In an earlier post I wondered about the relationship between art and the tech industry, and I am continuing to think about photography as a medium at the intersection of art, science, and economics.
Paul Strand, in an essay entitled “Photography and the New God,” draws a parallel between the historical roles of artists and scientists in Western civilization. He sees them as similar, as they are each involved in the pursuit of different kinds of knowledge: empirical or intellectual knowledge on the part of the scientist, and intuitive knowledge on the part of the artist.
In poetic prose befitting his metaphorical descriptions of a transition from faith in God to faith in reason and money, Strand describes how, when the Christian Church dominated Western society and culture, empirical thinkers and experimenters suffered persecution because the scientific method was seen to be in opposition to Christian beliefs and values. Artists, on the other hand, played a vital role in reproducing said values and thus in the life of the Church (though there was certainly subversiveness even in religious art, i.e. in the work of painters like Caravaggio). But, eventually:
“Men’s imaginations, weary of sectarian intrigues and of Holy Wars, kindled at the thought of the unknown in the form of unexplored trade routes and new sources of material wealth; and through them dreamed of a power over their fellows as potent as any which could be derived from a vested interest in God. With this change in the direction of thought, the scientist became indispensable, he began to function in society […] Out of wood and metals he made hands that could do the work of a thousand men; he made backs that could carry the burden of a thousand beasts and chained the power which was in the earth and waters to make them work. Through him, men consummated a new creative act, a new Trinity: God the Machine, Materialistic Empiricism the Son, and Science the Holy Ghost.”1
In the course of this change, the value of intuitive knowledge dwindled, so that “[the artist] is today in a position similar to that which the scientist occupied in the middle ages; that of heretic to existing values,” treated largely as entertainers or, in some cases, wanton non-producers.
Strand goes on to somewhat bitterly expound upon the ways in which scientists have allowed themselves to be used, for the purpose of profit, to create all kinds of horrible weapons and unsustainable ways of life that have resulted in Western Civilization reaching a point verging on crisis. He sees hope, however, in the figure of the photographer, who uses machines for expressive purposes and thus injects some feeling and a humanist sensibility into the “New God’s” brutally rational world.
Much of the essay is written polemically and demonstrates a thorough skepticism of the rapid embrace of new technologies, which I do not think is an unhealthy trait in artists, who must have a deep understanding of the tools that they use. However, the final paragraph does point toward photographers as possible prophets of a brighter, if not truly optimistic, way forward, and asks questions that I think are fundamental to what I myself am hoping to better understand through writing here:
“Rejecting all Trinities and all Gods he puts to his fellow workers this question squarely: What is the relation between science and expression? Are they not both vital manifestations of energy, whose reciprocal hostility turns the one into the destructive tool of materialism, the other into anemic phantasy, whose coming together might integrate a new religious impulse? Must not these two forms of energy converge before a living future can be born of both?”2
As an artist who occasionally gets worried and wonders “What’s the point?”, Strand’s fierce defense of photography not only as art but as relevant to the success of a technologically advanced society is heartening. As we become more inundated with technology, it is important that someone continue to assert human qualities such as imagination, emotion, and curiosity, even as our civilization becomes more dependent on machines. As discussions of these developments frequently take on a utopian/dystopian bent, depending on who is writing or speaking, the photographer’s ambiguous frames can offer thoughtful glances at our developing posthuman civilization.