Automatic Art, A Rant.

In Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Life Creative, Vision Is Better by David28 Comments

A year ago I walked by a place that does framing here in Vancouver. The sign in the window said something like, “Get it framed! Turn your photos into art!” I pulled out my iPhone and made a quick photograph, shook my head and walked on. I only just remembered this because yesterday a banner ad online said something that got me shaking my head again: “FotoSketcher is a 100% free program which can help you convert your digital photos into art, automatically.” Never mind the absurdity of a product that’s 100% free, saving us from more expensive products that are, what, only a little bit free? The idea of automatic art, art that’s easy, makes me numb, as does the assumption that my work is not art until I’ve run it through a software program that will “improve” it.

It’s odd how people wrestle with the idea of art. There’s this prevalent notion that art is hard to define, as though we’re talking about some obscure theological matter none of us can quite put our fingers on. But with the exception of the eternal question about whether TV wrestling is a sport, we don’t really have the same difficulty of definition when it comes to athletics. You may think trampolining is silly, but it’s athletic. There are sports you enjoy, and some you don’t. But a dislike for rugby on your part doesn’t make it any less a sport. When it comes to art, we feel we need to say it is or is not art, rather than say: It’s art and it just doesn’t work for me. We have the same problem when it comes to saying we are, or are not, artists. Athletes are athletes. It doesn’t mean they’re Olympians, or even remotely good at what they do.

We have deified art, (perhaps I should say, Art). We’ve turned it into a God. I suspect the Art World (capital A, capital W) wants it this way. The high priests of culture do better when the language of art is ancient and impenetrable, when it’s shrouded in mystery. But it isn’t. If we called our unique forms of expression through craft something other than Art, would that resonate less with the human heart? Do we need to define the word “music” for it to quicken our pulse, move us, to tears or dance? You can say rap isn’t music, or poetry isn’t literature, but it doesn’t change its impact among those for whom it’s a moving experience. You can call dance anything you like, it doesn’t make it less beautiful or thought-provoking. But make it all a matter of definition and, not only have we missed the point, but we’ve done what some theologians have done for millenia, so lost in arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin that we never arrive at the point. Worse, we put so many words in the way that we block the way for others, forbidding them access, making them feel so stupid or unworthy that they stop trying to have an experience of that beautiful thing that is our birthright.

Oh, I’m not an artist…

Why? Why aren’t you an artist?

Not to perpetuate a cliche, but every 4 year-old I’ve ever met is an artist. They make stuff with all the talent and heart that they have, and you can argue with them until you’re blue in the face, you’ll not convince them they aren’t artists and their work isn’t art. And on some level we know this because it’s how we react when we see art we don’t like or understand. “My 4-year old could do that!” That’s right. And she does. Do we really believe a 4 year old can’t make art? Have you ever heard a 4 year old sing, or dance, and been moved by the expression? How hard would our hearts have to be to say it’s not art?

The furor caused when painters like Claude Monet and his colleagues formed what became known derisively as the “impressionist” movement was almost violent. It’s not art, the Salon cried! And so caught up were they in defending what art should be like, in defining what art is and is not, that they missed the chance to experience the wonder. I’m pretty sure they weren’t making their own art while they were so busy arguing.

You don’t have to understand it to allow it to be art. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to be comfortable with it. It doesn’t have to be new, good, or even important. And you don’t have to be able to define it. I don’t have the same problem defining art, because I don’t try. It’s the wrong question. And you don’t have to call your poetry, photographs, painting, dance, or gardening art (though it is if you put something of yourself into it), for me to be deeply touched by it, for me to learn from it, and for me to see a piece of you therein.

And that’s why I cringe when I see promises that our photographs can be turned into art. Because if it’s not art when I pour my heart into it, it sure as hell doesn’t become art when it’s framed. And worse is the promise that it can be made art through an automatic process. We can argue all day long about what Art is, but if it’s not deeply human, I’m not interested. Art, if nothing else, is both a gift given and a gift received. As a gift given it’s a means of expressing ourselves, giving some piece of ourselves to the world. As a gift received it’s about experiencing otherness, something beyond ourselves. Sometimes we don’t know to whom we’re giving the gift, sometimes we receive it from unexpected sources. But at the core of it, it’s about humanity, not definitions or labels. It is not remotely important to me that we define art; it is supremely important that we experience it. We will never experience it when it comes so easily as at the push of a button or the fitting of a frame, without the struggle or the joy with which art has been made for millennia.


