What is the Share of Photography in the Cultural Development?

* The symposium paper presented to the symposium organized by Hacettepe University Faculty of Fine Arts on 4 – 6 May 1994 in Ankara, on the “Art Pioneering in Cultural Development”. Proceedings pg. 99 – 104

In this paper, after a brief account for the concept and theory of culture, I would like to examine the influence photography, its seemingly complex structure and both technological as well as aesthetic aspect, has on contemporary society by comparing the relationship -in terms of its aim- between art / artist and culture. While following this path, I will try to present the subject within the dimensions of the artistic and social / cultural anthropology.

Culture is the only and indispensable theme of social/cultural anthropology. However, because of the versatility it reveals, it is difficult to describe and explain the concept of culture. The root of the difficulty in definition can be sought in the fact that the concept of culture has multiple meanings. Culture in general is used as corresponding to the following basic concepts:

  1. Culture is the cumulative civilization of a society or of all societies.
  2. Culture is the self of a particular society.
  3. Culture is the combination of a range of social processes.
  4. Culture is a human and social theory.
  5. Culture is communication. Communication has the feature of integrating societies.

When the historical process is examined, it can be seen that the concept of culture is used in scientific writings in the sense of civilization, whereas civilization -in general or specific terms- involves cultural variables such as education, fine arts and technology. In this context, the word culture is used in four different fields and meanings:

  1. Culture used in the scientific field means civilization and reflects the cultural structure of different societies. Culture used in this sense is historical, holistic and evolutionary.
  1. Culture used in daily life means education and covers the entire general vocational and technical education. Culture used in this sense is, analytical, critical, constructive, instructive and transmitive.
  1. Culture used in the artistic field means art and creativity, and involves all arts and movements they created since its beginning up to today. Culture used in this sense is critical, creative, educative, analytical and aims to reach beauty.
  1. Culture used in the technological field means production and is the symbol of development in agriculture and industry. Culture used in this sense is productive, experimental, duplicative and nurturing.

From this point of view, it turns out that the word culture is a comprehensive, polysemantic and loaded concept. Because, many facts, all the way up to the accumulation of the success shown by society or one of its members in their relationship with nature, can be called culture. However, when culture is referred to, the type of culture considered is generally not mentioned. This difficulty stems from the fact that the concept of culture is an abstract word.

So far, I have tried to emphasize briefly that the word culture is used in different fields and meanings, and that its scope is rather wide. Now, I want to focus on some features of the concept that I believe will shed light on later sections of the subject.

Culture is not an innate, instinctual and genetically predetermined phenomenon. On the contrary, it is the behavior and the response tendencies of each individual, gained in the process between birth and death. According to this, culture is a learned fact, gained with education. Culture passes from one generation to another; i.e. shows continuity. Every cultural system nourishes and guides its members.

Culture cannot exist where society is not present. The teachings of the cultural system are not only continuous in time dimension, but are also social. A culture cannot be separated from a society that implements it.

Cultures are always in a state of flux. Change occurs through harmony. Cultural change does not happen immediately in the integrity of the system. Changes in a certain part of the system force the remaining institutions to comply with the new situation. In some cases, the change is slowed down, and in some cases, is supported and accelerated. Almost every cultural change will result in a divergence between institutions. This is what is called cultural backwardness. Differentiations between cultural systems may obligate the use of ready-made solutions from foreign societies or result in these solutions spreading by themselves.

Actually, the event of coming by themselves stems from the fact that the cultural system is an open system wherein exchange with other societies around the cultural system, no matter they are close or distant, is possible. For this reason, the concept of culture has a feature that is not similar to any known geographic map. This feature brings forth the uncertainty of its boundaries. The boundaries of the concept of culture never coincide with the geographical boundaries of the nation.

Besides being born in a certain country, in a certain language, an individual can be kneaded by the influence of other cultures and other languages as much as by his own culture. This is the reason why we find in his life the traces of the geography in which he lived or dreamed, as well as his personal world. Limiting the referred geography to the national boundaries is not recognizing one of the most important features of our time, common togetherness.

From cave paintings to communication between satellites, modern man is under a continuous bombardment of communication while also experiencing the transition from a mystical society to a modern techno – culture, a powerful technology that is rapidly changing and even getting ahead of social change and a universe that it frames. We live in such a communication network that our social, political and cultural behaviors are radically affected, and the world is progressively getting smaller. The distances between countries and cultures are getting smaller. Maybe we are on the verge of an era when someday they will disappear entirely. We are no more limited only to the geography of our own country. With a closed-circuit cultural event, we cannot be complacent with ourselves and with our own value criteria. We have to establish relationship with the common positions of cultures that do not resemble each other in changing world conditions.

So, what is the position and function of art and artist in this process of change while the change is going on at a rapid pace?

