Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview

19

ART PHOTOGRAPHY, HISTORY, AND AESTHETICS

Catherine M. Soussloff

Until the nineteenth century the institutions in art's histories categorized the visual arts according to distinctions between media. 1 As a result of the industrial revolution it became increasingly difficult to maintain the necessity of these earlier distinctions. The reclassification of made artifacts of all sorts proceeded along lines other than the traditional ones of comparing the arts in order to determine the characteristics distinctive to each. The use value of artifacts, their innovativeness in regard to mechanical or technological methods, and their distance from so-called aesthetic functions served to define the new products that resulted from the marriage of industry and science. Photography especially challenged both the old and the new categorization of artifacts and art because it so obviously exhibited characteristics of industry, science, and art. Initially, in contrast to the other representational media, photography was internally, rather than comparatively, defined.

Today no one would deny that photography, like the graphic media of painting, drawing, and printmaking, or the three-dimensional ones of sculpture and architecture, constitutes a legitimate object of study for the history of art. Just as we consider the photographer Edward Steichen a master artist, so too we appreciate the 1907 portrait photograph of him by Heinrich Kuehn, illustrated in Figure 19.3 on p. 302, as a work of art. In the institutions of art history, however, the photograph also functions on another, albeit similarly metaphorical, level. This function can be characterized as historicist and it can be located temporally with the coincident invention of photography circa 1840 in England and France and the institutionalization of art history in the university in Germany at the same time. 2 The disciplinary usage of photography serves an evidentiary or documentary function that endows the historical text and, at times, the object photographed with a heightened reality. As Francis Haskell observed, “artists once feared that photography would kill painting, and although it certainly did usurp many of the functions of painting as far as the recording of contemporary events was concerned, for the historian it had the paradoxical effect of strengthening the authority of all images, including those made long before its invention.” 3

-295-

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