  1. David,
    Thank you for such interesting “RUNT”.
    I have quickly found a satisfactory definition for “Snap Shot”, however, not for Art. There are to many pointing in different directions. Picasso has not struggle with the Art definition as he just was born with it: ☺

    “Art is the lie that enables us
    to realize the truth.”

    “Everything you can imagine is real.”

    PS I am on your second book, luckily more to go. Thank you.

  2. I’m not so sure how to define art, or if everything which is defined art is real art. As Tom Kostes says today’s it is easy to be confused…Now coming to photography IMO it depends on emotion, is this photo giving an emotion to the viewer? yes or no, but the emotion must come from something the author has put inside the image. A special software cannot create “one click emotion” unless the photo has a special content, a special aesthetic, has already emotion in it.
    PS: sorry, not easy to explain my thinking being english not my native language

  3. Pingback: Art? | Wolfgang Lonien

  4. I’ve had a few face-palm moments reading advertisements like the ones you found. Photography has always, been separated from other art forms. Case in point is Napoleon Sarony’s famous image of Oscar Wilde that was used illegally in an advertisement. It took a Supreme Court Decision to uphold the image as art, and therefore copyrighted by the creator. Today, though our legal rights are recognized (if often infringed), many still view photos as something less. But I think you get right to the point: putting something of yourself into the image is what makes it art. A painting with no emotion is just splatters of paint, a photo with no passion is just pixels and ink.

  5. “makes me numb, as does the assumption that my work is not art until I’ve run it through a software program that will “improve” it.”

    Of the entire article and selections of comments, this was the part that stuck with me. I guess this only holds true if the artist uses photoshop or lightroom or any other program as the springboard to getting their images into digital post or to print, unmanipulated, strictly as the raw image. My opinion is that it may be not art until you manipulate the raw file, negative, etc. to produce your print or master file.

    To be clear, the raw file is usually the sketch, the idea, the rough canvas, the thing we saw and said to ourselves ” Here! Here is something worth our time and effort to refine!”. It is our rough sketch. If any painter or photographer or sculptor stopped at the rough sketch, the idea, would that be as wonderful as the finished product? Maybe. Would we love the sketch of the statue of David, the Mona Lisa, van Gogh’s Starry Night, Moonrise Over Hernandez New Mexico as much as we do the finished piece? And the finished pieces that were subsequently refined over time?

    Art comes from how we take the raw material (the raw file, the stone, the blank canvas) and apply our vision to what we saw when we sketched, tripped the shutter, hammered the first chisel cut.

    1. Author

      I’m all for software, Lizz, but I do think intent has a significant role , (if, in fact, it’s not THE significant role) in making art. The software referenced in the article is an automated thing built on the assumption that photographs are not art, but charcoal sketches or something that LOOKS like art, are. I use Lightroom more than Photoshop these days and it can be, for those who choose, a part of the process of creating art.

  6. I’m a part time photographer, videographer and delve into time lapse when the conditions are right. I was thinking just last night that my websites, where I pull all this media together and present it to the world, are my art.

    Thank you for the help validating this idea.

    James Donald
    Hiking NB

  7. I really love this. I’ve been a fan for a while, but this one really speaks to me. I’ve been struggling to define who I am as an artist–writer, photographer (landscape? portrait? gasp, fine art?), something else. But I’m not sure it really matters, you know? I can be all of these–as long as my heart is there, it’s valid. Thank you.

  8. ” It is not remotely important to me that we define art; it is supremely important that we experience it. We will never experience it when it comes so easily as at the push of a button or the fitting of a frame, without the struggle or the joy with which art has been made for millennia.”

    Don’t get me wrong, David, I tend to agree with you. But by saying the above, do you mean that works that come at a push of a button (setting aside the fact that photographs are taken by a push of button – though hopefully at least some thought goes into it prior to pushing the button) or by solely adding a frame are not art? By your own “undefinition” they are, just perhaps very shallow and unable to be experienced with any depth.

  9. “If you buy a violin, you own a violin. If you buy a camera, you’re a photographer.”

  10. “I’m pretty sure they weren’t making their own art while they were so busy arguing.”

    A nice line.

    It’s sad when the Art World as you call it feels the need to exclude. Luckily, there are enough accomplished people out there to challenge this insecurity, and enough people just enjoying their own art and that of others (because they can’t help themselves…) that stuff that moves us still gets made.

    As for wrestling, I thought the question had been settled. It’s an art. I know,because my Ma said it’s all made up.

