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Thursday, 11 February 2010


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If the speculum "moved" you, would it not be ART?

High craft can be art; the Stanley #55 plane transcends its origins; so well designed and functional.

I'm sorry, I very strongly believe that craft can be art, and what Hoving was dealing with was more connisseurship, than a distinction between art and craft.

And, besides that, there are not a few who think Hoving was ... well, controversial.

And I reiterate, my opinion is the only one that is right.


I feel I need to expand; if an object is beautifully crafted, can it not be art?

What is the distinction?

Is ART only on a pedastel in some Museum? Why is craft treated as an orphan stepchild?

And, what is this "decorative arts" stuff? Silver ware is an art? Rugs? Tapestry? Furniture? and of course, where the hell are picture frames?

Umm. Why does the fact that an object is a tool for a purpose prevent it from being an object of art?

Andy Warhol also drew a 'cocoon' around a Campbell Soup Can and Brillo Boxes too; from that time on, it seems to me, it was no longer possible to look at a thing on its own. Although I'd say it is still possible, necessary even to look at things as a humanistic experience. A lot has happened between the manufacture of that piece of Roman glass and the obstetrical speculum; if you look at things in and by themselves, you take much of the humanity away, or the humanistic context at least. What's left but formalistic concepts and their descriptors?


Not exactly on topic, but...I discovered John McPhee in the mid-seventies with his book "Coming Into The Country" about Alaska. He is one of my favorite writers as well. He has a new piece in the latest issue of The New Yorker about pickerel (it's a fish). By the by, I take it you are a subscriber. I wound up buying the Complete New Yorker on DVD. Highly recommended.


Funny you should mention that. Curiously, just a couple of posts ago, I mentioned an accident I was involved in during the Blizzard of '77. I had been reading "Coming Into the Country" at the time and was halfway through the book, which was in the car, when the accident happened. When we finally went to see the wrecked Bronco, the book was still there in the back, half burned, covered with snow and broken glass, and ruined. It was to be twenty years before I finally got a replacement copy and finished reading it. Surely the longest time in my life between starting and finishing a book!


Ah John McPhee...

Of course, if it had been a can of beer on the highly polished hardwood pedestal, it would be a "sandwich." ;-)

"Umm. Why does the fact that an object is a tool for a purpose prevent it from being an object of art?"

I think - but I'm probably wrong - that one point made by the story is that things have a primary purpose, and they're only primarily art in the absence of any other purpose. That would be the main difference between art and craft: a piece of craftsmanship - a hand-woven carpet, say - has a primarily functional purpose precluding the interpretation as an object of art.

So Duchamps urinal would be art for two reasons: he presented it as art - invited the audience to see it as an object of art rather than utility - and it was disconnected, laid on the side and no longer useful, so stripped of its primary purpose.

Or I'm just spouting nonsense, a distinctly likely possibility.

Mike, just a quick note that I too have enjoyed John McPhee's work over the years. I always marveled how an English Professor could be such a good geologist. Another great book of his was "coming into the country" a great book about Alaska. Eric

Dear Mike,

While it's an amusing anecdote, it's a shallow lesson. All the professor did was to trick his students into evaluating a mundane object as a work of art. Yes there is a lesson to be learned in there, but it's not a particularly thoughtful nor insightful one.

Now, had the professor been REALLY good, several more lessons would have been devoted to the students' reactions. First lesson: not knowing what the object was, they responded to it aesthetically. Those responses are not illegitimate; surgical and medical instruments frequently are gorgeous-looking, even when you know what they are. And while the form may have followed function, said form is frequently aesthetically pleasing. Some of the reasons why are even explicable: e.g., we find splines visually very attractive, at the same time that they have a functional and mathematical reason for being used to join non-tangential curves and surfaces (French curves exist for a reason).

So the students' seemingly naive reactions quickly lead into a deep and purposeful examination of the nature of aesthetics and its relationship to the functional, the mathematical, the psychophysical, and the perceptual. Hugely open-ended questions, and usually so abstract that it's hard to get a handle on them. Here's a case history waiting to be explored.

