My buddy RC started me thinking about this topic again when he posted something on his blog about whether photography is or is not art. I replied, as did a few others. Pleasantly it did not descend to the usual name-calling and “them’s fightin’ words” kinds of challenges with pistols and so on.
But it’s an interesting conversation and I think the way we answer this has a bearing on who we become as photographers. To begin with, “art” is a slippy concept at best; attempts at a definition that we can all agree on have, to date, failed. But we seem to all agree that it’s desirable to be able to call photography art. It’s as though the whole thing gets elevated to a higher status, something more than just a technical pursuit, if we can call it art. It gives us permission to wear black turtlenecks, berets, and an aloof attitude. Probably a pipe too. It makes the whole thing terribly snooty.
So, snooty attitudes and funny clothing aside, here’s my thinking on it. With any luck this’ll cause a great deal of contention during which we can prove how truly serious we are about our art.
Photography is a craft. It’s a process. It’s the brushes and the paints. What results is – or is not – art. But it isn’t ours to decide whether our work is art. It’s like this: I was a comedian. I stood on stages and did my thing: comedy. But whether it was funny or not was up to every member of the audience. Most would laugh and some would not. It wasn’t mine to convince them it was funny. It wasn’t, to them. What mattered to me was doing my best, working my craft, finding the pleasure in the process and the laughter. But when people didn’t connect with it, didn’t laugh, that was their thing. Sure, I could chase them around the lobby after the show shouting, “but it was FUNNY, dammit!” but I wouldn’t convince them. If your work connects to one, to them it’s art. To the one for whom it doesn’t, it’s not. And to the other craftstmen, well, whether it’s art or not depends on whether it’s better than their work or not. So subjective. So not the point.
Is it Art? Doesn’t matter. It’s outside my control and I’m pretty sure Van Gough didn’t worry about this. At least not while he had his sanity and both ears. “But,” you say, “I hate Van Gough! His stuff isn’t art!” Precisely. To some it is, to others it ain’t and there’s not a darn thing you as a photographer can do about it.
As craftsmen and hopeful artists we have a right to, and the privelege of, our craft. But once we create it, it goes into the world and is seen, interpreted, and loved or rejected by the masses. We lose control of it, open ourselves and our work to misunderstanding or appreciation, but make no mistake about it: it’s out of our hands and whether it is or is not art is for others to decide. We have the right to perceive our own work as art, but I suspect when we do so we’re standing a little too close to the flame.
Is it Art? The more interesting questions revolve around your craft, that thing you CAN control but won’t if you’re chasing the elusive Art. How’s my craft? What can I do to improve it? What ruts have I fallen into? How can I get out of those ruts and find stronger ways of expression? Those are questions that lead to better craft, and – potentially – to your work being perceived in the eyes and hearts of larger audiences, as Art. It’s the difference between enjoying the journey and only longing for the destination. One is a guarantee, the other only an expectation. You can do both, but often the focus on the latter prevents the former. One sabotages the other and in so doing sabotages any chance of coming into being itself.
This is, of course, only my view on the whole thing. Got a different angle? Want to string me up as a heretic? Comments are open 🙂