At the beginning, art faces us being totally abstracted from aesthetic concerns, as the magical device used by the human community in the struggle for survival. In primitive societies, art is a social product, a social act that everyone participates in. However, with the event of classification, we see that art also exhibits a class characteristic. The fact is that artistic value and its social function are two elements that cannot be separated. However, in parallel to the changing society structure, art is not always and for everywhere a static occupation for all, but an evolutionary phenomenon. In this context, the artist has to be a person competent at the level of culture, a man of culture, that is, a thinker who has internalized human values at general level and apprehended by seeing the human thinking together with its important milestones.

The artist should be able to integrate the facilities granted to him by the age he lives in and by the social conditions to his work. Then the characteristic of the artist does not depend on the fact that his own experience is entirely different from the experiences of other people, of the same age and class but on the fact that it is more powerful, more conscious and more intense. The artist should be able to reveal social relations in his/her own style so that all other people can see those relations. Only art can achieve this. Art can transform man from a fragmented state into a unified body. It ensures people understand the facts, and not only helps people in shaping them to any other form, but also increases their determination to make the fact more humane and more useful to humanity. Art itself is a societal requirement. That supreme human being called artist is necessary for society. An artist who is full of the thoughts and the experiences of his era, not only contents himself with expressing the mere reality, but also aims to give new forms to it.

In de facto mentality, apparently, the community has assigned two tasks to the artist: First, is the direct task a social integrity imposes on it; Second, is an indirect task arising from his own social sensitivity. These two tasks do not always have to mesh together. If there is a conflict between the two tasks over time, it is a symptom of increasing counterparts in that society. It will be more correct to observe the events, leaving the unilateral prejudices such as “Art is for art” or “Art is for society” aside, as they are worn-out, are accentuated a lot and have done their turn. Society is no longer the traditional old society; technology is proceeding at high speed towards a future in such a manner that today it cannot be predicted where this will end up. It is not possible for art and thought trends not to keep up with this course of events. In this process, the artist is creative and guides the society to the extent he can reveal the main features of his era, social / cultural variables, new realities.

In a society where the entire cultural system, or some institutions in this system have started to decay, the art, in case the voice of a democratic base, has to reflect the decay too. As long as he does not escape from his social task, he must show that the world of art can change and help it change.

One of the most important features of the age we are in is, as is known, the changing social process, as the result of the industrial revolution. The reasons leading to this process are the expansion of the scope of information and the incredibly rapid development of technology. In this process of change, the basic segment in the relationships of the individual with his environment is organized visually. Visual perception dominates everyday life, when almost all types of forms of communication with scopes expanded by communication tools, are observed. In this respect, Karl Pawek’s definition of the age we are in as the optical age is appropriate.

Photography is a subjective interpretation of the world of objects continuing its existence objectively, which is produced objectively to be displayed either as directed to a group or to millions of people, by means of the press (newspapers and magazines). The masses reached by the image are those who create the subjective definition in this direction. The photographic indicator the narrator produces as the image itself reaches the mass that separates it into its definitions through an immobile similitude. The definition of the image is determined by the comparison method. Photography is a communicative tool because of the ability of the image to carry and transfer messages.

The ability of photography to reveal objects and events in dimensions close to perceived objective reality may require us to view it as a realistic means of communication. But whichever type of its functioning is considered, the relationship of photography with reality can be understood throughout its relationship with ideology. In fact, looking for truth in the image is not a feature special to our era. In the early ages, the human being sought to make something real, in the pictures he drew on the cave walls. Although the thought of seeking the truth in the image was discouraged to a certain extent by the emergence of writing, with the emergence of photography and then television and other visual means at the beginning of the century, it became dominant in social life once more.

Photography is based on the inductive reasoning method in the approach to reality. Accordingly, the only and inevitable way of identifying events is inductive reasoning. The only way to acquire new information is to reach a general judgment by examining the singular events starting with observation.

The inductive reasoning method is prejudiced due to its selective and sorter features. It is almost impossible to avoid hasty generalizations during the implementation of this method. Generalization and prejudice increase the margin of error in the message loaded to the image. Thus, for example, when the young Vietcong who is shot in his head, the young children who are starving to death, the people who are looking for a homeland being dragged here and there on board the ships… or similar photographic images are used in conjunction with a written discourse, or when shown in an art activity as oriented to a single essence or used for educational purposes, or when they are directed to the field of publicity (advertising), they bring up different viewing holes with the message they convey. In that case, the photographic indicator can be linked to different reading rules for the purpose it is directed to.

Ronald Barthes says that the photography is often viewed aesthetically, not ideologically, whether it is qualified as document or not. However, today the efficiency of photography alone in terms of aesthetics cannot be easily addressed. When it comes to transferring a thought or a thought sequence to the artistic dimension, it is necessary to move beyond the documentary boundaries of the photography of today.

In that case, it can be concluded that photography can convey information in the direction of the ethnographic traces of the past to future generations, can show what it sees to those who do not know, do not see, while at the same time questioning the past, with its document aspect ensures that the values lost in the time periods of different social processes are not destroyed. In addition, it can fulfill its educational function by using the visual presentation and visual expression methods. In doing so, it uses its analytical, critical and transmitive qualities.

March 1994


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