Blake Gopnik asks an interesting question in the Washington Post to celebrate 170 years of photography: why is that such a broad range of photography can be shown in museums in ways that other media would never be accepted in such institutions? Gopnik, of course, phrases the whole thing better (and it is worth reading his whole essay) that’s the gist:
By the 1920s and ’30s, when photography began to be more fully accepted as an art form, there was a natural tendency to read art into all the images that had come before, if only because they had pioneered the new medium. This was, after all, a moment when all kinds of non-art was being press-ganged into serving as art: Ritual objects from Africa were being seen and used as European modern art and so were pictures by children, the insane and the untrained; old ads were being retrofitted into the collages of Max Ernst and a pile of coat hangers could become a ready-made sculpture by Man Ray. What could be easier than to re-use, and re-see, a non-art photo as a high-art one? […]
Since the same photographers were making art and non-art images, it’s no wonder the border between them got fuzzy. Commercial photography, at its very best, could be ambitious and experimental in a way that commercial painting has barely ever been, at least since the days of Toulouse-Lautrec. Photography was such a new medium, there was room for invention in every part of it. The fashion and editorial shots of Avedon and Penn made a real contribution to the way all photos look and work; curators such as Greenough and Brookman acknowledge that fact in what they show.
It’s not that art museums never show “low” painting. The Corcoran has shown Norman Rockwell, and American Art has shown the naive marine paintings of Earl Cunningham. In most cases, however, the pictures are in quotation marks, or even parentheses. They are shown as examples of “commercial” or “outsider” art, up to something separate from what fine artists do. By including both high and low in their programming, curators of paintings can claim a commendable openness to the full range of “visual culture.” Photo curators don’t even make the distinction.
Open to Everything? (Washington Post)