"Artist" vs. "Photographer", "Artist" vs. "Not Artist".
During self-introductions at a workshop in Crete, Constantine (Costa) Manos, a Magnum photographer and friend, gently corrected a young woman who began by saying she was an artist. "No honey", he said in his southern drawl, "You're a photographer. Other people decide if you're an artist."
So there's what's art, and who gets to decide; art not art; artist, not artist. Ego here - since I'm about to tell you the answers, I must first smile out at you from behind the curtain. By now you'll have noticed Ego popping through everywhere and a complete lack of even a shred of pretense of neutrality. Yes. Being an artist, making art: I claim both of those mantles. But understand - being is not the same as being good.
The question of what is art was mostly settled by Marcel Duchamp in 1917 when he signed a white porcelain, factory-produced urinal "R. Mutt" and exhibited it under the title Fountain. What was outrageous in 1917 was voted the most influential work of art of the 20th C. by 500 artists and historians in 2004. Fountain exemplifies Duchamp's dictum "I don't believe in art. I believe in artists". Think about the implications of those nine words. And then there is Dora's statement: "Art is a moving target."
And that, my friend, like it or not, leads to: "The making artist says what is art" and its corollary, "Art can only made by artists".
In dismissing you with art is whatever an artist says it is, even throwing Dora and Duchamp in there isn't enough. I owe you a better explanation. This doesn't have to end up in the ouroboros of artist and artwork eating each other by the tail like Escher's famous lithograph of two hands, each drawing the other.
Let's dissect it.
First, 'art' does not equate to that which everyone, or most, or many, or even one person says is 'good art'. Plenty of bad and mediocre stuff is made (and sold), but won't make a difference to anyone, except maybe a bit of fleeting eye candy for the buyer. Think of all the Thomas Kinkade bucolic scenes with customized smoke and window highlights, matching their companion couches all over fly-over America.
• Being in the category of art does not mean being good art.
• Being in the category of artist does not mean being a good artist.
• No matter what category you are in, 500 years from now the likelihood of being remembered is about nil, so don't lose sleep over this.
One can claim the title 'artist' by completing a program at an academic institution widely accepted as training artists successfully. Note: not 'training successful artists', but 'training artists successfully.'
And just as acceptance of and by an institution is one criterion, being accepted by accepted artists is another. That may sound insufferably center-weighted to you but it has a long and useful history in many fields. Physicians are physicians and architects are architects because they meet both criteria: they graduate from an accepted academic institution and they serve an apprenticeship where they have to win the confidence of others in their professed profession. Before the academic institutions, successful apprenticeships were the singular paths of acceptance. Having a hammer and a saw doesn't make you a carpenter; being accepted by other carpenters makes you a carpenter.
In any of these cases you might be good or bad, inventive or repetitious at what you do, but if you have met the accepted minimum standards in the field, you can use the title. Accrediting agencies, your mentor's shattered reputation, or your own lack of inspiration (or competence) may eventually take it away from you, but in the meantime, go ahead.
So that's an artist; what's art? Well, first it has to be something made by an artist with the intention that it be art. Picking up scraps of steel behind Richard Serra's foundry, or going through Nan Goldin's trash is not a path to a collection. Intention is the key here. That urinal fresh from the hardware store didn't become art until Duchamp conceived of the 'readymade' idea, signed the piece, and announced it - "Look here."
Merriam-Webster defines 'art':
Something that is created with imagination and skill that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings; the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also: works so produced.
I like to toss salt on old wounds to see if they're still open, so I'll add that to be a work of art, an object has to be useless. Partly that comes from the age old argument between the Arts and the Crafts. It used to be, sometimes and some places it still is: "If it's useful, it's craft." Very basic, very real for a long time, very silly. This finally came to a PostModern head in the 1970s and 80s at places like Rochester Institute of Technology's School of the American Craftsman, where cups had holes and chairs were upside down. Similar in philosophy to Duchamp's flat iron with nails, Gift, 1021. In one case craft trying to become art by being useless, in the other case usefulness (craft) changed into ideas (art).
