Defining ‘art’, redux

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Is a creative interpretation in another medium of the work of another artist art in itself?

Not so long ago, we had a healthy debate on the line between photography and art (if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend spending some time on both the main article and the comments – especially the comments). In yesterday’s photoessay, I attempted something different. Distilled out of this are a few thoughts and interpretations on the definition of art…

Art is:

The communication of an idea in a way that can be understood by any audience

Something done well, purely for the sake of doing it well, and with no other gimmicks or external factors. It has to have integrity.

Exercising creative choice through the preferences and biases of the creator

A work that helps the audience see something they would not otherwise have seen

A work whose value derives from isolation and display of the unusual

A work that, above all else, brings satisfaction to the creator

A work that the creator believes is art: if they do not, how can they convince others?

A work that stands alone and does not require context or other external factors to have an impact on an audience

A work that provokes thought in the viewer; one that is remembered and discussed later

Something that affects us emotionally or brings about a response

Evolutionary: it needs to have some sort of baseline or social context in order to be understood. The closer the baseline to the commonplace, the more easily understood it might be, but likely the less original the idea. The more obscure, the stronger the idea, but the fewer the number of people who will be able to interpret it.

Not easy to make an exact copy of.

Subjective: open to interpretation by the viewer, and has its success dictated by the impact it has upon that viewer.

Art is not:

Something created purely for profit

Always original or new; but the presentation of it may be

Easily decoupled from the whims of the wealthy and influential

Limited by scarcity or quantity; the original may only exist once, but in order for it to be seen, it may be reproduced many times – just not necessarily in the same format

Now, discuss :) MT

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Comments

  1. I think the point of whether the person is creating ‘art’ for their own livelihood or not is interesting. No doubt there is a temptation of creating something for profit (i.e. what people no doubt ‘like’) in this scenario, but does this intention lessen the validity of it being ‘art’ if it gets mass recognition?

    One thing I’ve noticed is people are defining ‘art’ as something that simply ‘that looks’ cool without any real underlining rationale. Trees, Landscapes, cityscapes seems to be the common thing. If the picture is from someone famous then it becomes ‘fine art’ or ‘fine art photography’ – if it looks cool and you are famous then you’re going to make a lot of money….

    • No, some sort of recognition is required for acknowledgement that it is art; if you are creating it *solely* for the purpose of making a living, then it is questionable whether the output is art or not – I think the very definition of art is that you do it because you feel compelled to, not because you are looking to make a profit out of it.

      The popular definition of art as something that ‘looks cool’ is shallow…yes, and most of the ‘artists’ in this case have no clue why they created what they created. I don’t make claims for many of my images falling into the fine art category, but of those that do, I can defend the why and the rationale very clearly. And they all were created because I previsualized the image and was compelled to make it, and for no other reason.

      • You maybe able to justify the rationale behind an image but if it looks ‘dull’ or boring in the eyes of your critics then can one really justify calling it ‘fine art’? You could also say that as long as you the artist are satisfied that should be enough.

        The issue I struggle with in today’s society is that a lot of people are driven by the need to make money (beyond the requirements of basic living standards). The number of artists who do it because they are compelled is quite small, they simply cannot continue with a sustainable lifestyle. it seems it is more about how you market yourself and get your name out there as opposed to the art.

        Society doesn’t really know how to support/find the genuine artists or to give them the publicity they deserve,

      • Hmmm, I believe some of the greatest artists who ever lived always had profit in mind when they embarked on their artistic careers, and careers theh were, look at leonardo da vknci and michaelangelo as examples.
        I do not think they really separated art from the cost of living and the need for social recognition, certainly not these two.
        Vincent van gogh perhaps, but he’s the exception rather than the norm. Him becoming the icon of artistic purity is in my opinion thd product of western knack for dramatizing and elevating the eccentric and very often even the mundane.

        The oldest living dutch woman at 120 years old a few years ago, described her memory of vincent van gogh as “quite obnoxious and disagreeable fellow”, if her memory is to be believed. I know of at least one author writing about him, came to the same conclusion.

        Therefore through these examples, art is MOSTLY not separated from the need for profit and social recognition, as westerm art romantics would have us believe, in my opinion.

        • The problem with your theory is that almost none of them made meaningful money while alive. Da Vinci and Michaelangelo both required patrons to stay in business, and they certainly didn’t paint what they wanted all the time. They were not wealthy. Van Gogh (and Monet, and Picasso) both got recognition but only at the end of their lives.

          There has to be some profit/ social recognition in order to sustain it, otherwise the money must come from somewhere else.

          • And I think that is the key – there is a balance to allow a sustainable model. But it’s probably likely that an artists best work is done without the social pressures and done for their own satisfaction.

          • The social conditions (system) for art in the 16th century was solely a patronage model, ie, if you had no patron you had no route to sustainability and recognition (at a higher level) at all. Within this system, both leo and mike were hardly paupers and were much lauded as celebrities in their lifetime, to quote historians, “women fainted at the public unveiling of the David”.
            Compare that to unfortunately, my namesake, vince, who historians had him dying in tragic circumstances and abject poverty without any recognition at all precisely because he did not fit into the patronage system still in rule then.
            Though less confining, the patronage system still exist and in some circumstances the only option for talented artists in both the musical and visual arts TODAY.
            Because wealth is relatively better distributed these days, keyword beinv relative, the patronage system have mutated into a less powerful but recognisable and structured social oddity if you will, we now call them “enthusiasts”. :-), men in the mirror or what?
            As in all issues pertaining to the pursuit of meaningful use of one’s life, profitability (a poor word to use but necessary in context of this debate) cannot be separated from the pursuit of art, to keep in context.
            Out of context, even missionaries need providence from God.
            Yes, money must come from somewhere else, in that one statement lies the endorsement of the inseparatability of art from profit, in my opinion.

            • Surely there’s still a line between enthusiasts and art buyers though? They’re not necessarily the same; the kind of people who collect prints usually aren’t the ones who also make them simply because of the whole ‘those who can, do’ thing.

              Profit is perhaps not quite the right term – I prefer to think of it as sustainability. I’m pretty sure most artists would be happy if they didn’t have to worry about shelter and food and equipment if they could just produce only what they wanted. However, I think few harbour delusions of getting truly wealthy off it…

              • Perhaps then, the true artist is one who continues passionate production despite knowing full well one will not have more in life than adequate sustainability and a smidgen of recognition, if at all.
                Ah, the western romanticists win again.
                Wait, wouldn’t that also make me a true artist? :-)

      • > some sort of recognition is required

        So, given a set of objects, one has no way to discern “art”? –we need some (validated, certified, notarized?) testimony from others, from society (I sense a chicken-&-egg problem)?

        > done for profit

        Is it thereby impossible to commission a work of art (i.e, pay for production, which ipso facto is having the work done for remuneration)?!

        >> “The communication of an idea in a way that can be understood by any audience”
        > I know that this line may be the least selected, but it’s No1 in my book.
        > I believe that art is supposed to have an idea, a valid distinguishable concept.

        I would really like to see this thesis tested empirically with so much of modern art –Ellsworth Kelly’s simple colored shapes come to mind, as there was recently an exhibit at the National Gallery IIRC, or Duchamp’s urinal, Malevich’s Black Square, Motherwell’s innumerable Elegies to Spain, to take a few. And by “any audience” I don’t want a bunch of art-gallery inhabiters but general public (those not drunk w/TheKoolaid :o).

        > the more something moves you, the stronger a piece of art it is.

        And this can be then an ebb & flow, and contingent upon receiving some insight about the piece. (Somewhere recently I recall reading one photographer’s remarking how much his appreciation of another’s work had changed with an understanding of the context of the work.)

        • Well, surely at least the creator must recognize the creation as being art?

          You could commission one, but it’s like Singapore trying to introduce government incentives for innovation: you can’t say “here’s some money, a building and tax breaks – now go invent”.

          Context definitely matters. But we aren’t always in a position to see it/ give it, which means that ideally the work should stand on its own…

          • Consider : Marshia’s moving to a new studio/gallery room within an arts facility, and to ease the move the arts facility has arranged for her to show her paintings in a main-floor gallery –which will get them out of her way during the move. Her stuff is arranged with paintings set aside for the work staff to fetch, move, & mount, and a work table top gets mixed in by mistake, and … eventually, coming pre-opening to write up her exhibit some critic sees the mounted table top and waxes ecstatically about the “new direction” Marshia has taken … !
            –quite the surprise to M., and … is it *art*?
            (Such thinking comes from a current interest of mine in painters’ “splatters” and their production of what I’m calling “Coincidental Compositions”; one magnificent work-table top had a corner section somewhat like –but, oh, sooo much more beautiful, colorful, interesting than– De Kooning’s Door to the River. And then there are the aprons/smocks, and more!)

  2. I’m a fan of this definition for art – “for it to be art it must move you”. So, if a piece of work gets an emotional response from you, it’s art, for you. So the “definition” of art differs from person to person, because what moves me, doesn’t necessarily move you. I think art can still be created even if the creator was doing solely to make a profit.

    My 2c.

    • I agree: how much it moves you is a metric of the impact, I suppose: the more something moves you, the stronger a piece of art it is. There are levels, as with everything.

