Can a Photograph Be a Work of Art?

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And what of our human art? Must we not say that, in building, it produces an actual house, and in painting, it produces a house of a different sort, as it were a man-made dream for waking eyes?- Plato

“A photograph is never interesting for its own sake, as art must be…,” was the claim of conservative writer and philosopher Roger Scruton in his controversial 1989 paper ‘But is it art?’ Many responded strongly to Scruton’s claim that a photograph, unlike a painting, can never be representational, in any aesthetically pertinent sense of the word.

He argues that there is an “intentional” relationship between a painted representation and its subject; an intentional relationship which simply cannot exist between a photograph and its subject as, according to Scruton, photographs, by the mechanical nature of their creation, cannot express thoughts. An artist’s painting of a person represents the artist’s thoughts about that person, “a thought embodied in perceptual form.” It is Scruton’s belief that a photograph is nothing more than a simple recreation of that person’s appearance. Painted representations are inherently intentional, they express thoughts. Given that photographs are created in a mechanical fashion, says Scruton, they cannot express thoughts and photography therefore cannot be a representational art.

“Literature and painting represent things, not by copying them, but by expressing thoughts about them…” (Scruton)
In another of his papers on the same theme, ‘Photography and Representation,’ Scruton argues that the only way in which we can be interested in a photograph is if that photograph acts as a kind of replacement for the thing it represents, whereas a painting can transcend the subject and have aesthetic interest, not for what it depicts, but for what it represents.

“If one finds a photograph beautiful, it is because one finds something beautiful in its subject. A painting may be beautiful, on the other hand, even when the subject is an ugly thing.”
(Scruton)

Both these conclusions seem to be at the heart of Scruton’s argument; a photograph simply cannot be a work of art.

In relation to the first of Scruton’s arguments, a knee-jerk reaction might be to say that artistic photography involves all kinds of “intentional” input from choices of lighting, shutter speed, aperture, not to mention subject matter. Scruton hit back at this argument, saying that when photographers try to achieve some aesthetically relevant output, they are,

“polluting photography… with painterly techniques.” (Scruton)

In direct opposition to Roger Scruton’s ‘But is it art?’ and ‘Photography and Representation’ essays, philosopher Nigel Warburton wrote the paper ‘Individual Style in Photographic Art’ in order to make the point that photography, as an art form, can boast the same artistic merit and incite as much aesthetic interest as painting.

Warburton himself however is quick to point out that my previously outlined ‘knee-jerk’ response to Scruton’s first argument is a weak response. He says,

“Now while this is undoubtedly true, it seems to play into Scruton’s hands…Scruton’s critics all seem intent on drawing our attention to relatively crude photographic techniques, which can scarcely merit the status of an individual style…Style involves a far more sophisticated pattern of embodied intentions than this. Scruton’s argument is usually taken to be dismissive of the possibility of photographic art and this sort of critic unwittingly gives him ammunition for this position.” (Warburton)

Warburton then goes on to say that most of Scruton’s critics have failed to derail his argument insomuch as they have concentrated on the how rather than the what of photographic image making.

In relation to Warburton’s thoughts on subject matter being the key to Scruton’s undoing as opposed the ‘crude’ technical craftsmanship involved in the image’s production, as readily highlighted by previous...
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