Musings on Photography

Art, lost and found

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on March 1, 2009

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Martin Doonan, musing on the responses of camera club judges to photographs made by famous photographers, writes:

Surely someone creating great work gets to become known as an artist. Just calling yourslef an artist does not mean what you do is art.

I’m not sure I understand exactly in what sense Martin is asking this question. There’s the sense that, unless you’re producing great work, you shouldn’t get to call yourself an artist. And there’s the sense that, if you produce great work, you will eventually become known as a great artist.

I definitely don’t agree with the first. If you make art, you’re an artist. If you produce bad art (I’m not sure how I’d classify it) then perhaps you are not a very good artist, but you are nonetheless an artist. In my view, that is. As for the whole good art/bad art thing, I’m always mindful of the words of E. B. White, who commented “There is no good art, or bad art. There is just Art, and damn little of it.”

I don’t care if you’re a high school student, or a single mom, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a famous sculptor or painter or photographer. If you engage in artmaking, you’re an artist, period. You might be an unknown artist. You might be better known for your supreme court briefs, or for your ability to fix plumbing, but if you make art, you’re an artist, period, full stop.

And for the second sense – the idea that if you produce great work then you’ll be recognized as an artist – I have a short-ish story to relate.

Once there was a kindergarten teacher. She had this idea, and she thought to herself “I think this idea might be best expressed as a play.” She’d never written a play. But she sat down, and she wrote this play. And then, having written the play, she made copies of the script, and she sent them all over North America to various theatres. She sent out a lot of copies, and no one cared for her play. Theatres get a lot of unsolicited manuscripts, and there are not many people to read those unsolicited manuscripts, so it’s pretty hard for an unsolicited play by a completely unknown writer to even get read. And that’s perhaps especially true if the unknown writer is a female kindergarten teacher.

And then, one day, a literary associate at a theatre picked up one of the copies, saw the kindergarten teacher’s name on the title page, and thought “Hey, I went to high school with her!” And so this literary associate sat down, and read the play. And he thought “Hey, this is damn good. We should produce this play.” And so the theatre did. This play, which had been completely overlooked by uncountably many theatres, was produced at South Coast Repertory. The play, Wit, by Margaret Edson, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999. Yes, really. A kindergarten teacher from Atlanta won the Pulitzer Prize for the first play she wrote.

So sometimes the difference between a play that goes out into the world and doesn’t make a ripple, and play that wins the Pulitzer Prize – that difference is not in the play, but in the expectations of the people who come into contact with the play.

Sadly, it’s a certainty that there’s a truly great play – a Pulitzer Prize winning caliber play – sitting in a stack of ignored unsolicited manuscripts in a disused corner of an office in a theatre somewhere. It is an absolute fact that great plays are written, and then are never discovered, and vanish without a trace.

You can make great art, and getting recognized as an artist is still something of a crap shoot.

And the moral of the story is this: make your art to be making art. Enjoy making it, and arrange your life so that you will enjoy making art for a long time. If you get fame and recognition for the art you make – that’s gravy. But if you expect to get recognized for the art you make, you’re like the inner city kid shooting hoops in the parking lot, and dreaming of becoming the most famous player in the NBA. It isn’t impossible, but the odds are so long that you’d be better off making other plans.

And if you make art, feel free to think of yourself as an artist. Even if you’re a carpenter, or a stay at home mom, or a bulldozer driver or a globetrotting commercial banker.

Because if you make art, you’re just as much an artist as that kindergarten teacher from Atlanta. Really.

21 Responses

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  1. gdanmitchell said, on March 1, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Paul, I follow your posts regularly via RSS but rarely am inclined to post a reply. This time is different.

    Your point is critical and utterly important to artists and those who are interested in this thing called art. There is a poisonous and off-putting but all too common notion about art that it is about The Great Arts and Perfection of Expression on one hand – and on the other than art is all about “being different.” Neither simplification is quite right, though both are based on misapplication of certain observations about real art.

    To focus on your point, the idea that only some select few produce “real art” and deserve (!) to be called by the exalted title “Artist” is nonsense and demonstrates a thorough lack of knowledge about how actual art comes to be and of how real artists work. Your story about the kindergarten teacher is a wonderful illustration.

    This cuts both ways, too. There are some people who have a reputation as “Artists” who either did their last really wonderful work many years ago, or whose reputations as being elibigle for Capital “A” Artist standing is based on something other than their actual work.

    In the end, becoming an artist is about mastering the technical elements of your art – often through seemingly obsessive focus on it – and on developing a “voice” over time. And even Artists were once merely artists.

    Dan

    (I happen to have one foot in the world of musical arts – I do something in that realm for my main living – and one in visual arts through photography.)

  2. doonster said, on March 1, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    You’re actually agreeing with me here. I was rather mixing up several concepts in my use of the word “art”: art (what we all can do), Art (the Establishment view) and Good Art (the pointless concept). The thing I rail against is the way the Art Establishment defines art as the output of pre-defined artists and the rest go to heck.
    It is not a matter of standing up and saying: “I am an artist, therefore what I do is art,” more that one says “I do art, therefore I’m an artist.”