      • There is also a level of “learnt response” that is implicit here. There are frameworks that constitute a learnt understadning of what is aesthetically pleasing, whether this is through compositional rules or colour theory, we have developed a social agreement on the basic fundementals that constitutes a visaully pleasing image. . An emotional response can also be a learnt reaction. Innovation in art has a trickle down effect. The innovator often produces something that challegnes the norm, validation oocurs through acedemic means and historical comparisons to the point where is becomes a widely accepted social agreement . This then becomes a norm and a new rule or approach to art becomes a method of visual language. The acedemic sphere shapes much of what we consider to be good art and how we intepret its meanings. An example of this might be people breaking down crying in front a Rothko. Although I agree that Rothko to be a brilliant and innovative artist, I can’t help feel that the amount of literature written about his work has impacted how we respond to his paintings, and that much of this response is learnt as opposed to being a genuine emotional reaction to the work.

        • Agreed: it’s people without an opinion being susceptible to the opinions of others. I suspect part of the reason few artists historically reached notoriety in their lifetimes is because of that ‘setting in period’ – it took the people a little while to catch up. Beyond that, there’s also the fact that standing out usually requires a difference, and that isn’t always so easy to achieve in a coherent way…

  3. “Not easy to make an exact copy of.”

    Not only do I not agree – but this statement is oddly out of place with the rest (the others mostly deal with “feelings” surrounding the creation and consumption of the piece).

    I don’t at all see why this should be a requirement. There are a million different types of “art” that are perfectly reproducible… including anything done solely on a computer.

    I don’t see any reason to exclude these works just because the medium that the person chose allows for perfect reproducibility…

    • Exact is the defining term here, not ‘copy’. And it doesn’t exclude such works – music for instance – but I don’t think art can be trivial because that implies a lack of thought. Actually, even for the music example – you might be able to copy the file or CD, but that doesn’t mean you can necessarily reproduce it the same way the composer heard it; it depends on your playback mechanism. And for photographs, you won’t be able to see exactly the same thing the photographer saw unless you’re both looking at the exact same reproduction medium.

  4. I am glad you wrote about this and also the theme park article. I have often wondered about photos of statues etc… Are they fair game to photograph? I no longer worry about this though and happily shoot away… I really like the photo. It is stunning…

    • I think it depends very much on the intention of the photograph, and if there’s anything else in it. If you’re not really changing the feel of the statue, then perhaps it’s no different to product photography. But if the image adds context or story, why not? The idea of the photograph is incomplete without the statue, and it isn’t limited to it, either.

  5. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Well, what can I say, poor me. The idea of art is so confusing. What about prefixing all the alphabet letters to the WORD and see what comes out of it. Aart, Bart, Cart, Dart……………

    • You could probably sell a nice graphic print of that, actually. There’s also Fart, Kart, Mart, Part, Q(u)art, Tart, Wart…hmm, some of these aren’t that positive at all :P

  6. “A work that the creator believes is art: if they do not, how can they convince others?”

    I have to disagree with this one. Just because a person says their handiwork is art does not make it art; it really is in the eye of the beholder. Further, the “artist” shouldn’t have to convince others; that’s the job of the artwork itself.

    “A work that helps the audience see something they would not otherwise have seen”

    I believe most true artists create work to help themselves understand / come to terms with the real world. Following on from this, a crucial aspect of an object considered to be art is that fact it bears the “signature” or POV of the artist. The better the artist the more recognizable this signature is, across all their work (but it can change over time as the artist changes their POV of the world).

    “A work that provokes thought in the viewer; one that is remembered and discussed later”

    Hmmm, probably an attribute that is too generic. For example, the assassination of JFK meets this criterion!

    • I’m going to argue the opposite way: if I told you an image was a throwaway snapshot, wouldn’t your perception of it change as opposed to me telling you I worked on refining the idea for years, then it required an elaborate setup to execute?

      Art certainly helps others to see the same relative interpretation of the world as the artist – or at least it tries to…

      The assassination of JFK does not count because it isn’t a preservable work that can be experienced again and again by different audiences.

      • Without being callous about JFK, a lot of performance art falls into the unique event category. I know most performance art is considered to be incomprehensible, pretentious drivel, but there it is … The difference here is the intention obviously, but if you want to see a totally wrongheaded, idiotic, insensitive remark, Google for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s quote on 9/11 and art. He is a noted composer, but it goes to show that being a good artist has little to do with being a compassionate human being.

        • Hmmm…I have to say upfront that we are entering territory for me as I know nothing about performance art, but there’s surely an element of repeatability; yes, variation in interpretation changes the experience somewhat, but Hamlet can be performed many times and enjoyed by many people at different moments. JFK cannot.

      • “if I told you an image was a throwaway snapshot…” Nope; the amount of effort (or lack) does not define something as art. An artist may mistakenly include their effort as part of the value of the art, but the viewer is simply looking at the end result. Having said that, the viewer may (correctly or otherwise) believe an artwork requires a huge effort and put more value on it, but that is simply their way of appreciating art.

  7. “The communication of an idea in a way that can be understood by any audience”
    I know that this line may be the least selected, but it’s No1 in my book. I believe that art is supposed to have an idea, a valid distinguishable concept. I don’t believe it needs to usable or functional, quite the contrary, art has to be somewhat …functionless lets say. Yet, for me it has to communicate an idea and it has to do that in a beautull, never-seen-before way.

    Brilliant post M.! Well done!

    • Thanks!

    • I’m going to second this and add that I think THE essential piece of what we as humans refer to as art necessitates an understood truth that both the creator and the beholder both believe: that the artistic expression has something of the creator embedded within. Whether they ever meet, the beholder now knows something about the creator and it can be presumed that the creator was attempting to communicate, perhaps to no one in particular, perhaps only to God, or the Cosmos, an expression of thought with feeling and emotion combined. It’s why I believe visual art and music and poetry, and the history thereof, should be taught and appreciated at an early age for a society to develop in a healthy manner – because it’s an essential form of communication of transcendent ideas and qualities and has been for centuries. Visit the Shanghai Museum of Art and it’s there going back millennia. Visual art, Music, Poetry, gives expression to that which makes us uniquely human and uniquely distinct and one at the same time.

  8. Taildraggin says:

    Art Photography images are those that attract your attention but don’t list the camera brand or f-stop.

    Seriously, the question to me is when does Art transcend Craft? I believe that there is an element of profundity involved.

    • I’d go one further and say that not only do they not list it, but those parameters are completely unimportant. You see the image, the idea, and the subject – and nothing more.

      Craft has to be repeatable. Art has to be unexpected, but in a controlled and intentional way…

    • Craft has to be good enough so it gets out of art’s way. Musicians practice their scales every day. Photographers should exercise and revisit their basic skills regularly, too.

      I’m never sure what is art (isn’t it interesting that it’s easier to say when it’s not than when it is?), but I do know when my craft blocks what’s in my brain from what I actually produce. But they seem to be dependent on each other. Just as you think you’ve achieved a new level of technical excellence, a new artistic challenge presents itself. Maybe part of it is refining one’s taste and eye to see more, so you end up striving for more, but maybe not as there are many technically excellent photos (and performances) that are artistically empty.

  9. Tim Cleminson says:

    Hi there, just want to say how much I am enjoying this discussion. Some really interesting points. I am going to throw in my own coinage into the rippling rings of diminishing returns…

    G.K.Chesterton said that civilization is suspended on a spider’s web of fine distinctions and I think this dialogue is a good example of this. Sifting through the finer points is all part of the fun, but a definitive answer is unlikely to come to the surface :)

    I think the comments can be divided into comments about:

    the psychology of producing art
    the production of art
    the presentation of something as a piece of art
    the consumption of art

    All these moments are possible points of transformation when something make become artistic.

    We may feel that what we are doing is art and this may transform the experience for us even if others don’t see value in what we do. I’d be tempted to say this is still an artistic process even if the product is not esteemed by others. I also like what Sven said here, about the psychology being neither necessary or sufficient to whether something is a piece of art work. However, I would like to make the distinction that perhaps when we use the word ‘artwork’ we are really talking about a piece of work that has some form of authority. And authority is another interesting subject.

    I also think Sven made a great point about art being primarily someone which has value for the artist. It was Minor White that said when we look through the viewfinder we can think of it as a window looking out on the world, or as a mirror looking inside. Personally speaking I find that the viewfinder is often a mirror, through which I contemplate the world around me and myself. Tones, textures, juxtapositions speak of places inside me as much as what is captured in the frame.

    As has been said by others, the technical skill in being able to realise a vision is definitely a hallmark of an artist. We would find it difficult to say that someone was an artist who only made art once. I think there may be many examples of pictures that were taken by pure luck that still move us, but perhaps we could say that was a great photo, not great art. This isn’t so much a comment about the ability to repeat an image, but the ability to convey a message (even if only to ourselves) consistently.

    The presentation of something in a space definitely changes the way we view it – stick something in a gallery and we are likely to give it more consideration as having a message, than it being a post in facebook. I think this also relates to the concept of authority is some ways – the gallery is an institution and hence it lends its authority to the work.

    And work can be transformed through others interpretation too. I am thinking here of Stephen Wiltshire who is no doubt a gifted artist. But it was those carers and teachers in his early years who understood his connection with the world was through representing it in drawing that saw his potential. Their reading of his work built the platform which allowed him to be recognised as an artist (http://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk/).

