Photography: is it really art?

Art photography?

Art photography?

There is little argument these days, that photography is an art…but now the slicers and dicers, the nigglers at defintions, like to make a distinction between “high” art, “fine” art, and just plain old ordinary, everyday art. I think these are the same bunch of nit-pickers, who like to make the subtle distinction between documentary photography and photojournalism.

Better writers (and better photographers) than me have wrestled with this for years and have failed to come up with any answers that I find satisfactory. I’ll warn you now, you’ll find no answers here, only more questions? So if you are seeking enlightenment, perhaps this might be the point to take up yoga, or Buddhism.

Whenever this subject comes up, I immediately dive for my adopted manifesto to quote this:

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.”

For those of you with a literary pre-disposition, you might recognise this as the closing lines of the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Like many statements by “the Divine Oscar”, it was designed to provoke; which is exactly why I like it. I think it has a particular resonance in relation to the photograph, in that some would say that a commercial photograph would fall outside the realm of art. But is that always the case? I don’t think so.

Now a good example of this is the work of the artist/potter. If they make a set of coffee mugs, are they “art”. I’d say sometimes, but very often the utilitarian function gets in the way. Who wants to drink coffee from cups that continually require a heightened appreciation of their value? It should be enough to appreciate the coffee, though I won’t dispute the fact that a beautifully designed container can enhance the experience.

Now a perfect contradiction of Oscar’s statement is Marcel Duchamp’s exhibition of a urinal, which he exhibited in 1917, and titled “Fountain”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp ). It was Duchamp’s recognition of this utilitarian object as art that made it art (art in the eye of the beholder), but it was the context that made it art.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

“Fine” art seems to be a pure construct of the academic, a description designed to enhance their status in a similar way that cookery teachers describe their subject as “food technology”, or in former years “domestic science” or even “home economics”. Photographers also use the term to glorify their craft (I use the term deliberately). Not satisfied with being called merely photographer, they choose to describe themselves as “fine art photographers” as though this description was their to bestow on themselves. Insecurity? Probably.

“Fine” art also implies a succumbing to the pretentious limited edition/archival print/gallery circuit where the “artist” is purely reliant on the good will of critics and what the collector decides is fashionable. Being dead is a great career move for the artist…as no more emphatically evidenced by Michael Jackson’s recent departure. Good one, Michael!

I have always been under the impression that to describe yourself as an artist was somewhat presumptious. Maybe I’m wrong but surely this accolade should come from one’s peers and the appreciators of your work after a lengthy period of application to producing a significant body of work. It should not be a term to be self-adopted by the wearer.

If you think you have the answers I’d be delighted to debate them with you…


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Filed under art, Opinion, Photographer, Photography, Rob Walls

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