What is art?

What is art?

It all sounds simple enough: if you want to improve your photography, study good photographs and learn from them. So where does one find good photographs? In galleries; in photo books; the winners of reputable competitions; photographs that people are prepared to pay for, handsomely. They must be good. Then I saw a photograph that had been awarded $28,000 for first prize in a reputable competition: a depiction of a corner of a room, just three planes meeting at a point, with what looked like a rough circle, scratched by hand on the negative. ? Okay, maybe I need to go farther up market. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #96 fetched $3.9m at auction. It must be really good, for that price: the head and torso of a sunburned girl wearing an orange sweater and checked skirt, lying on some orange tiles. Lots of orange but I still failed to see the attraction. I decided to skip the also-rans and check out the most expensive photograph ever sold: Andreas Gurskey’s Rhein II.  A river, shot from the side, with green banks, a footpath and a moderately cloudy sky. Looks like it might have been shot from the window of a passing bus. Lots of green; lots of parallel straight lines; nice echo of the sky colour in the water. But would I pay upwards of $4.3m for it, even if I had the money? I don’t think so. Okay, now it doesn’t sound so simple. I mean, is a photograph good just because someone says it’s good? I need to give this some more thought.

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13 thoughts on “What is art?

    • At the risk of sounding argumentative (which I assure you I’m not), I would be interested to hear more specifically what you like about the Gurskey, Brendan.

  1. I find photographers whose work I respond to deeply, and I study them. Vivian Maier above all. I have both books of her work, and it leads me where I want to go. Recently I discovered Fay Godwin. I’ve always liked Annie Liebovitz. Saul Leiter really moves me. Some of Daido Moriyama (not all). Much Cartier-Bresson. Recently I’ve found Sebastiao Salgado. He did a TED talk that brought me to tears. I don’t give a damn what sells or what’s popular. I want what leads me forward into what I want to do. It’s not just a question of what I LIKE: it’s about what draws me where I want to go. It comes to me just now that I owe you some response from months ago. I must dig around and see what I was supposed to do. I’m sorry–I’ve been intensely busy, passionate about a new photo project and also involved in my granddaughter’s life and care. And Blip, of course, where I spend much too much time. But I love your blog, your stories, your writing and (when I get to see them) your pictures.

    • First of all, let me say that it is I who am indebted to you Kendall.Your comments on my short stories were of tremendous help to me, so thank you again for that.
      With regards to your comments on photographs and photographers, I too can list many photographers whose work I admire and have admired for many years; some of them world renowned like those you mentioned; many of them amateur photographers like myself who exhibit their work on sites like Flickr. But I feel frustrated at times because I don’t know how to elevate my own photography to their level; and even more frustrated when I see other images that are highly applauded that I just don’t understand. I feel that I am missing something; and I don’t know what it is. And of course there is the argument that I should stop comparing myself to others and concentrate on finding my own voice (photographically) but over the last few years I’ve noticed that I see less and less that I think (for me) is worth photographing. Maybe the sad reality is simply that I’ve already reached the end of my own photographic road.

  2. “What is art?” After decades of pondering this question, the only answer I’ve come to is, “Art is whatever moves me.” I think art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The fact that someone else says a photograph is good — or worth millions — reflects only on their own taste or appetite for investment.

    • Of course there is the commercial side of art that tends to skew things; and I touched on that in the piece I wrote; briefly, because it is real but not the most important issue (for me). I guess the point I was trying to make is that I know what I like – we can all say that – but it’s the art that I don’t like that could potentially unlock the door to a place I didn’t know existed, where I might be able to find something that impassions me even more. But when I look at photograph like Rhein II, it feels as though I have been given a great book to read that is written in a language that I don’t understand. I want to learn that language. Or at least, find someone to translate the book for me.

  3. I suspect that those extremely high priced works of art have transcended our mundane definitions of art and have elevated into the realm of big investment. The artists have a name now for return on investment, so those with money are tempted into purchase. The purchasers may not be purchasing because they are so moved by the artistry of the works.

    That said, I did get a kick from Sherman’s chromatic theme in that Untitled #96. However Rhein II left me cold. Probably too intellectual for a hick hayseed like myself.

    • I agree about the commercialisation of art; although the question remains, how did they get that ‘name’ in the first place? On the other hand, I always admired Amadeo Modigliani who, reputedly, scrawled his name all the way across a painting he sold (a rare event, by all accounts) because the buyer insisted it be signed to increase its investment potential.

  4. “I must create a system or be enslav’d by another man’s. I will not reason or compare: my business is to create” – WILLIAM BLAKE

    This is one of my favorite quotes; a quote that I more often turned to in the last years, to remind me of the most important thing for me: to be free in my creativity. What does it mean for me to be “free”? When I look to Blake’s quote I understand it as not allowing another person’s “ideas” limiting you in your creations; that it is so important to find into what is “really” you; to be free of all “systems” you might have absorbed into your own “system” from others and to stop comparing and excuse your art… and to do that for me; I both have to be aware and brave!! If I do not create my own “system” or said in another way: if I am not the boss in my own creations… someone else’s “system” will be.

    When I studied Art History at university we discusses your question more times and we never found an answer as it is always very personal what we like and find is art. So I guess when the “right” people see your work and they find it is art and you through them get a name in the “right” art world; you can almost create anything and they will still pay you the big money.
    And then there are the big artists that most of us today can see have created great art but when they lived they sold almost nothing. So timing is sometimes also the reason… that the “world” are not ready to “see”.
    The most important thing is that we see your own work as art; because how can we convince anyone that our work is art if we don’t see it as art ourselves 😉

    I find more of your work is art and I think the “older” we get the “closer” we get to find “less” worth photographing… so I think we have to photograph the things that still brings us “passion” and one day: “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence” – ANSEL ADAMS

    Thanks for your visit to my blog Keith. I answered you under your comments there.

    Kindly Gabriella

    • Gabriella, thank you for your profound and considered response. After reading it a couple of times, my initial question was this: if we create for ourselves (each being true to his or her own system), why do we even bother showing our art to others. But you had answered that. We offer our art in the hope of connecting with kindred spirits who see the world as we do. And if art was pure, that would be perfect. But when art becomes a business, and marketing and persuasion enter the equation, we cease to judge the art for its own sake and measure, instead, often without realising it, the effectiveness of the marketing. In fact, if I understand you correctly, the whole notion of ranking art, of assessing it in a qualitative sense, is meaningless. All that matters is it’s ability to communicate with our kindred spirits. 🙂

      • Keith, thanks for your reply. I do think that we create for ourselves and I also think it is important to share our work as it is important to share our thoughts and feelings in other ways. For me to create is “almost” as important as breathing; so I do create for me as I truly believe we all do if we are honest. But I know from my self and from other artists that it is so easy to loose our inner joy creating; if we start to think too much off what other people might like or don’t like. That’s why I like the quote from Blake.

        Hope my little reply makes it more clear what I try to say? as English is not my mother language it is sometimes not easy to express myself clear in English. And I do not say my words are the “truth” they are just my point of view 😉

  5. Gabriella, when I first published this article, I felt that I had reached an insurmountable obstacle. What you and others have done is given me more to think about, other ways to address this issue. I thank you all for that.

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