Musings on Photography


Posted in art is a verb, motivation, process by Paul Butzi on December 27, 2008


Singraham wrote:

The problem with discussions like this is that they are rooted in the illusion that there are acts which “are creative”, and acts which somehow “are not creative”. Even so called destructive acts create something, even if it is only disorder and empty space (which is, to the creative, only opportunity for construction). To be is to act. To act is to create. That’s who we are.

Isn’t it foolish to attempt to identify what we do as creative, and what others are doing as “not creative”, or, for that matter, separate our own or other’s actions into productive and non-productive.

Just be. Just do. Reflect as necessary. To live is to create.

create |krēˈāt|

verb [ trans. ]

bring (something) into existence

destroy |diˈstroi|

verb [ trans. ]

put an end to the existence of (something) by damaging or attacking it

Arguing that destroying is creating because you’ve ‘created’ nothingness and disorder is, in my not very humble at all opinion, utterly stupid. Being destructive is NOT being creative.

Destroying is not creating. The distinction between creation and destruction is not some relative thing that depends on your viewpoint. You may feel that a word means exactly what you choose it to mean, neither more nor less. I have spent some fair amount of time looking down that road, and although you might feel you have license to use the words ‘fire engine’ to mean what most people think of when they read the words ‘orange marmalade’, I’m here to tell you that such behaviors are pointless sophistry and stupid to boot. There is no utility to be found in engaging in petty word games. None.

The word ‘destruction’ has a meaning which has no intersection with the meaning of the word ‘creation’. There are acts which are creative, and there are acts which are destructive, and they are not the same acts. No, they are not, not if you are using the words with the ordinary meanings that ordinary people apply to them.

If you are suffering from the delusion that creating and destroying are the same thing, feel free to go right on suffering from that delusion. In the meantime, however, the grownups are trying to have a discussion where words are used in accord with their conventional meanings, where something is considered to be different from nothing, and where we try to understand things rather than throwing up our hands and saying “Suppose everything was the same as everything else, then there would be no distinctions and no problems and the world would finally be a wonderful place, free from starvation and bad feelings.”

12 Responses

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  1. singraham said, on December 27, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Yes. Well. While I do believe in absolutes, I have some doubts, in this case (and in certain others) as to our ability to define them reliably, and especially our ability to define them “objectively”. It is not the reality of the what the word destruction refers to, or the meaning of the word destruction itself, that I bring into question (or creation for that matter). It is our ability to apply the word accurately in any consistent manner to our own and others actions…without bias and prejudice based on our own point of view (not to mention our own convenience).

    Is a forest fire creative or destructive?
    If I destroy a weed so that a cabbage can grow, am I being creative or destructive?
    If I end a relationship that is hurtful?
    If I tear down an apartment complex and return the land under it to marsh?
    If I clean my hard-drive of all but my best images?
    If I clear invasive plant species from the undergrowth of a native forest?
    If I clone out a protruding branch in an otherwise satisfying image?
    If I “manage the population” of Cowbirds so that Kirkland’s Warblers can breed?
    If I “waste time” in such ruminations while I could be out taking photos of the gray day, or photoshoping an image from last week?

    As you say, gray days at the cusp of the solstice are days for this kind of thought. When the sun shines and the shadows are sharp and definite, and all is well with the world, we are not troubled by such thought. When the winds blow and rain comes sideways and lightning flashes and it is all we can do to face the storm, then too, we are not troubled by such thoughts.

    I can take being called immature and delusional…for the sake of the conversation. Which is what I thought we were having.

  2. Paul Butzi said, on December 27, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    When you tear out the weed, you’re being destructive. You started with something, and ended up with nothing. When you planted and cultivated the cabbage, you were being creative (actually, more like being transformative, since you started with a seed).

    That fact that we often are alternately destructive and then creative doesn’t blur the meanings of the words. The fact that sometimes we *want* or *need* or *value* destruction just as we want or need or value creation does not blur the meanings of the words. The fact that we sometimes destroy things to make room for creative acts does not blur the meanings of the words. Destruction is destruction. Creation is creation.

    Sometimes what we need is destruction. Sometimes what we need is creation. That doesn’t make them the same, nor does it make them hard to distinguish.

