Seeing, part one: can art be taught?

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Artistry in architecture, crafstmanship (theoretically) and capture. All can be learned, yet not really completely taught.

A few weeks back, I got an email from a reader that peaked my intellectual curiosity: he effectively asked, ‘can art be taught?’ I pondered this question for a while before sending back a cursory reply: yes and no, and to wait a while for this very article I was in the process of writing. Of course, it’s taken me much longer than expected to complete it because like what makes a good image, it’s proven to be one of the more difficult questions to answer.

First, we need to define art: obviously, it’s anything involving some form of creativity that goes beyond the barely functional; yet you’ll undoubtedly find people who will argue that there’s a form of art in that, too. And you’ll get no dispute from me over the reduction of an object or thing to its simplest form requiring a degree of creativity and artistic thought, too. In a loose way, I see art as anything superfluous or not strictly necessary to accomplish a task or goal; you can get from A to B on bare feet, but if you choose to drive a handmade 1930s landau, then clearly your choice of transport has something beyond the ordinary in it. Art is for situations when a conscious choice exists: you can have a bare ceiling, or you can commission a master painter to spend years on it. We also have to consider the difference between art and craftsmanship: the building above was finished by crafstmen, who are perhaps ‘limited’ artists; it was designed by an architect, who had to be an artist to give it that synthesis of form and function in the first place. The artist has to see beyond their immediate subject: taking the example of the building again, the architect was undoubtedly influenced by traditional forms, which in turn relate to religion, culture and history; the craftsman doesn’t need to know any of this in order to cut and fit a marble panel well.

Is photography art? Yes, because there’s always a choice in the interpretation. Even documentary photography – whatever is required to tell a story or paint a picture in context – requires a degree of artistry; there are many ways of telling a story, some of which have greater impact than others. Even more so, photography that serves no real purpose is therefore art too: I choose to photograph still life tableaus with film, from the perspective that I see. If that’s not interpretative, I’m not quite sure what is.

Even your average candid snapshot of family members, or groups of friends – is interpretative. Although most people are conditioned by society to imagine a group portrait in the same way, there’s no reason why you couldn’t arrange the people as a landscape, arranged on the floor in interesting geometric forms and shot with a super wide lens. It might not be very flattering, but who’s to say that isn’t a legitimate group portrait? Cultural conditioning plays just as important a role in our view of the world as our own imaginations: it took the ancient world a long time to move away from representing people in profile only.

Our environments unarguably have an impact on our views; it goes beyond what we’re culturally conditioned to accept as art – a painting, a sculpture – and into the realm of the imagination. Social taboos and norms also play a big part in our thinking of what’s attractive and what isn’t – the best example perhaps is the changing fashions across the world; western supermodels would be seen as ill in the Pacific, for instance. There, size is prized as a sign of prosperity and abundance. Their supermodels would probably be as large as physically possible.

There is no right or wrong: who’s to say what’s beautiful and what isn? Similarly, who says what’s art and what isn’t – especially when we know that art doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful; it can be hideously ugly but force us to think, and in doing so, achieve a higher aesthetic purity of concept. Good art should push us outside our nurtured and culturally-conditioned comfort zones: either through the unfamiliar – perhaps a different perspective – or through the extremes of beauty, revulsion, or some other emotion.

In most fields, there are people who appear to have a natural talent or aptitude towards what most would think of as skill; we term these people ‘gifted’, or ‘savants’, depending on their level of talent. But this raises a lot of other questions: if the mass view of exceptional is their view of normal, then the savant’s view of exceptional isn’t necessarily the same turned up to eleven – it’s probably far stranger than the majority can conceive. In this way, the savant may not be encouraged to develop their talents fully because it can take their work to strange places that might not be socially understood, or even acceptable. Still, since they start out at a much higher point than the rest of us, this isn’t too much of a burden. Given time, training and most importantly dedication, it’s possible for a person of average skill to become exceptional at something – but the catch is that to have that drive and dedication in the first place is arguably not average at all.

I suppose we have to separate out talent, skill and something to do with passion: the steepness of the learning curve, if you like. You can have no skill, but some talent and with passion the skill will develop into being a great artist; likewise you can have no passion but plenty of skill and talent, and at most your work will be competent, but ordinary. Skills can be learned and acquired. Talent cannot. But a lack of nascent talent can probably be overcome by passion; passion as the underlying driver is not so easily quantifiable. One can be inspired to passion by work seen, or an event, or another person’s influence; or one can find themselves naturally drawn to and passionate about certain things or subjects because they appeal to one’s personality.

This leads to the question of whether people have natural limits – i.e. a level of skill beyond which no amount of practice or coaching will improve the results. I want to believe this isn’t the case because it’s depressing; imagine being told no matter how hard you try, or how determined you are you’ll never get any better. Partially this stems from a large part of photography being to do with the subject matter at hand; improve the subject and, all things equal, your images will improve. The rest is because if your passion is really that strong, and you’re really that obsessive…determination will find a way. Yet I’ve had quite a few people – some of whom are now my Email School students – who’ve complained that they’ve reached a plateau in their work, but still aren’t happy – and it’s been that way for years. Often, these people have very high levels of technical skill and there’s nothing really wrong with their images, but they’re just lacking a small, indefinable something. All I can do is suggest alternate interpretations and points of view: after all, it’s all subjective.

