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What is Art?

NOTE: The photos in this post were taken by my son, Weston, for a photography class as a college freshman back in 2001. The text of this post originated as an e-mail I sent Wes in 2001 after reviewing these and other photos he’d made. He wondered if my favorable comments were just because I was his dad. This is what I told him:


My comments are heartfelt – I’ve been a lover of photography for most of my life, and actively studied it as a process and as an art. You probably know that I had books about and/or by just about all the major photographers. Of course you know I favored the work of Adams and Weston – but there were many, many others: Stieglitz, Lange, Strand, Cartier-Bresson, Uelsmann, to name a few. But favoring one or the other is a testimony to taste rather than a judgment regarding craft. The works of the great artists share something(s) in common – indeed the work of all artists in all mediums share these same things.studyinmotionI

For me it works like this: some art, when first viewed (or heard, tasted, etc.) immediately grabs me at an emotional level; It grabs me by the… heart. It is not an intellectual thing. It is not computed. It is not decided. It is experienced, immediately and with no artifice.

However, not everything that bypasses the filters of intellect is art.

We humans, all of us, whether Mother Teresa or Osama Bin Laden, have built into us certain sensibilities, certain standards, certain reservations, taboos, societal limits. When something violates those standards we react at a gut level. As a philosopher once put it: to a cannibal, not eating a missionary is a sin. Thus, to create a gut reaction in a group, all one must do is present something that violates the standards of that group, and you can be assured of a gut reaction. But is it art? That all depends.

Take a subject such as "eating babies." Whether presented with the highest level of craft and technique, or with the crudest and most simplistic of displays, most people and most cultures (with the possible exception of our aforementioned cannibal) would find the topic itself shocking. You probably felt a bit of a jolt when you read it. Virtually any presentation would evoke a gut reaction. So is it art? That all depends.

If its purpose is to shock for the sake of shock then I would argue that if it is art at all, it is of the most banal sort. If its purpose is to expose a part of ourselves – then perhaps it is art.Still_Life

Consider a photograph of a jet flying into the World Trade Center. Does it evoke a reaction? You bet. Is it art? Well, some photographs of the event are "better than" others. Does that make them art? They stand as records, captured memories, moments frozen in time. They may make one wince, fight, or rejoice depending on who one is and where one stands in the universe. Is it art? I think not. And here’s why.

It is my belief that art reveals the unseen, the unsuspected, the unknown. Art illuminates the dark region just below the calm (or turbid) surface of reality and takes us where we’ve never been. The images and feelings associated with the World Trade Center attack are not hidden or unknown. Depictions of the event reinforce that which is already known. A photograph of such an event illuminates nothing. To_Arnold_with_love

Consider by distinction the photo by Dorothea Lang, taken in the early thirties, depicting a dustbowl family (mother and children) displaced, poor, and hungry. The feelings it instills are deep. Yet that moment could be any family, anywhere, any time. It reveals with startling clarity something about all of us; this is what it means to be human. It is great art. Art transcends the event or place which it depicts.

OK. So which of your photos are my favorites? I agree with your prof. The image of the hallway is stunning. So is that of the woman in the graveyard. Both are very worthy. Both grab me at an emotional level. I would be very proud indeed to have taken either shot. One other, the woman in light and dark is almost there. I recommend further examination of the cropping (I many be wrong here, but that is my reaction).

Here’s a question to ponder: how many photographs did, say, Ansel Adams take in his life. Thousands? Tens of Thousands? And out of them, how many are memorable images; images that still make people gasp, and will continue to make people gasp, say, a hundred years from now? Hundreds? Dozens? The point being: even in the hands of a great artist, not every attempt will succeed, but without the attempt there can be no success.


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