Weeks ago I posted an image to the Vision-Collective, my private mentoring community to which many of you belong. The image was Wynn Bullock’s Child in Forest, 1951.
The responses to that image and the resulting conversations were intriguing to me. Some responded to the image as I do, finding in the image a sense of idyllic calm. Some were very uncomfortable with the image and the thoughts it prompted in them.
I saw a child resting in Eden, in a state of nature and innocence. Others saw a crime scene. Still others seemed to struggle to snap their interpretation of the image to the photographer’s intent, and unable to do it, got frustrated. And still others “just didn’t like it.”
I worry sometimes that we have mistaken art for a quick meal whose chief value is that it tastes good and pleases us, better still if it pleases us all simultaneously. Look. Like. Swipe. Move on.
But what if, as I strongly believe, art is not always meant to please?
What if it is not always even meant to be understood?
I think it’s certainly true that art need not make you feel good in order to be good. Nor do we need to “get it” in order for it to speak to us.
Art can be good by being many things and, in so being, make us react in many ways. It can make us angry. Scared. Nervous. It can create tension that remains unresolved for us. It can remind us of painful pasts or make us long for that which we do not have. It can raise questions. And, yes, it can make us hopeful or happy, too. It can make us see things in new ways. It can be a puzzle with which we play. It can be so many things that it’s a little embarrassing we settle so often for a simple binary judgement. Good or bad. Like or dislike.
It seems to me the best response to art is not to like but to listen. And when I say listen I do not mean only that we should listen to the artist, though it would be nice if we all took the time to try to do so. I mean to listen to ourselves. What is our reaction to a photograph, a piece of writing or music, a dance, a film? Why do we feel so strongly one way or another? Why don’t we? What if our first reaction isn’t the only possible reaction and we took time to ask if, perhaps, there’s something to learn?
As I’ve thought long and hard about my own responses to art I’ve come up with a couple suspicions:
- The intent of the author matters greatly in the creation of his or her art. And it might help me understand a work in a cerebral way. But it is not necessary in order to experience that art. Writing-off a piece of art before allowing ourselves to react to it, to experience it and to listen, is a missed opportunity. Yes, it helps to study the work and the context and some insights into that context can be enlightening, but you can experience art on its own merits and that is one of the wonders of art. I need not “get” Kandinsky, Pollock, Rothko, or Monet, to experience them and to allow them to act as a mirror to me, giving me a chance to learn something of myself in the reaction they cause.
- Art is not about consensus. We need not agree over our reactions or our interpretations. Art that forces itself upon us and has as its chief goal our submission to it is not art, it’s propaganda. Art can be bigger than that. It can be larger than we are. Popular photography culture is wildly culpable of encouraging or desiring our consensus and the only thing that’s going to lead to is homogeny, mediocrity, and a narrowing of thought and experience. We must be challenged and art can do that, but only if we let it. To be challenged we must first listen to it.
- Photographers are often encouraged to “shoot what they love.” I have said these words myself. I still say them. But we can do more. To create from that place of love is to draw from only one emotional well. It is only one human experience, and it must be explored, and celebrated. But why should we not consider photographing that which we fear, that which angers us, that which confuses and puzzles and stirs ambivalence in us? Why should art not be a means by which we explore those things within us that we neither understand nor like? Art is not always a statement or an expression. It is, or can be, just as often a question or an exploration.
All art can be, for both creator and audience, a means of digging around in the dirt of being alive. A way to discover what we’re looking at and how we look. It’s a way to be more alive in this world. It should not, I don’t think, be clean, and free of nuance. Because life might be many things but it is never that.
Art doesn’t care if you like it or not. It is not diminished by your response, either way. But we ourselves miss an extraordinary opportunity to expand into the unexplored places and experiences of our lives when we do not listen.
So what of Wynn Bullock’s Child in Forest? What of any piece of art that doesn’t first appeal to us? I think, as others before me have observed, that our reaction to a piece of art says more about us than it does about the art. I think we owe it to ourselves, if not also to the art, to listen. To wonder. To be curious and to remain curious in the absence of answers. To let it remain unresolved for us. To let it eat at us a little.
We need to be free to not like it at all and to plumb the depths of that reaction for why. And we need to be free, in the context in which I showed this image, to learn from each other’s reactions. To listen to them. To encourage discussion not agreement. Agreement puts a tidy little bow on the art and we move on, never to think of it or learn from it again. Puzzle solved.
I think we owe it to ourselves, if not also to the art, to listen. To wonder. To be curious and to remain curious in the absence of answers. To let it remain unresolved for us. To let it eat at us a little. We need to be free to not like it at all and to plumb the depths of that reaction for why.
I think this approach to art can not only change how we experience art but how we make it. When we make our art, whatever it is, from a wider gamut of emotion and motivation, we explore the deeper well of who we are. We live more deeply. We become softer in our judgements towards our art and toward ourselves. We become more open to leaving questions unanswered, and in so-doing become open to the possibility that our art might ask more questions than it answers, which is probably good because life is that way and questions, I’ve found, are infinitely more helpful in taking us to deeper, more interesting, and more human, places.
Art doesn’t care if you like it or not. It is not diminished by your response, either way. But we ourselves miss an extraordinary opportunity to expand into the unexplored places and experiences of our lives when we do not listen, and listen deeply, rather than rushing to Like. Want to become a better photographer? Learn to get past like, to listen, to learn, to challenge your assumptions and tastes.
Thoughts? I’d love to hear about your own journey with art. The comments are open.
Many of you know that I published my most recent limited edition book, Pilgrims & Nomads a couple months ago. Someone recently said they hadn’t ordered their copy because they assumed it had sold out. I still have about 100 copies of that limited, signed and numbered book and the accompanying print and it would make a wonderful holiday gift (December is coming!) for your favourite photographer, even if that photographer is you.
You can see more about the book and order it here, but you can also listen to this interview conversation I had about the making of the book, and other wildly off-topic stuff about photography and creativity with Jeffrey Saddoris here. Whether you own the book or not it makes for a good listen. Enjoy.