Editorial of November 24th 2005

Christian Joschke
conflicts over cultural legitimacy


Olivier Christin what is an amateur ?

Seminar of November 24th 2005
Olivier Christin is a historian, a history professor at the University of Lyon II, a member of the University Institute of France, and a director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. He has published numerous texts on images and iconoclasm in the modern age, including: Une révolution symbolique : l'iconoclasme protestant et la reconstruction catholique (Paris: Minuit, 1991) and Les yeux pour le croire : Les Dix Commandements en images. XVe-XVIIe siècles (Paris: Seuil, 2003). He also participated in the publication of the Traité des Saintes images de Jean Molanus (Paris: Cerf, 1996), in the Iconoclasme: vie et mort de l'image médiévale exhibition in Berne and Strasbourg, and in a Collège de France colloquium that was published as Nicée II. 787-1987. Douze siècles d’images religieuses (Paris: Cerf, 1987). He is currently preparing an edition of Wilhelm Gumppenberg’s Atlas Marianus (1657-1672).

what is an amateur ?


        What is an amateur ? What does it mean to practice an art (theater, music, painting, or photography) as an amateur ? What does it mean to, at one’s leisure--that is to say, in a disinterested and yet sometimes passionate way--practice some activity with the expectation that that activity might be recognized as legitimate, useful, or even capable of garnering some prestige? Christian Joschke’s work offers a response to some of these questions. For, in restoring to amateurs, to the clubs and journals they founded, and to the exhibitions to which they gave rise their rightful importance in the history of photography’s autonomization as a legitimate cultural practice, his work induces our analyses of the relationships between the artistic field and the late nineteenth-century leisure class to make a decisive step forward.

Amateurism and Recognition

        To recall that amateurs (scientists, doctors, engineers, ethnologists) were some of the main actors in the process by which photography became organized, was assembled, and came to seize a symbolic hold over the dominant political and artistic places of culture (the Reichstag in Berlin, the Kunsthalle in Hamburg) and that they were thus at the origin of photography’s recognition as an art form even though they did not consider themselves to be artists is to succeed in effecting a double shift in perspective. Not only is the question of photography’s artistic legitimation no longer posed in terms of an ontology of images and of an aura surrounding unique works (at the very time that these works had become technically reproducible), but neither does this question exclusively pertain any longer to an approach that would be limited to the artistic field alone: it is neither in the images themselves nor in the strategies of the most famous nineteenth-century photographers that we are to find an explanation for this new technology’s consecration as an art form; rather, it is to be found in the transformation of the modes of self-representation and of world-representation that were coming to light at that time among portions of the population.
        Indeed, Joschke shows quite clearly that the recognition gradually obtained by photography and by those who practiced it is not to be explained solely in terms of some kind of inner revolution within which overshadowed [dominés] or scorned artists would have ended up gaining the respect and winning the approval of the prevailing forces [les dominants] and of the institutions they controlled. Struggles within the world of art, of museums and Academies, and of critics in their complex relationships with artists take on meaning here only when related to the aspirations of a new bourgeoisie which, having passed through the realschulen and steeped in a technological culture, saw in photography and in its practice a form of leisure activity consonant with its own representation of the world.
        It would therefore be a mistake to project upon this specific leisure activity of the new leisure class the categories and celebratory strategies that at the time were those of avant-garde artists and of talk about art for art’s sake--that is to say, of artistic activity that would have no other end than itself and no other form of recognition but that accorded by one’s peers. In many respects, photography’s legitimacy was constructed along other lines than that of the pictorial or literary avant-garde : there was a claim to social and scientific utility, for example, a concern with the public and with interests, as well as an adherence to the moral and political values of the bourgeoisie.
        The late nineteenth-century amateur photographer was therefore not the amateur lover [l’amateur] of photography, that more or less informed consumer who nevertheless remained alien to the very stakes involved in the artistic or cultural practice that interested him. He was not the flip side of the professional, of he who knows what he is doing and why he is doing it, even if the appearance of the term amateurism might lead one to think so. An actor in just as much as a spectator of the changes photography was undergoing at the time, a competent producer and technician just as much as a consumer of the new industrial, commercial, and artistic products of photographic activity, he defied the categories of the classical sociology of art. And it really for this reason that he helped to transform the very status of photography.

The Amateur, From Court Civility to Bourgeois Leisure Activities

        This amateur was certainly no longer the same person as the one celebrated in the courtier manuals and treatises on civility from the early modern period. He was no longer like the wellborn man who knew how to make of his honorable idleness a supreme form of self-accomplishment in the new social space of the court, that dilettante who had to know how to danse, to play a musical instrument, to write or to recite poetry, and to talk about painting or drawing without ever seeming gauche yet without ever being boring. But neither was he the ridiculous figure imagined in the modern cult of the misunderstood artist, a figure that takes shape only in the nineteenth century; that is to say, this amateur did not fit the figure of an incompetent or clumsy imitator, the weekend painter or the hick poet. The vocabulary used by the associations of Wilhelmine Germany’s amateur photographers directly testifies to this lingering prestige of the amateur, in the sense of a connoisseur, when speaking of a “dilettante” or while retaining the French term.

Amateurism and Tourism

        Joschke’s study is not limited to reestablishing the amateur at the origin of photography’s recognition as a legitimate cultural practice and in the end as art. This brings up a second paradox that is just as key to the history of the figurative arts in Germany at the time, a point to which we must return for a moment. It really was the liberal bourgeoisie that seized hold of photography as the setting for an expression of its political aspirations and of its particular world view. Both the Hamburg photography exhibition and the choice of the Reichstag as the site for a photographic exhibition offer proof of this, just a few years apart. But since the practice of amateur photography was not unrelated to the boom in tourism and a folkloric rediscovery of Germany during the final decades of the nineteenth century, amateur photography adopted in large part their favorite subjects, their interest in exploring the countryside and the rich diversity of its heritage, and their effort to describe the country’s various populations and their traditions. German regional landscapes, popular traditions and peasant costumes, rural architecture, craft activities and leisure pursuits, and the Empire’s strange peoples who were at the time in the process of constituting themselves held the attention of amateur photographers as well as of the tourists they sometimes also were. Without having any plan in mind or any explicit project on this score, without wanting to, to be sure, and in any case without thinking about it, the liberal bourgeoisie of the Wilhelmine age cast into the apparently innocent but useful leisure activity of photography some of the future seeds of the Völkisch ideology. In the end, what it offered was the means to transform into a mass culture and into a product of popular cultural consumption regional ways, local customs, and various traditions that until then were disappearing beneath the blows of industrialization and urbanization, along with landscapes suddenly torn from the realm of nature so as to become emblems of a nation. Thus can we understand the interest this Völkisch trend and then totalitarian ideology were going to show for an art that is capable of producing such emotions and such collective representations.