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Tuesday, 06 November 2007


Nice one Mike!

This issue of relating to art has been heavy on mind of late. So much so that I wrote a little essay about it myself, which you can find at my website if so inclined (it's called "Getting Art"). Your post today is a refreshing approach that illuminates the incredible diversity of possible responses and relationships. Certainly made me think about man vs. art a bit more.

Thanks, and looking forward to more!


Interesting thoughts Mike! I'm glad the writer's block is in remission. :)

I think that "Is it art or not?" is subjective when the work of art is borderline art. In that case, some think it's art and others don't; it's probably artistic, but not definitively art.

Also, I think that it's easy to confuse between whether or not you like something, and is it art or not. If you like it, you tend to think of it as art; if you don't like it, you tend to think it isn't art.

In the end, the greatest examples of art pretty much leave no doubt about their status. Melville's "Moby Dick"; Nick Drake's "Pink Moon"; the "Mona Lisa."

Thank you Mike, for opening this topic. The way you pose it, combined with reader responses so far, are intriguing. I can't wait to see where this forum leads!

I find myself agreeing with two seemingly disparate concepts from the discussion so far. 1) Art is universal, 2) Art is subjective. As Kent concludes, some works seem to be universally acceptable as Art. On the otherhand, when I conclude that a work is Art, it is so personal, so subjective? Can a human response be both universal and subjective?

Is there / are there, things that are universally meaningful and Art is a work that provides a connection to it. Or is the work of Art something intrinsically true (or beautiful), with no need for connection to a universal.

Do we insist that there is one definition of Art, or can there be several?

Well, I can only speak for myself, but I see art in a lot of things--then again, I "see" or comprehend the world much more from an aesthetic standpoint than most people do, which is partly a curse.

To me, photography is a lot like pottery or cabinetmaking or architecture--a lot of it is utilitarian, pedestrian, earthbound, but a few people practice it like it was a fine art and some subset of those people have the skill and judgment to pull it off as such. And it's not just the people who are trying to add in all the signifiers of high art that succeed in making art--I can appreciate pottery or furniture that's not overtly intended to be artistic, and sometimes a structure that essentially has no ambition can be quite wonderful if it's well judged and carried off well. In such cases it's tough to say that the makers didn't "intend" it to be art, because, after all, *somebody* was responsible for designing it, whatever it was, and presumably they cared enough to make it look and feel the way it does. But if you look at, say, houses, most of them are failures from an artistic standpoint, a fair number are actively awful and tasteless, but a few are exquisite. Getting back to photography, it's always fascinated me to try to figure out why some things work and others don't. Why does one photograph have an essential grace while another that shows exactly the same thing doesn't? Why do some people have a knack for doing utilitarian work and infusing it with style and elegance, whereas other people struggle mightily to add all the signifiers of high art and yet fail anyway? How do some people develop such richly distinctive styles that are so much "theirs"--not just in photography, but in other "crafts" as well...especially when the craft in question is not innately artistic? (And while painting is inherently artistic, I don't think photography is. Most photographs are not art, even the ones that try to be.)

It's a fascinating subject.

Mike J.

Charles M Schulz said it best through his character Lucy in an old Peanuts strip:

"A work of art takes at least one hour" :-)

... to be honest, this is as good as many learned definitions I've come across - and at least it can be clearly understood!

I do like Mike's idea of satisfying an appetite though - when you're very hungry, almost anything tastes good. When you're full, the food has to be very good indeed to tempt you. The more images you look at, the more discriminating you become, though (and this is where some critics get it wrong) being discriminating does not necessarily mean "good taste" or that your choice has any special merit.

It is possible, after all, to be a connoisseur of hotdogs.



I think you really hit the nail on the head with this one, Mike. I had never thought of it this way, but indeed art and sexuality seem analogous in all of the respects you've mentioned.

Perhaps that will help people to accept their own "preferences" for art (or their own sexual preferences!) without judgment. There are probably not too many people who think to themselves, "If THEY think he/she is hot, there must be something WRONG with me if I don't. Perhaps I need to EDUCATE myself on what "being hot" is"!

No. As you point out, in art, we like something or we don't. Like our sexual preferences, our preference for art may be a result of our background, childhood conditioning and personality - all of which we have very little control over.

Sure, those preferences can change as we grow and change. But I believe there's a certain element that is just part of who we are... a part that won't (and doesn't need to) change.

Thanks for another provocative post, Mike.

"In the end, though, I think art satisfies an appetite."

That made the light go on for me. If anyone is able to be moved by a photograph, a piece of music, a play--whatever--then art becomes vital...something much more important than an abstraction.

For anyone who hasn't seen the German film "The Lives of Others," I highly recommend it. It makes a profound statement about the power of art, and the art of living as well.

