Barthes’ Connotation Procedures 5: Aestheticism.

5. Aestheticism

Obscurity is not a world unknown to Barthes. Or to his readers or his critics.

Particularly if you want to venture into his world of photography. Barthes is famous for his article on the Third Meaning, that he wrote for the French periodical Cahiers du Cinéma in 1970. Here he introduces the notion of the obtuse meaning of an image. Some would rather call this the obscure meaning of an image (I will handle this issue in a separate post).

I have to admit though, that already in 1961 when introducing his fifth connotation of aestheticism obscurity is present. To me it is, anyway.

Barthes states: “when photography turns painting, composition or visual substance treated with deliberation in its very material “texture”, it is either so as to signify itself as “art” (which was the case with the “pictorialism” of the beginning of the century) or to impose a general more subtle and complex signifier than would be possible with other connotation procedures”.

I’m am not sure what Barthes means with “a general more subtle and complex signifier”. So I am not in a position to be very helpful here. Sorry about that, but I urge you to pick up Barthes’ text directly, and tell me what this is all about. I will be more than happy to be educated here :-). How his connotation procedure of aestheticism can act as a mean of laying content into an photography, obscures me. Simple as that.

Here is an example of what I would call aestheticism in Barthes’ meaning “photography turns painting”. Or at least such a trial. This image, that is shot in Barthes’ own country, France, are overly saturated and filtered to make it look more like a painting than a photography.

French Farmhouse, Normandy, France.

Library Thing. (Roland Barthes: Image, Music, Text, pages 15-31, Fontana Press 1977, UK. Essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath).

Buy the English translation of Barthes’ work. Follow the link and support the site:
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6 thoughts on “Barthes’ Connotation Procedures 5: Aestheticism.

  1. Thank you firstly for your pieces on the other procedures, they were very helpful. I’ve also found the aestheticism procedure perplexing.

    To your query on what Barthes may have meant by “a general more subtle and complex signified” (above it’s noted as signifier, but I think it may be signified), I thought perhaps he was referring to the issue of how a painting can connote certain ‘transcendent qualities’ which a photograph finds difficult. Therfore if the photo emulates the painting format, it can connote “a more subtle and complex signified”.

    Benjamin, and later Sontag, refer to a type of dualism present in photography, between an aesthetic and a truth-telling quality.

    If we take a photo from a crime scene as an example of truth-telling, it is meant to document the crime, nothing more. The photograph will contain evidence; the purpose is to record the event, without any ideological or aesthetic impulses present. the photo says nothing, but that this is a broken window, this is a bloodied knife, etc.

    The aesthetic however is something which impinges upon the truth-telling of the moment, because it attempts to press universals upon the scene: Agony, Sorrow (capitalised to note the ‘transcendent’ quality) etc. For example, a photograph of a mother holding her child in Darfur, is not only a document of that moment in space and time, but becomes emblematic of the victims of war in Africa (a decontexualising effect), and perhaps further reaffirms the Western mother-child relationship, symbolised in permanence, by the Pietà.

    So in the example given by Barthes in the essay, the photo of Cardinal Pacelli, it is capable of signifying ‘spirituality’, because it is composed like a painting, that is, composing the photograph in a similar manner to a painter, the photographer places less emphasis on the truth-telling, the factual, the reporting of the event as perhaps a crime photographer would, thereby signifying a “more subtle and complex signified” (in this case not just a historic symbol of spirituality: a cardinal, but in fact a more general Spirituality).

    I’m still very unsure of what I’ve written. Perhaps you can comment and hopefully draw a small something from what I’ve written.

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  2. Hi, I’m really struggling on this point (though with your help, I think I’ve got my head around the others!)

    Would Barthes be inferring that aestheticism is where a photographer is attempting to use to the camera to document more than the situation, but to create a piece of art that has a meaning behind it, such as “lost pastoral life” and not just shooting the picture of a farm house?

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