Digital Creation,” Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55 (Spring 1997): 107–16.
41. It would be more accurate to describe manifestation as a function of an image, as I argued
in Maynard, “The Secular Icon: Photography and the Functions of Images,” Journal of Aesthetics and
Art Criticism 42 (Winter 1983): 155–69 and later in Engine of Visualization, chap. 8.
42. For his treatment of the four components, see Hegel, “Art, Nature, Freedom”; see also
Oscar Wilde, “The New Aesthetics,” in Aesthetics, pp. 192–97, 40–45.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2012 745
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.