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Monday, May 15, 2006

It's Pretty, But...

by Paul Butzi
The debate about what is Art, and what is not, and the concomitant angst amongst the creative community isn’t new. It’s been around from the beginning, as the following excerpt from Kipling’s poem “The Conundrum of the Workshops” describes:

-----------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?”

There’s nothing wrong with discussing whether this or that is or isn’t Art. As a former philosophy student, I’m intrigued by Mike’s riddle of Schrodinger’s Art, in which the work in question is neither Art nor non-Art, until an observer interacts with the work and collapses the eigenstate. I’ve got a million things to say about Schrodinger’s Art (aka the Glue Stick), most of which boil down to my view that art is a verb, not a noun.

But as a photographer, I’m wary of this particular pastime. It’s plenty entertaining, sure, but the problem I have is that in my experience it’s not constructive. By that, I mean that asking (and answering) what Art is doesn’t seem to be an activity which helps me make more Art, or better Art, or even enjoy the process of making it more than we did before. It just increases my confusion, frustration, and self-doubt. As Kipling observed,

-----------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?”

From my personal experience worrying about whether what I’m doing is Art, or art, or just plain rubbish is one of the hurdles that keep me from rolling out of bed, throwing the camera and tripod into the car, and going out and making photographs. I agree wholeheartedly with Uwe Steinmuller, who commented “…I just go back and say I’m a photographer. If people like the photographs that is fine.” I like this statement particularly because it throws the focus onto the real core activity—making photographs.

Posted by: PAUL BUTZI


Blogger Matthew Robertson said...

David Levi Strauss correctly points out that photography is not art. Photography is a medium of communication. Writing, also, is a medium of communication, and it can be used to create a sonnet or a shopping list. Similarly, a photograph can be art, or it may not be.

Context changes content. The same image, presented in two different places, will be perceived and received differently. The question of whether or not something is art is at least partially answered by other people's opinions about it. (Warhol = art, ad = media.) A beautiful, nuanced figure study seen in a glossy magazine will be perceived differently if it is in a portfolio presentation in Lenswork instead of in a perfume ad.

I remember reading a quip that subtle theological questions are the least important, because they'll all be answered for me once I'm gone. The question of whether I'm an artist should await the same resolution, leaving me free to take pictures until then.

10:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen and hear, hear, Paul.

11:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Context changes content. The same image, presented in two different places, will be perceived and received differently."

Hallelujah! Now that's a topic that has fascinated me for many years, Matthew. Context of photographic presentation seems to have greater impact on viewers' perception of its aesthetic value than in any other "art" form.

This is an allied subject for which I'd really like Mike to initiate a discussion. I think it would be a more practical discussion for photographers, although I'm not certain where it might lead. I certainly have some thoughts on the subject.

12:06 AM  
Blogger Uwe Steinmueller said...

>By that, I mean that asking (and answering) what Art is doesn’t seem to be an activity which helps me make more Art, or better Art, or even enjoy the process of making it more than we did before.

I see it the same way. The more I think about it the more I like doing photography (art ?) and the less I like the art world :-)


1:11 AM  
Blogger Alex said...


I must say I (almost wholeheartedly) agree with both you and Uwe, as I have described here (sixth post from the top):

However, rather than a verb I see art as a "personal adjective", one that each individual has to attribute to the object.


2:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two years ago i didn´t get a grant, from a National Foundation, to help to pay for a exhibition of mine (i did it, any way), mainly because my work was "just documental", not artistic. Of course it made me sad, but that´s life.

Fernando Guerra

2:51 AM  
Blogger hugo solo said...

I don´t be an artist, I´m a photographer,a man with a camera thats all,and infinetly less difficult than paint or create something from nothing.We go to the best shop in town, the best camera,the best plotter,the best pc,and then a face a flower a building...

6:10 AM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

"There’s nothing wrong with discussing whether this or that is or isn’t Art."

... I beg to differ. "It isn't art" has no meaning, it is just a way of denegrating something you don't like.
Even the worst art, say a Barbie-doll photo-comic, is definitely art.
It is not even very productive to call it bad or good. It is just for different audiences.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether painting is harder than photography, I can't say for sure, not being painter. What I do know is that a painter can omit anything extraneous from a scene quite easily. A photographer has to deal with the reality of what is there and then excerpt those portions of the world that he or she wants to include in the photograph. (At least before photoshop, and for those who work in traditional silver photography.)That struggle to work around the edges of the frame may result in a vastly different approach to a subject than we might see from a painter, who merely edits the distractions out of the canvas.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just finished reading "On looking at photographs" by Bill Jay and David Hurn. They discuss Art and Photography at great length and state the obvious: Photography is Photography and Art is Art. Photography was invented to show what things look like in as much detail as possible. Thats it. Once photographs become 'mirrors' or 'ideas' and not 'windows', photography becomes 'corrupted' from its simple basic function.
I'm puzzled why so many photographers seem afraid to accept the obvious
Just my 2 cents!

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you can walk around it, it's a sculpture.

If it hangs on the wall, it's a painting.

If you can process it on LCD screen, it's a photograph.

And my name is Art.

Any questions?

8:06 PM  
Blogger Paul Butzi said...

And my name is Art.

Any questions?

Yes. Is there an objective reality?

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fellow photographers, relax! It's no longer our problem, according to the latest (and my last) issue of Focus Magazine. There was an interview with a superstar collector, unfortunately I promptly forgot his name, who pointed out that the time of the eminence of the photographer has past and we are now in the reign of the collector/curator/critic. Only they have the connoisseurship - how I've grown to hate this word - to determine what succeeds as art and what is detritus. What a relief; a weight has been lifted from my shoulders, a veil from my mind; now, I can just go take pictures.

Al Benas

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Is there an objective reality?"

Only inasmuch as you can capture on Tri-X using an a-la-carte Leica MP covered in rare Asian elephant penis skin with a chrome LHSA edition 50mm Summilux ASPH. The rest are figments of one's imagination, my friend.

3:40 PM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

On the comparative difficulty of photography vs. painting, I once read this quote, although I can't remember who to attribute it to:

"The easiest thing in the world to do is to take a picture. The hardest thing in the world to do is to take a really good one."

5:19 AM  

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