Second lesson: a huge amount of representational art works because it gets the viewer to really **LOOK** at something, instead of merely looking at it. The object hasn't changed; the artist has made you see it differently than you did before they executed their work. It can be different in depth, different in kind, different in scope, different in scale, doesn't matter. Weston's bell peppers were brought up as an earlier example. A great deal of representational painting serves the agenda. And we don't call it art merely because we admire the painter's ability to convert what they saw into brush strokes. In the most literal kinds of work, for example the Hudson River school, that reduces to the level of craft, albeit brilliantly executed craft. Still, most connoisseurs of painting consider that work to be art.

Making the point even more strongly, I would say there is a large body of work, generally accepted as art, whose overriding message is, "Wow! Look at that!" I don't mean it in a sensationalistic way, rather the artist is simply exhorting you to Pay Attention. Almost all landscape photography, some of which is unquestionably art, is of that nature. A great deal of modern sculpture, by transforming mundane objects in scale or medium, is doing the same thing.

A considerable amount of art has that purpose: to get the viewer to think to themselves, "Amazing, I never saw it that way before."

Third lesson: points analogous to the ones I raised in my last column: why are the students reacting the way they're reacting? I don't mean the trivial why ('cause the professor led them to do so) I mean what factors in what they're looking at are influencing and informing their perceptions. If they think it has, say, "lyrical curves" even if that's not by any artistic intent, what is that saying about their perceptions, what lyricism means to them, and what factors in the work are inducing a lyrical sense.

I could come up with several more important lessons about the nature of art and perception out of that one little exercise. Point being, the lesson in the anecdote stops with the trivial. A better instructor could have used it as a springboard for so much more.

Makes for a great story, though.

Just not a deep one.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Grant (& Mike) THANK YOU for the link to Laura McPhee's website ! I just started looking at it - I'd love to see these photos as large prints. I like them because they appeal to me immediately, and then almost as quickly challenge some of my preconceived notions of what makes a good photograph.

And a great anecdote that reminds me of my Short Stories class in college where we used the McPhee Reader and learned that a good enough writer can make any subject interesting. Maybe a good lesson for photographers ?

a speculum eh? Love it

Ever since I read "Oranges" I've been a McPhee fan as well. Among other reasons for liking his work, I admire the thoroughness of his reporting. But in this case I believe he was had.

Do a Google image search for obstetrical speculum. Whatever Professor Stohlman put on that table (assuming that much of the story was true), it wasn't one of those. Not even a graduate student from Laputa could take such a thing for an art object. I suspect Hoving was inventing another story in which he could be the hero--a not unknown practice of his--and for some reason, maybe because it was a good story, McPhee bit.

Joe Glaser

Funny where these things can take you. I learned about John McPhee in my Short Stories class in college. The professor was very intense, passionate about writing, and the class was often as interesting as the stories we were reading. He would stand on his desk; his hair would get a little wild. He would react to our stories with a loud, sincere "Yes ! Yes !" (or more often than not: "No ! No !" especially in my case as an Engineer taking a Humanities elective). Once after I read my only real inspired story (toward the end of the semester, after I'd apparently managed to actually learn something) he told me after class "I'm not sure if you'd make a good writer or not" (which I took as a great compliment, all previous signs indicating I'd best stick with computer science). Anyway, reading John McPhee, thinking about that class, I got on Amazon and searched for Samuel Pickering (I remembered his name 20 or so years later). I bought one of his books of short stories back in school after the class, so knew he was a writer. I found some hits, none with reviews. So I did a google search, found him on wikipedia and read that he was the inspiration for the Professor Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society. Thinking back, I can definitely see the similarities.

So ... thanks for the "Is It Art" followup, thanks for the Laura McPhee pointer, and thanks for the trip down memory lane.

I don't think that's self-evident. If somebody put this...


...on a table in a context where you'd expect a sculpture, at a time when pop art was exploding the boundaries of what was formerly considered art, with people who were young and unsure and overly anxious to spout learned "code" intended to denote expertise, it could easily happen. In any event we can't say because we don't know what the object actually looked like. You could be right; or maybe not.


I chuckled at the comment that the Ferrari isn't art. MOMA may disagree.
And as I look around my living room, I see a 1930s spindizzy (tether car), a 1960 model airplane engine, three gears from an Alfa Giulietta gearbox powder-coated yellow, an Argus C3, an Orrery, modern manufacture but in continuous production for 90 years, an Art Deco Clock, two auto hood ornaments, a handmade Samurai sword from my son, a lamp made from silkworm cocoons and an original Charles and Ray Eames molded plywood leg splint from WW2, one of their most famous works, all displayed as art, along with photos, paintings, silk screens, traditional sculpture and more.
One man's art, eh?