    Sometimes the value we place on destruction is negative. Sometimes the value we place on destruction is positive. Same thing with creation – sometimes positive value, sometimes negative value. The fact that the valuation of destruction and creation is often not clear and is sometimes situational does not make them the same. Destruction is still destruction, and creation is still creation.

    So when we talk about being creative, it would seem that we can do that without talking about how it’s indistinguishable from being destructive.

  3. Chris Klug said, on December 27, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    “If I tear down an apartment complex and return the land under it to marsh?”

    The ‘and’ in this structure relates two separate acts. If you are somehow prevented from returning the land to marsh, all you’ve done is destroy some places to live with no return.

    The overall contribution of the two separate acts does no change the value of each act individually.

  4. singraham said, on December 27, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    We actually don’t disagree on anything here. I never implied that the two words or the acts they describe are interchangeable or indistinguishable…

    It was, in fact, just an aside to the main argument to suggest that acts we sometimes call destructive can, in fact, be creative. “So called destructive acts” is what I said. If I had it to do over again I might insert the word “Some”…as in “Some so called destructive acts create something.”

    And, when pushed to it, I do argue that it is sometimes hard for us to know which is which, or to correctly classify complex actions as creative or destructive.

    Finally, I do question, and this was the point of the original comment, the easy assumption that our classifications are correct and useful, and suggest that, especially where creativity is concerned, too facile an identification of what is, and what is not, creative may in fact limit us, if not to what we are, personally, comfortable with, then at least to that which we can easily imagine.

    Let there be peace among us…I am sure that face to face, and over time, we would find ourselves in agreement on more than we might suspect at the moment.

    Steve Ingraham

  5. Paul Butzi said, on December 27, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    If I had it to do over again I might insert the word “Some”…as in “Some so called destructive acts create something.”

    No. Destructive acts destroy something. Creative acts create something.

    That’s what ‘destructive’ and ‘creative’ mean. That’s how they are defined

    We actually don’t disagree on anything here.

    Sheesh. Yes, we do actually disagree on something here. I know it would make you feel all warm and happy to think that disagreements weren’t really disagreements, but they’re not. This is a disagreement.

    Let there be peace among us…I am sure that face to face, and over time, we would find ourselves in agreement on more than we might suspect at the moment.

    Well, it’s certainly possible that there are quite a few things on which we agree.

    But this is not one of them. That doesn’t mean we’re violent, or less than peaceful, or anything else. It just means that I disagree with your view that destructive acts can be creative acts.

    Destructive acts destroy things. A destructive act can be followed by a creative act. You might, if you wanted to try to weasel your way out of this, try to argue that this sequence was both creative and destructive. But a destructive act destroys something, and doesn’t create. That’s what ‘destructive’ means.

    And once we go assigning our own idiosyncratic and private meanings to the words we use (as opposed to using the meanings that have been assigned by social convention), all hope of real agreement is lost, swamped in the noise of words that don’t actually carry any meaning because you insist that carry all meanings simultaneously.

  6. Seinberg said, on December 27, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    I’m going to try to make this not sound like an ad-hominem attack, because that isn’t my intent, but Steve’s stance is very much akin to ’60s new-agey, pseudo-Eastern influenced attitudes. I didn’t read any other context, but what you quoted above is either silly arguing of semantics of what the words mean or nihilism (or both).

    Steve changes the meaning of words to fit into an easy-going, pseudo-Eastern worldview and tries to ignore the contradictions. Meanwhile, the changing of these definitions — if you take him literally — basically removes any meaning from them and results in nihilism.

  7. JH said, on December 28, 2008 at 2:22 am

    I’m not sure whether I should post this to the previous topic or this one, because the conversation is continuing but it is also changing the direction a bit. (And there is also some heavy armament in use, it seems.)

    But coming back to the excellent topic “Productivity, creativity, proxies and goals”, and the reason for why we are doing things…

    However sophisticatedly we argue about the reasons and motivations, in the end the reason for doing something demanding comes from inside, a part of us. The reasons may be good reasons or bad, known reasons or unknown, but not much to do with measurement.

