A few weeks back, I got an email from a reader that peaked my intellectual curiosity: he effectively asked, ‘can art be taught?’ I pondered this question for a while before sending back a cursory reply: yes and no, and to wait a while for this very article I was in the process of writing. Of course, it’s taken me much longer than expected to complete it because like what makes a good image, it’s proven to be one of the more difficult questions to answer.
First, we need to define art: obviously, it’s anything involving some form of creativity that goes beyond the barely functional; yet you’ll undoubtedly find people who will argue that there’s a form of art in that, too. And you’ll get no dispute from me over the reduction of an object or thing to its simplest form requiring a degree of creativity and artistic thought, too. In a loose way, I see art as anything superfluous or not strictly necessary to accomplish a task or goal; you can get from A to B on bare feet, but if you choose to drive a handmade 1930s landau, then clearly your choice of transport has something beyond the ordinary in it. Art is for situations when a conscious choice exists: you can have a bare ceiling, or you can commission a master painter to spend years on it. We also have to consider the difference between art and craftsmanship: the building above was finished by crafstmen, who are perhaps ‘limited’ artists; it was designed by an architect, who had to be an artist to give it that synthesis of form and function in the first place. The artist has to see beyond their immediate subject: taking the example of the building again, the architect was undoubtedly influenced by traditional forms, which in turn relate to religion, culture and history; the craftsman doesn’t need to know any of this in order to cut and fit a marble panel well.
Is photography art? Yes, because there’s always a choice in the interpretation. Even documentary photography – whatever is required to tell a story or paint a picture in context – requires a degree of artistry; there are many ways of telling a story, some of which have greater impact than others. Even more so, photography that serves no real purpose is therefore art too: I choose to photograph still life tableaus with film, from the perspective that I see. If that’s not interpretative, I’m not quite sure what is.
Even your average candid snapshot of family members, or groups of friends – is interpretative. Although most people are conditioned by society to imagine a group portrait in the same way, there’s no reason why you couldn’t arrange the people as a landscape, arranged on the floor in interesting geometric forms and shot with a super wide lens. It might not be very flattering, but who’s to say that isn’t a legitimate group portrait? Cultural conditioning plays just as important a role in our view of the world as our own imaginations: it took the ancient world a long time to move away from representing people in profile only.
Our environments unarguably have an impact on our views; it goes beyond what we’re culturally conditioned to accept as art – a painting, a sculpture – and into the realm of the imagination. Social taboos and norms also play a big part in our thinking of what’s attractive and what isn’t – the best example perhaps is the changing fashions across the world; western supermodels would be seen as ill in the Pacific, for instance. There, size is prized as a sign of prosperity and abundance. Their supermodels would probably be as large as physically possible.
There is no right or wrong: who’s to say what’s beautiful and what isn? Similarly, who says what’s art and what isn’t – especially when we know that art doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful; it can be hideously ugly but force us to think, and in doing so, achieve a higher aesthetic purity of concept. Good art should push us outside our nurtured and culturally-conditioned comfort zones: either through the unfamiliar – perhaps a different perspective – or through the extremes of beauty, revulsion, or some other emotion.
In most fields, there are people who appear to have a natural talent or aptitude towards what most would think of as skill; we term these people ‘gifted’, or ‘savants’, depending on their level of talent. But this raises a lot of other questions: if the mass view of exceptional is their view of normal, then the savant’s view of exceptional isn’t necessarily the same turned up to eleven – it’s probably far stranger than the majority can conceive. In this way, the savant may not be encouraged to develop their talents fully because it can take their work to strange places that might not be socially understood, or even acceptable. Still, since they start out at a much higher point than the rest of us, this isn’t too much of a burden. Given time, training and most importantly dedication, it’s possible for a person of average skill to become exceptional at something – but the catch is that to have that drive and dedication in the first place is arguably not average at all.
