One of the under-discussed angles on the Brandeis-Rose controversy is this: Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz apparently doesn’t think that art contributes to human thought or societal progress as much as, say, the life sciences do. To Reinharz art is a mere Saturday discipline that doesn’t impact our understanding of the world around us, so why not just monetize it? [Image: Albert Obermayer, Atomisation of a 10 cm-long Iron Wire By a Strong Electric Current, 1893 or earlier.]

It’s hard to imagine a clearer argument against Reinharz’s worldview than curator Corey Keller’s recent SFMOMA show, “Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible World 1840-1900.” In a December Q&A on SFMOMA’s blog, Keller talked about how important visual culture was to 19th-century scientists, and how they used photography to help build public support for progressive (read: religion-challenging) science:

The pictures were certainly not intended as art, but their aesthetic value was not discounted… [S]cientists then, like scientists now, always needed support for their work, whether it was government or private support. They used these pictures as a way to draw in the public. There was an enormous movement in the 19th century towards popular science, and a belief that to have a healthy citizenry you had to have a population that understood the most important ideas in modern science, and so they used photography and other kinds of materials as a way of bringing these ideas to the public. The pictures needed to be interesting as well as informational. The fact that they work on both levels is not a contemporary concept.

So, I’m not presenting them as art. I’m presenting them as part of the visual culture and that’s really, for me, what’s so interesting about photography. In fact, in the 19th century, the percentage of pictures that were made with the idea that they were art is very small. But photography remains the most important form of image-making in the 19th century, and it informed all areas of visual culture, including fine art practice. I’m not making a claim for them as art, because that really wouldn’t be correct. But it is not incorrect to think about them in relationship to art and to the other kinds of images that circulated at that time.

Keller’s argument doesn’t necessarily die out with the end of the 19thC: There is a continuting history and tradition of art interacting with other disciplines to as part of a broader societal examination of new ideas (as well as of art helping to make avant-garde ideas or technologies more palatable, understandable, accessible and so on). Example: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1967-71 Art and Technology Program. LACMA’s Howard Fox wrote an introduction to the e-publication of the catalogue that picks up where Keller leaves off.

So maybe someone should send Reinharz some catalogues — and then hope he doesn’t flip them on EBay.

Tyler Green
Modern Art Notes