In a strange, I think unique, path, while the tools and products of photography began as craft, good for women to take up, like quilting or scrapbooking, then fought to become art and therefore dominated by men, like painting, finally is now art-without-question, dominated once again by women. In less than twenty years teaching the professional certificate, MFA, and workshop programs at Maine Media, I watched as photo classes turned from male with a few women to the opposite.
Try this — what function can we assign to art that might help us separate good from bad? If art just provides pleasure, how might we rank that? Let's say the scale goes from a piece of gum at one end to an orgasm at the other. That's one scale of enjoyment. Make another, based on quality of conversation between artist and audience, that runs from completely obvious, get it at once, non-engaging, non-challenging eye-candy (a photo calendar of puppies) on one end, to entirely self-referential, self-absorbed imagery understood, at best, by the artist, mother, and analyst on the other end. But don't use sale prices. They reflect the moment's obsession, the public's immediate reaction, the influence of critics and gallerists, the flow of Twitter, and the marketing of auction houses. Do you consider box office take to be an adequate measure of quality (art-ness) for a motion picture or play?
The pleasure available at each end of the 'meaning-open' to 'meaning-closed' scale is minimal, either presented on a platter or encoded in privacy. But somewhere in the middle, what I think of as art can happen. Art needs to offer enough entry points to engage the serious viewer, but not so much that the viewer need not engage, need not work. As Ed Ruscha said, "Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head." Yes, indeed.
When I decry pictures for being pretty, it isn't the beauty I object to, it's the lack of anything else, the ease of understanding, the artist's assumption that I, the viewer, don't want (or aren't able) to think. But it might be the maker who has nothing to say, no intention s/he wishes to prod me with, just good cheer and a pleasant smile.
Let's be clear: I am a snob. I make judgements. I apologize for neither. If I have been training and thinking about a subject - art, surgery, or plumbing - for 50 years, I believe my opinion, while still personal, is shaped by that experience and may just be more thought out, defensible and explainable than yours. I will think my opinion is "better" than yours, but I don't say so (except when you get on my nerves). I try not to leave blood on the floor, but if you ask for my opinion, you will certainly get it. I make judgements based on my honed filters and the inner logic of my beliefs about art and especially about photography. Not about everything, not about things I know nothing about; there I hope I listen more than speak.
I am a some-arts- (painting, drawing, photography and sculpture; not dance, architecture, or music) snob because I have practiced and studied, and bandied opinions about with other snobs. As with art, without either academic or practitioner acceptance, you shouldn't call yourself a critic in a field because you have an opinion. There is a case to be made for critics based on the same criteria - training, practice, acceptance. And taste. If they agree with me, they're probably good.
What's art? Whatever an artist says it is. What's good art? That which will last through its engagement with willing viewers. What's great art? That which is still considered good through time; which satisfies more, not less, with repeat engagements, which is valued through cultural shifts. Art which is done with the intent of selling, of entertaining, of being spectacle, of being noisier in a noisy environment, will not last, will not be considered "good art" after some cooling off period passes. If it is good because it cost a lot, or because the gallerist will promise it will rise faster than inflation in future auctions, if it's something you have re-appraised for insurance every few years and maybe store in a vault while living with a copy, I don't hold out great hope for it (or you). But on the other hand, as the short, out-of-shape, plain, kid, I saw the pretty girls go off with the pretty boys enough times to not hold my breath waiting for the world to right itself.
I can't find a better place for this excerpt, so here it is. I was amazed to read this in Hawai'i in 2016 while on vacation. The book was on the shelf, Dora handed it to me, I was entranced from the first sentence. It's worth reading, about death and identity, culture and randomness in America. White Noise, by Don DeLillo, published in 1985.
The narrator is Jack Gladney, chair of the Hitler Studies Department at College-on-the-Hill. Murray is a new visiting lecturer in American Cultural Icons.
DeLillo has this wonderfully insightful thing to say about photographs:
Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras, some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
"No one sees the barn," he said finally.
A long silence followed.
"Once you've seen the signs about the barns, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.
"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience, in a way, like all tourism.
Another silence ensued.
"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crack of levers that advanced the film.
"What was the barn like before it was photographed?", he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can't answer these questions because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the epicures. We can't go outside the aura. We're part of the aura. We're here, we're now."
He seemed immensely pleased by this.