Thanks, Mike

Well put. It seems to me that one implication of this line of reasoning is that a discussion of "good art" vs "bad art" becomes difficult, but not necessarily a bad thing.

Excellent Mike! Thanks for that!
By the way, did the "writer's block" go away? Because if it didn't you should begin several books right away...

Why should a photographer care? Get busy and do your work the best you are able.

Art is nothing tangible. We cannot call a painting “art”. As the words “artifact” and “artificial” imply, the thing made is a work of art, made by art, but not itself art; the art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made. What is made according to the art is correct; what one makes as one likes may very well be awkward. We must not confuse taste with judgement, or loveliness with beauty, for as Augustine says, some people like deformities.

The problem is not whether photography can be art, but in confusing art with finished product or the technique employed. It is the artist’s psychological attitude toward the process of creation alone that signifies the artistic validity of the act that produces the “work of art.

Dear Mike,

You've brought up a distinction that I think is important. Photography is not art.

Neither, for that matter, are writing, painting, dance or sculpture. They are all (depending upon whether you're considering the noun or the verb) crafts and media of expression. But they aren't art. They can all be used to create art.

The wife of one of the correspondents in the previous thread calls herself a painter, not an artist. She may be correct; I don't know her motivation. Me, I have no trouble calling myself an artist, because that's what I'm trying to create.

Whether I'm creating GOOD art is another matter. I am unquestionably, by any metric, an extremely good photographer (99.9 percentile, conservatively). But, is my art good or bad? That is something viewers get to decide for themselves.

If some critical mass of viewers (some combination of quantity and quality, don't ask me the mix) decide I'm a good artist, then the world will consider me so. There's never unanimity, often not even consensus.

pax / Ctein

I think that education and training are also important in art appreciation, which makes it different from sexual attraction. We often have to know some art history, the context in which the work was made, and something about the rest of the artist's work to decide if it's art. (e.g. a catalogue photo of sofa isn't art, but a Richard Prince reproduction of that same photograph is.) We still may not like the work then, but we can understand if and why it's art.

Perhaps it just doesn't matter if something is good art, bad art or indeed art at all. More useful, maybe, to think "Is this photo/painting/sculpture *interesting*, and what makes it so?" Getting hung up on an evaluation can be a dead-end, where as thinking about interestingness, resonance, power to communicate expands all kinds of frameworks, aesthetic, emotional, social, intellectual or moral.

In "The Patience of Shakespeare" Frank Kermode considers that what makes Shakespeare a "classic" is his "patience": different people, in different eras, in different contexts can come back again and again and find something interesting, provocative and rewarding each time.

A lot of things defined as "art" in any one era have a habit of going away because they are too tuned to the needs of the period and are not patient. This may happen to a lot of contemporary "art photography": it is too dependent on its context to reward viewing again and again and again in the way that we find in the classics. It's thin stuff, lacking in content or intelligence, formulaic and very provincial in outlook because it is geared to meet the needs (tastes) of a very small and self-contained group of technocrats.

Long live interestingness.

Ahh! Mike, nice way to break your "block". This and the Hein's posts have been very stimulating.

As I see it, a major problem with ART today, is it's over intellectualized. This does not mean we shouldn't study art, but rather that there is something inherently wrong in a visual medium requiring a 20 page dissertation to “understand”it.

Mike mentions sushi; I think the Asian attitude, broadly, views art as something to be striven for in all aspects of life. Sushi is a wonderful analogy; we can contemplate its beauty, then we get to eat it. The western world seems to want to divorce ART from functionality, to mount it on a pedestal, then form an exclusive club around it.

How can we tell if it’s art? I’m paraphrasing something from the author, John D. MacDonald: If it’s on your wall, and hasn’t disappeared in 6 months, it’s good. It has been a good approach for my own work, either 2 or 3 dimensional.

My living, such as it is, comes from designing, carving, restoring, and gilding picture frames. I use photography as a document and sketch tool, though it sometimes transcends that. Painter in water color and egg tempera, wood worker, carver, gilder, no pots. I don’t do pots. I think of myself as an artist.

I will mention a few pieces of “art”, sitting on my desk, as further explanation.

1. Small, dark green pot, amorphous in shape.

2. In pot, in wonderful marriage of complementary objects, a beautifully executed bronze toad.

3. A rock.

All 3 pass my “art test”. The pot was made by my then 8 year old daughter. I periodically need to pick it up to confirm her initials on the bottom. The toad is the work of an artist, Karen Callan. The rock is the work of another master, the wind, waves, and sand of Lake Michigan. All 3 have a beauty that rewards repeated contemplation. And, I’m pleased to say that even some of my own work has passed my test.


