Applying Aesthetics to Shock: The Politics of Beauty in Documentary Works
Beauty and documentary photography have been at constant war over it’s morality for the past several decades, yet a level of beauty is starting to become a common sighting in contemporary documentary work. This dissertation will be reflecting and broadening a discussion from a previous short paper on ‘Beauty and Documentary: The contrasting partnership of beauty and documentary photography used in the Contemporary World’. We will be discussing how beauty has now emerged on the scene for practitioners who sit on the fence between documentary and fine art photography; adding aesthetics to documentary to create a different dimension and element to their work. For many years documentary photography has been home to the ill considered image due to trying to attain the morality of the subject that is being photographed. Yet due to regular exposure to unattractive images there has been an increase in the lack of interest from viewers. Therefore some practitioners have taken it upon themselves to add further depth to their work, by combining a moral message with beauty in aid to revive that interest back into documentary photography.This has attracted a wider audience of interest to take note of what the practitioners are wanting to get across, which the sublime in modern day works is no longer accomplishing.
However, I shall also consider in this dissertation how beauty is still under intense scrutiny by critics when it comes to documentary work. They believe that by adding aesthetics to a topic of concern has true moral implications, due to the fact that there is another element to the image that a viewer can focus on. If there is another element that the viewer can focus on, then critics believe that their attentiveness is no longer solely focussed on the message they are portraying. Therefore the aestheticisation of a point of concern can be over shadowed by the beauty. This will lead on to the part of discussion where critiques explain the moral challenges behind the use of beauty when implementing a topic of concern.
The figures I will be discussing in this essay are more closely recognised in the fine art field than documentary, however, all the practitioners have at one point or another been discussed in this way due to their ‘documenting’ style or technique. The works of such practitioners as Andres Serrano, Rineke Dijkstra and Rembrandt, all contain the use of beauty in their imagery to document a subject. With use of the works of these artist both arguments will be put forward, in particular, around the topics of life and death within documentary art and how each of these pieces both benefit and lose from the use of beauty.
I will make reference to theoretical literature such has Susan Sontag’s On Photography (2002), the work of Kathleen Marie Higgin’s ‘Whatever Happened to Beauty? A response to Danto’(1996) and Elaine Scarry’s ‘Beauty and being Just’ as theoretical guides to establish each point of discussion.
Before we start discussing the selected practitioners, we first need to establish what we mean by beauty and aesthetics. The definition in the English Oxford dictionary for beauty is a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight (Oxford,2006). When something holds a great deal of beauty it means it holds no faults, almost complete and perfect in every form of the aspect, and as viewers tend to find objects that are complete appealing they are naturally drawn to them. Aesthetics is a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty (Oxford,2006) and are the study or philosophy behind questions which revolve around the topic of beauty. So as established we find that aesthetics is the discussion around beauty whilst beauty often refers to an object or subject itself.
When referring to documentary photography what this dissertation refers to as a thing of beauty is the technique of photography itself; the composition of an image, the lighting and all round quality that makes a photograph complete. Therefore by looking at the beauty of the composition, it is possible that a piece of work may not be traditionally what is thought of as beautiful, yet still be a thing of beauty. It may even be argued that an image that one might find grotesque can still hold beauty, as beauty is something that grasps the viewers attention involuntarily and heightens the sense.
The discussion we are going to have within this dissertation is that beauty is being used within photography in a way we have not seen before; it is being used to document the various taboos or stigmas within our society as a means to revive our interest. Many techniques such as the use of the sublime once held gravitas when it was first established, however now that society is rapidly growing and changing it’s impact is becoming banal. This is where photographers have delved back into the use of beauty in a self indulgent way of regaining an audiences interest in social concerns. Beauty in partnership with social challenges has given birth to a generation of highly complex forms of beauty. In the traditional sense of the term beauty, it is known as a source of positive aesthetic value and appreciation, a form of specific pleasure and enjoyment that holds no other function other than to be beautiful.
However, the works of the practitioners in documentary photography that we will be discussing today have achieved both beauty and social awareness.They do not tend to conform to the traditional form of beauty. This art shows the range of complexity that beauty holds that can render viewers in both shock and horror as well as pleasurable attraction.