Art schools will always of course argue that art and creativity (to some extent, at least) can be taught; otherwise, they’d probably go out of business. What they teach is the technical aspects of art, and perhaps some of the interpretative aspects – they certainly are good places to nurture creativity, but it doesn’t mean that somebody who’s inherently uncreative can go in and come out bursting with ideas. Or perhaps what they instil is some sort of discipline or structure that helps with the production of a certain type of output. I can’t really say, not having been to art school; however, I have seen the work of people who have, and commenting specifically on photographers, I don’t necessarily think it’s any better than that of a passionate self-taught amateur.

I don’t claim to be a better than average or gifted photographer, but I do know that I’m happy with my compositions at this point in time, and that I have no problems representing and conveying what I see in my mind’s eye – which certainly wasn’t always the case. In fact, early viewers (victims is perhaps a better term) begged me to hang up the camera and stop hurting their eyes*. Since such demands have almost completely ceased, perhaps it’s useful if I talk about the process I went through to get to where I am now.

*And no, I’m not going to post any of my early images here in case I get sued for emotional damage.

Though there are many, many things I’ve done in parallel with my photography, I don’t think the vast majority them are relevant (working in consulting and M&A, for example – if anything, this tends to be photographically counterproductive due to the sheer numbers spent at the office). I might have missed something, but in my mind:

  • Practice and experimentation, and lots of it in great variety;
  • Seeking feedback from somebody whose work is in the general direction where I want to go (but perhaps not exactly the same);
  • Looking at a lot of images – examining other photographers’ work to figure out what I like, what I don’t, and why – and in a way that translates into something technically executable (e.g. I like dark, rich colors, for instance, so I tend to do a lot of low key work);
  • Honing my quantitative skills: you have to know whether the reason something turned out not as expected was because of the execution or the idea – and vice versa;
  • Discipline: forcing myself to look for a shot in relative photographic deserts, and now, continually questioning and pushing/ challenging my own photographic preconceptions. The articles on this site that explore philosophy and ‘the why’ force me to structure my own thinking and clarify my position on a given subject, which in turn helps me make better images because I understand the mechanics better;
  • Studying human behaviour and psychology – not only does it improve your powers of anticipation, but it also helps you to shoot for your audience. By understanding how certain elements in an image are interpreted, or how colors affect mood,it’s possible to construct an even stronger image than one that’s just compositionally sound: you can influence the way your viewer feels, too;
  • I think by far the biggest help has been passion: I’ve always wanted to do this. I stop doing it when it’s no longer fun, or it no longer makes sense; or at least I try to now that it’s also become work. However, the point is that the passion, the want, creates an internal drive that keeps you going.

All of these things can be both good and bad: I’ll explain why in the second part of this article. MT


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  1. I remember a Brett Weston remark from way back that really stuck with me. It was to the effect that: “you sure as hell can’t teach art”. I think he was saying that there are certain attributes that are integral to the creative process that simply cannot be instilled through any formal process.
    Having received diplomas in visual art and music, I would concur. I think one’s internal creative passions can certainly be coaxed, prodded and otherwise informed via external stimulus, but ultimately something has to emanate from within the individual.
    To this day I am confounded by the unpredictable nature of subjective selection. Even my closest friends and peers, the people whose judgments I respect the most, view my works very differently than I do. (The things they single out as favorites are NEVER the same as what I would choose…)
    I guess there’s nothing for it but to just keep doing what I do for myself and let other people’s reactions (and the compensation) sort themselves out. (Coincidentally, that sentiment is mirrored in a different Brett Weston interview I found on the web while unsuccessfully trying to locate the source of the “can’t teach art” quip.)

    • The difference in viewpoint has to do with the whole difference in personal experience, preferences dictated thereby etc. – you’re never going to find two people who see a given situation in exactly the same way. Though other viewers may not agree with or like your point of view, at least the mere act of having it there might be enough to provoke them into thought…

  2. As always, truly inspiring, informative and my favorite read of the day.

  3. Hello Ming, thank you very much for this and similar articles. I enjoy all of them and learn from them.
    Do you plan workshops in Europe? By the way I really enjoyed your photo shoot at the watch manufacturing site of Jaeger-leCoultre.

    • Thank Dirk. I’ll probably be doing at least one workshop in Europe later in the year, but I haven’t settled on a location yet. JLC are one of my clients.