    I think that often when we speak of artists, we do inevitably come to the concept of authoritative selection. One such example is the conceptual artist Piero Manzoni. He placed a plinth upside down and wrote ‘Socle du Monde’ (the base of the world) and announced the whole world as a piece of art (http://www.orbit.zkm.de/?q=node/6). This is interesting because of his vision and the way he turned the idea of selection quite literally on it’s head – the whole world was his selection, which of course is not a selection at all; it is the inclusion of everything.

    Anyway, I’ve rabbited on enough. Sure this conversation will roll on and on :)

    • Thanks Tim – good point about the various stages in ‘recognition’ of art – you almost certainly need all of them for general acceptance; however, the time frame can certainly be elastic. A lot of the popularly acknowledged artists today were complete nobodies in their day…

      Interesting note about the gallery as an institution, too: it certainly lends the photographer credibility to be exhibited; what it says is that somebody else (presumably) of note and influence saw merit in the work, and thus you should too…

      ‘Socle du Monde’ is a very clever idea indeed…

      Now, I’m just waiting for Tom Liles to weigh in :)

      • Umm…

        Nothing much to say, actually. Thesedays I find myself firmly in the Fuck Art, Lets Dance school. Plop me in with Florian. There’s just one thing: if I can get my contrarian on, Tim wrote — in a brilliant post, Tim — but Tim wrote:

        We would find it difficult to say that someone was an artist who only made art once…

        This smuggles in the idea, which I agree with, that the artist themselves are as important as the work. Yet at the same time, irrelevant, as it’s all about us and the work once the work’s out and we set eyes on it. But why the hang up about something only happening once, only being possible once? Embrace it. It’s the very core.

        My good friend Andre brings up performance art and I stand with him. In fact, as time goes on, I think photographs — photographs in particular — are at their best when it’s a moment in time, unreproducible and never able to happen again. The photograph is the only artistic tool that allows us to crystalize it, quantize it, see the grain and partake in the acting out of reality, speak in the universal ontologic language—be a part of what makes the whole shebang possible: confirmation of existences, and the corollary, language [things -- really one and the same thing -- atoms, energy, need to speak the same language to communicate, by definition, we glimpse this language through a glass darkly as mathematics and physics]. We mirror this process with photography. I see it, I capture it => it happened [the thing, the event and me: we confirm each other's existence in this transaction; just as two neighboring atoms confirm each other's existences and act accordingly by an interchange of photons => it's all about information. Information transduction and re-output. Susskind figured this out; Shannon figured this out; Wheeler figured this out; Boole figured this out… Everyone who has taken, is taking or will take a photo, has figured this out.]

        His master’s voice:

        Photography is once, forever

        –Henri Cartier-Bresson.

        His line may predate Stephen Hawking’s short book on the History of Time and its introduction of imaginary time [time modeled by using the square root of minus one, an imaginary number]. But both texts point to the same thing: an instant, fleeting, never to happen again, a discrete, a unique moment in the sequence; but coincidentally — viewed from an “out of time” perspective [impossible to our comprehension, in effect, and if you disagree argue with Kant, not me] — an eternal static permanence—every instant in the universe, ever, all in one “uni-instant.”
        ["instant" makes no sense from an out-of-time perspective, so do your best to imagine what I mean... We're up against the limits of human language, i.e., human cognitive capabilities --> this is what Kant meant, we can't think without these dimensions of space and time]

        This is how profound a photograph, any photograph, can get if we look into it. It’s more than art. It’s reality itself.

        The unrepeatable instants, the snaps, the one-offs, the shutter mis-fires that gave a nice photo that we kept, all of that—THE BEST. And the best photograph I’ve ever taken, that I’m most proud of and is sublime and better than anything out there, including all the art works of the World and World history, is a snap of my daughter walking along a wall outside her play school I took while holding her hand to steady her. I took it with a 400yen disposable camera. I can never have the light, that day, that situation, that me, that Vivi [my daughter] again. It was once, forever. I got it.

        Don’t throw away the crown jewels and raison d’être of photography.

        • Hi there Ming and Tom,

          Ming, insightful of you to introduce us, as I think we have a lot in common. And Tom a supernova of a post there. I guess in my post I was trying to drive a few wedges into the general idea of art and the artist. I was speaking not so much personally, as, at first, trying to get a hold of the way we employ these terms. Personally I think art is best conceived as a creative process of (self)discovery. Whereas, the artist is a construction which presupposes a sense of authority. In the past this sense of authority has generally been created through forms of institutionalisation – the Magnum shogun etc. However, I would argue that today we are moving away from these traditional forms and with the internet we are moving towards a conception of charismatic authority which chisels out a more individualistic notion of authority, it creates spaces outside the institutionalised norms; Ming’s blog being a good example.

          As you rightly pointed out, my comment about a one-off photo not generally being considered art reflects the notion that art is done by artists. I really just meant that if someone who doesn’t normally take photos happened to take a really ‘artistic’ shot, we would probably hesitate to say it was great art and perhaps be more likely to say it was a wonderful photo. And that plugs in to the idea, again, that artists are in some ways committed to the artistic process. The HCB quote is a beauty and I agree with it wholeheartedly. It is interesting you introduced it as – the master’s voice. Where does that mastery come from? What role might authenticity play here? I guess the authenticity comes from a life lived that is in harmony with it’s sentiment. The quality of the work is not essential here, but the quality of the life is. Even if someone we knew hadn’t created amazing shots, but had tried to and lived their life according to this maxim, we could still be rightfully moved by their utterance. We probably wouldn’t call them a master, but we would respect them greatly, perhaps say they had great wisdom. And again, this is hitting at the distinction between art as a process and a way of life and the construction of the artist as authoritative – i.e. someone whose work is esteemed. The artist may have more gravitas on a social level, their work may be more influential, but the real meaning lies in the artistic process, how it may transform our lives and make us see things differently.

          I guess I am not a realist at all – not in the outside the human frame of reference way. I have just read Camera Lucida by Barthes and still don’t know quite what to make of it. He sets out a problematic to look for the ontological nature of photography. And it connects with your story about Vivi. He constantly returns to the refrain that photography captures ‘this that has been’ – that rays of light fell on this subject and were transmitted to the camera and captured by the silver halides in the film. And he uses this to say that, therefore, what photography actually captures is death – that something is, means at some time in the future it will cease to be and the single frame allows us to focus on this reality. And here this final use of the word ‘reality’, is really a emotional use of the term – in this case the reality Barthes awareness of what it means to lose his mother in her passing away. I think here even using the word psychological use is misplaced as it ties into a scientific conception of the human being (subject-stimulus-response), and doesn’t help us get near what the whole experience meant for Barthes as a person.

          Given digital manipulation of images these days, it is easy to think such a search for an ontological base is misguided. However, I think contemplating it is important in that it helps us understand the way in which photographs move us because they are reproductions of things which are not purely imagined, things that have been, will perish and will leave us with a sense of loss. Barthes speaks very much as a consumer of the photograph, indeed he is consumed by that one photograph of his mother. But in many ways, this discussion has been about the construction of the photograph. And I would be inclined to say that photographers don’t so much capture reality, as construct it. And their ability to construct it is proportional to their technical skill. And by technical skill I am not just talking about F-stops and shutter speeds, but about the muddy facts as well – putting yourself in a situation to take a certain shot, framing it, reading people and getting the timing right etc….

          But as you, Ming and others have said, all the technical skill doesn’t mean a photograph will move us, it just ups the chances we can take a shot that will convey the message we intend. How photographs move us is beyond the control of the photographer and multiplicity is one of the real joys I think. Others can show you stuff in your own photographs you weren’t aware of, create new meaning and of course on review the photographs themselves sometimes surprise the photographer – a fortuitous happening unseen.

          ‘Fuck art, let’s dance.’ is a great maxim :) When you’re taking photos being in the moment is essential – meditative, a giddy, visual joy. But, personally speaking, the reworking and reviewing of those moments is important too me. It is also an opportunity to reflect, to mould, to transform, to dialogue with myself and find meaning. And, as this post testifies, to pontificate!

          Anyway, thanks for the stimulating posts :)

          Tim

          • “The HCB quote is a beauty and I agree with it wholeheartedly. It is interesting you introduced it as – the master’s voice.”
            Ah, but do we think it’s brilliant because he’s a master – and if so, isn’t that a form of conditioning? Would it be just as brilliant if it were anonymous or a postscript comment on an internet forum?

            “But as you, Ming and others have said, all the technical skill doesn’t mean a photograph will move us, it just ups the chances we can take a shot that will convey the message we intend.”
            All the control in the world is not useful without a strong idea to go with it.

            “How photographs move us is beyond the control of the photographer and multiplicity is one of the real joys I think.”
            Agreed, but as the conductor we must give the players some direction; that way the audience is more likely to hear music rather than discordant noise – even if some may prefer one over the other, or neither :)

            • Tim Cleminson says:

              “Ah, but do we think it’s brilliant because he’s a master – and if so, isn’t that a form of conditioning? Would it be just as brilliant if it were anonymous or a postscript comment on an internet forum?”