The use of beauty in this way is what is now appearing in photography which seems to cross borders between documentary and fine art. The works of Rineke Dijkstra’s Mother (1994) and Andres Serrano’s The Morgue (1992) are salient examples of the highly complex balance of beauty and social context, as they do not provoke an immediate reaction of pleasure. Nevertheless as the viewers examine the raw realism of the blood dripping down the leg of a new mother, holding a baby that not moments ago was inside her abdomen (figure 1). Or look at the vacant stare of an empty soul of a deceased corpse (figure 2), they find themselves captured by the image in a hypnotic stare as they struggle to tare themselves away, transforming their morbid fascination into a pleasurable experience. Thus turning something that is not immediately pleasurable into a subject of beauty. Again, we do not want to confuse aesthetics with beauty as they are two different things, aesthetics is something that is visually pleasing and beauty is something that involuntarily grasps our attention. Therefore even the most grotesque pieces of photographic work can hold the element of beauty. So when we discuss beauty in this paper we refer back to our original statement; beauty is the technique of photography itself; the composition of an image, the lighting and all round quality which grasps the attention of the viewer and excites the sense.
It is important within this discussion to also establish what is meant by documentary photography. For many years documentary photography was considered to be a narrow spectrum of photography and journalism; capturing the likes of war photography and famine in the third world that is normally associated with such photographers as Magnum members. This form of documentary photography did not place beauty at the forefront of it’s agenda as the social injustice was all that was important in the matter. Many contemporary documentary photographers still hold true to the technique of an ‘unconsidered’ image, they feel that it ensures the awareness of the message being portrayed is all that a viewer is attentive to. Such photographers as Richard Billingham (Figure 3) are an example of this; he deliberately produces work that are as banal as possible in his series Ray’s a Laugh. His technique of photographing neglects any form of composition and renders itself a ‘snapshot’ in the hope that this somehow makes the image appear more real. This style of documentary photography was solely focussed on sustaining a balanced moral through the lack of aesthetic value in the images. It is due to this that the debate on the politics of beauty rose, ‘Beauty becomes not only subjective but controversial’(Beech,2009,pg12). Therefore due to its controversy and battle over morality, especially in the realms of documentary photography, beauty then becomes an outsider. What we mean by this is that practitioners become fearful of using beauty in their work, as they run the risk of being criticised for not applying sole attention to the social injustice being portrayed in their image. And critics are quick to dismiss documentary photographic work that holds an element of beauty because of the fact that beauty can be subjective.
However as social culture begins to further develop and grow, practitioners find themselves blending and expanding the means of what it is to create documentary work. They flirt with the idea of beauty, and how its benefits of gaining a persons attentiveness could then be mirrored and passed on to the social concern that is the subject of their image. Especially as we now see a growing requirement for a new form of documentary photography to which once again arouses the interest of the public eye which has now been lost. We will discuss this point further later on in the topic of life and death and the benefits of beauty.
This new way of working has created a culture of documentary work that sits comfortably in the fine art field. In Higgin’s essay she expresses how Arthur Danto believed ‘too often, political activists have failed in their efforts to enlist art as an ally in their campaign’ (Higgins,K.M,1996,pg30). What Higgins is trying to say here is that due to activism being so overly conscious to giving justice to the cause, they have completely overlooked the powerful effect that beauty can implement on a viewer. They have been so fearful of losing their morals to the message that they haven’t taken advantage of the true benefits of beauty, and what it could bring to the table when reviving the interest back into social concerns. To partner documentary photography with beauty allows for a piece to work as both a social concern and as piece of artwork; producing something that holds far more value in an array of fashions unlike the traditional sense of documentary photography. Once the work becomes more inclined to be dominated by it’s efforts to inspire a moral response it then fails as a piece of artwork and simply becomes a political statement.