  4. Creativity comes from everything, and nothing, in a moment, and over a lifetime.

  5. Curiosity:

    Did you actually mean “peaked my intellectual curiosity” defined as “To bring to a maximum of development, value, or intensity.”

    or did you mean “piqued my intellectual curiosity” defined as “To provoke; arouse”


    On 2013-02-23 20:01, Ming Thein | Photographer wrote:

    > Ming Thein posted: ” Artistry in architecture, crafstmanship (theoretically) and capture. All can be learned, yet not really completely taught. A few weeks back, I got an email from a reader that peaked my intellectual curiosity: he effectively asked, ‘can art be taught?’ ” > >

  6. Like Jan I think it can be but not all of it. For me the 3 ingredients as you have mentioned are passion, skill and talent. All 3 should be present to produce a great artist. Art can be taught but talent can’t be, some form of it must exist and simply build up on it. One must still put the effort and hard work (practice), for some all 3 will be there and with a lot of hard work they can be a great artist. Being one of your students I too felt the impasse but this is how I see it, I can be better faster with your help or shall I say with the proper course or mentorship program. I can decide not to do any art class or any sort of school, program or mentorship but I will have to put a LOT of time to learn. And who knows maybe one will learn the hard way (lots of mistakes) and those mistakes with the proper guidance can easily be corrected. My 2 cents about this.

    • I’m not sure about the talent part. I think it can be learned or acquired; I know I certainly didn’t have any talent when I started. My photos were so bad they’d scar people for life. I was told many times to hang up the camera and just find another hobby. Practice and dedication are probably worth more in the long run than innate talent.

      • I think talent is within all of us somehow but there are varying degrees. The example I have in mind is in singing. You can learn, practice to death and do all the techniques but if your voice is simply mediocre then you can’t be great. It might be different in photography but maybe not. I believe you had the talent you just didn’t fully utilize it before.

        • I’m flattered, but I’m 99% sure this wasn’t the case. Agreed on singing – but perhaps that’s a bad example because there are physical attributes (the geometry of your vocal chords, tongue etc) that are involved. Just like a short Asian like me will never be a faster sprinter than a tall African; it’s simply not physically possible.

      • I agree, that’s a bad example. Perhaps the art of playing a musical instrument is a better comparison to photography. You still need to have the talent to be great. I tend to side that “talent” cannot be taught because by definition talent is the “natural” skill of a person. It has to come naturally and not learned or acquired. Like you said above (paragraph 8), skill can be learned acquired but not talent.

  7. This is a masterpiece essay that I would revisit it again and again for deep thoughts and inspiration. Thanks a lot. —-Yantao

  8. Photos close to home says:

    How in the world do you find the time to write such compelling posts? Or do you write as much for you as for us? In any event, thank you.

    • I probably do less commercial work than I should, sleep less than I should, drink far more coffee than is healthy, and really need to get out more 🙂

  9. Reblogged this on Bo Photography and commented:
    Can “seeing” be taught?

  10. I would say that art can be taught just like any other subject with the proviso that producing an artist at the end is not guaranteed. I have met many engineering graduates that understand nothing of the material they studied. For these people the classes where to be endured, the assignments to be disposed of and the serious business of making lots of money persued. To be good at anything, most people need to want to and then make the effort. Sadly many would like the results but not the work. Thanks for another stimulating article.

    • Agreed – I think you put it very well. You can put the knowledge in, but the application and evolution is very much in the hands of the student.

  11. Hello Ming,

    I have become a regular reader of your site and your intellect is quite amazing. I must admit your thought process attracts me more than your photos which are exceptional as well. Very good article again. Your Leica review are pretty cool as well. I hope one day I will have a chance to meet you in person or attend one of your exhibition.


  12. A few years ago, Mike Johnston over at TOP, ran a series of posts on the topic “What is Art?”. After a number of posts and a zillion reader comments, he finally posted his thoughts on the topic:

    Note:. The “Sven” he refers to at the start of his article is not me, but another Sven (!)

  13. Yes, Great Article. Thank You Ming!

  14. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, your best article yet. Or maybe it just hit home…
    At any rate, thanks!


  1. […] a great two-part blog post on the Ming Thein, Photographer blog that’s all about “seeing” compositions. The posts are wonderfully written and the images […]

  2. […] Artistry in architecture, crafstmanship (theoretically) and capture. All can be learned, yet not really completely taught. A few weeks back, I got an email from a reader that peaked my intellectual…  […]

  3. […] A few weeks back, I got an email from a reader that peaked my intellectual curiosity: he effectively asked, ‘can art be taught?’ I pondered this question for a while before sending back a cursory reply: yes and no, and to wait a while for this very article I was in the process of writing. Of course, it’s taken me much longer than expected to complete it because like what makes a good image, it’s proven to be one of the more difficult questions to answer.  […]

  4. […] A few weeks back, I got an email from a reader that peaked my intellectual curiosity: he effectively asked, ‘can art be taught?’ I pondered this question for a while before sending back a cursory reply: yes and no, and to wait a while for this very article I was in the process of writing. Of course, it’s taken me much longer than expected to complete it because like what makes a good image, it’s proven to be one of the more difficult questions to answer.  […]

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