I am a little puzzled by this week’s topic, that of Context or in the case of one of the weekly readings “Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning”. It seems unremarkable that the meaning of something will change according to how and where it is presented, how and by whom it is made, and how and by whom it is seen. I wonder if there is any need to make a big deal out of this or to ensnare it in a thicket of intellectual sophistry.
It’s always been known. The first words of the most classic of all Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada, are
All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
In other words, reality is a mental construct. The only reality we really have access to is mind. We see the world we want to see, according to the Buddha (and to his contemporaries in India too no doubt). So to a greater or lesser extent we create our own contexts. Many might think it unlikely that there is a fixed context or reality “out there” which trumps all else.
There are 1001 variations on these ideas. One is “Go, litel boke, go, litel myn tragedye”, Chaucer’s envoi to his poem Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer was paying modest homage to a literary tradition that had been going strong since classical times, an acknowledgement that once a work is created and released, the world makes of it what the world will. The work’s creator may have fierce hopes that the right eyes will see it in the right context, but ultimately world and time will decide what becomes of any creation and the result is beyond the creator’s control. As with children, we never really own our creations. They never did belong to us. We just look after them for a while, and perhaps that context is privilege enough.
So while context cannot be avoided, and while it is very important to be aware of context and of the audience for a work, trying to make context “sticky” and to control it strikes me as an exercise in futility. Much better, I think, to accept that reality is contingent and fluid and to accept that any work will be experienced in a potentially unlimited number of ways. From this arises the habit – or need – of many artists to reinvent themselves. Much of their work lies in eluding the trap of “sticky” contexts and thus evading the circumscribed and pigeon-holed.
The arrival of the digital world in photography has thrown all traditional contexts up in the air. Digital is a greatly democratising influence. What might once have taken a crew of 70 and a million-dollar budget can now be done with a handful of people for a modest outlay, if any. An increasing amount can simply be done with a smartphone, almost for free – not only stills but video, mixed media, micro-sites, ezines and more. So, in a way, context has centralized round the app. That’s good because it is so democratically available, but also not good because the risk is handing agency and ownership to the large international brands behind the app whose only interest is profit. More traditional contexts like the fine-art print and the upscale gallery are still there but my impression is that they are now a specialty and not mainstream. How could they be, when the second most popular website in the world is YouTube.
Is it possible to identify an audience but to forget about context? Or, at least, to avoid being taken prisoner by it? Possibly. The life and work of David Bowie was a ferment of invention and reinvention, for example. Or there is the earlier work of Picasso who experimented endlessly and made his way through -isms and periods until he found his true vision, that which only he could express. History is surely full of artists who were misunderstood at the time because their audience remained stuck in contexts the artist had long surpassed.
So there is the shock of the new, but perhaps there is also the shock of the old, the point at which time has erased all context and left us only the work. Take Palaeolithic hand stencils – hands outlined in blown ochre. The cultural contexts of Palaeolithic cave art have vanished, leaving us only with the physical: pigment on rock, now many thousands of years old. But this context serves only as a beginning. The power of these works is not in their physical context, one might argue, but in the mysterious and sometimes thrilling message they send out across time, in fact defying time. But the message is not fixed. It is what every generation chooses to receive, and perhaps every generation chooses to receive a different message. For Antony Gormley on seeing a Palaeolithic image reaching out to us across ten thousand years, for example, the message is “What does it feel like to be alive now?” So I suppose the question here is whether in the end there is only one context, and one we don’t really understand anyway: time.
In a way context is a paradox. It cannot be avoided, and it may be a necessary starting point, but perhaps to create something fresh one has to try to avoid it as much as one possibly can.
‘BBC Two – Antony Gormley: How Art Began’. 2019. [online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0c1ngds [accessed 18 Nov 2019].
CHAUCER, Geoffrey and B. A WINDEATT. 1984. Troilus & Criseyde : A New Edition of ‘The Book of Troilus’. London: Longman.
FRONSDAL, Gil. 2005. The Dhammapada: A New Translation. Boston, MA.: Shambhala Publications.
WALKER, John A. 1997. ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’. In Jessica EVANS (ed.). The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography. London: Rivers Oram, 52–63.