Musings on Photography

Why “Art is a Verb” is important

Posted in art is a verb by Paul Butzi on January 5, 2007

Well, I’ve had lots of time to reflect while my internet connection was down, and while I went through both the fun of the Christmas and New Year holidays, and the hassle of the weather we’ve gotten lately.

One of the thing I’ve pondered is why I feel the whole ‘art is a verb’ concept is so vital.  I think there are several independent reasons.

The first reason is that as individual artists, I think the vast majority of artists are better off having their goal to be engaging in the artistic process than having their goal be to make great works of art.  Maybe the great works of art will come, maybe they won’t.  But if the goal is to participate in the process fully, then whatever art we make is great.

The second reason is that I think that artmaking is an example of something I think our society has drifted away from.  In the past, if you wanted to be an artist, you got materials, and you sat down, and you made some art.    Nowadays, if you want to be an artist, you’re expected to go to school, learn centuries worth of art history, art theory, and art criticism, and get a degree.  After that, you can work on building a network of contacts with gallery owners, art dealers, etc.  And when the art you make starts to sell, you can call yourself an artist.

It’s a social trend I don’t like – a trend where a positive activity that was once the domain of anyone and everyone with an interest has become the domain of highly trained specialists with special qualifications.  In Seattle, they wanted to build a new baseball stadium, and the argument was “do it for the kids’ – implying that following baseball is a good thing for kids to do.  But I am old enough to remember a time when a kid who was interested in baseball actually went outside with his ball, glove, and bat, rounded up some friends, and played baseball in a vacant lot, or on the school field.  Somehow the most American of participatory games has been reduced to a spectator sport.  And I don’t like spectator sports.  More to the point, I feel very strongly that Art should not be a spectator activity – something ‘other’ people do.

I think our society is desperately in need of artmaking at every level, from preschool kids through the most senior of citizens.  It’s not enough to have art, we need people to make art as part of their daily lives.  I think that because my observation is that making art changes the way people live their lives.  It doesn’t seem to matter whether the art is pencil sketches or playing music or writing poetry, photography or woodworking or metal sculpture.  Engaging in artmaking helps people perceive things more clearly, helps them break out of the polarized thinking that plagues us so.  Artmaking helps us figure things out.

The county I live in has a public art program called ‘1% for art’.  One percent of the budget for all public projects has to go into funding purchase and display of art.  But that’s the ‘art is an object’ view.  Sure, it’s nice that there’s art for us to look at.  But wouldn’t we, as a society, be better off if that funding went into programs to get people to participate in artmaking?

7 Responses

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  1. Doug said, on January 5, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    One of the things that I’ve noticed on the digital photography forums that I happen to frequent is the almost universal belief that photography is about making photographs.

    For me, though, photography is about the act of using a still camera to capture an image. 99.9% of my photos wouldn’t impress anyone else. But ya know, I didn’t take the pictures for THEM.

    For that matter, the photos themselves are just a byproduct of what I do.

  2. Colin Jago said, on January 6, 2007 at 2:46 am


    One of the really interesting social trends right now is the mass amateurisation of photography (and writing) driven by the web. This is in stark contrast to the general trend of professionalisation.

    Obviously, the web doesn’t get kids playing baseball again, but it has got a lot of people taking and sharing photos (flickr etc).

    Who knows whether this is just a passing phase. However, I think that there is some merit in the Brooks Jensen idea of a tidal wave of new photography. Most of it isn’t gallery stuff, but, as I think that you are saying, that is sort of the point.

  3. Scott said, on January 6, 2007 at 7:27 am

    Wayne Gretzky always said he learned everything about hockey on the rinks his dad would make for him in the back yard. Bobby Hull was a big advocate of pond hockey as well.

    I think structure is helpful, and even necessary in some disciplines. In others I think it can be a detriment; especially to creativity.

    I think that is one of the reasons I like photography as a hobby. I don’t need as much structure as I do in my profession.

  4. Steve said, on January 6, 2007 at 8:40 am

    Paul, First thanks for your contribution to the photographic community with this site. Great stuff and refreshingly centered on what matters.
    I believe art is about relationships; to our subject, our audience, our tools and materials. The end print is a momento of this journey. I don’t have accurate infromation about this, but I have heard that in Northwest tribal communities, the role of the artist is sacred, and it is the making of art that is the important part, not the final object. To have working artists in our communities brings richness and connections that are not present without art-making.

    Thanks again,
    Steve Cifka, Olympia, WA

  5. Rosie Perera said, on January 6, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    Amen! So well said, Paul. You actually caught me in the process of thinking about making a “professional” portfolio website. I began to question whether I really ought to do that if I want to retain my love of photography. I realized that you do sell your photos from your website in spite of your philosophy about art as a verb, so it’s still OK if I want to move in that direction. But I will definitely be thinking about your comments for a long time to come.

    Colin Jago pointed out the mass amateurisation of photography as a good trend. I agree, but I think 99% of the amateurs posting their photos on flikr etc. are not making art as a way of changing their lives or figuring things out. Most of it is done to (a) share pictures of themselves or memorable trips with their friends and family, or (b) show off their talent (or what they perceive as their talent). Not that any of that is bad, but it isn’t art-making of the sort Paul is talking about.

  6. Colin Jago said, on January 8, 2007 at 11:57 am

    Hmm, Rosie, you might be right about the motivations of most/many/some photobloggers and flickr members, but I think that you write them all off too easily.

    Just because their exploration is not the same as yours (or mine, or Paul’s) doesn’t mean that it isn’t an exploration. Saying that it isn’t becuase it doesn’t seem to be to you looks like dangerous ground to me.

    Also, photography contains some hard won craft elements and to get past the hurdles that these present you have to be taking photos.

  7. […] Paul Butzi said: Art is a verb. I’m inclined to agree. It’s not something you sit and listen to some […]

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