While there's certainly an attractive element to John Camp's argument. It is of course based upon the logical fallacy of Argument from Authority. (I say it is, so it is, and if you say it isn't, it's because you don't know what I know - which you would anyway be unable to understand.) But yes, I know there was a disclaimer.

I do take issue, though, with equating "art" and "successful art." It really does seem needlessly elitist to me to put down unsuccessful art as being something other than what it was intended as. But what is it then? If Van Gogh's early work isn't art, what is it? Craft? Likely not accomplished enough to qualify as craft. No, sorry, it's art. You may not like it; it may not work for you as art. It may work better as a wrapper of fish and liner of birdcages, but it's still art.

But here's a question: if I have worked most of my adult life in jobs that don't require a university education, is my diploma better described as "potential toilet paper" or as ... "art?"

Well, Ctein beat me to my argument (and made the point much more effectively than I would have) I guess that is the price I paid for going out to dinner and a show with my wife, though my night actually does relate back to the topic at hand. We ate Mexican, which probably would not qualify as art, and then saw "Jesus Christ Superstar," which probably would. The irony is that I enjoyed the Mexican food much more than the show, yet we all seem to agree that mere enjoyment does not exclusively qualify something as art.

I certainly agree with Mike that there is a lot of bad art out there that I don't particularly think of as being "artistic." I don’t find compelling, though, the argument that the quality (or lack thereof) of the expression through a medium should be a qualification for whether something is art. As an example, I'm reminded of a bad cubist painting in the lobby of a restaurant in my parent's home town. When I say “bad,” I mean really bad! I imagine that the artist had a vague idea that cubism can be disjointed and contain lots of geometric shapes comprising a figure, but had no idea of how to connect those elements into a cohesive subject. Somehow, a woman's torso was created in this manner with a bunch of randomly painted, though vaguely related geometric elements parts. I really can't describe how badly this painting missed the mark for me! According to Mike's "would a museum curator buy it?" criterion for determining whether something is art, this painting would certainly not come close to qualifying! Yet if I were to use the "I know it when I see it" criterion, I would definitely say that it was art, just really bad art. Lots of people hate cubism in general. Does this make all cubist art suddenly “not art.”

In Mike’s Reply to John Camp’s Featured Comment, Mike asserts: “ I absolutely disagree that something is art just because somebody says it is—no matter who it is doing the saying. I think that contention is absurd. Art is rare; claims to artiness and artistic-ness oh so common.” While I completely agree that there are many different quality levels of art, and that truly exquisite examples can have profound impacts on their audience, saying something isn’t art because of its quality is patently absurd. Cave paintings objectively are terrible at accurately representing early human’s interactions with the natural world, but their lack of objective “quality” in no way undermines their artistic importance! Would you claim that inaccurate stitching would delegitimize the artistic merit of the Gee’s Bend quilts? Would the fact that I don’t particularly connect with them make them “not art?” Well, Mike’s last sentence in that reply is “I try to be ready to experience it for myself, respond to it, decide for myself how I feel about it.” This would imply that a visceral connection to a piece is a criterion for applying the Art label. If so, Mike’s true criterion isn’t whether something is Art just because somebody says it is, rather it is a question of whether it rises to HIS particular level of artistic merit. Again, the question of whether something is GOOD art is separate from whether something IS art, in my opinion. The idea that “art is rare” is as ridiculous to me as it appears the idea that art can be practically anywhere is to Mike.

The question then reverts back to artistic intent. Duchamp's "Readymades" seems to be the go to example in this discussion, so let's keep with the familiar. Are they art? Certainly, though I personally think they are rather bad art (as is the shark in the formaldehyde tank--can't remember the name nor artist of the piece, sorry). I would much rather view Duchamp's "Nude Descending Staircase" than his urinal, but both of these works pass the "curator" test! The arguments against the presentation of an object intended for pragmatic purposes being Art seem to center around "that's not what it's really for," and thus it can't be Art. Whether Duchamp was presenting the readymades as jokes or not, the perception of the audience was that the pieces were art, whether as artistic objects themselves or as artistic criticisms. Is this critique of the artistic establishment valid insofar as pointing out the readiness of some to embrace the ridiculous? Certainly! Again, the toilet seat is art because of the visceral connection to the audience, I just think it is bad art. If the critical intent of the piece is enough to disqualify it from being considered Art, then Matisse's pipe would have to be disqualified as well, as would a very large percentage of his other works, since their purpose was to question our perceptions! (Slightly off topic, but Foucault wrote a nice short book exploring some ideas of postmodernist art titled "This Is Not a Pipe." Well worth the read.)