    As an example, I suspect my interest in photography has less to do with photography than with finding a balance as a human being. It is a kind of meditation, of shutting down the too-much-thinking type of creature in my the head. Photography does the trick for me especially combined with walking outside in the nature.

  8. singraham said, on December 28, 2008 at 4:19 am

    Please remember the statement I made contained, in the original, a parenthesis: “Even so called destructive acts create something, even if it is only disorder and empty space (which is, to the creative, only opportunity for construction).”

    Perhaps I might better have said “Even so called destructive acts can be seen as part of the creative process, since it is often necessary to remove something old to create something new, to destroy something less to make something more…even to deconstruct something good in order to construct something better.”

    I still think that in the context of the original discussion (thank you JH for bringing us back to that) my meaning was clear even though my statement contained a blatant contradiction. Evidently, to those involved in this discussion, it was not as clear as I thought it was.

    I do however, regret ever making that statement, since it seems to have prevented all of you from taking my actual point…which was, and is, that categorizing acts as creative and non-creative is both pointless and limiting…just as pointless as categorizing acts as productive and non-productive. The original dichotomy, if you will remember, was that: productive vs. creative.

    One of my absolutes is that all human beings, in their nature, are creative…are creators, since we are all made in the image of the creator. (A received truth, confirmed by living experience.) We may suppress or distort that creative spirit, but it is there, at our root.

    I believe that when we create, in this instance when we consciously frame a snippet of the world around us as we see it in an instant of time to produce a photographic image, employing all the art and technique of exposure and processing that our equipment and our skill allows, so that others can see what we see, we are, in fact, participating in the on-going creative act that embraces us all.

    Such participation, since it IS who we are, gives us a feeling of “rightness”, of, “ah, that is the way it is supposed to be”, of, “this is who I really am.” It gives us both satisfaction and joy!

    But a further part of the point is that we are all doing it, all the time. Whether I am making a photograph or a loaf of bread, whether I am in a studio taking images for a product catalog, or out walking the dog around the block, or catching a nap after lunch, I am involved in the ongoing creative process that is my life.

    I extend that truth to all those around me. Their “art” might not be obvious…it might not even be intentional…but it is there, simply because of who they are.

    The original quotation that started this whole chain of discussion contrasted being productive and being creative, as though they were two different things, two different kinds of acts…arose from two different motivations. I was only suggesting that those kinds of dichotomies too easily blind us to the creative nature of all acts, of all people. They make us dismissive of what we consider non-creative acts and people, and, worse, they make us dismissive of those things in our own lives which we do not consider creative…and that, to my way of thinking is an “unproductive” attitude.

    In the course of this discussion I have been accused of being immature, delusional, a new-age, sudo-eastern fuzzy mystic, a semanticist, and a nihilist.

    That is actually pretty funny. My wife would agree with the immature. I admit to the mystical bent to my Christianity, and therefore its kinship with the mystical in certain eastern traditions. As a poet I am, by nature, a semanticist (in the good sense of the word I hope). I, of course, reject both the delusional and nihilist labels…though I am willing to admit that some might see my faith in the One Creator God and His Son Jesus Christ alive in me through the power of the Holy Spirit as delusion. Can’t help that.

    Nihilism, though, it just not in it.

    So, guys, I have heard enough on the impossibility of destructive acts every being creative, and I have been called enough names, thank you very much. If anyone would like to address the actual point I was making, I would be happy to continue the discussion.

    If not, so long and thanks for all the fish.

  9. Paul Maxim said, on December 30, 2008 at 7:41 am

    While all of this has been very entertaining, it seems to me that Steve has the “high ground” here. In all fairness to Paul, Steve seems to have his own set of absolutes, apparently rooted in his faith. That, of course, is fine, so long as he doesn’t attempt to make them my absolutes as well. And if Paul wants to believe in his own absolutes, that’s also OK. He might want to leave himself (and us) just a little wiggle room, though.

    When he states absolutely that “destructive acts destroy” and “creative acts create”, and that there is, apparently, no overlap, well, that just defies reason. You might just as well proclaim that all actions are either right or wrong, all statements are either true or false, and that all individuals are either good or evil. Nonsense.