‘The issue of the nineties will be beauty’(Hickey,D.1993,pg22)
By the late twentieth century we start to see a curiosity being led back to beauty and it’s absence in the world of art. Dave Hickey was one of the first scholars to argue the concept that beauty could be renovated as a meaningful term of art criticism in his essay ‘Enter the Dragon; On the Vernacular of Beauty’(1993). In his essay, Hickey declares the importance of beauty within artwork. Like this paper, he believe that beauty is a vital importance to our generation, the argument he put forth is that beauty holds great power that could be used as a tool to implement political awareness. He states that beauty within art will cause the viewer to take time to unpack and take in the meaning of the artwork. Therefore, artwork can hold powerful political and ethical agendas and use beauty to push these agendas onto the viewers. This is just what we are starting to see amongst the practitioners we are discussing today.
Photography has now claimed its own complex form of beauty which isn’t straight forwardly pleasurable. There are some contemporary photographers whose work branch under this category of complex beauty and have taken to the revival of beauty by embracing the benefits that come from it.
Andres Serrano’s series of work called The Morgue show a complex balance of shock and beauty; it’s a series of high quality images of corpses labelled with their cause of death. This series is quite a disturbing response to the object body; Serrano in this series exploits the strains between the seductive beauty of colour and the horrific shock of what is being referred (Durden.M,2014). His work toys with our ideas of death and our relationship to it in a way that also evokes classical painting. Although Serrano has used a close up technique with the camera or placed a cloth over the face to ensure the subjects remain anonymous, at times this gives the corpses a level of eroticism. He does this through close up of the mouth for example, a tactic we often see in advertisement, whilst others can almost be connected to paintings of Christ on the Cross.
The sheer attention to detail and the composition of the image aluminates every subject in each image. By draping vibrant colours over the corpses, some of the photographs disrupt and counter their shocking nature which could be the key to why these images work so well; they aren’t as abrasive as they perhaps could be. Serrano has taken into careful consideration how an audience view the image. If they were large-scale images of shocking representations of dead corpses that mimic the traditional technique of documentary work then would these images have been as effective?
Serrano takes into account the fact that for these images to work the audience have to feel a level of desire for them, to fall in love with them, which he has successfully done so and renders a viewer with a complicated sense of shock and admiration. So does the beauty of these images show that even though there is a moral barrier around the documentation of death, the visual pleasure of viewing the image still holds a vital role?
In this part of the dissertation we will discuss the role of beauty within an image when it comes to documenting death. In Kathleen Marie Higgins’Whatever Happened to Beauty? A Response to Danto (1996) she takes the time to respond to Arthur Danto’s expressed worries on beauty with arguments on how beauty has been outwitted by contemporary art. Danto believe that beauty can be inappropriate in artwork as it threatens to conceal and suppress injustice, however Higgins defines beauty morally as a feeling that allows one to gain a new love of life. She also expressed that when beauty is used to commemorate those who have passed on, Danto suggested that beauty, in these cases, renders us philosophical, with a sense that we have kindled the ‘meaning of what it is to be human’(Higgins,K.M.1996,pg32). When beauty is used to commemorate those who passed on it allows the viewer to accept the passing, because the image is beautiful. Once they accept the image they can accept the death, it allows for the viewer to broaden their minds to think about death. Which then leads them to reflect on death that is closer to their hearts. It then reminds them of what it is to be human; to be mortal, that although in our materialistic society we somehow believe that we are immortal, different from other species, in reality we all have to die. This is were we find that Serrano’s work is a salient example of how death leaves us philosophical, in his image Death by Rat Poison (Figure 4), the viewers attention is involuntarily grasped and is seduced by its beauty. They can’t help but succumb to the eye opening sensations of the hairs standing up on the corpses arms, and the full rigour of his body. They then realise, even though they are fully aware that what they are looking at is a lifeless soul of a man who once was, they can’t help but be drawn to it’s morbid beauty. In this case we can see how Serrano’s work can originally provoke shock which then gives way to reflection and contemplation.
There are critiques however who believe the use of visual aesthetics in regards to the documentation of death and loss is a complete immoral, and even go is far as insinuating that the use of beauty to interpret social concerns as a collapse to the cause. In Mark Cousin’s essay The Ugly (1994) he discusses how the ‘commentators have frequently identified the category of the sublime as one which overthrows the limits of the classical conception of beauty’(Cousin.M,1994,pg146). Stating that beauty can appear to have other narcissistic agendas rather than to social injustice that it is left open for criticism to which the sublime is not. However, isn’t the snapshot culture that has been taken upon documentary photography just exacerbating the problem?