              I would say this question could be answered by utilitzing the notion of conditioning. But I have a further question – what set of concepts does the word conditioning bring into play? I would say this is the language of psychology, or of a very science based form of social science. Such a word set would incline us to say (something like) our believing in his mastery was a conditioning brought about by his position in the field of photographers. His work is highly regarded by photographic institutions and thus we are influenced by this officially sanctioned form of respect. And I think to some extent this might be true. But does it reflect the way you are moved by his work? At the core I think we are moved by the body of work he has created and also by the man himself. It matters that he was someone who spent his life in the way that he did, that he was the person he was. These are aspects of his mastery that are not illuminated by recourse to a psychological discourse, but rather an artistic discourse and one that can make sense of his humanity. That is why I mentioned an individual without the fame who could be respected for his form of life, but perhaps not for the quality of work he produced. In the case of HCB, he not only lived that kind of life, but he also produced works of art that move us…I am almost tempted to say that rightfully move us. For their is a delicacy in his work, a true love of his fellow human being that shines through. And that resonates from the life he led.

              “Agreed, but as the conductor we must give the players some direction; that way the audience is more likely to hear music rather than discordant noise – even if some may prefer one over the other, or neither :)”

              Agree 100% and technical understanding allows us to be better conductors. I know I am a pretty shoddy one too, but I am happy that I am starting to learn the ropes. And I think the first part of this process is thinking about what type of music we might have a talent for conducting. Your blogs have helped me think hard about that and all the technical aspects that go with that choice – choosing a suitable body, focal length, depth of field etc. It is amazing how once you think hard about these choices and begin to internalise them, they start to move into the realm of photographic instinct and that pre-visualization is born. It’s just happening in me and it fills me with joy and trepidation in equal measure. Joy at the beginning, trepidation because I wonder whether I have the discipline to reach my potential. But hey, I’ve got time and a great set of people in cyberspace who are happy to teach me :) And regardless, I can’t give up that buzz wandering the streets with a camera by my side ;)

          • Hi Tim,

            I’m sorry if this is a bit late: it’s a busy time of year so I can’t comment as I used to… And have promised myself I wouldn’t if I could. Not like before, at any rate. I’ve not gone all Peter Green on the site and the act of commenting. I’m just an impulsive person and the comments I used to reel off aren’t what I feel like doing now. Give me a few months, I’ll be writing thousand word treatises and dropping the spiel and adding names to the pantheon again. No doubt. But it’d be remiss and it’d be rude just to leave it at that and not respond to the stone-cold brilliance you just dropped on us all. So here I go, I’ll try my best to keep up with you:

            It’s interesting that you don’t see yourself as fully a part of “we” when you talk about how we use the terms you mention. This soft and considered approach along with a certain academic patois that rings in phrases like “create spaces outside institutionalized norms…” suggest to me you’re a man of culture and learning. I like academia, and try to get through a bit when I can; but I have come to be suspicious of its theoretical takes that smack of teachers not doers; these takes often organize events and stuff into patterns that don’t quite ring true, or sound like real life as lived, but are convenient for an author’s point of view. “Truthy” is the word [a Colbertism!]. Anyway, this isn’t that, but came within a few hundred yards:

            we would probably hesitate to say it was great art and perhaps be more likely to say it was a wonderful photo

            Whichever we we’re talking about I’m not sure we’d do that. It’d be very interesting to try it out and see. And I’m not sure on the distinction between “art” and “a wonderful photo” being an agreed and shared one [I can appreciate you were perhaps just conjuring a "this type of qualification" allusion]. I think the distinction is a useful one, but I’m not sure this level of nuance is held widely or even thought about, as such. On the one hand, I think very few of the general public consider photography to be on the level of “art.” They’re probably right. But in the above scenario, and on the other hand, I think the opposite is more likely—that people would lunge for the word “art” in the specific connection of creators and things that might have questionable merit to those more traditionally capable of making the attribution. It’s the kind of protective, he’s my friend, or someone I know, or someone like me, and he made something a cut above, and to show my support I’m going to go overboard and declare it Art… I wrote that horribly but hopefully the idea comes across. I think we’d do that, rather than scratch our chins and say “well, this one off by a no-one, it’s a wonderful photo—but it is art?”

            That said, I’m struggling to be useful and interesting as I completely agree with your shining post and think we’re very much on the same page. Even if we’re not I just want to congregate around you, Tim, as it makes me look smarter than I actually am :).
            To continue your point about the weakening of the old ways of pronouncing on art [I agree it's an internet primed reorganization of authority, a more meritocratic and open reorganization, more another time maybe] –> following on from that last thing I just said, I think people, now, are more likely to be adversarial toward “art” and “artists” as thus far presented. Christo & Jean Claude were always good at bringing this out in us: they spend [or should I say, get someone to give them the money to spend] big on massive artworks—which the general public, I’m one, tend to react toward –> “that ain’t art!” I don’t think I’ve ever seen the general public vigorously declare anything newer than a hundred years old or something not made by a layman but made by a pampered art student from a wealthy family, or both, to be a case of “now, THAT is art!”

            Everything is always worse than it used to be, always. And new stuff is usually a travesty. Bid me discourse on iOS7 and I’ll bend thine ear. But if I would offer any opinion on art, I’d posit that it’s about “the new.” And making a stink. And isn’t much more than a dropping a one-liner [we need to speak its language to get the joke, the line, whatever]. But I like dancing better than talking about dancing at the moment, so I wouldn’t officially offer that opinion.

            Yeah, HCB is accepted into the canon and revered as a master because of the tangible value in his work you wrote about so well [I use this word, "value," ambiguously; I won't get into the economic and religious nature of art again as I seem to be this site's answer to The Omega man in that connection. You might see what I mean from a trawl below the line in older articles, going all the way back to the "Photographer as Philosopher" series, I guess]. Your words on this were brilliant — as were all the rest, of course — and I enjoyed reading them. Especially your view on where HCB’s authenticity and warrant comes from. I did have my tongue in my cheek a little when I said “his master’s voice,” but I shouldn’t make sport of Henri because, husky voice on now, he is a hero and an inspiration to me. I often listen to a little 15minute program he made: a series of his favorite photographs with his commentary and his musing over-dubbed. God save the French. Any man who strays from the subject within five minutes of opening his mouth and find himself uttering the best line ever “what was I talking about again?” any man who does that is a Titan in my view. Anyway. It’s on YouTube. I love it. The doc, not YouTube. Not since they littered every next viewing with in-video advertising, which Google promised it would never do when it acquired YouTube; I absolutely remember them making that promise… Anyway, I’m as in HCB’s corner as anyone could be and though he may conceivably be a boring and passé and tired standard to hold up, we do regardless, because he was and he is simply better than anyone before or since. I think his being a painter isn’t unrelated. In fact, I was thinking about your nice comments on him yesterday on my short walk back from the supermarket, and I got to thinking it must have actually been really annoying to HCB that people were always banging on about his photos, long after he put the Leica down and and focused on his true joy, painting. Like Bob Dylan always getting asked to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” at every concert ever, like 40 years after he released it and all the music in-between and after. But there it is. If I were HCB I’d have given Charlie Rose the Fuck You face too.

            Back to your point about the quality of the life and the artist — or the creator if that word plays too much into the authority thing you flagged — and how it relates to the work… I read a similar point a couple of months back that a commenter from Turkey graced us with. He mentioned how artworks are really a kind of vehicle for the charisma, character or personality of the creator; in fact, to succeed this is something they must do, must be. This commenter made the simple gesture toward how we label universally accepted great works, not by their [the works'] titles, but by the name of their creators: a Dali, a Rothko, a Beethoven, a Michael-Angelo, etc. He also made the point, one of the best things I’ve ever read, that, therefore, to be a better artist, to make better art, you need to be a better person. Not just you need to be—you have to be. No way around it. This psychological and transportive angle is huge in my opinion and I was persuaded by his point on the spot. Now, to improve my photography I don’t try and improve my photography; I just stay mindful of my family and my behavior and keep the karma as good as I can get it. It might be the better way. It’s easier than learning Photoshop inside out, let’s say that.

            But, to borrow a nice phrase from Montaigne, what do I know.

            Wow, there’s so much I’d like to ask you about Barthes, a writer I haven’t gotten around to yet [we're all thinkers, but only some of us write it down]. I don’t have the time and while I’m sure you’d have the patience, I don’t have the immunity to embarrassment to ask. But reading his thoughts as you lay them out there, it sounds like Barthes never got past the once in once, forever. I think it’s a simple argument to make: that photographs signify life as much as death [the terms are meaningless on their own, at any rate---I am a stern Hegelian in that respect] and the life in photographs can be framed as eternal life, at that [any life can, see below].
            On a broader tip, I wish Barthes were here now as I’d put it to him that the thing captured only ceases to be if we conceive being solipsistically, as a dimensional and in-time, thermodynamic process: bound by its arrow to travel in one direction only and tend toward chaos [destruction of the organization that lets us live; though my own view is that some degree of thermodynamic chaos, randomness is perhaps a better word, was necessary for the first spark of life to ever happen---we can organize all the right chemicals at what we think are the right atmospheric conditions and they don't spontaneously congregate into a life form. Chemistry and Physics teachers and Thermodynamicists are always banging on about balls rolling down hills and etc. -- I know, I've sat through these lectures -- but the beginnings of life was a ball spontaneously rolling up the hill. I have my beliefs about that, I won't make you feel uncomfortable with them. Not today anyway :) ] What was I talking about again? Ha. No, I wish Barthes [also a goalkeeper for Man Utd] were here to rap about this with us, as with our Stevo Hawking model of imaginary time and HCB’s more poetic rendition of the same concept, the whole “cease to be” thing is in deep question. Barthes is just saying “once” about photography. I think we’ve moved on. It’s once, forever.

