(Editor's note: For several years now, Ctein [the name is pronounced "kuh-TINE" and yes, it's legally his entire name] has been writing three posts a month for TOP. Starting this morning, his contributions will be weekly and will be published every Thursday morning.)
Greetings, Citizens. Today I am going to ask some of you to put on your thinking caps and deal with some difficult questions. I'm going to be asking you why you hold certain opinions. "Why" is always a very hard question, but "what" isn't an interesting one.
Understand that this will count for 0% of your grade. You don't have to participate. But, should you choose to do so, you will be graded...by a jury of your peers. Tough audience. Fervency of belief won't sway them; insightfulness will.
So here's the question I'm putting to you: Some of you considered Michael Paul Smith's work to be less than art—not good art versus bad art, just not art. I'd like to know why.
Mere wordplay will not be deemed an acceptable answer (although elegance will be admired). Saying that it's "craft" and not "art" begs the question. That's just two buzzwords concatenated, devoid of useful information. Tell me why you think it's craft instead of art, and you have something meaningful to say to all of us.
I told you it would be a difficult question. It's easy to say that you like or dislike something. It's easy to categorize something based on your own internal value system. It's hard to understand how that value system works, let alone articulate it. But doing the hard stuff is when we all learn things.
If this weren't bad enough, I'm going to throw some questions at you of both a serious and semi-rhetorical nature; consider them carefully before responding. They are intended to confound:
• Is it just Michael's work that you don't consider art, or is all studio photography not art in your mind? Again, the important question here is not "what?" but "why?" If you think all studio photography is not art, you have to tell us why. If you think some is and some isn't, you have to figure out what distinguishes them from each other. (To keep from muddying the conversation too much, let's not include photographs of humans or animals. Photographing animate creatures, whether in their natural habitats or an artificial setting, is very different from photographing a non-responsive or immobile object.)
• Can still life photographs be art; if so, then why some and not others? If categorically not, then why is it that Van Gogh's Sunflowers can be considered art but a photograph of a vase of sunflowers can't be?
• If studio photography isn't art, why should outdoor natural photography be considered art? How would me photographing a real building in the outside world hit a different artistic level from me constructing a faux building in a studio and photographing it?
• If you don't think any photography can be art, then...no, let's put down the can opener and step slowly away from the worms. We've opened enough cans for today.
Tackle these questions as you see fit, or feel free to duck the whole issue. Just remember that if you decide to play, few people will be interested in what opinions you hold; what they will value is knowing why you hold them.
Featured Comment by norrin: "I think the answer is about 80 years old. 'La trahison des images'—The Treachery of Images."
Featured Comment by anonymous: "Oh, boy! Here's where Zen training really pays off: the answer, of course, is mu!"
[Ed. Note: Definition of mu.]
Featured Comment by Hugh Crawford: "Of course studio still life photography and by extension any photography can be art, or at least examples of studio still life photography are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, and The Met. Questioning that is like asking whether paint can be art or giant pieces of marble or goats wearing tires or young woman covered in cake frosting can be art. Almost anything with 'this is not art' written on it will qualify as art albeit with much eye rolling and 'you should have been here 30 years ago.'
"About Michael's work? It certainly could be, it depends on intent and context. Flicker is a pretty crummy context for art unless the intent is clear.
"I'm pretty sure that a vase of sunflowers has been exhibited as art somewhere, on the other hand I once grew 80 acres of sunflowers but that was for snackfood and it was called farming. I did later take a photograph of that field on fire after it was harvested, made a mural sized print of it accompanied with text about the death of my father, and showed it in a gallery.
"It's all about framing. (Yes a pun.)
"Next week Mike Johnston asks 'what is Jazz?', which reminds me of the NYC Noise Fest where there were all these people complaining 'This isn't noise, this is music!', and no I'm not making that up."
[Ed. Note: And if the following is not the last word, I don't know what is:]
Featured Comment by David Comdico: "As a categorical placeholder, the term Art has become so loose as to be indeterminate. We have learned the vocabularies of Duchamp, Warhol, Koons so today literally anything can be, and is, considered art. Dada, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Postmodernism—each was railed against (as photography was in its early history) as antithetical to art. The problem these critics faced is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove a negative—and at the very least epistemologically dicey. So I propose here instead not to argue categorically but qualitatively.
"To begin, there are many ways to think about art, to be sure. Here is a quick but incomplete list:
"The institutionalization of art hardly has the power it once did but its authority still holds sway. The institutional theory holds that if something is in a museum it is then, de facto, art. For example, it has been argued that Duchamp's urinal became art as soon as it was displayed as such in a gallery. Silly as this sounds, there is a grain of truth here as the issue is context: the context informers a viewer how to regard the object, or in this case, how not to utilize it.
