The perpetually asked question of ‘but is it art?’ is one that’s impossible to answer. I’ve tried, I know I’ve been found to fall short, and won’t event attempt to define it. But today I’d like to approach this topic from a slightly different angle: how are the three things in the title related?
It’s pretty clear that the art world – at least the high visibility portion of it – is nothing more than another industry. Yes, art is commercial; popular art, mass art, high end art – it’s all driven by numbers. There’s a lot of money that goes into the production of some of these pieces; Hirst must have spent a fortune on diamonds to encrust that skull; I can’t imagine shark corpses are too easy to come by, and Salgado doesn’t run with a zero production budget. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the rental for a decent-sized gallery in the right part of town, or the account balance at the House of Caviar after a few parties. You can’t serve lumpfish or moderately priced domestic nonvintage champagne* to people of means and then expect them to buy a very expensive art piece because you know about these things – validity of opinion and taste in art is signalled by things a lot more subtle than merely name.
Whilst there may be a small number of people who dump money into it because they enjoy it, there are far, far more who are trying to get rich out of it – be it artists, agents, galleries or promoters. It is in the interests of all of the above – and even the buyers – for an artist to become famous; fame in itself extends knowledge and awareness, and somehow that affects value. In turn, those who invested in the artist – including themselves – stand to gain financially, often considerably. I say ‘somehow’, because there really isn’t a direct and concrete causal link between an increase in awareness and an increase in value – I suppose if X proportion of people like the work, the more people who see it increases the absolute number of people who might want to buy it, and since the supply is fixed…basic economics take over. (And that doesn’t count the people who want to buy it because they seek social affirmation from others because they own something that’s perceived to be popular.)
The more I look at the art market, the less I understand it. Subjectivity probably plays a big part in this – personal preferences and all that – but there is some real crap being sold for a lot of money; what’s worse is that after seeing some of it in person and speaking with the gallery owners, they themselves don’t really understand the work either – so how can they convince others that it has value or merit or…anything at all? Sometimes, there isn’t even any attempt at value – a relatively unknown photographer recently announced on instagram that he was selling 6×4″ prints – at $150 a pop, because he needed money and was broke – and made headlines because he received something like 200 orders in one day. I cannot objectively judge the work because it’s all personal preference, but I personally find it very discouraging that I can’t even sell a quarter of that number of Ultraprints at almost the same price to a much larger and more educated audience. Frankly, it makes me question the point of artistic integrity at all – certainly if the objective is commercial success.
And here we face the conflict: the artists who do whatever it is they do for the sake of doing it and to their own personal satisfaction – arguably the very definition of art – do not and almost certainly will not gain popularity in their lifetimes. They produce solely for themselves, and if somebody likes it, great; if not, no big deal. The work retains integrity of thought and purity of idea; it isn’t diluted or modified slightly to make it more accessible, affordable or understandable to a larger (buying) public. Ignoring what they say publicly, one wonders how many commercially successful artists actually manage to stick to their guns and works that actually satisfy them – independently of what the critics and buyers say. I suspect that number is vanishingly small. I know personally that I’d probably never be able to be an artist that creates non-identically-replicable art, simply because if I put that much effort, thought and soul into a piece, there’s no way I could let it go. I suppose it would be like selling one of your children. If I could only make a print once, I’d never sell any prints. And that would obviously be very bad for business.
Perhaps I’m being too cynical; maybe there’s a point in the career of an artist after which they can do whatever they want again – it’s much like photography, in that sense. You start out doing what you want because you can’t do anything else; when it becomes a job you have to create something that people want to buy, hope you get a lucky break or two, and then create enough stuff that your customers like and want to be able to pick and choose your assignments. At that point, if you still have any creative drive left, you pick the work that appeals to you at an artistic level – jobs that give you artistic control and the freedom to interpret and create the way you see fit. Hopefully by now your name is famous enough that you are given the benefit of the doubt and get hired on the strength of reputation; there will be some people who genuinely appreciate your work, and others that don’t but go along with it because they don’t want to be seen as standing out. Finally, you might be appreciated specifically for what you do – and assuming that creative drive still remains (and didn’t die out during the period in which you had to be a craftsman rather than an artist and create to spec) – you are finally free to be yourself.
What I see is that most do not make it past the craftsman stage, and if they do, they make a mess of the freedom they’re given. There are several big name photographers here in Malaysia who are hired on reputation alone, but produce utter crap – they have lost the eye, and they have spent so long creating to spec and letting the client do the thinking that they have lost the ability to create. It is also possible that after so many years of doing the same thing, the will to experiment is gone, and photography has become a job. I suppose not everybody is capable of making the transition to artist; it’s not easy to keep that fire burning when you are spending most of your available time and mental capacity on keeping yourself in business.
I am writing this article because I think I’m now at the point where I have to choose between photography as art and photography for purely commercial purposes; try as I might, the more time I spend photographing for pay and ‘to spec’ as a craftsman, the less artistic inclination I have. It affects the way you see; you approach every scene with the expectation that everything must be perfect and controlled, and if it isn’t, you don’t feel inclined to photograph. That takes the experimentation and spontaneity out of it. But, what I like to shoot – what I find intuitive and visually interesting – isn’t what clients want to use to sell their product. In fact, it’s an uphill battle to convince them that the product alone should do the talking (see my previous article). Whether I should focus on one or another is not a question I expect the readership to be able to answer, but if there are any a) artists b) gallery owners/ agents c) serious art buyers in the audience, I’d certainly welcome your input, below the line or offline…MT
Places left for 2014 Making Outstanding Images Workshops: Havana and London – click here for more information and to book!
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved