The making of art, and the appreciation of it, is a subjective thing. It is deeply personal, and this is one of its strengths, not a weakness. But there’s a danger in seeing art in such personal, subjective terms, and that hazard is no more clearly seen than in the oft-used word, “like.” As in, “Oh, I really like that painting.” Or, “I don’t like that photograph.” We are all entitled to our opinion, but I think we can do better, especially if we want to become stronger photographers and artists (but also better human beings).
I asked a friend yesterday about a book I’d recommended to him (My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok) and I found myself writing the words, “did you like it?” before self-consciously backing out of that with something along the lines of “not that liking it is remotely the point.” Because it’s not. Whether we “like” art is no real measure of it’s importance, relevance, humanity, or even its beauty. But it is so easy to evaluate, or respond to art merely in terms of whether or not we like it. Our consumption of social media has not helped with this: so overwhelmed by content of all kinds we give our full attention to less and less of it, our responses getting less considered and less nuanced with every Like.
We are conditioning ourselves to Like. And in so-doing we are training ourselves away from deeper thought or engagement.
Furthermore, without that critical thought or a willingness to read the art of others with greater time and care, we are missing the opportunity to train our tastes. When we simply like, or don’t like, something, and we move on before considering why we like it, before we engage with it and spend time asking, not whether we like it or not, but what the artist was trying to say, trying to accomplish, we miss a chance to go deeper.
Here’s an example: I used to “dislike” Picasso’s Guernica. It’s one of his most famous paintings. But it’s violent and shocking. It disturbs. It haunts. My liking it is not remotely the point. In fact, it is probably best for my humanity that I not like it in the sense we usually mean that. What’s to like about the horrors of war? But my lack of a like is no measure of the success of the painting. Nevertheless, when I first saw it I had no appreciation for it. And then I took some time with it, I read about it, I considered the context in which it was painted (the bombing of the town of Guernica by the forces of Hitler and Franco during the Spanish Civil War). My appreciation and love for what Picasso was saying though his painting changed and grew. I still don’t like Guernica. It’s deeper. I love it. I fear it. I’m haunted by it. On some level I hate that it needed to be painted.
How we see a photograph or a painting, or how we read a book, has less to do with the art itself, and more to do with us. Anaïs Nin said, “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” If our tastes, such as they are, are the sole indicators of our response to art, we will never deepen as human beings, nor will we improve as artists. The inherent danger in seeing art merely as personal and subjective is that, unchallenged, our tastes become the arbiters of what is good, and what is bad, before that art has a chance to speak to us, challenge us, and teach us.
Stopping at “I like it” or “I don’t like it” kills the conversation art endeavours to initiate in us.
Fortunately tastes can change. In The Soul of the Camera, I argue that one of the most important things for the growing photographer is an openness to, even a pursuit of, things outside the comfort zones of our tastes. I would add to that a willingness to listen to the art of others, and to do that meaningfully I think we need to listen to less of it, in order to give it a greater share of our attention. You don’t have to like it to learn from it, but you do have to engage with it, and listen to it.
If you’d like to read the chapter, A (Changing) Eye for Beauty (PDF), click the download button below.
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