Art is a transformation of reality.
Two Questions, Two Answers
There are often questions and discussions regarding whether a photograph is art or not. The way I see it, there are two issues, or two aspects to this question:
1 – Is it art in the eyes of the photographer?
2 – Is it art in the opinion of the audience at large: the public, the critics, the art curators, etc.
The first question is a personal question that can be answered only by the person creating the images. The question is simple: Is the artist’s goal to create art or not? In other words, what kind of photographs does the artist want to create? Documentary images? Forensic images? Journalistic images? Souvenir or vacation-type images? Artistic images?
In other words, the answer to the question ‘is it art,’ as it pertains to the photographer or the artist, is based on the photographer’s motivation for creating images. It is the photographer’s reason for creating images that defines what kind of photographs they create. If the goal is to create art, then the photographer is creating art as far as I am concerned.
The second question is a public question that pertains not to the artist’s motivation but rather to the public’s evaluation of the photographer’s output. It is a judgment passed by the public, informed or not, about the nature of the artist’s work. While the photographer may have been intent on creating art, the public may disagree about the nature of this output. It may be art to some and not to others, or it may not be art for any of them, or it may be art to all of them. It is worth noticing that this is an age-old question. Is it art has been asked for just about every work of art. It is also worth saying that art is a polarized subject, meaning that it creates polarized opinions with people expressing extreme opinions for or against specific works. Finally, it is important to remember that, by nature, polarized topics will not see a consensus. Picasso’s work, even though it is featured in art museums worldwide, still raises questions about whether it is art or not. Such is the nature of polarized subjects. Acceptance by some, even if they are authority figures, is not sufficient to qualm other people’s opinions.
What this means is that the photographer may have as a goal to create art but the artist’s audience may disagree about whether the resulting work is art or not. This is often the case. However, I do not see it as a problem because of the nature of art, which I just described.
Knowing one’s audience and choosing the correct audience is important. What is the point of creating art if the audience constantly says that you are not creating art? At that point you have to decide whether the audience is wrong or if you are wrong. And if one is creating art, meaning the photographs are not documentation, forensics, journalism or souvenirs, then it is the audience that becomes the limiting factor because they are holding the artist back rather than helping him advance towards his goals.
Of course, the audience can be right. Our work may not be art at all. However, the audience can also be wrong. What we do may be art and they just don’t see it. The fact is that it is for us, the photographers, the artists, to decide which is what and whether they – the audience — are right or wrong. After all, most of the art created after the Renaissance has been labeled as ‘art’ by some and as ‘not art’ by others. In fact, to go further, most of what we consider art, against past the Renaissance, was considered ‘not art’ when it was first produced. So, if we continue this reflection, if it wasn’t for the artists’ decision to continue creating their work, regardless of the critiques, there would have been no advances in art. We would still be looking at Renaissance-type art and complaining that art never changes!
In the end it is a necessity of art, and a necessity for the artist, to know when to listen to the audience’s opinion and when to disregard this opinion. In a way doing so is an art more than a skill and in that regard every artist follows a different approach. Some listen intensely and consider every argument. Others plow ahead unconcerned by opinions be they positive or negative. Others listen to positive opinions and disregard negative feedback. Finally, some listen to negative opinions and change their work to please their audience. Of all these possible reactions it is the last one that I advise using caution before adopting it. Art is not meant to please an adverse audience. In fact, art may not be intended to please at all. The goal of modern art was to shock the audience and if modern art artists had listened to the audience’s displeasure and remedied to their discontent they would have gone against the fundamental tenets of their movement.
Art and Criticism
If you don’t like criticism don’t do art. Personally, I don’t know which activity does not elicit criticism of one kind or another. However, if you can’t take criticism do your best to find a criticism-free activity and stick to it. Let me just say that it won’t be art.