I suppose we have to separate out talent, skill and something to do with passion: the steepness of the learning curve, if you like. You can have no skill, but some talent and with passion the skill will develop into being a great artist; likewise you can have no passion but plenty of skill and talent, and at most your work will be competent, but ordinary. Skills can be learned and acquired. Talent cannot. But a lack of nascent talent can probably be overcome by passion; passion as the underlying driver is not so easily quantifiable. One can be inspired to passion by work seen, or an event, or another person’s influence; or one can find themselves naturally drawn to and passionate about certain things or subjects because they appeal to one’s personality.
This leads to the question of whether people have natural limits – i.e. a level of skill beyond which no amount of practice or coaching will improve the results. I want to believe this isn’t the case because it’s depressing; imagine being told no matter how hard you try, or how determined you are you’ll never get any better. Partially this stems from a large part of photography being to do with the subject matter at hand; improve the subject and, all things equal, your images will improve. The rest is because if your passion is really that strong, and you’re really that obsessive…determination will find a way. Yet I’ve had quite a few people – some of whom are now my Email School students – who’ve complained that they’ve reached a plateau in their work, but still aren’t happy – and it’s been that way for years. Often, these people have very high levels of technical skill and there’s nothing really wrong with their images, but they’re just lacking a small, indefinable something. All I can do is suggest alternate interpretations and points of view: after all, it’s all subjective.
Art schools will always of course argue that art and creativity (to some extent, at least) can be taught; otherwise, they’d probably go out of business. What they teach is the technical aspects of art, and perhaps some of the interpretative aspects – they certainly are good places to nurture creativity, but it doesn’t mean that somebody who’s inherently uncreative can go in and come out bursting with ideas. Or perhaps what they instil is some sort of discipline or structure that helps with the production of a certain type of output. I can’t really say, not having been to art school; however, I have seen the work of people who have, and commenting specifically on photographers, I don’t necessarily think it’s any better than that of a passionate self-taught amateur.
I don’t claim to be a better than average or gifted photographer, but I do know that I’m happy with my compositions at this point in time, and that I have no problems representing and conveying what I see in my mind’s eye – which certainly wasn’t always the case. In fact, early viewers (victims is perhaps a better term) begged me to hang up the camera and stop hurting their eyes*. Since such demands have almost completely ceased, perhaps it’s useful if I talk about the process I went through to get to where I am now.
*And no, I’m not going to post any of my early images here in case I get sued for emotional damage.
Though there are many, many things I’ve done in parallel with my photography, I don’t think the vast majority them are relevant (working in consulting and M&A, for example – if anything, this tends to be photographically counterproductive due to the sheer numbers spent at the office). I might have missed something, but in my mind:
- Practice and experimentation, and lots of it in great variety;
- Seeking feedback from somebody whose work is in the general direction where I want to go (but perhaps not exactly the same);
- Looking at a lot of images – examining other photographers’ work to figure out what I like, what I don’t, and why – and in a way that translates into something technically executable (e.g. I like dark, rich colors, for instance, so I tend to do a lot of low key work);
- Honing my quantitative skills: you have to know whether the reason something turned out not as expected was because of the execution or the idea – and vice versa;
- Discipline: forcing myself to look for a shot in relative photographic deserts, and now, continually questioning and pushing/ challenging my own photographic preconceptions. The articles on this site that explore philosophy and ‘the why’ force me to structure my own thinking and clarify my position on a given subject, which in turn helps me make better images because I understand the mechanics better;
- Studying human behaviour and psychology – not only does it improve your powers of anticipation, but it also helps you to shoot for your audience. By understanding how certain elements in an image are interpreted, or how colors affect mood,it’s possible to construct an even stronger image than one that’s just compositionally sound: you can influence the way your viewer feels, too;
- I think by far the biggest help has been passion: I’ve always wanted to do this. I stop doing it when it’s no longer fun, or it no longer makes sense; or at least I try to now that it’s also become work. However, the point is that the passion, the want, creates an internal drive that keeps you going.
All of these things can be both good and bad: I’ll explain why in the second part of this article. MT
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