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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  "Art" and Self Reflection

"Art" and Self Reflection

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Nov 23, 2003 to Sep 28, 2007
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1 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.

Sahara Desert, Morocco
africa, black and white, desert, dunes, horizontal, morocco, sahara, sand, photograph
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.

Snowy Landscape
Yellowstone National Park
(Yellowstone, Wyoming, USA)
america, black and white, horizontal, north america, snow, united states, winter, wyoming, yellowstone, photograph
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.)

Cliffs of Moher
West Coast, Ireland
(Munster, Ireland)
black and white, cliffs, cliffs of moher, cork county, europe, horizontal, ireland, irish, moher cliffs, munster, photograph
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."
      --Albert Einstein

Barn House Nite (5)
(Sonoma, California, USA)
barn, barn house, buildings, california, horizontal, houses, long exposure, nite, sonoma, west coast, western usa, photograph
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:

Q.gif How many photographers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A.gif 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?

Ups Reflection
(Vienna, Austria)
austria, buildings, europe, horizontal, reflections, ups, vienna, photograph
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 as artwork?

Ancient Greek Fresco (3)
(Santorini, Greece)
ancient, arts, europe, frescoes, greece, greek, paintings, santorini, vertical, photograph

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!?"

Arch Motel (1)
america, arches, horizontal, midwest, missouri, motel, north america, united states, photograph
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.

Fisheye Jack on Bed (5)
babies, beds, boys, fisheye, fisheye lens, horizontal, infant, jacks, jan feb, photograph

Quote time:

    "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.

Sequoia Trio
(Sequoia National Forest, Yosemite, California, USA)
california, nature, plants, redwood trees, redwoods, sequoia, trees, trio, vertical, west coast, western usa, yosemite, photograph
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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