This blog was not intended to be used as a forum for my personal opinions and frustrations, but…

This past Sunday I was part of a panel to discuss the general state of photography in Italy, organized by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Affairs (MIBACT). A part of the PhotoLux Festival in Lucca, the event was the 19th and final MIBACT meeting to evaluate this supposed state.
It was certainly an interesting and worthy initiative, and the first time I have seen the Italian government show any interest in photography. As such, I thank Lorenza Bravetta for her courage and witty approach in taking on this question and giving us a space for dialogue.
The issues discussed led me to reflect and so I want to repeat something I have believed for a long time. One of the largest problems facing a public discussion on photography today is the lack of a shared knowledge of history, the history of photography and the history of art. In fact, photography, over the course of the past 30 years, has become part of contemporary art; initially picking and choosing which photographers were allowed in the system, and then later totally opening the gates.
In contemporary art it was possible to create a dialogue among many different actors in the system, thanks to a shared language and history along with common reference points. Photography on the other hand has still not succeeded in creating a common vocabulary shared by both the general public and photographers or others within the system. For me the biggest problem is that there is no understanding of where we started, and so we cannot find a common denominator between a photojournalist and a food photographer, a “fine art” (I hate that term) photographer and medical documentary photography. There is no in-depth knowledge, and so everything exists in a messy melting pot. In order to overcome these divisions in photography, we must first accept that these divisions do indeed exist.
The problem is also that this question – the need for a better education about the history of photography – gets bogged down in current politics as the Minister of Culture says this should be solved by the Minister of Education, who in turn passes it to the Finance Minister and there is no resolution. There must be a way for these different ministries to work together in order to create a clear objective and get something done.
But the biggest issue remains that there is not a common language – the only thing which can create a shared vocabulary, and hence a dialogue, is for everyone to know the same history which we call photography.
I hope that this series of panels and discussions can lead to an awareness of the issue as well as its urgency, going beyond the slow pace of politics and the individual needs for assistance, to finally arrive at some sort of resolution or plan of action.

[It is the] replacement of the opposition between good art and bad art [broadly speaking, the Kantian distinction] with the opposition between art and not-art [that is, art and object-hood] that places photography at the center of art history in the last half-century [a time frame that works if one counts the Bechers; otherwise the last thirty years is more like it].  For the imbrication of photography’s specificity as a medium for art and of the ontological doubts about whether photography can be an art produces a situation in which the effort to answer the modernist questions – what is distinctive about photography as an art? What makes it different from, say, painting? – produces as one possible answer the critique of modernism itself [that is, the minimalist/literalist advocacy of object-hood]. There is an important sense, in other words, in which the question about the painting – is it a painting or an object? – has become the question about the photograph, not so much because the photograph can somehow be taken as the object it is a photograph of… but because it cannot simply be taken as a picture of the object it is a photograph of. That is the point… of the fossil. We do not experience the fossil as a trilobite, but we do not experience it as the picture of a trilobite either. And if we understand photographs on the model of fossils, we cannot take for granted their status as works of art.

To put it that way, however (to say that we cannot take for granted their status as works of art), is to refuse both the indexophobic and the indexophilic, to refuse the idea that because indexicality is a false issue photographs can of course be works of art and to refuse also the idea that because photographs are essentially indexical they cannot be works of art (or “Art”). Indeed, the fact that Fried is now writing a book on recent photography gets mentioned several times in this volume precisely because the mid-twentieth-century obligation of the painter to secure or assert the status of the painting as art and not (only) object has, for all the reasons suggested above, devolved upon the photographer. Hence, as Fried himself says [about] Demand, the importance of photographers like Gursky, Struth, Hofer, and Wall (not to mention Sugimoto, Welling, and Demand himself) can only be understood in terms of their more or less implicit (in Wall, it is pretty explicit) commitment to establishing (since it cannot be taken for granted) the photograph as a representation.

— Walter Benn Michaels, “Photographs and Fossils” in James Elkins, ed. Photography Theory, New York and London, 2007, pp. 442-443.

Massimo Vitali, December 13, 2017.