A great article, one of my favorite subjects to think about and talk about. My daughter and I discuss this subject of “is it art” a lot. We disagree a lot. She spends a lot of time in art galleries and museums and has strong opinions on the subject and her opinions are based on having done a lot of looking at, reading about and discussing art. She doesn’t like Picasso, she thinks he was a charlatan. I disagree, I love his work. She says if you give a monkey paint, brushes, paper what he makes with that might be fun to look at, but it is not art. I agree and that is where it gets tricky. We agree that the monkeys sticky mess is not art but for different reasons. Her reasons are very philosophical some what over my head. My reason is that it is not art because the monkey did not intend to make art. He couldn’t intend to make art because his brain is not built that way. His intellect is not able to allow him to be creative. So with me it comes down to intent. When I pick up pencil and paper and sit in view of a tree and proceed to draw it, I am working as an artist and I am making art. It is not just a record of the fact that the tree is now here in my back yard. I want to show myself and perhaps you how I feel about the beauty of the tree and how well I can draw it. So I show my drawing to you and you perhaps think, “Yes it is a tree, kinda like the one in his back yard, but either he doesn’t draw very well or this is a very impressionistic approach to rendering the tree”. In my case, perhaps both. But it is art. Because I am an artist and when I set out to make art, either with pencil and paper or with camera and film, it is art. Good, bad or indifferent art? You decide.
Another example of necessity of intent. I have spending time with some people that are luthiers, they make guitars and ukuleles. Some of them make them to sell, some make them just to make them, some instruments are plain some fancy, some turn out to be works of art. When they turn out to be works of art is because the maker intended it to be art. Nothing casual or accidental about it everything very deliberate and thought out The careful selection of the woods, the trim and binding, the many parts and pieces all came together with superb craftsmanship, not just as another nice instrument but an expression of the makers creative urge.

well there was this Russian chap who was on the Gulag who said:

"So also we, holding Art in our hands, confidently consider ourselves to be its masters; boldly we direct it, we renew, reform and manifest it; we sell it for money, use it to please those in power; turn to it at one moment for amusement - right down to popular songs and night-clubs, and at another - grabbing the nearest weapon, cork or cudgel - for the passing needs of politics and for narrow-minded social ends. But art is not defiled by our efforts, neither does it thereby depart from its true nature, but on each occasion and in each application it gives to us a part of its secret inner light.

"But shall we ever grasp the whole of that light? Who will dare to say that he has defined Art, enumerated all its facets? Perhaps once upon a time someone understood and told us, but we could not remain satisfied with that for long; we listened, and neglected, and threw it out there and then, hurrying as always to exchange even the very best—if only for something new! And when we are told again the old truth, we shall not even remember that we once possessed it."

The rest can be googled—Solzenitsyn's Nobel Prize Speech....

I agree that there is a spectrum of activities (painting, photography, stone-cutting, dancing, gardening) that may produce art, but then again, may not -- and even when one of these activities doesn't produce art, it still may be very enjoyable for the participants.

But good art (that is agreed upon by knowledgeable people, and there's quite a store of it) seems to me to have some reasonably objective characteristcs.

It's well-made or well-done. The artist is a craftsman. Some shoddy stuff may be accepted for art in its time, but that's usually just fashion, and not lasting art.

It makes sophisticated use of its basic materials -- color in painting, light in photography, etc. This doesn't mean that it can't be simple...but there's always more there than you understand at first.

The artist is *intimately* familiar with his subject matter.

The art has a philosophical dimension -- it makes people think. Could be about anything: sex, life, art, nature, etc. But it isn't just pretty. And it also reflects the fact that the artist thought deeply about what he was making -- he didn't just dash it off.

All those people out doing "plein aire" painting aren't really making art, they're making decoration of one quality or another. There's a good deal of contemporary art (that may sell for lots of money) that isn't truly art either, IMHO, but rather an exercise in public relations and advertising.

In photography, IMHO, it is really difficult to make art by taking photos of the Grand Tetons at dawn or dusk or slot canyons or etc. The problem is, the "artist" just usually shows up and takes the photo; what he's thought about (perhaps) is technique and time and location, but he's not really discovered anything about the subject; hasn't really thought about the Tetons as opposed, say, to his back garden. Just the fact that he's shown up at dawn in Jackson Hole suggests that he doesn't have the unique quality of mind that makes an artist.

One characteristic (again, IMHO) of a photographer who isn't an artist is a guy who travels everywhere to do photography. He may be an interesting guy, and he may be a travel photographer, or an adventure photographer, and get published, but he usually doesn't make it as an artist -- as good as the photographers are, you don't find much art in National Geographic. (There are some exceptions.)

