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Art and Photography: An Essay
This quote sums up my feelings about art:
"Art is a form that cannot be easily produced by vandalism."
I've seen a lot of vandalism in my travels, and much of it looks
considerably better than some "art" I've seen in galleries and museums.
Indeed, even graffiti, once considered vandalism, has even risen to new
levels, where some cities have desgnated certain works as landmarks.
"Art" is about finding your own aesthetic. If you're the observer,
you seek it in the art you see. If you're the artist, the art is
an expression of what you feel. The physical art piece is the conduit of
communication between the artist and the observer. I feel I've succeeded
in my artistic objectives if I get people to react to a picture in the
way I intended. But others don't feel that way: they feel that any
reaction from the observer makes the artwork successful, regardless of
what the artist intended.
Some art is intended to inform and educate; works that depict the
holocaust in Germany, for example, may be disturbing, but they evoke
the sense of horror and amazement that was the holocaust. It may not
be "pleasing," but not all artwork is intended to be aesthetically pleasing.
What is aesthetic? Well, there's a question. How do you find and
evaluate such a thing? Well, you have to know what to look for.
And knowing what to look for requires familiarity with the art form
and the context in which the art is expressed.
Familiarity and Context
I recall a trip to Morocco I took in 1998, and the rickety truck we
were in had the AM radio blaring a song in arabic. It was virtually
unintelligible, although I could hear that someone was singing something,
and that were stringed instruments making wee-wah sounds up and down a
small portion of a minor scale. The locals, who were in the truck with us,
were staring with glazed eyes at the landscape of sandy dunes that went on
forever in each direction as the music droned on and on without any sense
of change. Suddenly, they all burst out in laughter for a brief moment,
with life and expression in their faces for the first time. Before I
could even grasp the change, they abruptly stopped and returned to their
zombie-like glare. I asked the driver what suddenly happened. He replied,
"they're listening to the story being told by the singer."
From both artistic and a sociological points of view, this was
fascinating. The music was so far from my base of knowledge, from the
language itself to the musical tones, that I had no way of interpreting
it; I couldn't grasp the communciation, nor could I discern words from
the singer, nor would the musical notes make any sense to me. It didn't
help that the AM radio wasn't the best form to listen to the music; it
was all just a mass of static to my ears. Hence, the point of this story:
it's knowing what to look for. For me, I wasn't trained enough to discern
much from the static, though the others could.
At the next level, even if I could get some of the music and even understand
the words, there's the social content of what was sung that inspired
laughter. I don't know the culture.
All this illustrates how what we find pleasing, funny, or any other kind
of aesthetic, has everything to do with familiarity. Something isn't
interesting to us unless we have some reference point from which to
understand it. "Art" is neither good nor bad until the observer has a
point of reference to understand it. And even then, it isn't guaranteed
that the art will "speak to him." At some level, we are all connected
at a very abstract level due to the fact that we're the same species.
Here, even a weird glob of random paint droplets over a canvas will
find some collection of people who find that it "speaks to them."
And this is what brings us to the main problem: when is art "good?" When
it can be understood and appreciated by enough people? Expressing
onesself in the form of artwork is wonderful, of course. But simply
doing so doesn't automatically indicate a good piece of art. There has
to be something more to it in many people's eyes. (Certainly mine.)
Art: A Natural Human Expression
I think everyone has a natural "raw" skill at art. Photography especially
so, because we all see the world and have a perspective on it that can
be quickly and comperhensively materialized. It's the most intantaneous
art form there is (especially digital photography) that doesn't require
years of training to produce something sensible. (I've tried my hand
at drawing, and in my years, the best I can do is a copy of some Mad
Magazine cartoons I recall from childhood.)
Sure, learning photography requires memorizing some technical knobs,
and basic rules of composition and other artistic characteristics.
But, for the most part, most anyone can put a modest amount of time
into photography and be reasonably good in a short period of time.
We're human; that's what we do. We shouldn't be "impressed" by that.
It's where you go from there that's the hard part. And, what differentiates
the mediocre from the true artist is the harder part.
And therein lies the big can of worms.
I have developed pretty good technical skills over the years, and my
images have more appeal than they did in the past. The simple act of
shooting a lot develops that skill, and again, anyone can do it. I also
have a reasonably well-developed artistic sense that naturally evolves
as one is exposed to art in all it contexts: books, galleries, museums,
classes, art critics, and teachers who banter about in their opinions
about what's "good" and what isn't. I, like anyone else, am influenced by
all this feedback, and in the end, those influences and ideas mix with
my own magic dust, and the result is my brand of photography. Hence,
one of my favorite quotes about art:
"The secret to creativity is learning to hide your sources."
I'm sure Al's intention was not to suggest that people steal others' ideas;
just that we're so influenced by other work, that by the time we come up
with something that really is original and unique, we've simply mixed
the soup in such a way that it's hard to tell what the original and
individual ingredients were. (How's that for a positive spin!)