"Second, there is the political approach that claims art has emancipatory aims and is uniquely positioned to free us from our cultural blinders. Here the artist is, as Sartre suggests, committed. Empathy plays a large role and thus by extending our selves we see how others are effected by forces under our control. Here, Art is the medium which has the unique properties to accurately transmit this uniquely encoded message, and effect change by changing people.
"Third, there is art as experience or phenomenological event. Thinkers such as John Dewey and Merleau-Ponty explored this vein, which I think creatives have a lot of experience with and can relate to, especially the street photographer. One's imagination is held in creative tension by the flow of experience so that the senses are fully engaged and the doors of perception are unlocked. This, however, is not merely subjective response, as the artwork must objectively capture a certain gestalt. Dewey speaks of an infant's cry out of hunger as being in-expressive since the newborn has not yet learned to connect the cry and the resulting satiation. Therefore, artists simply cannot rely on an outburst, they must express their thoughts and feelings through the form of their medium of choice.
"Fourth, as we become more experienced our taste expands. We have prior experience and standards, both personal and cultural which we bring with us. Culturally, we call this body of work the canon, and today this concept extends down to even the most minute level where tastemakers will categorize exemplary musical bands, say, even within micro-genres of popular music. So taste has become common sense but its roots are fairly recent, in the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury who shifted the source of order from reason to taste and feeling.
"And of course, lastly, we cannot leave out the metaphysical and philosophical approaches to art. Philosophically, today most so-called post-modern art has a metonymic relationship to the objective world so the work itself cannot be located in the material of the work itself. This a tricky move, and it invalidates much of what was said above concerning experience; it is also often concomitant with a political angle of some sort (yes, the categories are hardly discreet). The metaphysical is probably the most familiar to us as it's perhaps the default position: art is that which is beautiful. We can trace this idea back to Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists and it is so intertwined with our language as to be almost invisible as a theory.
"So, regarding Michael Paul Smith's work in particular, the question, to me, is not 'is it art' but is it successful art. For starters, we can assume a certain level of curatorship so it is art on that account at least—we view it with certain expectations—that the photographer took these photos for some purpose other than to document his work as a model builder.
"Politically, the photos seem to suggest that the idyllic image of mid-20th century America is an illusion, or perhaps a lost vision. That is, we take the image to be an old photo of a bygone error until we discover, or are informed, that it is a fake of recent vintage. From this we postulate two possible political motivations: one, that Smith has nostalgia for a simpler, purer America that was once a model for the world but is now only a model within the world, or, alternatively, that he is politically critical of this popular image of an idealized America and suggests that the history we have of this past is just as fake as the model which represents it. It is also possible that the intent of the photo is for the viewer to oscillate between these two extremes.
"The experience of this art occurs a bit outside of the work itself so is, in my mind, post-modernly metonymic. One is not drawn to the photo's form or innovation thereof. The most remarkable thing about the work is what it is not: real. So the experience of viewing this photo is rather bland, but this should not immediately disqualify it's possible status as a successful work of art.
"As a work of beauty, one can appreciate the craftsmanship of the model maker-which I believe in this case is Smith himself. The detail is convincing and it fools the eye, even after the trick has been revealed. Photographically, the black and white is convincing enough to be from the era the model represents, but the telltale sign of modern techniques are more visible here. In short, the photo does not seem to have aged.
"Philosophically is where the work, I believe, succeeds or fails. As a post-modern work, the locus of interest is equally in the work as it is in the network of associations the work invites. So we have a series of contrasts and conflations: real/fake, old/new, photo/world, construction/reconstruction. There is certainly much that is worthwhile to think about. The final challenge is how an individual work of art fits into the oeuvre of a particular artist and into a genre of work amongst other artists. Two artists that come to mind who explore similar territory are Thomas Demand and George Rousse, against whom favorable comparisons would be no easy feat.
"So, finally, my take away is that, if intended conceptually, the work is interesting and well executed but not strong enough to contend with similar work in this vein, nor is it uniquely revealing to be considered as a breakthrough on its own (i.e. I am invoking taste here). However, this is tentative and subject to revision if the photographer's other work gives me a fresh insight. On the other hand, if the photo is intended as a non-conceptual illusion or recreation then it is only half-successful and its nostalgia is then somewhat troubling.
"Now, it could be that most of this is a serious misreading of Smith's photograph. Such misreadings are not unusual in photography—see Eugene Atget and E. J. Bellocq or any number or vernacular photographers. In my reading, for example, the partially convincing black and white is a conscious choice intended to influence interpretation—that is, the ragged sleeve is on display to undermine the staged reality. So the work is meant to fool the eye and then give in to it—any more convincing and you would need additional information to uncover the true meaning, and any less—say unabashed digital color—would not have succeeded as illusion initially. But perhaps the reasons are more mundane: maybe the photographer only chose the format he did because he wanted to hide some imperfection that color would have revealed—or perhaps he considered the illusion complete."