That's one reason, in my opinion, that Salgado is not as good, as interesting, as artistic, as Nachtwey (who I think of as a serious artist.)


Love this kind of threads, so interesting and making me think...

One thing i want to pick out again: remember the chain link sky, where one of the first posters ask Mike for an explanation, why he likes this picture. i felt the same way, but then i noticed that asking for "advice" in looking at pictures provokes quite (implicit) negative reactions.

ok, i think this thread grows out of this different views. can i learn to judge what art is, or is it just by itself and thus very subjective?

i think that it is still possible to gain experience in looking at pictures, in extracting something. this something still remains inside one's own domain. but competent advice might be helpful, like someone introducing you to jazz, might it only be by taking you to a conzert.
in the same sense it may be enough that Mike posts this picture under "random excellence" to make me look at it twice.

i would welcome further explanation, to be honest, and i think this is not a bad thing per se. moreover i think this utterly-subjective-attitude is a bit nihilistic, prohibiting any discourse before it starts.

finally i want to say, that i feel like i could actually learn a lot from Mikes opinions, even if they are subjective by their very nature...


PS: chain link sky is not a pleasing one for me to look at, but it startet to develop shapes and depth in my perception as i looked at it for longer. and therefor i regard it as a working picture and worth a look, despite not being "beatiful" for me...


Isn't it interesting how fascinating these discussions are, how artistic, especially when I know I should be, well, actually "working"?


At a recent panel discussion of Jeff Wall, Roy Arden and Ian Wallace, members of the so called "Vancouver School of Photography", it was obvious the easiest way to insult them would be to call them photographers. They consider themselves artists, and photography is just the almost accidental method of how they express their art. All of them except Wallace had trouble explaining how genre applied to their pictures and I think it's because outside of a gallery or museum their pictures don't work. Their pictures are intelectual, based on explorations of art history, and few have an emotional impact, in fact I got the impression from what they said, an emotional response to their work would mean to them the picture was a failure.

Hey Mike,

Just want to publicly thank you for picking up the flag that I raised with my comment, and bringing it to a higher level with your eloquence and expertise. I hope the discussion is being interesting and beneficial for all T.O.P. readers.


G. Sarri stated, “I think that education and training are also important in art appreciation, which makes it different from sexual attraction. We often have to know some art history, the context in which the work was made, and something about the rest of the artist's work to decide if it's art.”

Which came first, the chicken or the egg; art or art history? Obviously art came before art history just like sex came before the Karma Sutra. One can enjoy sex without any knowledge of the Karma Sutra, just like one can enjoy art without any art history background. Yes, just like sexual pleasures can be heightened by following teaching from the Karma Sutra, art can be better appreciated and understood with some knowledge of art history, but that does not mean that art history is mandatory to enable this appreciation and understanding.

How else can we judge avant-garde artists that are pushing the envelope, and are ahead of their time? We have no art history by which to judge.

I appreciate art and enjoy art history, but do not feel that knowledge of both is required to appreciate the other.

What a great thread!

The opinions in the responses read like pieces in a huge puzzle that will never be finished! At least I hope it'll never be finished, since "open-endedness" also seems to be a characteristic of art as a human pursuit. The diversity of opinions is a real education, and that in itself kind of indicates that no single person, even an "art expert," is ever going to have all the answers. It's also clear how valuable art is to many people.

Wonderful topic!

The recent documentary My Kid Could Paint That also delved into the "what is art, and how do we know it" question. One of the most revealing moments in the film (the segment was also on 60 Minutes) was when an art critic was asked if the toddler's paintings were, in fact, museum quality art- to which she replied with an enthusiastic, "Yes!" Yet, when shown film of the "artist in action," she replied that they were just the mere dabblings of any preschooler. Huh!?

I love Banksy for turning the art world on its head and exposing it, himself, and fellow artists for just what they are...

Amongst other things, he has often done what I (and I suspect many others) have often only contemplated, namely, secretly inserting a work of his art alongside the works of the "official" participants in group shows at museums, galleries, etc. Often, he would do this with a very tell tale sign (sometimes of a sexual or political nature) incorporated into the piece- and still it would take days, often weeks, before being "noticed" and removed.

Dear Stan,

You can spoof experts in any field.

Essentially the same trick has been pulled on physicists, social scientists and postmodernists (and probably others I am unaware of). If you hand them total gobbledygook carefully enough structured and presented as to appear substantive, they are fooled into thinking it's legit.

It's an experiment that says interesting things about how social constructs drive human response. It says nothing about the value of the disciplines or the experts within them.

pax / Ctein

I *promise* I'm not trying to drag up this discussion again. It's just that I saw this piece in the New York Times today and it reminded me of Ctein's comment, above.


It's a pretty interesting piece and well worth reading.

Best regards,

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