Saturday, February 13, 2010

What Is "Art"?

Michael Johnson on The On-line Photographer has been grappling with the conundrum of what makes a photograph art as opposed to just craft. I've been pondering the difference for years and dealt with it rather snarkily (a coined word?) in a post back in August of 2008. I periodically get caught up in an effort to define art only (like the Aug. 2008 post) to give up in disgust because the term is used so loosely that the word has no fixed meaning. It does however have strong personal importance to people who take their creative work seriously as a measure of their achievement and they (we) occasionally agonize over whether what we are doing really 'measures up' to the level of art as opposed to 'mere craft'.

There are of course people who don't agonize over it. Andy Warhol is quoted as saying "art is what we can get away with". There are also those who contend that if an artist says it is art, it is. Think urinals and snow shovels or for that matter, pickled sharks. And then there are the art historians who designate things as art whose creators likely had no pretensions or even notions of Art. The photographs of E. J. Bellocq come to mind or for that matter many pre-modern painters, sculptors, and other creatives who produced their work before the contemporary notion of "artist" had even come into being. DaVinci in his letters to nobles when applying for work described a list of things he could do, the last of which was that he could paint pictures. The descriptive "artist" was nowhere on that list. Never the less today, we have art and artists and thus feel compelled to define what that means even if we cannot agree on what it means. Perhaps the best we can do is what Mike did on TOP and come up with a personal definition.

I begin by relaying what I attempt to do. The word attempt is important because I never fully succeed. I am a photographer and describe myself as what I call a visual omnivore. I have been advised by folks in the business of advising artists on how to advance their careers that I should stick to one subject matter but I can't do that. I look around at the world and see things that excite me visually and I feel compelled to photograph them in a way that allows me to share that excitement with others.  I am primarily a landscape photographer but I also photograph cars, buildings, anything in which the light reveals something special to me. I could say it is all about light but even that would not get to the heart of it.

I believe that everything in the universe is connected on a subtle level. There are moments in which the creative person senses connection with "the other" in a profound way that cannot be put into words and only with difficulty into a visual expression. Mike Johnson talks in his definition about genius and the notion that we all have genius. I think the difference between those we commonly refer to as being a genius and the rest of us is not just their ability to see or to comprehend things that are profound but to communicate their insights to the rest of us. To me art is communication of an experience of connection, a communion with the subject which goes beyond its objective existence, and the translation of that experience into a new object through which others may share the experience.

Unfortunately we artists cannot, certainly I cannot, create universally understood representations of those experiences we wish to share. Inevitably some, even most, of those who view the products of our efforts won't "get it". Therein lies the vagueness of the term art. For my own part I have resolved to pursue my objective without worrying whether what I do is "Art", concerning myself only with whether and how well it communicates and I endeavor to look at the work of others the same way. Does this photograph, painting, sculpture, whatever, speak to me? If it does, it has fulfilled its creator's intent no matter what we choose to call it and that is what matters.

No comments:

Post a Comment