The use of the sublime and the traditional unconsidered documentary image are becoming exhausted techniques. Culturally society has become immune to it’s effects; the realities repulsiveness of modern society has been refashioned and reworked over and over again, that the audience the work is trying to reach out to are no longer paying attention. Susan Sontag believed that:
‘The quality of feeling, including moral outrage, that people can muster in response to photographs of the oppressed, the exploited, the starving, and the massacred also depends on the degree of familiarity with these images’ (Sonstag,S.2002,pg19)
This further establishes the argument we hold that the constant exposure to this form of imagery have now become outdated and ineffective; the public sees these images on a regular basis through the news or even through social media. Which has led to the techniques of outdated fashions on documentary being brushed over and blended into the background. A notable example of this is the news images taken by Reuters of the drowned Syrian child washed up on a Turkish beach; who failed to attempt to sail to the Greek Island of Kos during the current refugee crisis. There was moral out-cry over this image for around 48hours then after this, the image became almost invisible, forgotten and never to be talked about again even though the Syrian crisis is still going on. The viewers have simply become numb to it’s effects and they now lack a response when faced with yet another poorly taken image of a dying person.
Because of this we believe that some practitioners have taken it upon themselves to gain a different approach to documentary work; they have applied the aesthetic appeals of paintings to reconstitute the interest in current social concerns. We can see how Serrano’s The Morgue series gain such influence from early paintings such as the works of Rembrandt’s Dr Nicolaes Tulp’s Anatomy Lecture (1632), which depicts the forearm of a criminal who has been hanged being carved open during an anatomy lecture (Figure 5). Paintings such as this now hold great strength in its romantic beauty and compelling detail which draws an audience in to reflect on the scene being portrayed. It is because of the success of such works as these that practitioners have started to go back to beauty and what can documentary photography gain from the use of visual aesthetics.
There is a possibility that although one can document death, by documenting that death you are also preserving life. The memory or even image of that person is represented through the photograph therefore keeping their memory alive. ‘I want to suggest that beauty typically, perhaps in time of loss urges not stillness but renewed love of life’ (Higgins,K.M,1996,pg32), this also places the viewer in a sense of hope; poor images that we are often faced with today leave us with no other feeling but of loss, misery and guilt. However beauty fills a viewer with a sense of purpose or happiness, and perseverance. Although an image of death, beauty can render a viewer with a realisation of the importance of life.
The same issues of moral implications also revolve around the documentation of life, in particular new life. If we look at such works as Rineke Dijkstra’s Mother (1994) we see a series of portraits of women who have just given birth (Figure 6), a series of work to capture the first moments after the trauma of birth where you can see the raw emotion, anxiety and fear on the new mother’s face. These post-natal portraits are quite shocking and portray a harsh reality on what pregnancy and giving birth does to the female body. It also expresses the changes a new mother is going through; with a baby and body alterations it shows the pressures and insecurities that they face. Rineke Dijkstra almost extends the work of Andres Serrano shocking tactic by her depiction of the raw shock and honesty of motherhood. We can also see the connection to early paintings as her portraits of mothers holding their new-born babies mirrors the iconographic image of the Mandonna and Child. Yet Dijkstra’s work offers a painfully graphic portrayal of the female form, with this connection to old paintings we also see an air of innocence and raw beauty. Many people find that images like these are hard to swallow and debated on whether it was morally right or exploitative. We could put forward the reasons why society struggles with these images is that it is a very real point in ones life; like death it is a point in ones life were we realise what it is to be human, and what it is to be animals. Again as in death, the moment of reproducing and giving birth is a point that takes us out of society’s materialistic bubble and brings us back to a primitive state. As this is such a raw moment in an audiences life they beg the question on the moral struggles of combining beauty with such an event. ‘But with repeated exposure to the image it also becomes less real…’ (Sontag,S.2002,pg20), most have seen the Benetton adverts produced by Oliviero Toscani of a baby who has just been pulled out of a woman, still covered in birthing fluid and placenta and like the argument put forward about death, when we constantly see such images we tend to ignore them. They stop becoming real and the important message that is being conveyed by the image is being ignored. It is fair to say that the technique of producing unconsidered images in attempt to avoid the moral implications around the subject have become tiresome and banal, and most importantly ineffective. Susan Sontag believed that ‘In these last decades, “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it’ (Sontag,S.2002,pg20), this further establishes the argument of this dissertation. The use of the sublime or images heavily reliant on the social concerned being conveyed has become outdated and within such topics as documenting life there may be a need for a new tactic for change, and if we continue to use this old technique then we are simply killing the concern.
