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May 18, 2004
Yes, but is it ART?

I'm sick of politics, so let's turn our eyes to an even more imponderable subject.

Fashion photography has long been a puzzler. Sometimes it's art, sometimes it's just advertising. (Wossname, the soup can guy, Warhol, has much to answer for.)

I went looking for a definition.

"What is art?" I asked Google.

Princeton tells me it's "the products of human creativity" or "the creation of beautiful or significant things."

Wandering into A Glossary of Jungian terms I read that art "divides into psychological (personal) and visionary (collective). Art can never be reduced to psychopathology because visionary art is greater than its creator and draws on primordial images and forces. It stands on its own merits. It compensates for the one-sidedness of an era. Rather than a symptom or something secondary, it's a true symbolic expression, a reorganization of the conditions to which a causalistic explanation reduces it." Yes, that's a very Jungian explanation.

Gallery Direct Art says it's, "A form of human activity created primarily as an aesthetic expression, especially, but not limited to drawing, painting and sculpture."

The Illinois State Museum says, "Objects created by humans that have aesthetic value or express symbolic meaning, including drawings, paintings, and sculpture."

Oregon State's university is more generous. "human endeavor thought to be aesthetic and have meaning beyond simple description. Includes music, dance, sculpture, painting, drawing, stitchery, weaving, poetry, writing, woodworking, etc. A medium of expression where the individual and culture come together."

From the Ayn Rand adherents. "A selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgements." Art is the stylization of the essential or significant aspects of a subject/concept. Art requires a theme (or at least a problem to be dealt with in action films) -- a unifying idea -- to integrate the material elements into a single entity." Objectivists are all about metaphysics, but that's an interesting definition.

On the other hand, Sweet Briar College tells me this is a fruitless search. "

Today the questions What is Art? and What is an Artist? today are not easily answered.

According to William Rubin, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "there is no single definition of art." The art historian Robert Rosenblum believes that "the idea of defining art is so remote [today]" that he doesn't think "anyone would dare to do it."

Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, states that there is "no consensus about anything today," and the art historian Thomas McEvilley agrees that today "more or less anything can be designated as art."

Arthur Danto, professor of philosophy at Columbia University and art critic of The Nation, believes that today "you can't say something's art or not art anymore. That's all finished." In his book, After the End of Art, Danto argues that after Andy Warhol exhibited simulacra of shipping cartons for Brillo boxes in 1964, anything could be art. Warhol made it no longer possible to distinguish something that is art from something that is not.

I knew it was Warhol's fault.

What has finished, however, is not artistic production, but a certain way of talking about art. Artists, whoever they are, continue to produce, but we, non-artists, are no longer able to say whether it is art or not. But at the same time, we are no longer comfortable with dismissing it as art because it fails to fit what we think art should be (whatever that is).

We struggle with this because we have been taught that art is important and we're unwilling to face up to the recently revealed insight that art in fact has no "essence." When all is said and done, "art" remains significant to human beings and the idea that now anything can be art, and that no form of art is truer than any other, strikes us as unacceptable.

Advances in technology since the days of photographing a Campbell's label have, I think, further blurred the line.

Is it art photography if much of the effects are created with a computer graphics software program? Is it even photography?

Is it art if it's entirely created by computer?

How about if it's painted by an elephant? (Don't laugh. The paintings sell for thousands of dollars.)

What makes it art? Is it some subtext in addition to the ostensible "message" of the picture? If you use that criteria, does much of the "art" of preceding centuries, created without a subtext, then fail to qualify?

What about those seemingly random blobs of paint on canvas? Is that really art or is it just the art world having a pretentious snicker up its Gucci sleeve at the rest of the world? (Like Canada and curling. You will never convince me that's a real sport and not just an joke Canadians created to get some of their own back on world that doesn't treat them with dignity.)

How about if it just speaks to someone emotionally? Is art anything that elicits a reaction from the viewer?

The blurriest baby photo will elicit an emotional reaction from almost everyone who views it. Does that make it art? Photographs of torture elicit emotional responses. Are they art?

What about this? Is the guy creating art or doing fashion photography?

