In this Op-ed I am going to discuss an article published by Osip Brik, who argues that photography is superior to painting in the modern world. I will critically evaluate this claim and explain what I believe about this concept.
Osip Brik was a member of the Russian formalist school and identified himself as one of the Futurists, a literary scholar, an avant-garde writer and an essayist. In his article, he reflects on the problem of the mutual correlation of painting and photography.
Unfortunately, as a critic, he misdiagnosed the future of both fields of art. The claims he proposed, although they fit into the rhetoric of socialist constructivism perfectly, are more like revolutionary gibberish inspired idea to create a new society by creating new artistic forms.
Has photography taken over art? The documentary filmmaker Osip Brik had no doubts. I, for one, do not share his worldview.
In his article, Brik initially states that "Photography pushes painting aside”, however, he further adds that “Painting resists and is determined not to capitulate”. In his opinion, the future belongs only to photography as a more precise, faster and cheaper form of art. However, the way in which he perceives and presents photography feels it being closer to a tool of propaganda than to art.
Even the imperfection of the invention of photography, which at the time was black and white, was used by Brik as an argument against painting with its entire palette of colours and shades. He denies the argument that, although with colour, “painting reproduces an object more faithfully”. According to the author, “Painting cannot transpose real colours, it can only copy (…)”, while, he further argues, the limitation of early photography is its strength – “Photography does not yet reproduce exact colouring, but at least it does not falsify an object by giving it the wrong colours. And this is an advantage not to be underestimated”. It sounds like a paradox of a broken clock that shows the right time twice a twenty-four hours.
Then it gets even worse. The challenges facing painting are reduced by Brik to only recreating reality using purely painterly rules. He argues, progressive painters realized that the rules of painting colouring are not the same as reality concluding finally that for painters "Precision is not the ultimate goal and disparaging adds, “The photographer captures life and the painter makes pictures.”
Brik clearly diversifies the tasks facing painters and photographers in a way that resembles a class division, but with reference to art. The rhetoric saturated with the ideas of the Bolshevik revolution is also found in the rest of the article. Speed, cheapness and accuracy, according to Brik, determined the advantage of photography and gave it great social importance. A bit like Mc Donald’s, isn't it? Of course, very simplified.
What hinders the development of photography is, according to Brik, an attempt to imitate painting. Photographers self-destructively reduce the importance of their work by imitating the techniques used in painting. So, I am asking myself - why shouldn't they inspire each other? Brik's worldview seems to be free from similar self-reflections - the photographer has a specific mission in advance.
Free from outdated kitsch, the photographer “must show that it is not just life ordered according to aesthetic laws which is impressive, but also vivid, everyday life itself as it is transfixed in a technically perfect photograph”. And there is no room for doubt here. There is only one way. A photographer can only gain public recognition by tackling the aesthetic distortion of nature. As you can see, the way Brik advises to take is not only the only one. It is also quite narrow.
In Brik's opinion, Alexander Rodchenko is an example to follow. The artist who experimented with image composition, framing and photomontage, like a phoenix made of ashes, abandoned painting and became a committed photographer.
I understand Brik's point of view in his article, but understand, does not mean to divide. I understand his desire to capture and convey the truth about the real world. But I ask, what is this truth? How is it to manifest? The strength of art is its ambiguity, even if sometimes it is too obvious. It is based on freedom. It is the artist himself who decides what and how he wants to express. It may do so because the interpretation belongs to the recipient.
Brik's persuasion of the need to break with the painterly vision is for me an attempt to break with the bourgeoisie, elite who could afford to buy paintings and a tribute to the newly emerging social class.
• Art Theory (no date) Photography Versus Painting – Osip Brik. Available at: https://theoria.art-zoo.com/photography-versus-painting-osip-brik/ (Accessed: 14 November 2020).
• Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016) Formalism. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/art/Formalism-literary-criticism (Accessed: 14 November 2020).
• Encyclopaedia Britannica (2018) Pictorialism. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/technology/Pictorialism (Accessed: 14 November 2020).
• Garage (no date) Osip Brik. Photography and Cinema. Available at: https://garagemca.org/en/publishing/osip-brik-osip-brik-photography-andcinema (Accessed: 14 November 2020).
• MoMA (2016) Aleksandr Rodchenko Russian, 1891 – 1956. Available at: https://www.moma.org/artists/4975 (Accessed: 14 November 2020).
• TATE (no date) Constructivism. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artterms/c/constructivism (Accessed: 14 November 2020).
• TATE (no date) Futurism. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artterms/f/futurism (Accessed: 14 November 2020).