What is Art? A rant

I was looking over a web based catalogue of products for photographers; frames, cards, books, etc.

They had a category called Photoshop actions in which there was an action that would take “your photographic images and turn them into beautiful one-of-a-kind pieces of art”.

As I cleared up the mess from the coffee I had spurted on to the screen I got the idea for this post. What these people were saying was interesting. First off these people are not my people. Second they don’t regard photographers as artists. Thirdly by the use of their one click photoshop action they were saying my mere photographic image could be transformed into art.

So you bust your butt coming up with ideas, fighting through the doubts and wondering if your work has any value, planning, organising, lighting, composing, coaxing, collaborating, shifting furniture and lugging gear only to have a photographic image at the end of the process. A lot of sweat and a lot of work but all you have is a photographic image. Now if you want to elevate it to the status of “Art” all you need to do is buy this action for $95 and there you are.

From this apoplectic state I calmed down and decided to think about this. I have seen many a discussion, and taken part in a few, where someone was having a rant at the latest photoshop craze such as the use of HDR or something like that. My attitude to these has pretty much usually been to say live and let live and don’t get your knickers in a twist about what other people are doing. Use whatever you like to create the image you want to create. I’m happy with that stance. But seeing how I could become an artist by the use of someone else’s photoshop action left me feeling like those who rant about HDR being cheating at best. It was recognising that that led me to figure a few things out.

First off I consider myself to be an artist and not “just” a photographer. I don’t shoot for documentary reasons. I don’t “capture” images that just happen to be flitting by so much as grab the elements from wherever they might be and push, cajole, and manipulate those elements until they “work” for me. So because I consider myself to be an artist when some marketer helpfully suggests to me that their piece of software will transform my mere image into a unique work of art it kind of gets my back up a little. But is this any different to those who rant against the use of HDR?

In a word no. It is no different. But we have to start with a definition of art. I have seen many. There are lots out there. Most of them are not helpful to me. It has nothing to do with something looking “good” or “cool”. Because “good” and “cool” are totally subjective. I don’t think art is totally subjective although it is partially so. Art for me is communicating something in a way that gets noticed and then understood and doing it with elegance. The understanding might be very simple like a “stop” sign or it might involve some thought and reflection on the part of the viewer. But being first and formost a communication it’s source can only be an artist and not a piece of software. This is not to say that software isn’t part of the process. It most certainly can be but it is the artist who has something to say that is using the software, or lens, or shutter speed, etc. to communicate something.

Art is subjective in the sense that it is personal. It starts in one person, the artist, and through his use of whatever tools he finds necessary it arrives eventually at the viewer who is also a person. It is obective in the sense that it is not entirely personal. Art forms have a language that has to be understood by both the artist and the viewer and that language is not subjective.

So the point of this rant is just to say that if you have something to say and you say it you are a communicator. If you say it well you are an artist to that degree. A writer like Nabakov uses language that anyone has available to them yet he uses it in such a way that I am amazed when reading him. He communicates very well. I feel the same way about a Stan Getz solo. I could play the same notes but he does it so effortlessly and with such feeling I am profoundly moved. The notes are important but the communication is paramount.

This idea of art helps me look at the work of others and not get bogged down in their technique. I either get it or I don’t. If I do I look to see how they got it across to me. I may learn some new language skill. If I don’t get it I have nothing to learn from just looking at the work. That will probably be considered a brash statement but I stand by it.

Posted in The art of image making
One comment on “What is Art? A rant
  1. Farouk Ali says:

    Blimey, that was quite some rant!

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