Since it was not translated into English until the mid 1960s,, Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay was slow to arrive in the English-speaking world, and when it did, it seemed part of the same zeitgeist as Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, Roland Barthes’ “The Rhetoric of the Image,” and Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” This zeitgeist was deeply suspicious of popular images, and this suspicion was soon fortified from a feminist direction by Laura Mulvey’s “Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and a postcolonial one by Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Benjamin’s essay extended it to the kinds of images we generally find in museums, i.e., to what I will be calling “pictures.” This made the museum the primary target of institutional critique, and gave rise to what Hal Foster called the “anti-aesthetic.” It was against this backdrop that the so-called “Pictures Generation” emerged. This category was helpful at first, since it allowed us to look at things that would otherwise have been forbidden. It was based, however, on a misapprehension: the misapprehension that a picture means the same thing for Jeff Wall as it does for Cindy Sherman.
This course will proceed from the assumption that there is more to a museum than the aura, and more to a picture than the “beauty” that Benjamin so scathingly derides. Since it was through Wall’s work that I first realized how important pictures are, he will have a central place in this course. There are, however, many other players in this drama, as well, some of whom offer very different accounts of pictorial photography, but all of whom seem to think that it is more than a blip on the screen of art history. This is, I believe, because the stakes are not just aesthetic, intellectual and political, but also ontological. Pictorial photography is an important chapter within a larger narrative—the narrative of our relationship to the world. And since this chapter began in 1839, that is also where this this seminar will start.