    Martin

  3. forkboy said, on March 1, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Am I creating a(A)rt, good or bad, if I don’t think I’m creating a(A)rt? I mean, I take pictures. Many folks ascribe the title “art” to photography/photographs. But I don’t think of myself as an artist and nor do I think I create art.

    Who determines whether or not I’m an artist? Me or the viewer?

  4. Amy Sakurai said, on March 1, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Am I creating a(A)rt, good or bad, if I don’t think I’m creating a(A)rt? I mean, I take pictures. Many folks ascribe the title “art” to photography/photographs. But I don’t think of myself as an artist and nor do I think I create art.

    Who determines whether or not I’m an artist? Me or the viewer?

    There are a bunch of people in the world who go around with self-adhesive tags and affix an “Art” or “art” tag to things they see. So whether you think you are creating art or not, there will always be people tagging your work. Accept and be happy. (^_^)

    You, the creator, might (or might not) tag your own work. That’s totally up to you. And no one else can remove your tag.

    Whether a creation has only one tag or hundreds doesn’t matter. I myself am delighted if my creations earn one tag besides my own. But I certainly have no concern over the assessments of others.

    As someone pointed out, Art is a Verb. Enjoy the process. Leave the tagging to those who are too busy to create on their own.

  5. Paul Butzi said, on March 1, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    But I don’t think of myself as an artist and nor do I think I create art.

    Who determines whether or not I’m an artist? Me or the viewer?

    Well, you get to decide what label you apply to yourself. And I get to choose which label I apply to you.

    And, it turns out, we disagree about whether the labels ‘art’ and ‘artist’ are appropriate when applied to your work and to you.

    That’s ok. The world is not going to end because we disagree. In fact, because the labels are just labels, which label gets used might not make much difference to the work you do.

    So go ahead, and make photographs. Enjoy making photographs, as you evidently do. We might disagree about the label issue, but it’s likely we agree on more important matters.

  6. Amy Sakurai said, on March 1, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Ah… I was going to add this note… but Paul beat me to it…

    ‘I guess I should add that people affix “Artist” and “artist” tags also. A person chooses whether to affix an “artist” tag to himself, but his decision is independent of the tagging by others.’

  7. Hugh Alison said, on March 1, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    I consider my photographs to be art because I say they are.
    It’s up to others to decide if they are good art or bad art.

    I do them because I need to do them – not for anyone else. An audience is nice, but not as important as actually making pictures.

    I suppose art can be about communication with others, or about investigation of your own responses to something – I fit into the latter category at present.

  8. Peter De Smidt said, on March 1, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    A few years ago an NPR reviewer asked Steve Martin if he was worried whether his play would be a success. Steve replied that he wrote the play for the love of it, and so it was already a success. Anything else was just a bonus. This is a very good way to look at one’s endeavors. Of course, it’s easier to think this way when your livelihood doesn’t depend on the activity in question.

  9. Bob Rapp said, on March 2, 2009 at 1:00 am

    As far as unrecognized art goes, you can not go past Mozart at the time of his death. If he were a photographer……….

  10. Paul Maxim said, on March 2, 2009 at 8:05 am

    “But I don’t think of myself as an artist and nor do I think I create art”.

    Now there’s the healthiest attitude I’ve seen in the photographic blogging community in a long time. This person is definitely on to something. Anyone can, of course, think of themselves in any way they like. It’s kind of a Don Quixote frame of mind, but it’s your business, I guess.

    But thinking it doesn’t make it so. Acting on it doesn’t make it so, either. A great work of literature “lost” in someone’s attic isn’t “Art” until someone other than the author says that it is.

    There was someone a few years ago (I can’t remember her name) who photographed herself urinating in various locations. She then published a book of these photographs. Was it Art? She certainly thought so. Most, however, didn’t. So who was right, or was everybody right?

    Nope. Calling yourself an artist is a minefield that I think most rational folks would diligently try to avoid. Let others make that call.

  11. Bronislaus Janulis said, on March 2, 2009 at 9:21 am

    “Nope. Calling yourself an artist is a minefield that I think most rational folks would diligently try to avoid. Let others make that call.”

    PM, it’s not a mine field for me, and though not often, I sometimes am capable of rationality. ART HISTORY is an artificial “science”; it’s all opinion, subject to change; there are no “facts”; I do not think P.Picasso was the 20th. centurys greatest artist, so why should I let people whom I know to be “wrong” judge me?

    Bron

  12. Eolake Stobblehouse said, on March 2, 2009 at 10:42 am

    Outstanding post.
    I’ve blogged about it:
    http://eolake.blogspot.com/2009/03/art-is-art.html

  13. Anita Jesse said, on March 2, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    What an exhilarating exchange! I find it healthy to think of what I do as making art. To each his own. Personally, the label pushes me to clarify my intentions, motivates me to improve my craft, and does not blind me to the fact that most of what I produce is garbage.

