Monday, August 14, 2006


* Please delete as appropriate.

Why, when no-one argues that music and drama, to name but two, are both Art forms, is there nothing like the same level of universal agreement about Photography?

I have to declare a sizeable interest here, as to me, Landscape Photography is not simply an interest, but something approaching a passion – so unbiased I most certainly am not. But I still ponder on the question.

In reality, taking a photograph is absurdly easy. You fire up a camera, whether it be film or digitally based, point it at a subject, and press the shutter – hey, presto, a picture. So, at first sight, there is next to no technical skill involved. Some people who equate Art with those things which are technically difficult, cite this “Anyone can do it” argument as one reason why it cannot be Art.

Most of the mainstream Artforms, however, actually also require very simple actions. Most of us can write – all it demands is a pencil and some paper. Most of us can sing, most of us can dance a bit and most of us can use a paintbrush. In all these, the underlying basic actions are very, very simple. In most cases, however, we would not want to share the results of our actions with anyone. The issue here is that it is what the final result amounts to, rather than the technical difficulty of the process creating it, which results in a piece of Art, rather than something which is destined for the waste bin.

If you try to distinguish what IS Art from What is NOT, the key question which you end up having to answer is simple – “What actually do you mean by Art?”. Once you have defined it to your satisfaction, then measuring photography, or ballet, or architecture, or any other contender against this answer leads you to the answer to the original question.

This approach is by no means new. Those of us no longer in the first flush of youth will remember a Radio Programme called the “Brains Trust” which was broadcast just after the war. One of the panel answering listener’s questions was a philosopher named C E M Joad, who famously used to respond to most questions like this one, with what today you’d call a catchphrase – “Well, it all depends what you mean by ……..”. Boring it may be, but it remains absolutely true. And so it is here.

The first port of call here is the Dictionary – so let’s look up "Art". The first three definitions I found, at random, were -

- the making of objects, images, music, etc. that are beautiful
- the activity of painting, drawing and making sculpture:
- an activity through which people express particular ideas

I think that all three versions miss the essential point totally. In my view, firstly Art does not have to be “beautiful”, it can just as easily be ugly, and you are still then left with defining "Beautiful" or "ugly". So that does't take you anywhere. Secondly, limiting it to “painting, drawing and sculpture” is clearly wrong – anybody heard of Music? And finally, the concept of “expressing particular ideas” can apply to almost anything. My own attempt at work, to build a new process to run the Company’s pension scheme fits in perfectly with this definition – but even I would not think of calling it Art!

In the end, the best way to get what you want here, is to do it yourself. So my own thought on “What is Art?” comes out as –

Noun - An activity by a human being or human beings, the primary intention of which is to affect the emotions of others.

To me the key, fundamental issue here is emotion – if its main aim isn’t meant to impact on other individual’s emotions, then it simply cannot be Art. Being arrogant enough personally to prefer my definition to that of the three Cambridge Dictionary versions, the next step is to see how Photography measures up against this definition.

There are many styles of image within Photography – Landscape, Sports, Record, Photojournalism, Portraiture, Still Life, Natural History or Pictorial, even the personal "Snap", to name but a few. If you match each of these differing styles against the definition, it becomes clear quickly that only some categories lead to thoughts of an Artistic intent.

Many of the Landscape, Portraiture, some Sports, some Natural History and a lot of Pictorial images qualify. Record photography, which is by definition an unemotive technical exercise, much of Photojournalism, which fails because its primary aim is to inform rather than to affect one’s emotions, Still Life and even the "snap" (in some ways the most important type of photograph of all!), all to my mind, do not qualify as Art. It's the same with Technical Drawing. - it uses the same basic techniques as Painting, but its clear aim is to inform rather than create an emotional response, so it's not Art.

Perhaps it is this situation where only some of the types of Photography match the definition, and some don't, which causes confusion. It really shouldn’t, since the same patchy position occurs in Painting/Drawing, Music (have you heard me singing in the shower? – I assure you it is NOT Art), writing (Shakespeare - Yes - vs the e-mail I sent at work yesterday - absolutely Not!) and so on. The real issue, to me, is – Does it affect the emotions, and is that the primary intent of the Photographer? If the answer’s yes, then it’s a piece of Art.

This leads us on to another utterly fundamental issue. All this comes down simply but totally, to subjective and personal opinion. My opinion, your opinion, a panel of judges’ opinion, but always someone’s opinion. There can be no absolute right or wrong here.

For instance, there is no such thing as the Best piece of Music ever written – that only exists when it is prefixed by the words “In my opinion, ….”. The same applies to Photography, it’s a bit like “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am – Descartes). If I think Photography is an Art, then it is. I may bring my definition above into play to support and argue my case, but it’s only in support. And it doesn't really matter if the majority of other people take a different view. That's called conventional wisdom, and we all know how often that proves to be unreliable! You can disagree, but that does not make me wrong – all it means is that we disagree.

Looking at photographs over the years by such people as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastiao Salgado, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Elliot Erwitt and many, many others has certainly affected my emotions, be it elation, exultation, inspiration, fear, humour, depression, anger or any other. You name it and all these guys have between them produced images that elicits that reaction in me. I totally and firmly believe that was the Photographer’s intention when he pressed the shutter.

So it’s Art – simple really!


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