  11. My first time commenting David – I’m a fan!

    If I see one more portrait automated a la Andy Warhol style… The original portrait or landscape or still life or abstract or whatever is usually better, I agree.

    That said, by devilish coincidence, there’s a major photography event going on right now all month in Montreal, called Le mois de la photo à Montréal (photo month). It may challenge your thinking on this exact topic. The theme for this Bi-annual event, for all the 25 or so exhibitions, is ‘Drone, the automated image’.

    Take a look at the work – lots of it is ‘Automatic’. I think ‘intent’ has to play into this as well.

    Best regards!

  12. Pingback: What is Art?

  13. It is sad, and indeed tragic, that the need for instant gratification appears to now extend to art. Art is, and should be, something with which time and patience are taken. How else would the spirit of the artist be infused into the finished work? IMHO without the artist’s heart and soul weaving its way through a piece there is no way it can or should be considered art. Rather it is commercial garbage vomited upon the masses devoid of life.

  14. What is or isn’t art, music, etc or a certain category of it seems to often be controlled by people who are not productive themselves but who call themselves “critics” and spread thought police reviews on what others produce.

  15. The Conundrum of the Workshops
    by Rudyard Kipling

    When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
    Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
    And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
    Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art ?”

    Wherefore he called to his wife, and fled to fashion his work anew –
    The first of his race who cared a fig for the first, most dread review;
    And he left his lore to the use of his sons — and that was a glorious gain
    When the Devil chuckled “Is it Art ?” in the ear of the branded Cain.

    They fought and they talked in the North and the South, they talked and
    they fought in the West,
    Till the waters rose on the pitiful land, and the poor Red Clay had rest –
    Had rest till that dank blank-canvas dawn when the dove was preened to start,
    And the Devil bubbled below the keel: “It’s human, but is it Art ?”

    They builded a tower to shiver the sky and wrench the stars apart,
    Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks: “It’s striking, but is it Art ?”
    The stone was dropped at the quarry-side and the idle derrick swung,
    While each man talked of the aims of Art, and each in an alien tongue.

    The tale is as old as the Eden Tree – and new as the new-cut tooth –
    For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows he is master of Art and Truth;
    And each man hears as the twilight nears, to the beat of his dying heart,
    The Devil drum on the darkened pane: “You did it, but was it Art ?”

    We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree to the shape of a surplice-peg,
    We have learned to bottle our parents twain in the yolk of an addled egg,
    We know that the tail must wag the dog, for the horse is drawn by the cart;
    But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: “It’s clever, but is it Art ?”

    When the flicker of London sun falls faint on the Club-room’s green and gold,
    The sons of Adam sit them down and scratch with their pens in the mould –
    They scratch with their pens in the mould of their graves, and the ink and the anguish start,
    For the Devil mutters behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art ?”

    Now, if we could win to the Eden Tree where the Four Great Rivers flow,
    And the Wreath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it long ago,
    And if we could come when the sentry slept and softly scurry through,
    By the favour of God we might know as much – as our father Adam knew!

  16. Well said, well said. Great food for thought. Reminded me of this quote :

    “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
    ― Pablo Picasso

  17. Hey David,

    Great post…. As photographers it’s easy to forget that our form of Art is sort of a new kid on the block. Imagine the efforts of Alfred Steiglitz and the Photo-Secession group formed through his efforts in the early twentieth century. Photography was looked upon as a mimetic medium and certainly not Art.

    Through his energy, dedication and commitment and those of some of his proteges and the founding of Camera Work, 291
    Studio, along with many other endeavors, photography was elevated to an Art form.

    Good to see that similar dedication is being practiced today. Heart and soul into each work!!


  18. Bless the four-year-olds of all ages and abilities. Without their creativity we’d live in a dull dull world.

  19. Ha! This reminds me of a quote by Howard Ikemoto:

    “When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college – that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared at me, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forget?”

    Art has been with humans from the beginning, as the cave paintings prove, however, I think part of the problem today comes from the fact that unlike the 1 + 1 = 2 of math, art being undefinable opens the doors for the conman, hence on Lexington Ave. in NY city you might fine a totally black canvas on sales for thousands of dollars. This can be confusing to people, it certainly is to me and I like to think of myself as “open minded” with a “live and let live” attitude towards the arts, and yet…

  20. On the most basic level, art, is the root of “artifact”… By that definition, art would include anything created by the hand of man (woman/child). That’s a pretty broad definition, but…

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