    In the natural world, simultaneous acts of destruction and creation happen all the time. Steve mentioned one – forest fires. What about volcanic erutions? They destroy existing ecosystems and at the same time create new ones. So do earthquakes and hurricanes. Where do you draw the line between the two outcomes? They are both direct consequences of the same event.

    Humans do the same thing. If we collectively build a high demand economy that brings prosperity to a large number of people, that is a “creative” act, is it not? But it can also be “destructive”, especially in the long – term. If we allow the world’s population to grow unabated, that is, quite literally, being “creative”! But the eventual outcome of that creativity will almost certainly be catastrophically destructive. Again, where do you draw the line between the “creative act” and the potentially destructive consequences?

    Simply put, there are no absolutes (regardless of the official “definitions”). True, some actions are fairly obvious. Taking someone’s life is destructive. Dropping bombs on people is destructive. Torching someone’s house is destructive.

    But definitions are like photographic “rules” of composition – sometimes they simply don’t work at all and sometimes they become blurred and ambiguous. The ideas of “creativity” and “destructiveness” are not mutually exclusive. They are, rather, endpoints of the same continuum. Why is that so hard to see?

    Steve seems to recognize that the so – called absolutes in our lives are often illusory, and that most of the time, we simply do not know what is absolutely “true”, what is absolutely “good”, or what is absolutely “creative”. We are, after all, only human.

  10. Chris said, on December 31, 2008 at 7:41 am

    The destruction of the world trade center created a nightmarish security paranoia in the USA and volumes of new legislation. Sometimes creation and destruction are so tightly woven as to instantly change things that may have previously been separate. Despite individual acts being easily classified there are plenty of cases where stepping back and looking at a bigger view makes such situations less clear.

  11. Paul Butzi said, on December 31, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    When he states absolutely that “destructive acts destroy” and “creative acts create”, and that there is, apparently, no overlap, well, that just defies reason. You might just as well proclaim that all actions are either right or wrong, all statements are either true or false, and that all individuals are either good or evil.


    Saying that there’s no overlap is in no way equivalent to saying that actions are either right or wrong. What it IS equivalent to saying is that the set of acts which are right and the set of acts that are wrong don’t overlap. There may well be acts which are neither right nor wrong; indeed, ALL acts might be neither right nor wrong. But the set of acts that are right and the set of acts which are wrong are, for any given decision metric, disjoint.

    Pick a different set, easier to reason about. Pick ‘black’ and ‘white’. The set of things which are ‘white’ and the set of things which are ‘black’ do not overlap. That is, the set of things which are black does not include things which are white, and vice versa. This does NOT imply that there are not things which are grey (and thus are in neither set). Nor does it imply that there are no colors.

    As for forest fires: I, personally, would say that a forest fire is destructive. There were trees and middle story, and lots of brush and woody fuel; the fire comes through; those things are gone. If you want to argue that things are created later – that doesn’t alter the fact that the fire was destructive. If you want to argue that matter was neither created nor destroyed, and thus the fire wasn’t ‘destructive’, I’m fine with that; in that case, the fire was ‘transformational’ and thus doesn’t fall into either the ‘creative’ nor ‘destructive’ category. Likewise volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, all of which I would argue fall outside the sets of ‘creative’ and ‘destructive’ in the same way ‘international distress orange’ falls outside the domains of ‘black’ and ‘white’.

    It is possible to have meaningful discussions about subjects that involve subjective judgments – subjects like creativity, art, beauty, and so on. But the fact that the subject being discussed might involve subjective judgements doesn’t mean that we should throw out the very useful rules of clear thinking and logic. I’d argue that, in fact, substantive discussion of those things where subjectivity comes into play demand more careful and more diligent attention to clear thinking, precise definition, and logic than a discussion where the subject is more clear cut.

  12. Kacey said, on July 3, 2010 at 9:58 am

    As a play therapist I am very familiar with the academic philsophies that destruction is creation and has worth just because it is an action…. As a Mom and a realist I say that’s just plain dumb. You spend your afternoon cleaning murals off of your walls, throwing away a destroyed couch, and…. and… .and.. 🙂 Thank you for this. It was just what I needed and I shared it on my Facebook 🙂

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