            My take on ontology is quite easy, there can only be two states –> so ontology is a binary logical system: be, not be. 1 and 0 to put it better. This forms the bedrock of everything, I mean EVERYTHING that there is. It is not the same as saying reality is black and white. It’s the same as saying the fabric of reality is black and white, though the level of logic we operate on and in is a good way above this basic framework of the universe and there is plenty of room for grey for us. Real life is nothing if not grey, don’t you think. But even grey is an unequivocal category distinction; the trail back to black and white starts there.
            There is no external “decider” on 1 and 0, what is and what isn’t; the universe decides, it computes or calculates, this itself. Reality is all and only that which is real, to decide this it computes itself, at every planck time tick of the clock [if we want to model it that way]. It’s self-reflexive. It has to be self-realizing and self-recognizing, speak a logical language. The logic of tautological systems — things isomorphic to themselves — is a level up from the basic 1, 0 language of ontology, but connected and all those things I just mentioned –> it’s how a thing might recognize itself. 2 = 2. Or 1 + 1 = 2, for another of level difficulty up… So that stuff I mentioned about atoms “seeing” each other and so on, they are in a dialog, in effect, on their reality of each of them; when they “see” or “speak” or “detect” [all these inverted commas are for everyone's palette, not mine] each other, they confirm they are both part of reality. Another computation has been completed.
            This is where Kant fell over with his “things in themselves.” I think only Immanuel [another Titan to me] can really understand what he was trying to do with that—but something so utterly undetectable to reality cannot also be a part of reality, and therefore has no ontological place here and “poof” doesn’t exist. No problemo. It’s a bit foolish to try and treat unreal things in the real world. Kant can’t argue for some kind of casual connection with reality but a thing still being a thing in-itself and unknowable, undetectable in its true form –> as that casual connection means a conduit, a means of communication, between the unknowable and the known does in fact exist, so how knowable was the thing in itself? Something obviously knows it and how to react to it… It’s either connected and part of reality and ontologically real, or it isn’t. There’s the 1s and 0s again.
            I won’t get into teleology, but suffice it to say some conception of this is necessary for any movement to happen at all; I am subscribed to this principle, and pretty much as Hegel laid it out in the form of “Spirit.” But I won’t get into it. Just like better photos though, a better universe comes from better people –> and it’s not a cart and horse sequential thing, the cart and the horse are the self-same thing.

            Anyway, photos, maybe you see some of the parallels I’m arguing for now. And that if I saw it, I captured it and it’s therefore there [detected] in my photograph, that that was a real thing that was/is/will be. I’ll change to “this” after using “that” so many times there, wow! Yes, this is the sort of mechanism that I think is happening at both the highest and deepest levels of reality and the universe itself. So, all in all, photography is a trip.

            Is it art though? I’m still not fully convinced…
            [And like Florian, just would rather dance some more instead]

            Enjoy dancing with your GR, Tim. That is an awesome camera and I’m very jealous. I’ve had the privilege of sitting next to MT at a dinner table and witnessing him effortlessly snatch his from a holster hidden at his back. In the words of the man himself, it’s photography’s answer to.. it’s… it’s a…

            IT’S A GLOCK

            ka-boom!

            • Tim Cleminson says:

              Thanks for the post electrifying post Tom. These thoughts have been fizzing round my head all day. Too many to points to cover and no time to write… so I will break the response into pieces. Firstly…

              Academic Peanuts
              Yep, you got me. I’m working in a university in Japan – but please don’t hold that against me ;) I think you are right about theorists feverishly trying to shoehorn reality into their own style of theoretical footwear. But I think this is something we are just as guilty of outside the ivory towers. I think the reason we often feel irritated by this activity in academia is the complicated linguistic facades many theorists employ that seem to disguise rather than illuminate the points they are making.

              HCB – the master…the man
              As you say, the Turkish guy was spot on. At the core I think we are moved by the body of work he has created and also by the man himself. It matters that he was someone who spent his life in the way that he did, that he was the person he was. These are aspects of his mastery that are not illuminated by recourse to a reductive or psychological discourse, but rather an artistic discourse, one that can make sense of his humanity. There is a delicacy in his work, a true love of his fellow human being that shines through. And that resonates from the life he led.

              Barthes – Once, forever
              Great insight that Barthes only saw the once. I think that is representative of his state of mind at the time of writing. He was grieving deeply for the loss of his mother and the photograph was a medium through which to explore his sense of loss. And he did it through trying to reclaim her, finding what he called her essence in one photograph of her in the winter garden as a five-year-old child.

              In Camera Lucida Barthes breaks the reading of pictures into two main modes of appreciation – the studium which relates to the content and the punctum that relates to the untheorized way in which a photograph can move us. Studium is really a cultivated and theorizable appreciation of the components that make up a picture. It is an analysis of content that engages with cultural and artistic forms of analysis – very much like what I think Ming was trying to initiate in this posting.

              And the punctum is an untheorizable space which just hits us emotionally. It is subjective and thus, not really amenable to analysis. We could describe it in a number of ways, psychologically for example, but this would, Barthes thinks, demean it, or perhaps provide no further illumination. His seeing the essence of his mother in that photo was very much a personal quest and something he could only see because of his deep connection with her. We could say his whole life formed the one lens that could identify that punctum.

              This is a very personal example and there may be other examples when we do find we can say something about why we are moved. But it also one of the hallmarks of art that we can be moved without knowing why and not really wanting to know either. I think the same thing about love. There is no explanation for it – we are moved by other individuals in unfathomable ways because they are who they are, their unique creatureliness.

              Like you say death needs life to give it meaning, the vital spark and individuality whose fading we fear. The melancholy in Barthes foregrounds the death, but it is his mother’s spark still living inside him that ignites and fuels his mourning. Her song carries on in his mind and thoughts, and in the winter garden photo, she sings it to him. But this is still not a forever, for when Barthes goes, the song goes too. If we are lucky, we have children to pass the songs on to. He left no-one behind. Well, not in a physical sense, but here I am singing his song. And we do the same in sharing our thoughts and creativity. The sphere of our influence doesn’t really matter. Mine goes about as far as my front gate. Sometimes it doesn’t even stretch across the kitchen table ;) But the accent in which we live our lives is an irreducible message to others, a kind of living karma that touches those we know and love. A tumbledown karma of sighs, giggles and screams punctuating the everyday with its endless cycles of greasy pans, work and yawn-filled bedtime stories. And for me great art, great food, great commentary punctures the moment. I feel compelled to respond and motivated to face the next greasy pan.

              The ontology will have to wait for a break in the greasy plates… ☺

              • HCB: sadly these days there are very few artists or people in general who put their money where their mouths are and walk the wall instead of just talking about it – in short: integrity is a preciously limited commodity.

              • Tim,

                I promise I’m not trying steal the last word on you, but with these posts you’re really spoiling me.

                Fittingly, out of nowhere like a wild animal, I’m going to jump on the word “creatureliness.” And fitting not only for that: your use of “creatureliness” was deeply synchronicitous, as I’m currently reading a short book where this word cropped up, a new one on me, only the day before yesterday. And I bought that book on a whim in a book shop I haven’t been into for over four years, killing time waiting to meet Ming and co., one night on their brief visit to Tokyo. In Ginza, where I never go. It was 500yen; this book shop is a religious and academic specialist and usually all the books are ferociously expensive. Like 5,000yen for the cheapest stuff. 10,000+ for anything that seems worth reading. The book is by John A. Sanford: The Man Who Wrestled with God. It’s a treatment of some of the better OT stories, approached from Jungian psychoanalysis, a topic I like to read about, am into. Not so much Jung — though I can’t help but be swayed by the awesome and enigmatic charisma of the man himself — as much as about the investigation of my own mind, my dreams, their make up, their meaning. Not to forensically self-analyze, I’m just interested in it. Perchance to grow. Flourish. Be better –> even take better photographs and write better copy because of it! But hold my grandiose horses; mostly I do just think it’s interesting. Anyway, this book, The Man Who Wrestled With God, it focuses on Jacob, renamed Israel, i.e., he who’s wrestled with God [an allusion to Jacob's grappling match with God by the stream, Jabbok]. During his examination of Jacob’s experience, Sanford briefly gestures toward the work of Professor Rudolph Otto and his book The Idea of the Holy. In it, Prof. Otto coined the phrase “numinous” [a word well worn by the Jungians, and C.S Lewis too, if I recall correctly]. Prof. Otto also employed “creatureliness” to signify something of our mortality and finitude. But creatureliness, our creatureliness, is something we were said to experience — to feel? — in the face of these powerful numinous experiences. Like, ooh I dunno, those nights you might find yourself in a bona-fide wrestling match with God himself, etc :) I think we can extend the use of creatureliness, and I think you used it in a neat way there. For some reason a line in a Talking Heads song, This Must Be the Place [naive melody], “home, where I want to be… pick me up and turn me round..” makes me thing of “creatureliness” a lot. I think Love, familial, romantic, platonic, all that, as well as some dimensions of Art [as a reflection of life itself] certainly play into the creatureliness in us all. Religion must surely do too. Though, I gotta say, yes I was raised Catholic and continue to believe in God, but I don’t find much spiritual shelter in the Church and never have to be honest. I don’t intend that in a combative way; more like a “for others, not yet for me” type vein. As a child I could never understand it… if I had a brain, the moral and ethic content of the bible to hand, then what do I need rote ceremony and a Church for? I’ve always felt God intended me to think for myself; I used to make the lunge “that He intended us to…” but in recent years I have strongly rejected this. There is only me and God; I just concentrate on that. I have faith in everyone else. Anyway, I understand the need for symbols and ceremony a little better now but still don’t go to Church or anything. Just not me. I find more spiritual value in something like a friendly conversation on here, or a photo walk on my lunchtime. Doing the dishes for my wife who has her hands full with three kids is a supremely spiritual event to me: I get to think, or not, while I wash, and I get to do something for another, and so something for myself. I figure, if I can up the ante and start hovering the floors and doing the clothes washing too, I should be exhibiting in gallery or taking cover shots for LIFE sometime in the near future. I’m only half joking.

