Monday, May 10, 2010

Yeah, but is it ART?

Over in my "Creative Edge Alumni Group" we were talking about "art," and how someone using glue tape and torn scraps of paper and paint wasn't really making art, wasn't making something worthwhile. "What's the point?" was one valid comment.

I subscribe to something called "Twice-Weekly Letters" from The Painter's Keys by Robert Genn. It's geared toward painters, but I find the concepts are often applicable to photography. He writes a letter and the responses to it are equally valuable, being very well thought-out.

Here's the link to Robert Genn's latest letter:

I found it applicable to what we'd been discussing in my alumni group. And I thought it would be appropriate to insert a snippet of it here. Robert Genn wrote (in part):

"An estimated forty million hobby painters propel the art-materials business. Like quilting, journaling, or maintaining an aquarium, folks just do it. Quality control may be a lesser aim. Marketing is a non-starter. These days, many artists mention goals of fulfillment and personal happiness over challenge and professionalism. The play's the game. The emphasis on inner child, return to innocence and the youth bias of the media stirs up the latent kid. Delayed maturity, in the traditional sense, is the result.

"What are the possible benefits of all this puppyhood? In the arts, immaturity has become a good place to start. We need the puppy-love before we seriously fall. The work, in Bernard Berenson's words, is simply "life enhancing." The downside may be chronic mediocrity, the effect of which can fan out through an entire culture."  -- Robert Genn

And then, below Robert Genn's letter, is a series of responses, very thoughtful responses. I thought of you, Bruce K., when I read this: "Gee, I think I sound just a little cranky about this particular topic and I'm sorry if I'm offending anyone. It's just that I'm finding it increasingly difficult to feel tolerant about what I consider the dumbing down of the public's understanding of what makes good art."

And there was this comment: "Wouldn't it be transforming if in our culture people were encouraged to make art because in even attempting to do it one begins to change? In some cultures, for example Native American, it seems that everyone is artistic. Perhaps this concept leads to a greater appreciation of beauty and order over time."

To bring all this back around to photography, what we're all doing here is continuing to learn, continuing to improve, continuing to create. Are we artists?

One of my students (perhaps it was one of you) presented a photo she took of a teddy bear on a bed. As I recall, the photo was black and white, and it conveyed such a feeling of abandonment, loneliness, and emptiness that it brought tears to my eyes. To me, that was a piece of art.

Speaking for myself, I don't consider my photographs "art." They don't call forth emotions/concepts of something larger, greater, more profound. My talent (if indeed I have a talent) is for seeing beauty in everyday things and presenting that beauty on a plate. A photograph of bubbles in ice doesn't depict anything more than perhaps color, line, and design. It doesn't say anything about the human condition, sorrow, love, exhilaration, etc. (Ha! Maybe global warming!)

What's my point? Maybe that we can celebrate ourselves as artists -- all of us -- but we must always know in the backs of our minds that there is something greater to be achieved. Something more to aspire to. Something beyond another slot canyon photo, another seagull on a post, another pile of fishing nets.



  1. I can't believe no one has commented on this entry yet. I really like all of it. Of course, the comment that you thought I would like, I like best of all--well put: "the dumbing down".

    And I do consider most of your photos to be art--they do bring forth a feeling and they show skill and creativity in the way they are put together too. As for the ice bubbles, that taught us all something about photography--mostly that we hated the lesson, but it did have a purpose.

    Although duly chastised after my initial thoughts, I still think those 'journalers' could do something better with their time, but I can see the other point of view too.

  2. You're too kind about my photography, Bruce. But thank you. And I don't think you were "duly chastised" over in the alumni group. I could understand your point, and your point was an excellent one. But you are a skilled painter, so maybe you are looking at things from a different angle than those who struggle doing ANYthing artistic.

    As one who keeps a visual journal and who follows others online, I can truly say that it has opened my eyes to more art, more techniques, more artists than I ever dreamed of seeing. One link leads to another to another and the next thing I know I'm drooling over the work of Wolf Kahn and am looking at the Sistine Chapel as though I were standing there. --Carol Leigh

  3. I included links to Wolf Kahn's website and the Sistine Chapel virtual reality site, but they were stripped out. So sorry. --Carol Leigh

  4. Agree with Bruce, Carol. Your work often brings forth feelings and moods that touch me. You both are wise artists. Thank you, Carol for posting your comment today.
    As for the ice--unlike the sewing kit---we all keep coming back to that lesson. But it was a positive challenge that taught us color and design and shape and how to deal with frustration.
    I do think in striving to express our art (whatever that may be) we dig deeper into ourselves and discover new territory. I personally enjoy the process, the journey and when the outcome feels good/right, that is great.
    jc in nc


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