    So long as the “Art” badges are not in short supply and I am not stepping on the toes of the chief mucky-muck at the Federal Bureau of Art, I’m not concerned about what damage I inflict on myself or others by calling what I do, “making art”.

    If everyone who sees my work thinks that I am not making art or that I am making art that stinks up the room, it is my personal responsibility to choose a response. I can ignore the critics, listen to them and learn from them, smile and continue working, or I can cower in the corner waiting for someone to assign me an Artist whose Art I am to admire.

    My plan is to honor what I am doing by thinking of it as making art, keeping my head down, and working to make the best art that I can for now.

  14. Gordon McGregor said, on March 2, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    What was more painful for me in the source material that Martin picked up on, was how the photographs were being reviewed against some arbitrary standard of ‘what a good camera club photograph should be’ and being found to be lacking.

    Somewhere in there, the notion of actually looking at a photograph gets lost. Rather the photograph gets looked up against a list of received wisdom of how it ‘should’ look. I’ve sat through similar review sessions, where images were scored based on how close parts of them fell to ‘rule of third’ intersection points. Rulers and overlays were used on the images to rank them in terms of how good they were. Lots of people seemingly unable to actually look at the image, rather wanting to measure and quantify what ‘good’ means and drum any sense of the new or what actually worked or not out of the process.

    The linked review of those images were similar – high marks for the ‘correct’ subjects and the ‘correct’ arrangement of only pretty things. Whether it is art or not is a maybe a different topic, rather than if it is just a clone of what it is supposed to be art or not.

  15. Oren Grad said, on March 2, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Paul’s notion of “art as a verb” is something I find very appealing.

    But I don’t really think of my snapshooting as “art”. I like to play with my toys and to see what things look like when photographed.

    One can say all sorts of things about creativity and the many different ways it might show its face in the world. But on an intuitive level, pointing the camera and pressing the shutter release and then selecting a few of many frames to “finish” for viewing or sharing just doesn’t feel like the same kind of thing as starting with an empty canvas or piece of staff paper at the piano or sheet of bond in the typewriter.

  16. Bronislaus Janulis said, on March 3, 2009 at 7:01 am

    I paint, carve and photograph. I consider the camera a sketch tool, but will sometimes get results that are transcendent of a sketch. The transcendence comes not through “luck”, but rather seeing something at the moment, and then bringing to it my experience, energy and thought. Talent is highly overrated, without some energy and thought.
    If I do a painting based on a photo, that photo may be the culmination of much time at that location; the painting an amalgam of memory, many photos, and the experience of that time and place. And no part of that, including sweeping the floor in the studio, or a crisis of spirit that sees me going for a long walk with the dog, is not ART.

  17. Peter De Smidt said, on March 3, 2009 at 7:52 am

    For me, someone is an artist to the extent that they attempt to produce something that is aesthetically valuable. They are a good artist to the extent that they succeed.

  18. Paul Maxim said, on March 3, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Oh Lord, now we’re into definitions. And that’s really the sticking point, isn’t it? The problem with “Art” (capital A) or “Artist” is that it’s an entirely subjective term. There is no way to measure Art, no way to quantify the effectiveness of a piece of Art, no measurement system that can say that this work is better than that work. Not even the Art Critics at Anita’s “Federal Bureau of Art” can define or measure it to everyone’s satisfaction. So what does the term mean? Well, it can mean anything you want it to – if you think photographing yourself taking a whiz is art, so be it. But once you give yourself that label, you’re kind of stuck defending the “Art” you’ve produced, aren’t you?

    To the individual, of course, it can mean whatever seems right. And that’s OK. But to the rest of the world, it will probably mean something else. So if we all decide to label ourselves “Artists”, how exactly does that differentiate us from the “Non-Artists”, or even from each other? It’s no more revealing of the differences or similarities between you and I than saying that we’re both “human”.

  19. Bronislaus Janulis said, on March 3, 2009 at 9:46 am

    PM,

    For myself, you’re right; it is all “semantics”, so why not? I like the idea of art, not ART, no pedestal, thank you. Artist is a label I’m fond of, just as in my youth, the label of “long-haired commie pinko hippie subversive” was one I “wore” with pride, though neither is definitive of all that I am.

    Bron

  20. Peter De Smidt said, on March 3, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    As Wittgenstein pointed out a long time ago, non-formal languages are nebulous, as words mean what we use them for, and people use words in different ways. As such most words don’t fall under a perfectly distinct, over-arching definition. Rather, a word’s meanings consists of a family relation of more or less related uses. It doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t talk about what words mean, but it does follow that we shouldn’t expect everyone to agree on a word’s “proper” use. That’s ok. The general point of intellectual discussion is not to find out what everyone must believe but rather to help each of us advance our own intellectual journey.

  21. Miserere said, on March 4, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    You can make great art, and getting recognized as an artist is still something of a crap shoot.

    And even that is an understatement! Also, you can be recognised as an artist and be a total fraud (many singers come to mind).

    To me it seems truly random how the establishment decides who is a good artist and who isn’t. I know quality, vision and message are the lesser factors involved.


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