Steven Klein says it's not art, no way, not at all, but he talks about his work in the terms I've been accustomed to hearing used to describe art and certainly there are those who interpret his work as art.

Many of his effects are achieved through CGI or graphical editing, so should it, strictly speaking, be discussed as photography?

From the way he discusses the composition of his…works, it seems clear that they're intended to have the kind of subtext I associate with "art" but, again, he says it's not art. Is it not art if the creator doesn't see it as art or does art exist in the eye of the beholder?

As usual, I have no answers. I'm not even all that interested in the questions. Any interest I might have in art stops just before the Cubists get rolling.

Sometimes I just can't take any more news stories about people dying.

Posted by AnneZook at 08:19 AM


Good questions about CG and photography. My dad has been working as a photographer for the last 40 years, and he tells me the field is somewhat torn apart over it. On the one hand, the major stock photo studies now expect their photographers to be able to do some digital touch up at home. The exception are the stock agencies that specialize in journalism, and they are terrified of digitial effects because they have a reputation for realism to protect. The amatuers mostly hate CG. My dad has been a member of the local camera club for 30 years. It is one of the largest and best run camera clubs in the North East. They have a lot of arguments over whether CG photos should be allowed in.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 18, 2004 09:00 AM

That's what I mean. When your ability to manipulate a CGI software program is the measure of your "artistic ability"...well, I don't know. What will that mean to us?

Not that the photographer in question doesn't demonstrate any artistic talent. There are some amazing photographs with his name on them, but I find myself wonder if they're 'live or Memorex', so to speak.

Posted by: Anne at May 18, 2004 11:35 AM

Of course, for a long time, people argued about whether photography was really an art. The machine played such a large role in it, there were so many chemicals involved, and the quality of one's work was partly determined by one's ability to spend a few $1,000 on top of the line equipment, so in the end how much of a human element was there? But nowadays people commonly accept photography as an art. The argument over CG seems like a bit of a repeat of all that.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 18, 2004 09:00 PM

And it very well may be a repetition of that argument, of course.

I do think the ability to use CGI to completely change the source material is a tricky twist on the situation. A photographer photographs what's there. The quality of the end result may depend largely upon the quality of his equipment, but he can't add aliens or the face of someone long-dead in the background.

And now it occurs to me that a painter or sculptor can use their medium to work distortions or 'improvements' into source material, so maybe this is more of a step "back" for art than a new step "forward"?

Posted by: Anne at May 19, 2004 08:27 AM

When you speak of photography are you thinking mostly of photo-journalism? I'm a little confused by your remark "A photographer photographs what's there". Obviously there were some photographers who experimented with abstract art, special effects, and compositions. My dad's best selling image of all time was a composite of fire works - none of his firework shots were dramatic enough, so he combined several, to get a very dramatic sky. He did this repeatedly with different shots in different cities - fire works in New York, fire works over the National Mall, fire works in Atlanta. He did this back in the 1960s and 1970s using traditional photo compositing techniques. These were always his best selling shots, corporations loved them as backdrops to various kinds of marketing.

And, of course, it goes without saying that, going back to the 1920s, those photographers who worked for advertising agencies were under pressure to bring out things that maybe weren't in the original - if they were doing a perfume ad, and the woman in the center was supposed to look glamorous, the photographer could use traditional dark room techniques to add in certain special effects - a halo for instance.

Your remarks seem focused on photography as photo journalism. If that is what you meant then I think everything you said is correct - CG is big steps backward to photo journalism, and a dangerous threat.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 19, 2004 09:37 AM

No, no, I'm not talking about photo-journalism, although now that you mention it, I can see the CGI dangers to photo-journalism.

I'm talking about "art" photographs, although I suppose advertising photographs would also be a part of that.

The problem is, you see, I'm anything but an expert on photography. I was aware of the existence of "composite" photographs but didn't think of them.

I think of photography as pointing a camera and capturing what's in front of it.

Now I'm considering the existence of various filters. And of composites.

Now I'm not even sure I know what "photography" means any more.

Posted by: Anne at May 19, 2004 12:16 PM