Before I give him a big slap, I should put on
record that I think the The Oz‘s visual arts writer, Sebastian Smee, is one of the
most engaging critics working in Australia today. He
knows how to string an elegant sentence together – a depressingly rare talent in
Australian art criticism – and he has a healthy disdain for artistic cant.

It pains me, therefore, to see that Smee has dug himself into a hole
by declaring the terminal decline of an entire area of the visual arts.
In artworld terms, Smee could be seen as a tad conservative, but
that’s largely because he’s a ruthlessly rigorous detector of bullsh*t.
What a pity Smee didn’t apply his usual rigour to his own bold
pronouncement that “photography as an art form is on the wane” and that
it’s “losing its grip on the public imagination”.

As one academic pointed out yesterday on Radio National’s The Deep
End
, Smee failed to produce any evidence to support his contention that the public is
losing interest in photography as art. He blames “the astonishing superabundance of photographs” and the “dramatic
recent changes to the medium” for the decline in photography’s artistic cred.

Smee’s argument is at its most dubious with this line: “Thanks to the
digital revolution, there is virtually nothing that can’t be done to a
photograph to alter its once unique relationship to reality”. Since
photography’s very beginnings, it’s been possible to alter the
photographic image in some way, and it’s questionable as to whether
photography has ever had a “unique relationship with reality”.

Every photograph taken over the last one and a half centuries has at the
very most been nothing more than an interpretation of reality, and the
interpreting starts with the photographer’s choice of what’s included in or left
out of the frame. Smee seems to believe that the public’s interest in photography as an art
form was predicated on its capacity for portraying events in the real world,
when it’s probably closer to the truth that photography only won recognition as
an artistic medium when it moved beyond merely attempting to depict reality.

Smee may well have lost faith in photography’s power as an art form, but he
shouldn’t claim the public is equally disillusioned when he can provide no proof
of that being so.