And that's me. (And most others, in my opinion, but we're only talking
about me right now.) I don't particularly think I have developed an
artists' vision that truly makes me a unique and interesting talent. I
do love my art, but I consider myself simply a "diligent" photographer
whose work would be the result of any individual that put the time and
effort into it that I have. What I don't have is that element that the
french call, "Je ne sais quoi." (Translation: "I don't know what." As if
to say, "I know what I feel, but don't know how to put it into words.")
It's a hard thing to describe (thus, the expression), but it's something
that you know when you see it. Art that's truly different is so in ways
that you can't often put into words. This is the kind of talent that
cannot be done by anyone that simply puts a massive amount of time and
effort into the "task" of artwork as I do. It requires something more.
The funny thing about photography is that you often always feel you're
doing well... until you get better. And then you realize what you thought
before was foolish. This is natural, of course, because you never like
your own work (unless you compare yourself to others' work, in which case,
you're a genius). A joke:
How many photographers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Fifty. One to do it, and forty-nine to say, "I could have done that."
I don't want to sell myself short. I realize that I've got some really
strong images, but I believe my success in photography is a result
of good business sense, not necessarily talent. (See Photography Business Topics.)
My Je ne sais quoi is not in my art, but my business. I know
that I can apply good business thinking to just about anything; it just
so happens that I apply it to photography. (I had once been in the
computer software business.) I know I'm different from other photographers
in this area, and I am sadly more successful than truly talented
photographers whose works sit in basements, closets or dorm rooms. Does
my advanced business sense justify my artistic success in photography,
despite my moderate talent and above average technical skills?
Art: The Artist, or the Work?
This leads to an interesting and long-argued issue of what makes good art:
is it the person behind the art, or the artwork itself? While it might
seem natural to say, "it's the art," there's no question that someone's
experiences expressed through their art, is an important element and
is a major part of the story. A strong, emotionally charged image is not
"art" just because of that. It's often because we identify or sympathize
with the perspective of the person that created it.
In fact, I was once told that "I didn't suffer enough in life to
be perceived as a great artist." I realize that particular person
(the photography curator for the SF Museum of Modern Art) is only one
persepctive, but her "attitude" (for lack of a more generous term)
about photography and "art" in general is more representative of the
culture as a whole. The art world doesn't always gravitate to those
who've suffered, but it sure makes for a more interesting story. We
observers of art like to understand drama. When we see people from
suffering (poverty, drug abuse, etc.), we feel for them. When we see
them express themselves artistically, we're moved. Compare to the
emotional impact we feel when we see a nice landscape photo
taken by Donald Trump from one of his jets. Not much. (Note: I have
no idea of Donald Trump takes pictures.)
The underlying theme here is that it's often the artist that matters
more than the artwork. An example of this is the work of the famous
author Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice in Wonderland. Many people don't
know this, but Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He would take
portraits of children dressed as adults. As "art," I would argue that
these weren't particulary outstanding or unique; they're just portaits
for the most part. (I know that some disagree with this.) But what made
him so controversial was that he violated an important social rule in
his day: he associated with children. He wasn't a pedophile or anything;
he just liked kids. Today, that's not such a big deal, but in those days,
it was a serious breach of social ettiquette: adults did not associate
with children. But, Carroll had a fascination with them, and liked to
engage with them socially. Dressing up as adults was their idea, not
his. (Being an adult is a common childhood fantasy.) His reputation
for being a pedophile did not materialize for years, until enough time
and distance passed, that such conjecture was possible without the
threat of dissent. In those days, being accused of associating with
children was akin to a Nazi associating with a Jew. It just wasn't done.
Needless to say, the accusation is untrue. In fact, he was a very prolific
womanizer, having affairs with many adult women, most of whom were
married. The "stories" about his associations with children began due
to a huge inheritance associated with the family estate, and competition
among the family members started the rumors. Intentional lies were spread
about his associations with the children to discredit him (again, not
as a pedophile), allowing for the money to trickle in different
directions. Without intention, this made Carroll legendary, and therefore,
his photographs became equally so. His photos wouldn't be in a museum if
it weren't for who he was. If he were entirely unknown, would
his work be featured so prominently based solely on their aesthetic
value? Porbably not.
So, even this simplistic example illustrates that artistic aesthetics in
itself is not the complete picture when it comes to "art" or the quality
thereof. Art is a reflection of a culture, a time, a story, or some other
aspect of humanity that, whether it appeals to us or not, should have
some relevance that matters. Lewis Carroll is an important figure in
history, and that justifies the attention he's gotten. But does that
justify the attention his art has gotten? Should a museum be spending
its time and resources exhibiting works that aren't necessarily important
Arbiters of What is "Good Art"
This brings us to the next question: what is a museum's role in the Art
world? How about society as a whole? Again, the curator of photography
at the museum was quoted as saying,
"...the museum's role is not to be the arbiter of "good art." It's to
exhibit the artistic expressions, in whatever forms, that are pertinent
and interesting to our society."
