This essay came about from the discussions generated in my weekly IDEA groups on art and photography. [ sept 7 2013 ]
Art is a conversation with the visual, philosophy and society.
This conversation has been going on for as long as people have made what we call “art”. We join that dialogue, adding our voice to it, along with an interpretation of the ongoing conversation and ideas being explored. Without a knowledge of how and what created this conversation as well as the topics and context, the risk of our work being only self-referential is high. (Yes even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then but not often enough to sustain itself.) Having a purpose and something to say is a requirement for any work to be art, even if that references past art works or is intended only for those with an understanding of art history. It is impossible to make significant art without some knowledge of the dialogue that came before, the history of the media, and the context in which that conversation existed.
Expression of self doesn’t add to the conversation that art is. It is through being part of the conversation art has been having for all of time with and about philosophy, society and the ideals that makes us human. The Self being all important to this conversation is an indulgence with meaning for that person but is hardly relevant to much else. Modern myth that we are all artists is bunk; no-one has that as innate ability. The potential may be there but it isn’t through technical learning or mastering a craft that makes a person an artist. It is through understanding the conversation art is. Then moving beyond the narcissistic self in what we make in order to join in that dialogue.
Curiosity drives art. A rebellious curiosity that wonders and looks for the alternate or personal view that relates to the art dialogue with meaning for more than just oneself. Filtering that conversation through our unique personal experience and voice adds to the history of the conversation. I often wonder about those so self-important who they think the world should be interested in their “self expression” as art. If what we engage in doesn’t reach beyond self, how does it stand as something important enough for others to pay attention to?
I have heard it said art was pervasive in everyday life in other times. This isn’t true at all. Craftsmanship was but not the art that lasted. Salons, apprenticeships and a continuing discussion with other arts and artists shaped the next generation as they learned how to master the craft it took to make art. The art that shapes how we see the world isn’t done without a reference to the history of art or that ongoing dialogue. And for those of us who are photographers, we need to know who came before us and how they brought photography into the larger art world.
Photography itself is in a strange place due to it being a relatively new media and not having the history that other forms of art have. The uses photography is capable of other than art, muddies the waters on how it is viewed as an art form. With the advent of the popular notion that everyone is an artist (which didn’t exist in previous times) came the idea that study or understanding don’t matter in the making of art. The technical of composition, line, form and such are all anything really needs in order to be considered art. Photography is one of the biggest offenders of this because of the technical which makes learning to be competent a fairly painless process. What the older forms of visual arts taught during the learning it took to be competent is cut short or even missing because of the emphasis on this technical side of making photographs.
With all that in mind, I’d also tell you not to think about the above when engaged in creating something. Instead follow your curiosity and the need to see something made with your point of view and voice in it. Don’t strive for profound or even unique, instead strive for something that expresses your opinion or view or curiosity or need to understand. At the risk of adding to the buzz words – be authentic, be you and use what and who you are to stand for something. Then show me, tell me, or make me as the audience see, hear, feel or understand that point of view or opinion.
[As a side note no artist of any stature I have ever known uses the terms “my art” it is always my work, my paintings, my photographs etc.]