Random thoughts on art and photography
Is photography an art? What qualifies as art?
By Melanie Mareuge-Lejeune
What is art? I remember going to Venice’ s Biennale modern art exhibition, seeing an empty black room and various other equally questionable “art” pieces and wondering what makes art, art? A Biennale enthusiast tried to convince me that the “genius” of the exhibition was that it made the viewer challenge his conception of beauty and the viewer- through its interpretation of the “oeuvre”- became the artist. Being a modern art cynic, I remember thinking that the only plausible interpretation one could give to the empty black room was that either this was in fact an unused storage room which had accidentally been left open to the public or the artist’s megalomaniac head was as empty as the room- the sheer size of which giving the public a frightful glimpse into the scale of the void; either way the only thing the “viewer-turned-artist” should be challenging was the €15 entry fee which amounted to nothing less than robbery (or perhaps marketing genius?) Call me conservative, but I like art (and men) to be aesthetically pleasing in an “obvious” kind of way- if I have to ponder for an hour over what the artist is trying to convey or stand upside down with one eye shut to realise that a piece of art is beautiful or revolutionary, I lose interest. That does not mean of course that art should be “in your face”, on the contrary, what is more fascinating than getting lost in a piece of art, discovering new details with each viewing, observing the evolution of the artist over time?
I guess art should, on some level, provoke an emotion- such a definition of course implies that art is personal: what qualifies as art may change from time to place, from one individual to another. If art is indeed defined by the reaction it incites, it seems to me, that increasingly, in modern society, we respond to provocation (of course, in their days, I am sure the expressionists "shocked" too, but "shocking" was not an end in itself). Admiring our ancestors’ legacy- whether be it architecture, sculpture, frescoes or any other visual arts- I am moved; I am moved by the delicate intricacies of the Alhambra’s walls, I am moved by the graceful curves of Michelangelo’s David, I am moved by the elegance of the Loire’s castles, I am moved by the exquisite beauty of Monreale’s cathedral. Empty black rooms, faeces in glass boxes or decaying carcasses, meanwhile, revolt me- like most people, I am easy to revolt but I am rarely moved, meaning that repulsion, shock, anger and disgust are far easier emotions to trigger than transcendent ones and making “provocative” art more “accessible”- perhaps I should say more popular- than “moving” art.
It may be of course that our ancestors produced equally unfortunate art work but these pieces were written off by history, begging the question: what will we leave our children? Having been horrified as a teenager by the Louvre’s pyramids, I used to fear that, lacking the necessary faith to produce transcendental art, we would leave our children very little worth remembering us by, but recently, having been fortunate enough to marvel at the Apple Centre in New-York, the German parliament in Berlin and the Millennium Bridge in London my faith in our society’s ability to leave our children inspiring legacies has been somewhat restored.
Some may argue that leaving our children inspiring art work is not a priority considering such pressing issues as nuclear proliferation, climate change or world poverty but, given these issues, what would hold us together, where would we find the will to get up in the morning, put on a suit and draw up accounts or sell double-glazed windows, if it were not for poignant characters portrayed in books, touching tails narrated in movies, melodic songs to hymn in the shower, inspiring sport performances to make us hold our breath, refined wines to tickle our palate, charming gardens to stroll in? Art, in all its forms, is both a source of human inspiration and a channel for man‘s ultimate need: self-realization. One may say that art is the quintessence of civilization.
If art is humankind’s very essence- do we as a society have a duty to both support and appreciate the arts? If we do have a duty to support the arts- how do we know which artists to support? What gives one the right to classify something as art? Is techno music an art? Is urban tagging an art? Do talented individuals have a duty to develop their gift? And if so, at what cost (Mozart and Van Gogh, to name just a couple, died in extreme poverty- who could have blamed them for pursuing a more profitable path had they chosen to do so? Considering the life they led and their tragic ends- to them- was their talent a gift to be grateful for or a burden which they carried?).
I do not have answers to these questions- in some respects, this website is my personal attempt to seek answers. To return to my original question, the truth is: I do not know what makes art, art but I believe that any attempts to define art must incorporate some notion of reproduction- can it be replicated easily? Could anyone do it? We can all defecate in a box (whether we’d want to is another matter) but very few of us can reach the final of the Olympics in any given discipline. Regardless of whether one appreciates one’s art, one should recognize both the talent and years of work required to realize that talent (I don’t remember which artist once commented- when it was pointed out to him that it had only taken 10 minutes to sketch something on a piece of paper- that its had taken him thirty years AND 10 minutes)- whilst this definition seems more impartial than others, to the extent that it segregates an artist’s oeuvre from the public’s like or dislike of it, it also renders art somewhat exclusive, to the extent that to appreciate the work and talent behind a piece of art one may need to know a little about art (how would one know for instance that a symphony was in a league of its own if one had never listened to any other? How would one know how difficult it is to play the piano or the violin unless one had tried?) Whilst art and culture should be accessible to all, it is my personal belief, that art and culture should be removed from the “popularity” contest which often amounts to a race to the bottom as the lowest common denominator is sought in an attempt to make the arts and culture “accessible” to all. Citizens have a right to have access to art and culture, they also have a right to aspire upwards. I believe that when we are presented with “shocking”, in-your-face- art and culture, on some level, it is assumed that the public does not have the capacity to appreciate finer, subtler art forms- it is hamburger for the brain, after many years of such a diet, one forgets what a sirloin steak taste like and eventually is no longer capable of appreciating a steak (vegetarians may replace the simile with tofu and soya beans I guess?).
I will leave it to the reader’s own judgement to decide whether photography is an art- the photographer does not create beauty out of nothing in the way that a musician, painter or sculptor does; a photographer captures what is already there- the beauty exists before he seizes it; a picture is simply the photographer’s interpretation, his vision, his take on the world. The key lies in whether the reader believes that someone else’s interpretation would be similar? Does making a subject feel at ease thereby capturing a natural expression qualify as a talent for instance? Does the ability to see a detail which would be overlooked by most qualify as a gift? Does sitting patiently for hours to capture the perfect expression or light amount to hard work? Would someone else’s composition, framing, choice of focus point, rendering of movement and light, be the same? I guess one might also want to consider whether the shot taken by the photographer may be more moving, or if not moving induce more emotions, than viewing the scene live. I leave it to the reader to decide.