                it also one of the hallmarks of art that we can be moved without knowing why and not really wanting to know either

                Praise the Lord! I’ve held this conviction for a while. I think a lot of us on here do too. Artworks are like one-liners to me, and just like with jokes or pithy nuggets of wisdom, when you explain to someone who doesn’t get it — doesn’t recognize the language, can’t communicate with the work — it ceases to be funny or deep. The work is its own language, no other is necessary; and if it doesn’t make lots of people laugh, etc., learn to tell better jokes. I agree with Barthes that something in the work is destroyed and demeaned when we try and explain everything away. He’s instantly The Man to me now for saying that. My own poor attempts to protect that idea are things like never naming my photographs, offering comment or explanation [other than anecdotal; but I shouldn't even do that] or showing EXIF information. I shouldn’t show which camera I took which photograph with, either; but I’d never be able to keep track of everything for myself, and for myself, I’m ashamed to admit, the machine is at least as important to me as its output. I just like shiny things.

                On the Academic Peanuts. I think we’re all guilty, yes Tim, absolutely. I’m a prime offender. I might say “…implicate such and such” when I just mean “include,” or whatever. Thinkers are always “up to” something or otherwise creating spaces somewhere, etc. It isn’t merely the academic’s voice that grates though, Tim, and count yourself outside of this following critique because I’m much too much of a chicken to aim it at you [now knowing you're an academic!]… I do think it’s, it’s what Ming often calls “skin in the game” [not his phrase, I mean it's one he likes to reach for]. Academics can’t escape that they are detached, usually to a great degree, from the World at large and the living of life today. At best they analyze it [in itself, can be framed negatively as a kind of zoological exercise]. Experience it though? While they do have to wake up and go to their office each day, and have plenty of stress and problems, it’s not the same as going to some McCorporation and hating it and having no way out and no brains and no shining goal — like a thesis or a paper to be published — at the end of it. It’s just labor for the man and his profit, with not much intellectually or spiritually in it for the worker ant. Usually some fuckwit for a boss.
                Academics are the paragons of society on one view because, for a decent slice of them, it was the knowledge and going a little bit further than anyone had gone before that was the motivation—completely a-capitalist, and noble and Star Trek and fuckin’ a-right, etc. You don’t decide to be an academic if money and power are what you crave, a self-evidently smart man that he would be, the academic’d see there are more efficient ways. But with the choice for knowledge, his place in the World, in the soup, too goes, I think. I don’t know. That might stand on shaky ground, I haven’t really thought about it.
                I quite liked the Sophists, though they came to be hurled about as a pejorative, because they seemed like the last men to live the philosophical truths they’d arrived at. Be back in the World again. Since them I think the act of philosophy has gotten ever more cynical and calculated; but que sais je :) I’d hate to think I’ve fallen into the romantic trap of everything being better before. A line was put into Jody Foster’s character, Dr Ellie Arroway’s, mouth in the film CONTACT:

                the World is what we make it

                This is a powerful line to me — for reasons all that info-cognitive holism previous should make obvious — as it implicates [ :o ] us in the making of our own surroundings, our fates and our lives. I go even further and recognize the anthropocentrism, and give credence to the legitimately holistic idea that there’s no separation between me and everything else, so it’s not just humans that decide what the boundaries of the World are. Science backs this ups simply [of the many examples I could cite, from my own former fields as well as others] by considering photons [that ferry information about between stuff] and from them one set of the limits of the detectable universe, the World, are the limits imposed by the speed of light and the logical and informational integrity in the “message” of a photon. Anything unrecognizable, info un-transductable by another part of reality, cannot be recognized and doesn’t exist [yet]. The World is what we make it.
                I’ve never been convinced by determinism or randomness/indeterminism as philosophical answers for what we find around us—I find them both equally devoid of meaning. Self-determinism however is surely the simple and obvious answer. A self-computing reality — that’s you, me, the matter, the energy, the lot — follows plainly. I find this echoing in the psychoanalysis of my friend Jung, the philosophy of Hegel, the findings, theories and high level experimentation of Physics, and all around in the very age we both find ourselves living in today—The Information Age. Photography can be seen as a way of self-determining; though this a poor point since I’m talking about a model of the entire self-enclosed manifold of reality and its only principle, so anything could, necessarily, be seen though the lens of self-determination.

                How did I get onto this?

                Anyway… Academics –> brilliant, noble, worthy, all that. But theorists. As we all are; but we all at least have the excuse of being bound up in the mess we try and describe. I hope you can implicate yourself some more in “we” Tim—it’s obvious you are one of us.

                I hope that doesn’t come across too internet tough guy because don’t mean to come off all internet tough guy with you, Tim. I’m a weakling!

                OK, back to brainstorming words for a brassiere presentation. True story. Great pictures in this thing. No, sod it, it’s almost 14:00 and I haven’t had lunch yet: TO THE COMBINI!

                • Tim Cleminson says:

                  Hi Tom,

                  Thanks for the cracking post. My reply is going to start off like Ming’s last stonking report very OT, from the subject matter of these posts, but, after going round the houses I will bring it back on topic. So please bear with me.

                  I am not a religious person, but I do believe in innate human spirituality wholeheartedly and I value religious ideas a lot. Strangely for Japanese, my wife and kids are Christian though. I guess it may good to relay events last night to show how I feel about these issues and also explain my take on creatureliness. So I’ll approach spirituality with an anecdote about a fart.

                  Last night I was cuddling up my youngest daughter to help her sleep. Just before sleep is one of the only times Kiki speaks English to me without requiring a cheeky prod or sneaky bribe. So they are precious moments for me. Just then my older daughter came in and promptly farted. After Kiki and I groaned and Aya sniggered we all chimed in ‘Oh, Olly!’ Olly was our family dog in Britain and he always got the rap when someone let one go. My kids never really knew Olly as they grew up in Japan and he died when they were still toddlers. It’s amazing to think that Olly is still protecting my family’s dignity despite being 6 thousand miles away and 6 feet under. Now that’s what I call service beyond the call of duty ;)

                  Of course remembering him made me sigh, as I wasn’t there to bury him when he passed away. And so I said to Kiki that I still felt sorry about that and that sometimes I wished I could give my folks a cuddle when they needed one. Kiki, the philosophical soul she is, countered: “Well, you have us.” And I agreed. Then she went quiet and said,

                  “Do you know who is number one in the world?”
                  “No.”
                  “It’s God. He’s everywhere…and he has a son called Jesus!”

                  It made me smile and hold her tightly. Loss, distance, regret all filled in with the omnipresence of her God. Those words from little 7-year-old Kiki made me feel safe too somehow. I was suddenly fearful she might ask me if I believed in God and that I’d have to say I couldn’t quite believe in him. She didn’t of course, because she has faith and she has no inkling of my feelings on the subject. I don’t feel the need to express them, unless she asks me directly and even then the right words would be difficult to find. Her belief in godliness is building a compassionate space inside her, one that makes a place for all of his creatures including fart-prone mongrels.

                  And this brings me to creatureliness. I first read this word when studying philosophy many moons ago. The tutor on moral philosophy was called Raimond Gaita. He was definitely someone scratching out his own turf; someone willing to take on the heavyweights of philosophy with lessons learnt working with his father on the hot red earth of the Australian farm he grew up on. Gaita was incredibly learned too, but he didn’t lecture, he engaged us in conversation and respected us all equals despite the obvious chasm in understanding. He was always waiting to be surprised, to have a response that stopped him in his tracks. I was too star struck and wet behind the ears to understand his message. I left university with a feeling of shame and a resolution that one day I’d read him again, when I had lived a bit.