Rineke Dijkstra’s work is a salient example of combining beauty with documentary photography to show awareness. What makes these images a thing of beauty is the subtlety of the shock factor; the images hold beauty in their own right as the subject matter may be mildly horrific yet the viewer involuntary gives up their attention to them. It allows for the viewer to stand and enjoy the image and then slowly discovered the secondary purpose of the photographs which is the point of awareness. This refers back to the discussion of the highly complex beauties that these photographers have started to produce. It is important that beauty is combined with documentary photography because ‘beauty creates space for spiritual openness. Political activism, taken by itself , does not’ (Higgins,K.M,1996,pg34). From this we can see that Dijkstra’s work can be appreciated for not only it’s beauty which is what the audience first falls in love with, but how beauty also brings back our interest and makes us attentive to the message that’s being conveyed. That is what makes these images so vastly important.
In Elaine Scarry’s essay On Beauty and Being Just (1999) she discusses the philosophers Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch, according to them ‘Beauty prepares us for justice’ (Scarry.E,1999,pg38). In terms of documenting life we are discussing that these works show that beauty when combined with documentary photography has a ricochet effect; lured by beauty, the viewer is compelled to devote attention, then that attention is shifted towards devoting to the message perceived in the image and awareness wanting to be shown. Social injustice is being unheard due to poor photography which further echo’s an outdated technique that hasn’t moved on with the growth of society. And with how fast society grows the method becomes rapidly even more banal. Therefore it is even more important that beauty is further embraced as a tactic for documentary photography and get the social concerns heard again.
This now leads me onto the next discussion of this dissertation were we will be looking into how some critiques still feel that beauty has no moral place in the world of political engagement. It is crucial to a balanced discussion to acknowledge the difficulties that beauty has had when being revived back into work that could have any moral concerns. Although the twentieth century has witnessed a spread and rise of aesthetically pleasing photographic documentary, such as Serrano’s and Dijkstra’s, we still see that critiques such as Robert Smithson provide statements that are not only at complete disregard of aesthetics but feel that beauty within art is a a sign of a collapse in intelligence. Smithson discusses how true art is lost in society due to aesthetics, ‘Nothing is more faded than aesthetics’(Smithson.R,1966,pg171) he believes that art is no longer pure due to the obsession over beauty. The only relief you get is the small minority of facts within the image which explain the political engagement which ease the disappointment however those facts are exhausted and you are left with a meaningless image. What Smithson could be trying to say is that the aesthetic image took the viewer’s attention away from it’s cause of awareness, that because he feels that beauty has no purpose or function it is merely a pointless distraction. However, due to the new dimensions created by the current photography world and rapid growth in experimentation in such culture, we are now starting to see how some photographers have discovered a way in which beauty is a positive value to documentary work.
In Rasheed Araeen’s essay Cultural Imperialism: Observations on Cultural Situations in the Third World (1976) she expresses how beautiful documentary is exploitation and this form of political art ‘demands exploitation and oppression of the people caught in this situation’ (Araeen.R,1976,pg177). Is this level of attack on beauty because there is a level of guilt in how much our species destroys one another. We don’t deserve beauty because humans aren’t themselves beautiful. We are destroyers, greedy and ugly therefore any form of documenting such society should only mirror this.
