HOW SHOULD WE DEFINE ART?
Maybe “Art” Should Be A Verb, Not A Noun
By Bill Dobbins
Humans are fond of using symbols for which there is no actual referent. That is, using words to refer to things that don’t actually exist. It would be hard to find real world examples of “dragon,” “unicorn” or “clean coal.”
We also use words that describe concepts that are hard to define. For example, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said he couldn’t define pornography but knew it when he saw it. The reason for is that pornography is not really a thing: it is a reaction to a thing. A pin up poster from 1944 was considered sexy but acceptable. Today it looks quaint. In 1844 it would have been classified as pornography. The image itself would always have been the same but how it was viewed by the culture can be radically different in different eras.
“Art” is a primary example of a concept we use that can be defined many different ways. Let’s see what Merriam Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary has to say about it:
something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings
: works created by artists : paintings, sculptures, etc., that are created to be beautiful or to express important ideas or feelings
: the methods and skills used for painting, sculpting, drawing, etc.
But there is more to the idea. Art is an activity that artists do. Art can also be defined as a creative expression that can be displayed in a museum or gallery, performed in a theater, and bought and sold in some variation of the art marketplace. So art can a commodity worth in some cases a great deal of money. This particular way of viewing art is relatively recent. In the past, works of art are almost all commissioned by rich patrons, governments or the church. It wasn’t until around the 1830s that you saw an increasing number of works being created by artists and sold as commodities by art dealers in galleries.
Prior to this, you wouldn’t have seen discussions of the “value” of a work of art. Artists were paid but how much they received for their labors was not the measure of the value of the sculpture, painting, musical piece or any other artistic work. We certainly don’t value the Sistine Chapel by how much Pope Julius paid Michelangelo to paint it. We don’t how much Leonardo was paid to paint the Mona Lisa but no doubt it was only a tiny fraction of what the painting is worth today.
Before the age of mechanical and electronic reproduction, art had the basic function of illustrating and communicating what things looked like. Art was a practical necessity and artists had a recognized and valuable profession. Coincidentally or not, it turns out that the birth and growth of the art market and art as commodity happened just about the time photography was introduced as a commercial reality. “Art for art’s sake” makes a lot more sense when it isn’t needed every day to show people what distanct people, places and things actually look like.
Of course, the value of art in the marketplace is much like the box office results from the opening weekend of a movie – an interesting statistic but not really relevant to its ultimate significance to the overall culture. How many contemporary works of art fetching high prices today will keep their value 50 or 100 years in the future? How many of them will make any real difference to the nature of culture and civilization in distant times?
To what degree will what we call art actually change the way people think and feel, alter the way they see the world, make a difference in the ideas and values that constitute the culture we all share and which informs our experience of life?
Louis Hine used his camera as a tool for social change and reform. His photographs helped to change the child labor laws in the United States. His prints today are highly valued and widely collected.
This is why I am less concerned with what art is and more with what it does. Why I think “art” should be best treated as a verb, something which accomplishes something. Let me give you a very simple example. Early in the 20th century, Ansel Adams took up photography and began doing a lot of pictures of the area around Yosemite. From the late 1920s on he developed his BW landscape portfolios that featured the work he is now legendary for. He concentrated on capturing the light and atmosphere in his mountain and desert locations, finding ways to extending the ability of his negatives to register total range and to develop methods of printing that did his negatives full justice.
Adams was recognized early on as a master photographer but this didn’t make him rich. At least not back in the day. People liked his “pretty pictures” but they were not viewed as important fine art or seen as deeply important to the culture. So his prints could be purchased pretty cheaply and by the early 1950s Adams had finished shooting most of his most important images and was concentrating mods on printing, publishing books and teaching.
But at a certain point the photos of Ansel Adams were reevaluated as the environmental movement began to build, America became a much more crowded place and the culture realized realized that the wilderness landscapes he had depicted were a valuable, vanishing resource the idea of which our modern civilization should preserve, conserve and cherish.
Fortunately for Adams, this roughly coincided with the interest in buying and selling fine art photo prints in the 1970s, in part due to the efforts of people like curator and collector Sam Wagstaff. So Ansel Adams was not only hailed as a major artist in his old age but was able to make quite a bit of money as well. At long last.
So what had been pretty pictures were know recognized as art and Adams’ landscapes came to provoke an emotional reaction in viewers that made them think and feel differently about the wilderness and the value of unspoiled nature. Looking at an Adams photo did something to viewers that had not happened in earlier years – and which was not the same as the experience that resulted when they looked at the work of most other landscape photographers.
Other photographers over the past 180 years or so have achieved similar impact. What we know and feel about a variety of aspects of life from war, to fashion, to sports or child labor have been hugely influenced by photography. How can you think about Viet Nam without picturing the little girl running down the road badly burned by napalm? (She eventually survived and prepared, by the way). We cannot help but think of the pictures of Dorothea Lange in contemplating the dust bowl. We are now able to view the fashion photos of Penn and Alvedon as cultural documents now that they are removed from the context of their times.
Art in general, but photographs in particular, are best measured by what they do, what effect they have on the minds and emotions of viewers and the direction in which they steer and shape the culture. This is what i have against photo competitions. Contests rare produce truly important and significant photos in the same way that you do n’t get a Lady GaGa, Beyonce, Bob Dylan or the Beatles emerging from shows like American Idol. You also see a lack of what truly turns out to be art from the efforts of “art photographers.” The reason is there has been a tendency since the earliest days of photography and the pictorialist movement to emphasize the artsy over the truly artistic.
That is to create something that looks like art, looks like something you should consider art but that doesn’t actually do what art needs to do to achieve any real significance.
But please make no mistake: anybody is entitled to engage in any kind of artistic expression they personally feel and believe is valuable. Art art comes from within and creativity is a natural and valuable aspect of human nature. So there is no accounting for taste and people can express them however they want, in any medium and can like an appreciate anything that suits and please them.
De gustibus non est disputandum.
It doesn’t matter what the art market decides at any given point. The market is ephemeral and fleeing. In the long run some artistic works will take hold and become important parts of the cultural and some won’t. The culture itself can be defined as “what gets taken up and passed on to the future.” So Vincent Van Gogh is an important part of art history and dozens of other starving artists of the period are not. Van Gough did not achieve this “on purpose.” He simply won the cultural lottery.
It is hard to know what kind of art will ultimately make a difference. It takes hindsight to look back and see what turned out to have been important, entered people’s consciousness and ultimately changed human life. Sometimes it seemed pretty predictable and sometimes not.
But there is no doubt that art changes human life and the greatest art is what makes the greatest changes – even when it doesn’t seem all that “artsy” when it first makes its appearance.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
BILL DOBBINS ART
THE FEMALE PHYSIQUE WEBZINE/GALLERY