                  It wasn’t until I read ‘The Philospher’s Dog’ that things started to make sense. It is a wonderful read, plain speaking, but incredibly deep. In this book Gaita’s uses a comparison of our relationships with other people and other creatures to explore the human condition. It is not anthropomorphic at all. A bit like the OT God he sees sentimentality as one of the ways we fail to think clearly. But he doesn’t suggest ever we try and think from a place outside our very human reactions to life. And though he challenges us to make decisions, he warns against any form of judegementalism.

                  Gaita’s vision has allowed me to make space for my own wrong doings and the wrong doings of others whilst helping me to see beauty in the world and trust in my independence and spirituality. Gaita believes no logic can provide a foundation for rights. Rights hang in the air without a sense of obligation. And obligation hangs in the air without a sense of love. Laws will never make a just society if those who make them cannot feel a genuine sense of pity for their fellow human being:

                  “If you say to someone who has ears to hear: ‘What you are doing to me is not just,’ you may touch and awaken at its source a spirit of attention and love. But it is not the same with words like ‘I have the right…’ or ‘you have no right to…’ They evoke a latent war and awaken the spirit of contention” (Simone Weil).

                  Gaita admits his is at a loss for words when he tries to explain why we feel this love. Language just can’t get a hold on it. But he tries and offers the awareness of people’s ‘creatureliness’, their ‘preciousness’ and their uniqueness. Their creatureliness is as you say their human frailty and neediness, their preciousness is their susceptibility to misfortune and harm and their uniqueness is the fact that no two people are alike – not just in the sense of our diverse character and experiences, but in what we mean to other people, to those who love us. To the people who love Tom Liles he can never be replaced. Plain and simple and when he is harmed, they are harmed to. So, it is not through a logical analysis that we will generate a just society, but through love our understanding of others can be transformed and we will understand the true import of our actions. Of course this doesn’t mean we won’t wrong others. We are only human after all and it is often the unique creatureliness of others that leads us astray. But we, perhaps should be pitied for wrong doing, and we can be reclaimed in moments of lucidity when we understand the wrong we have done.

                  And the accents in which we conceive of others and the world is crucial. Another quote Gaita uses is about appreciating life as a gift without it necessarily being a gift from anyone, It is an extract from Pablo Casals autobiogrpahy:

                  “For the past 80 years I have started the day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to daily life. I go to the piano and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning for me. It is a re-discovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a past. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being…I do not think a day has passed in my life in which I have failed to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature.”

                  This is a deep meditation and a prayer of sorts. And this is how I feel about photography. When I look through the viewfinder it is like I am looking at the world afresh. I notice so many small details, so many wonderful lines and juxtapositions it fills me with a joy for life, for the wonder of vision, thought and composition. Likewise when I see the work of others and it punctures me, it bruises me or excites me. It is like seeing the world afresh and it is a gift from them to me. Whether we call it art or not is in many ways (as others have commented in these postings) besides the point; that connection, that gift of another viewpoint on the beauty and sometimes the desolate nature of this world we live in, is truly a gift. A gift I will always be thankful for.

                  Like I said, round the houses. And of course, I never meant to separate myself from the we, I just sometimes do that during reflection, to try and distance myself from my own sense of self-indulgent sentimentality. But in most cases, I can’t escape it. I’m a big daft softy at heart, with a big soft spot for the mindless game of footie :)

                  Tim

                  • Tim you big softie! I’m a big softie too! And I’m football crazy, football mad :)

                    Shan’t be able to formulate a response today as I’m out with the kids all day; but might write this evening. That was so good I feel I have to. But time ticks on and I’m sensitive to the possibility that by tonight the moment may have passed. See how it sits later on.

                    Ok, we’re off. Cheers!

        • Tim Cleminson says:

          BTW Ming I just wanted to say thank you for making this site and sharing your thoughts. Unbeknownst to you I have been having quite a lengthy dialogue with you through reading your posts! And based on your unparalleled reviews I have just bought a GR which is really freeing up my photography. I’m really just at the beginning of this journey and not very proficient, but your advice has been so helpful. Now toying with the idea of purchasing a Blad :)

          • You’re welcome :)

            I notice there are a lot of Blads for sale on Rangefinder Forum – worth checking out some of them. But there’s definitely a trend towards my readers/ students trying medium format of late…

        • Once, forever is an utterly brilliant distillation of the entire purpose and gestalt of photography. (Ignoring the fact that time is not discrete and a camera’s shutter also isn’t instantaneous.) From our frame of reference, everything is linear and will never, can never happen again. And that’s very true for any sort of documentary photography, and perhaps landscapes too – but being contrarian, I’m not sure it applies to still life in a controlled environment. Yet we wouldn’t argue that it isn’t photography, and cannot be art…

          • The chap who got me to take photography seriously started with saying photography captures a moment in time that cannot happen again. It is your moment and can never be repeated or taken away from you.

            It’s a point that has always stuck with me and I try and keep it in mind when shooting. Yet I find the link with photography and art in this context a bit difficult to grasp. The reason is maybe we are trying to look/capture certain emotional reactions and as mentioned above we want to ‘be in the moment’

            Art in the sense of paintings, sculptures etc – I don’t know if one has the same mentality when they create their vision. Are they trying to be ‘in the moment’?

            Obviously the complication of controlled environment photography is likely different as well. I don’t know if when you shoot a watch you are ‘in the moment’ :)

            • I can’t remember if it was me who said that :P

              Surely the production of something (relatively) static in order to capture a moment or idea requires the creator to be conscious, observing and wilful in that instantaneous moment?

              I’m in the moment with a watch, but in a different way – it’s not about timing as executing the image you have in your mind at that instant.

              • Hmmm, I guess you have to be in the moment to ‘conceive’ an idea – but a painting could take months to complete, that takes a fair amount of mental faculty to be consumed in your work for that long….

                Actually the due was a surfer/photographer from Canada…..you could say it was a moment of enlightenment as we were in Laos cruising down the Mekong enjoying the natural surroundings! But to give you credit I think you said something similar in the workshop ;)

        • Wow, Tom. If that’s the kind of post you produce when you take a break, then you need to take more breaks! (Not that we don’t like having you around.) That was epic in its scope.

          Now you really need to read about Carver Mead’s Collective Electrodynamics, and his comments on large-scale coherent quantum phenomena (eg. lasers and superconductors), and how they may be more common than we think, like astronomical masers that occur in nature, or how photosynthesis works in plants. Some crazier people, like Luca Turin writing on perfume (he’s also a physicist), conjecture that smell is a quantum phenomena.

          Why did I type that all? In another tortured analogy, I wonder if taking a good photo is like a coherent quantum phenomena in that we see that one moment where the troughs and peaks of all the waveforms line up exactly so, and we make it forever by clicking the shutter. Everyday life gives us visual stimuli that impinge upon us randomly, but every so often, if we are sensitive and receptive enough, we see that one magical moment when everything lines up.

          • Thanks Andre. I honestly only felt like I was going through the motions up there, I haven’t written anything good for a while [on my judgement].

            For sure, that Carver Mead stuff sounds like mother’s milk to me. I have his name, that site you pointed me to, and some keywords noted in Notes on my iPhone so I’ll never forget; and a reminder note in “Reminders” just to belt and braces the whole thing. This and the C.G Jung “Red Book” [Liber Novus with the illustrations and illuminations by the great man himself] are on my constant-watch-for-it list… I will get them someday [when the universe decides it's right?].

            Sorry I haven’t been to able to reply to your letter yet, Andre. I’m fighting my way through the jungle of hard work, family commitments and visiting dignitaries :) Speaking of which, it’ll be fun to see the first pics of Tokyo trickle through in the coming weeks. Did The Beast wolf down some interesting waveform peak coincidences for us? :D

          • I’m going to go one further: I’m pretty sure thought and consciousness is a quantum phenomenon too. It explains perfectly why although we might have fairly similar hardware, re output can be wildly different…

            • It would certainly explain some of my wife’s — and the fairer sex in general’s — behavior.

              Oh wait, could they be saying the same thing!? :)

            • When you have the time or insomnia to go through this, here’s the link I sent to Tom: http://www.floobydust.us/ The transcript of the speech at Telecosm 2006 mentions quantum-like phenomena in the brain. I’ll summarize, but you can find it on the 2nd half of page 7. This conversation was in context of image recognition and basic physical tasks, and why computers have such a hard time with them.

              Basically, it used to be assumed that neurons would gather pulses, and above some threshold, fire off their outputs. Someone then showed that the pulses going down these neural pathways don’t degenerate: the pulse trains all retained their relative times of arrival to each other — the waveforms looked the same at the output as in the input. Mead points out that this could mean that the brain could search a solution space that is exponential relative to its physical structure, because the brain could now (hypothetically) compare the relationships of different waveforms — the alignments of the troughs and peaks that is mentioned above — and effect some action based on those alignments. This can be modeled with the same kind math that’s used for quantum mechanics — the physical phenomena is not necessarily quantum, but it happens to work in the same kind of mathematical domain. This is all based on basic wave mechanics.

              In comparison, classical computing machines (what we know as a computer today) search a space that is only linearly proportional to its own structure: if you want to go twice as fast, you need roughly twice as many devices, so good luck trying to simulate actions easily done by brains with computers. Quantum computers have the same kind of exponential search space because they work on quantum phenomena, which can be modeled with this waveform model. The problem now is to maintain that kind of quantum behavior on a macro scale, or to find some other computing medium whose natural behavior works in this same kind of waveform mechanics.