Fine. I like that description. In fact, it reminds me of how dictionaries
define themselves: they don't define what is a word and what isn't,
they merely reflect what is used in society. While both the dictionary
and the statement from the museum curator are respectable, it's a little
unrealistic about how the public perceives them. Most people aren't so
"educated" about art and haven't developed the eye to descern, critique
or appreciate artwork, so they look to institutions like museums to do
that for them. Whether the museum wants to accept that role or not,
the public has endowed them with that role, and being ignorant or in
denial of it does a disservice to the very community it is chartered to
service. Like the dictionary, you'll hear people say, "If it's not in
the dictionary, it's not a word." But that isn't necessarily true (at
least in the USA). The dictionary adds new words every year because they
have been used in common vernacular, newspapers, magazines, music
lyrics, or even computer manuals, for considerable time before they
were considered "words." What were people using, "non-words?" People's
misimpressions about art and museums can also be reflected by the common
expression: "If it's in the museum, it must be good art." But then,
you'll hear their friend point to a painting with random paint globbed
on it and ask, "Ok, so what's that!?"
I agree with the premise that museums should not be arbiters of art,
and that they should merely reflect the artistic expressions within the
society. However, they also have that other master to serve, like it or
not, and I don't feel they serve those two masters very effectively. That
said, I'm not sure anyone could. The only way to do that would be to
explcitly state so up front on the front of the museum:
"We don't think this is good art, but it is reflective of our society."
Of course, you can't do that. The only other approach museums could
take is by being more judicious about what it chooses to display. And
this brings us full circle to the original problem: what is good art?
Obviously, these are all subjective qualities, which evoke very different
responses. When people are unmoved by abstract modern art (as I often
am), it's because whatever it is the artist intended to express didn't
reach the viewer (me). In order for the art to reach the viewer, there
are ingredients that have to be considered: who's the artist, what's
his experience(s) that lead to this work, and what's the response the
artist intended to evoke. Abstract art makes that communication harder,
and therefore doesn't reach many people. Those who appreciate it the most
are often those who are well-versed in the artist, or the evolution of
a particular theme, style or culture that has been developing within a
segment of the artistic community. They see it, and when it finally gets
to the common public, it's suddenly thrust upon them without their having
the same benefit of "evolution" that lead to the reason the curators
chose the art in the first place. This often results in a huge disconnect
between the viewer, the art, and the institution exhibiting it.
Art Business: A Circular Dependency
"Business is business, and art is art, and unfortunately, the two are
often mixed in ways that compromise our values, tastes and sensibilities."
I said this in response to someone's email to me complaining that my
most artistic works weren't prominently displayed (enough) on my website.
As if this dilemma doesn't have its own problems, the problem is
compounded even more by people's eagerness to own those artistic
pieces that move them. They will pay money for such pieces, and as
such, art now has a tangible value, which is the very cornerstone of
business. And once "business" is introduced into the equasion, all
the aforementioned ingredients are shaken and stirred. Some produce
art for the sake of making money, which is perfectly reasonable, but
the by-product of this is the production and distribution (and all the
business models that underly them) of the art industry. Artists emulate
themes and styles of other artists, and they are shown in art galleries,
which then promote the art as something that may now be too far removed
from the original inspiration. Galleries are a business, and they
can't do well unless they can sell art.
They are also not the "arbiters" of art, but they are also not museums,
whose objectives are to reflect the goings-on in the art community or
society as a whole. Their role is somewhere in between, but the public, the
artists and the galleries themselves are often at odds about what that
role is. Regardless of the answer, the pragmatic reality remains: it's a
business, and it has to make money to survive and to pay people as well as
its artists. The best way to do that is to sell art that has demostrated
success with the public. That's either because the artist's name is
well-known, or the style is a proven quantity. The net effect of this
is that galleries often fuel the engine of perpetutity: whoever is
famous will only become more so, whatever art form is "in" will be
further entrenched in society, and whoever and whatever is left behind
usually remains there.
New artists and trends emerge as a consequence of a variety of factors
that range from true artistic vision, to natural ecology of the business
of art, to the behavioral variances that simply happen within society.
It's a fine example of chaos theory, which dictates that the outcome is
"technically predictable," but there are too many variables in the
equation, making it infeasible to attempt. But it should not be
misunderstood or underestimated: art is a funny world and business,
and "quality" often has less to do with it than it should.
So, when people ask me how I perceive myself as an artist? I take pictures
for me, and what I like. It just so happens that I have the business
skills necessary to effectively sell these items to the general public
in various forms. Does that make me a legitimate artist? Yes. Does it
make me an important artist? I hope not, but only time will tell.
Still, let there be no mistake: I do not affect how people perceive
art, nor do I contribute disproportionately to how our culture evolves,
nor do I have a vision of things that will have a profound impact on
anyone. I'm not special enough to do that. (At least, not at this stage
of my life! :-) But I am a cog in the artistic wheel, and I acknowledge
that by being so, I help the wheel perpetually turn. While one could take
that as a call to action and take responsibility for effecting change,
everyone is a cog in some wheel (perhaps even more than one at a time)
so you can't avoid participating. It's choosing which wheels you can
best be a part of that's hard. For me, I think my position is the wheel
of information, communication and resources that can inform and advise
good sense into others so they can take the baton to the next runner.
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