Or perhaps it’s the sheer guilt that what ever devastation being portrayed in the image is something that we as individuals will most likely never be able to fix. In Elaine Scarry’s essay she discusses the first time she saw the Bergen-Belsen and Dachan, ‘what good was served by seeing them? They were only photographs – of an event I had scarcely heard of and could do nothing to affect’(Scarry.E,1999). Is the reason we reject beauty in such images is that we are already feeling guilt that our effect to change the social injustice is none existent; we can’t change it so the thought of adding beauty to something we feel guilt over almost seems radical. And with beauty in the way it preoccupies our attention, distracting us from the cause of awareness that we should be focussing on, that we should feel guilty about.
Yet to genuinely believe that individuals could be able to single handedly stop any social injustice is fantasy and as a society people can accept that not every cultural concern can be cured solely by one person. It may be that people have already accepted that there’s nothing we can do and that is why people have began to ignore the traditional tactic of documentary photography. The imagery has no appeal to them both aesthetically or morally anymore. They know that there is nothing they can do about what ever concern is being portrayed and if the image is not aesthetically pleasing either, then people begin to question what is the point in paying attention. This is why we believe that photographers have started to appeal beauty as a form of rekindling the public interest in a topic of concern.
This now brings us to the final discussion on establishing what documentary photography can achieve from the use of beauty, especially these highly complex forms that incorporate a conflicting emotion of both shock and desire. Beauty and aesthetics work well in documentary work due to beauty being to most an understandable language, also beauty is desirable and gives the viewer a sense of self indulgent pleasure. Therefore, when beauty is combined with a topic of concern people show more compassion towards that topic, ‘Far form damaging our capacity to attend to problems of injustice, it instead intensifies the pressure we feel to repair existing injuries’(Scarry.E,1999,pg36). When viewers are attracted to a subject either physically or mentally they create a bond with the object or in this case the image. That bond then forces the viewer to involuntarily show compassion, and when a viewer is showing compassion for the image they also show compassion for the cause. Therefore making the act to change ever more powerful.
‘For more than four centuries, the idea of ‘making it beautiful’ has been they keystone of our cultural vernacular’ (Hickey.D,1993,pg27)
Beauty is a symbolism of hope, and by placing hope back into a world filled with morbid depression and media which is filled with an onslaught of negativity, beauty allows for us to see hope for a future for change. Rather than mourning the loss of lives or the starvation of children we see hope and a change for society to be reborn and renewed of life. By combining beauty with political art we also find a further dedication to beauty, ‘The beholder, in response to seeing beauty, often seeks to bring new beauty into the world and may be successful in this endeavour’(Scarry.E,1999,pg41). Along with compassion a viewer feels more positive in making a change as beauty produces a sense of pleasure. It is believed that when someone sees beauty, they then want to produce more beauty to satisfy their visual pleasures. The same goes for when someone sees negativity they often produce negativity and by creating a chain of positive emotions it uplifts viewers to make a positive change. The power of beauty could be used as a vigorous tool to rekindle a viewers concern for change.
In reality what is the point in producing photography if we don’t fall in love with it? without beauty can the image really be complete? with the endless horrors of the world and constant bombardment of negativity across our culture we have as a society become numb to the ugly and disinterested. Beauty may just be the answer to bring about attention to the social injustices we face today. It’s time for a new approach.
We feel that we live in an age where trends and fashions decease rapidly and it may be that beauty is making a wider appearance in the world of documentary photography. Due to this we find that practitioners are becoming far more intelligent in how they execute their work; no longer do political artists solely revolve around critical issues but they are reminding themselves that they have a duty as an artist, as well as an activist. Beauty can be used in documentary photography contrary to the statements made by skeptics of the aesthetics in the documentary image. It could possibly be argued that a Photographer or Artist who manages to accomplish both social awareness for change and divine beauty within their work, could be a breed of a whole new level of practitioner. Yet beauty is such a powerful implement that photographers do run the risk of over-aestheticising, and open themselves to criticism on the lack of balance between the beauty of their work and the dedication to the awareness they are portraying. However there is no denying the hypnotic impact of beauty which may, even in miserable condition, rekindle our faith and hope for possible change. What can be concluded in this dissertation is that the discussion on beauty itself is not concluded, and we cannot expect that the discussion will be resolved anytime soon.
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