Musings on Photography

Love and Need

Posted in art is a verb, process, the art world by Paul Butzi on April 13, 2007

Colin Jago writes eloquentlyabout the utility of working out which label (modernist/post-modernist/new landscapist) you apply to yourself, and what you’re doing with your camera.  I especially fond of Colin’s broad statements, qualified with “Remember, I’m ignoring the exceptions.”  So much economy is possible when you don’t deal with those pesky exceptions!

And, to carry the discussion further, Mark Hobson forges ahead with this post about both New Landscapism and the positioning of photography in the larger art world.  He writes:

But, that said, the problemstill remains (from an excerpt found on Tim Atherton’s photo-muse) – “She was doing her best to suppress her irritation — defending contemporary art photography from the longstanding “style over substancecharge was an awful chore …. She had felt skeptical of much of what had happened on the photography scene in the past few years, particularly the return of expressions and attitudes from before the postmodernist breakthrough; her old nagging doubts about whether photography could be considered a critical (and not simply decorative) medium were coming back

IMO, the answer to the ‘nagging doubts’ reside in the notion of photography as a ‘critical medium’. A return to pretty pictures just isn’t going to cut it. Like it or not, photographers are going to have to think a lot more – think about ‘concept’ within the bounds of what-do-my-pictures-say-not-only-about-my-referent-but-also-about-picture-making-in-a-picture-saturated-culture. And, oh yeh, don’t forget about the social/political and economic cultures.

My response to this is “Who the heck cares?”  I don’t feel some strange compulsion to defend contemporary art photography from various charges which have meaning only in the contrived and limited world of art criticism.  To steal a phrase from somebody, I strongly suspect that the reason all this crud is debated with such intensity and positions are staked out and defended with uber-religious fervor is not that there’s so very little at stake, it’s that there’s nothing at stake at all.  It’s all castles in the air, with no relation to the real world.  It’s not even air castles; it’s more like vacuum castles in orbit around the planet wedonthaveareallife.

All I can do is make the art I’m moved to make, and let the art criticism/fame/fortune chips fall where they may.  I’m sure that essentially zero percent of the world of art criticism would look at my work and say “Hot damn, this is awesome stuff.  Stop the presses!  We need to issue a new edition of Masters of Photography!”  And here’s the rub – it doesn’t matter.  I can’t make authentic work based on whatever current pseudo-intellectual fashion the the art world is currently infatuated with.  I can only make my own authentic stuff, mediocre as it might be, and then take a (apparently not true) page from Martin Luther and the Imperial Diet of Worms, put the work out there, and say “Here’s the art I feel moved to make.  God help me, I cannot do otherwise.  Amen.”

That said, and on the basis of my ‘it’s-not-what/how a-picture-is-created-it’s-who-created-it’ premise, if you don’t live a life based on critical thought, your photography will be ever assigned to the ubiquitous dust bin of the merely decorative.

Well, I certainly subscribe to the ‘if you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn” school.  But when it comes to worrying about whether my work will ‘ever be assigned to the ubiquitous dust bin of the merely decorative’, I guess I just don’t care.  There are 6.6 billion people in the world.  Out of those 6.6 billion, perhaps some thousands will become significantly known for the art they make; the rest of the art made over the remaining span of my lifetime will either get consigned to the dustbin of the merely decorative or else consigned to the dustbin of the “didn’t even make it into the dustbin of the merely decorative”.  Viewing it as a lottery, my odds of making into the art elite are approximately 6.6 billion divided by, say, 10,000, or approximately 1 in 66 million.  I’m 250 times more likely to be struck by lightning during the remainder of my life.

There are billions of people making art in the world.  Only a vanishingly small fraction of the work they create gets the attention of the world of art criticism.  In the scheme of things, the much ballyhooed world of art critics and art historians matters not a whit, because it only addresses a vanishingly small fraction of the art that actually gets made.  I don’t know many things for sure but I am utterly confident that, whatever the purpose of art might be, it is most definitely NOT to garner the attention and laudatory praise of art critics.

In the end, if your art is going to have any meaning at all, then it must have meaning to you.  Doing work because it conforms to the prevailing favorite art world paradigm is not a good way of ensuring it will have meaning for you, or for anyone else.  The best way to do work that matters to you is to do work that matches the end of my favorite poem:

Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed every really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes

-Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time, final stanza

8 Responses

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  1. Joe Jarosak said, on April 13, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Bravo! About time somebody said it. 🙂 Who gives a hoot about what others (critics) think as long as it make you the artist/photographer happy!


  2. Billie said, on April 13, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    I have a really hard time making my own work much less the work that some art critic will approve.

    You said it better than I could. Thanks

  3. Brett Kosmider said, on April 13, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    Hallelujah, Amen, praise the Lord!! I wasted all of my piss n vinegar on this topic over on Mark’s site in a response to the same post responded to here, so I can only backup your sentiments with a ‘Hell yeah!’

    My need to understand what the critics think of my work is a way for me to understand where I am in the big picture of the fine art world and how I might refine my work or take it to a higher level. But in the end it all comes down to ‘just do your work’, as I have heard from many other photographers. How true. Just do what you do and let it take you where it may.

    This coming from a ‘New Pictorialist’ as I have discovered my work is as close to that definition as any (whatever that means).

    Brett Kosmider
    Minneapolis, MN

  4. Gary Nylander said, on April 13, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    As I said over at Mark’s site I have always followed by own creative vision and heart, which is what it makes me happy.

  5. Chuck Kimmerle said, on April 14, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    Beautifully written! Thanks for saying it so well.

  6. Yeah, what he said « through my eyes said, on April 14, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    […] a recent post on his blog, Paul Butzi discussed labels that are placed on photographic movements or styles and art […]

  7. Gary Nylander said, on April 14, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    That should have been “my” own creative vision……..

  8. […] make the art another person makes. We can only make the art we make. As I’ve said before, we can’t do otherwise. We don’t get to decide whether to make our own art or someone else’s; the only thing […]

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