Fact is, no activity is totally free of criticism. Whatever your activity, as long as it involves the opinion of other people, it is bound to elicit positive and negative feedback. However, art is particularly prone to criticism because art is a polarized activity, meaning that people rarely express subtle opinions when it comes to art. In a nutshell, when it comes to their opinion for a specific work of art, most people either love it or hate it and they make no secrets of what they think, usually voicing their views publicly as if they were the measure of all things. Of course, this is great if they love your work because it will boost your self-confidence. However, it can have the exact inverse effect if their opinion is negative, in the sense that it can damage your self-confidence in the exact inverse amount as what positive feedback can do to you.
So, what is an artist to do? Well, each of us is free to have their own reaction to this situation. Mine is to listen to comments, be they positive or negative, and decide whether they matter to me or not. This process was time consuming in the beginning because I started with a blank slate as far as commentaries on my work go. It is now rather quick because I have heard so much that a lot of what I hear now is the repetition of previous comments. In other words, as my career moves forward, I learn less and less that is new from the feedback that I receive. However, that does not mean that I find commentaries on my work useless. Useful feedback does surface from time to time. The challenge of course is to isolate it within the mass of already-heard pointless feedback.
Picasso is an interesting artist to study in the context of this essay about art because he may be the quintessential artist. Not only is his work remarkable, his life and his approach to art are also remarkable. Picasso’s life is a demonstration of not only creating art but also living and thinking as an artist. Picasso spent his entire life learning, unlearning, breaking rules and questioning everything he had learned.
Picasso did not see the world as a logical place. Living between and during the first and second world wars, he saw a world that lost its values, a world turned upside down by war. This profoundly influenced his work. His writings help us understand why his work is the way it is. As he said: The world does not make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do? For Picasso the goal was not aesthetics. The goal was to challenge what we believed and to express what his society, and the world as a whole, were going through.
For Picasso knowing the context in which a work of art is created was just as important as knowing an artist’s work: It is not sufficient to know an artist’s works — it is also necessary to know when he did them, why, how, under what circumstances…This enlightens how we approach our relationship with our audience by providing a framework for the presentation of information related to our work and for keeping track of our career and of our personal development.
What Makes Something Art?
I want to end this essay by looking at the reasons why a photograph can be art. These reasons can include:
– The image is a transformation of reality, not a duplication of reality.
– The artist’s intent is artistic, not documentary.
– An emotional content is present in the image.
– The image is about the artist, not about the subject.
– The image is part of the artist’s journey of self-introspection and discovery.
– The image represents the artist’s personal vision.
As I said before I often get questions regarding whether my work is art or not. In the context of this essay on the subject of art, I want to say that to me this is a non-issue. What I do is art, simple as that.
What else would I be doing otherwise? Forensics? Documentation? Recording? Journalism? I don’t think so. For me art is a transformation of reality. My goal for my work is purely artistic with no desire to represent things as they are but rather to alter and transform the subject in order to express my emotional response to it. If some do not understand or disagree in regards to what I do, this is their right. However, it does not change one bit what my purpose is.
I do not think that my purpose is for people to decide. It is for me to decide what the purpose of my work is. To be wishy-washy regarding my purpose for my work is to be undecided about what this purpose is. I understand that some artists may not be sure what their purpose is, and that they are working on finding it. However, that is not the case for me. I know full well what my purpose is.
I do understand that some may like my work and others may dislike it. I understand it because it is the nature of art to generate polarized opinions. I also understand that some may think my work is good art and others that it is bad art. This is equally fine with me because I do not control what people find aesthetically pleasing or displeasing, good or bad, or tasteful or not.
We need to trust the artist because, sometimes, the artist finds in himself the ability, the skill, to turn the banal into art. To transcend reality, even ignore it. To transform what we see every day into something unique, something we have never seen before, something else, something we can only find in his work. The artist musters talent into art, and when this happens we need to notice, pause, look, admire and reflect.
If you are reading this essay, you most likely have an interest in art, either as an audience or as an artist. I hope the remarks above will be useful as a starting point for your own reflection.
About Alain Briot
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website. Free samplers are available.
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Studying fine art photography with Alain and Natalie Briot
If you enjoyed this essay, you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon and many others. Our workshops listing is available at this link.