              Just a note for the rest of our readers: Carver Mead was one of the inventors of the Foveon sensor, and he also helped Gordon Moore formulate his eponymous law (about the number of transistors doubling every 18 months), so he may have crazy ideas, but he is no crank.

              • Very interesting, thanks for the link! Good to know that I’m not that insane after all :)

              • Just as before, I just can’t get that link to work. (sniff)

                Maybe the site is allergic to Japanese IP addresses, or Japanese servers are to that particular site. I’ve tried it on four different computers on three different networks now…

                But, MT, you got to it OK?
                KL ahead of Tokyo on the information superhighway—amazing times!

  10. Hi Ming, I think that the overall importance that separates art from “non art” boils down to the context and intention. A pedestrian image of say a flower, can be presented in two different contexts. We can take two of the same image and present one at a market stall and then present one in a gallery. We may view the image at the market stall as a simple pretty picture of a flower. However if we are to view that same image in a gallery, we must consider this image further as we are now looking at an image from an artist and whatever their intention, through placement alone we are asked to view the image differently. Through placement alone, the context of the image has been altered and the meaning of the image has changed. This leaves us with intention. The artist that strives to add considered meaning to even the most banal of subjects is creating something for us to consider beyond the obvious, it needs to be in a gallery to be viewed this way. The amateur may or may not have considered these things, however simply through placement alone the image will most likely be looked at in relation to its placement, the market stall alters the image in the same manner as the gallery. .

    • It’s not so much context as implicit external validation and approval; without that the value and significance is determined by the artist alone, so there are no points of reference for the casual observer.

  11. That picture is exemplary according to the never ending discussion, what kind of camera is needed to produce a fantastic photograph.
    Thanks for sharing.

  12. There are interesting opinions and statements in this article, even though I have become somewhat tired of the argument about art and photography. Spontaneously, I very much like the statement “Something done well, purely for the sake of doing it well…”, but this is of course true for many things which are not art at all. In my opinion this should rather be the motivation for most things we do.

    Concerning art and photography, I have “decided” that this question is completely irrelevant for me as a photographer. In my opinion, it is up to others (the audience) to decide whether or not something is art. I am even slightly suspicious of photographers referring to their work as art all the time. I cannot help but getting the impression that it is merely a way to elate one’s own work (a kind of “internal validation”, I believe).

    I think my take on this issue is well described by the expression “external validation” that you mention and I completely agree with this opinion!

    • For some it might be internal validation; however, I think if you yourself don’t believe in what you’re doing, at the very basic level: why do it?

      Not every image is art, for sure. I’d be the first to admit that very few of mine are; partially because I still don’t think my skills are at that level yet, and partially because that isn’t always the objective.

  13. As usual, brilliant comments from all here. While I appreciate the intellectual discussion about “What is art?” and all the critical thinking found here below the line, I struggle with the concept of definitively defining art. To me trying to definitively define art is very similar to the idea of trying to nail Jello to a wall. I do not say this to take anything away from anyone who has commented here, it’s just that I feel when we speak in absolutes we set ourselves up for the exceptions that challenge the rule. Some examples…

    “Art is not something created solely for profit.”

    If someone creates a piece solely for profit and the viewer, having no information in regards to the creators intentions, views the piece and decides that “This is art” is it not art?

    What of the idiot savant capable of creating an amazing piece, but only does this because it’s all they know. Once again if the viewer sees this as art, isn’t it art regardless of intension?

    There are many more intelligent people above commenting than myself so my definition of art is fairly simple. If either the creator or viewer says that “it” is art, then it is art. If there is a discussion as to whether it is or is not art, then it is art. If there is no discussion of art or not, then 1) It is not art 2) No discussion is required because it completely obvious that it is art. I think it was in the comments sections of the The Line Between Photography and Art where someone referenced an artist who had a piece in gallery that was a bathtub in which he pissed in. My initial knee jerk reaction was “That’s not Art!” But after contemplating it I think it was art. What type and the quality art is up for discussion, but it is clear to me that it is art. I’m may not like it, but my likes or dislikes do not dictate what is defined as art. For me simplifying the definition allows me to adapt to the ever changing idea of art. Once we have loosely established something is art we can then proceed to be subjective and decide whether it is “good, bad, valuable, or worthless” or any other number of things. Even if I decide a piece is worthless art, in my mind it’s art regardless.

    I’ve often said that “I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed!” So please keep that in mind when reading one of my comments!

    • Hardly, Jeff – I think you’ve more than just shown you’ve got a good handle on things here! The reason why I’m attempting to define – or at least try to define – art is because I want to create more of it; and in order to do that I must have some idea of what to do and what not to do. Even if those definitions are somewhat fluid and nebulous.

      “If either the creator or viewer says that “it” is art, then it is art.”
      Very true!

    • JeffC—that was great stuff. I live for your contributions; the simple ideas are hallmarks of sharp minds. Or lazy mofos.

      The jury is out! :)

      I’m joking, I know how intellectually curious and honest you are. Two tools I try to work on myself—whenever I waver, comments like yours remind me to keep going.

      Cheers mate. Mail when I can!

      • Lazy Mofo?

        With all the miles between us and our medium of exchange I had hoped to hide that fact for a while longer.

        • I spend a lot of time trying to think up ways to pitch being a lazy mofo as noble and right-on and the smart move…
          [then realize how ironic that is]

          The holy grail is convincingly equating men slobbed on sofas with tins of beer and watching sport with the key to World Peace. I promise I’ll get there. And when I do…

          WATCH OUT INTERNET

    • Tim Cleminson says:

      Great stuff Jeff! I would say nailing Jello to the wall is not just a good analogy for this discussion, but for the attempt to define the human condition too. I don’t see that as a problem though, it’s just part of the landscape we’re working in. When I mentioned Steven Wiltshire (an autistic savant) in my first post, I was alluding to the comment you put so clearly. And it really IS more of a question of whether the art is valuable and why that might be the case that is really of interest. Like you say, it’s all subjective. But that doesn’t mean we can’t argue about it meaningfully and convince each other of the worth and meaning of whatever piece of Jello we happen to be banging on about at the time. It’s a spider’s web of fine distinctions, an endless, dim labyrinth we travel through. But from time to time somebody says something, sparks a match that illuminates the darkness at least until that match fizzles out and singes our fingers :)

      • Thanks Tim. Sorry about the late reply, I’ve been tied up with the Thanksgiving holiday. I completely agree that the Jello analogy works with defining the human condition, but I think that you and I may be in the minority regarding this loose definition. It seems to me that the majority of society requires a much more structured definition. The problem is that this structure is compromised by omissions, half truths, or outright lies just to make all the pieces fit.

        “But that doesn’t mean we can’t argue…….”

        Once again I agree. To paraphrase what my grandfather once told my father ” I don’t care if you agree with me as long as you are thinking critically.” This is were the value in these discussions lie. Thank you for that. You and all the others here. I only wish I was more capable of producing the volume of ideas and text like you and Tom, but unfortunately I’m not wired that way.

  14. Trying to pin down a moving target with a precision instrument. Perhaps the best way to stop a moving target is to kill it, though I think either more ammunition or a larger weapon may provide a better approach. ;)

    “The world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

  15. wow… whenever I come back to one of your articles a few days after you post it I’m amazed by the number of comments, and cudo’s to you for keeping up with the replies. I can’t imagine they leave much time for your day job.

    IMO, Art is that which cannot be defined but can be felt. I could scatter silverware on a counter and some would say it was art because it brought back memories to them, others would say it was not because it only made them want to clean the counter. The art (again IMO) it created by the viewer, not the artist. How many “masters” were simply creating a portrait of their subject. We now consider it high art, but at the time it was considered “a picture.” How often do we look at something in an art gallery that looks like someone dropped their smartphone and it fired a picture off, but it is in an art gallery so it must be art.

    My only complaint of the art industry is that they are so bold to feel they have a right to tell us what is art and what is not. I may find something beautiful, but is it art?

    And the end of the day, who cares… if you find it beautiful or horrible, if it brings out emotion when viewed or heard, if you have been changed in any way because of it having crossed paths with you, then it is art. Trying to define it is the same as telling people what they should be feeling. “It’s a can of soup Mr. Warhol…” but the first time you see it on the wall of MOMA properly lit, and staring you down… it’s incredible.

    • We do what we can. People come back because the discussion is intelligent and not fanatically gear-obsessive, I suppose. I just don’t sleep much.

      Art must be felt: yes, I agree. I don’t agree with everything I see in galleries though; but maybe somebody else felt it. I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I certainly wouldn’t automatically assign credibility if I can’t see the merit. It’s all subjective after all, right? The only reason why the art ‘industry’ (an oxymoron if there ever was one) gets away with it is because ‘we the people’ allow them to…

Trackbacks

  1. […] want to end with a short thought on art – we touched on it first here, and again in this article. Nick’s work is unquestionably art. Why? Because it conveys a strong idea? Because it’s […]

  2. […] Tener un estilo propio implica que este debe ser único ? y si es así, mediante ese estilo único tu trabajo es también único y original ? No me atrevo a responder esto, pero les dejo una lectura muy recomendada: Ming Thein a tenido los cojo-nes de definir el arte. […]

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