Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Art For The Masses, Or Not?

Ever wondered about some of the things we struggle to make right in our images - the subtle print qualities that few can appreciate, the nuances of composition that go over the heads of most of our audience? What if only the arts educated can appreciate our work? Fortunately we can look to the other arts to help us put things into perspective.

There are many authors I don't appreciate yet my wife does - the difference? She was interested in writing to start with, did well in that area of her schooling and went on to get a masters degree in theatre history so I'd guess we'd call her "arts educated" when it comes to the written word.

Now, if a book is appreciated by someone like my wife, but someone like me gets bored with it after the first two pages, does that make it any the less great literature. If that were so, much of what society considers great literature would not be valued (since the uneducated masses, like myself, don't appreciate it).

There are brilliant composers who put layers of sophistication into their music that most of us are completely unaware of and have little to do with whether they wrote a "good tune". Some of those composers managed to do both write clever sophisticated music with depths for those who could appreciate it, while also writing for the masses, music which was a "good tune" and a lot more. Sometimes this can happen in the same piece of music - eg. Bach. Other composers though never wrote a catchy tune in their lives yet are revered by those in the know.

Now, I'm being a bit facetious with the "good tune" comment because there's music that can bring tears to many people and certainly doesn't require an arts education to be appreciated.

From my experience selling at the farmers market, there are a goodly number of young and old people who appreciate the finer points of photography, who "get" what I'm trying to do with my images. Sure, there are lots who simply want a pretty picture for the wall, but there are enough with a discriminating eye to make my time there rewarding.

Nowadays, the vast majority of people who see my work are other photographers, and with the publication of my book, that's only going be even more so. Photographers as a group may not be arts educated, but can in general appreciate the work that went into a good print.

You'd think that the obvious answer is "we want it all", we want the highbrows and the peons, the art educated and the huddled mases to appreciate our work. It may not be realistic to want this though.

For example, my often quoted Pepper Number 30 by Edward Weston is almost universally liked by photographers, but lots of the public just don't get it - all they can see is a pepper, and not even a particularly good specimen either. By the same token, many photographers actively dislike postcardy scenes, yet they certainly sell well. After all, for everone who can appreciate cubism, there are 1000 buying velvet paintings.

So, universal appeal is unrealistic. Miles Davis may be a genius, but I don't like jazz. How can anyone criticize country and western with lines like "get your tongue out of my mouth honey, I'm kissing you goodby" and "all my exes, live in Texas".

If you are prepared to agree that universal appeal isn't either possible or practical, who then should we aim to interest? I'm guessing that we shouldn't all aim at the same market for no more sophisicated reason than it would make for a very crowded market, better you aim to sell to someone other than the fellow I'm working on.

I suspect that attempting to adjust one's photography to the market we wish to impress is problematic. Whether that market is people with lots of money or gallery owners or curators or editors, our efforts are best spent fine tuning the work that means the most to us, and it happens to have a limited market or following, well so be it. Therein lies the difference between a professional photographer and an artist - the former suits his work to his client. While he may use various artistic techniques, it is always with a goal in mind that someone else set. The artist photographer is hopefully making images for themselves first.

There are of course fine art photographers who do in fact cater to their market, which would seem to make them professionals but not artists - a debatable point but none the less relevant - they aren't creating from inner sight, a need to create or because they have something to say. Sure they use the same compositional and editing skills as an artist photographer and it's even possible some of the images might look the same, but you have to wonder.

So, if we feel strongly about commercial art vs. fine art, should we in fact have any particular audience for our work, or do we simply "do it" and hope someone appreciates it?

For myself, I found that working at the farmers market, I started to think of "this would sell well" when I was out shooting. Since I stopped working at the market, those thoughts haven't popped up once - the images made are for me, because I need to. If they happen to appeal to you or someone else well that's nice. I've never once thought - gee, this would look good in the blog, and hope I don't ever start thinking that way. I don't like that I was thinking this way after being at the market some time. The realities of running a business (and that's what it was, even if on a small scale) invariably start creeping into the photographing end of things.

If I really wanted to prostitute myself, I'd shoot sunsets and grain elevators, but have no interest in doing so. There are others who genuinely are interested in the fast disappearing wooden grain elevators and attack the photographing of them with energy and creativity. To do so though just because it sells well...

Does this mean that there is such a thing as a photographer's photographer - someone who's work is generally most appreciated by people who know what's involved - who are into the process as much as the result? Might this explain the obcession in some magazines with antique or alternative processes - because the editor appreciates the effort involved in creating the image?

I've never bought into "it has to be difficult to be good" but I suppose if I did, I'd be shooting on film and printing on platinum, even though I happen to think that inkjet looks better than platinum.

First and foremost we photographers are ordinary people - we watch the Simpsons, belch after a good meal (if we can get away with it) and fart as much as anyone. My point here is that before being art literate, we are first a member of the masses, attracted to images with emotional appeal or unusual or interesting - that is, we enjoy a good tune. After that, we can also appreciate the nuances of fine photographs. Some images are intellectually interesting (art educated) while others may be more like the good tune.

When it comes to planning images, I suspect that none of this is relevant, we simply see what interests us and do with it what we can. If we put into the image things that most can't see, well we can, and some other photographers can, and perhaps a part of the public can. We can't predict ahead of time which things are important to any one person, so we do our best and say "this is me" rather than "I thought you'd like this".


Andy Ilachinski said...

There is a great scene in (I believe) "New York Stories", a movie trilogy released about 10 years ago or so. One story was by Scorcese, another by Woody Allen, I forgot the third. But the Scorcese one is brilliant...about an artist (a *real* artist, in the purest sense), played by Nick Nolte. He lives/works in a studio in NY, and takes on female artists/students/lovers to share the space and art with. Cutting to the chase: there is a scene near the end, when his latest student (Rosanne Arquete), pleads with him to finally tell her whether she is "any good; should I continue doing art?". The Nolte character, who is immersed in a huge canvas, with paint flying everywhere, throws down his brush, spins around in a fury, and blasts out, "Do Art?!? You don;t ask me whether you're good enough to do art, or if your art is any good! You do art because you have to! Its who you are!" That scene left seared itself into my memory. That whole episode, as part of the trilogy, is worth watching. But that scene (for me) stole the whole show.

Matt said...

It is very easy to fall into the trap of "I think this might sell well". I get those thoughts often, but since (fortunately) I don't sell my work for a living it is easy for me to push those thoughts out of my head. I do, though, push myself to create technically "better" images (sharp, balanced, composed well, etc.) partly with the expectation that it might be good enough to put up for sale. Selling has indeed made me a better photographer overall, as well as spending years reading articles like this one.

Sometimes of course I take images just for me. I need to remind my wife sometimes that I don't photograph just to sell - it is a hobby and a way for me to express myself, even if nobody else other than my family sees the image.

George Barr said...

Both good points. Knowing your work is going to be seen by others does challenge you to try harder, compose more carefully, be more productive. Selling on the other hand tends to result in making images that sell well which could be detrimental to one's development as an artist. Most of my 40+ years of photography I didn't show my work to anyone, in many cases not even family. I have to say it's a lot more rewarding to share images with people who are knowledgeable and the internet has been ideal for that.

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