This ties neatly back to the argument centered around decorative furniture, silverware, rugs, etc. as qualifying as works of art. If we "allow" Magritte's paintings to serve double duty as art and criticism, why not allow silverware to double dip as art and utensil?

As already said, that anecdote tells much more about expectations and preconceptions than about art.

Whether an object like speculum can be art, or whether something with a purpose beside being purely admirable can be art, it's a completely different matter. I think the dichotomy stems from the 19th century industrial revolution and the ugliness of the first mass-produced objects. (As far as I know, it was John Ruskin in The Stones of Venice who first railed against the sameness and argued that small imperfections of the hand-crafting process make something more beautiful.)

Take, for instance, Benvenuto Cellini's salt cellar. It's a... Salt. Cellar. An object with a function other than being purely admirable. It doesn't prevent anybody from calling it "art".

As to whether a car can be art... :) In the ninth series of Top Gear, the presenters chose three different cars and tried to persuade the curators of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art that each car is a work of art. The curators eventually said that Alpha Romeo Brera was one. So maybe Duchamp was completely wrong about the Ferrari.

Reproducibility is yet another matter. Take prints. Is a good print any less art for all that it was not unique? Like Ando Hiroshige's woodblock prints that famously influenced Van Gogh. Or, are Toulouse-Lautrec's posters not art?

It obviously doesn't depend on the numbers but on what is in the piece. So I'd say that the numerical rarity doesn't come into that. The rarity of... vision and the way elements of something connect into a whole does.

BTW, Carl and Mike, there are people who try to reproduce such old and attractive fonts. Do a search for True Golden and similar ones.

Is it Art?

Do you love the work of Ferons Tilbach? I do, that is the end.

Art is about me, my eyes, touch etc.

No matter what your words are, they can only aim to change my perception.

The question is why do you want to change my perception?

I draw only two conclusions from the quoted anecdote -
1. Art students can be the very definition of pretentious
2. None of them were female.


Thanks everyone! I feel very good about the intellectual level of this forum. Love this blog!

Speaking of The New Yorker-have a look at the Platon portrait spread in the current issue (here in Ireland). Arrrrt
Alexander Mc Queen dead RIP. Now he made art. Such a sad waste of talent

I completely agree about that typeface. I believe that New Yorker (1967) was set in Monotype's version of Caslon, which was a thoughtful reinterpretation circa 1925 of William Caslon's original from the 1700s. Letterpress-based typography reached a remarkable level of visual sophistication, before it was replaced by much cruder phototype and then digital type. Such hot metal based type incorporated evidence of the human hand in the form of subtle irregularities that paradoxically made it far more appealing to the eye. Visual elements from character spacing and white space to the text's 'color' on the page had all reached an extremely high level of artistic development. All of that subtlety has been lost with the rise of digital typesetting. Really good digital typography is possible, and there are some quite beautiful recent typefaces that began life as digital creations. But "good enough", i.e. thoroughly mediocre, is the overwhelming rule today.

At one place I used to work there was an ex-silversmith working in the shop, and he was an artist. He would make parts for solenoids on his lathe that were art. The other guys in the shop were good, and their parts were to print, but they were just not the same.

Saying something is not art because it is a car? Sorry, but to me that is no different than someone arguing that something is art because they say it is.

I guess it's not surprising that you would look at that anecdote from the point of view of the professor, and evaluate its quality as a lesson. However, perhaps because I first encountered it as a student, I have never once done so--until last night when I read your comment! I *always* identified with the young student. And, looked at that way, it is indeed profound. It speaks to the need to respond honestly despite the perceived expectations of authority and despite the peer pressure brought to bear by more experienced members of a group to which you want to belong.

Of course it also implies you'll be rewarded for doing so, which isn't always the case. But still.


So what about the book "Evidence" by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan.

The photographs are certainly not made with artistic intent (they are mostly documentary photos taken by staff photographers in California aerospace plants in the 60s as I remember them, my copy is out of reach) but they are very well crafted and many are beautiful yet any beauty was incidental to their purpose.

There is definitely the general smell of high art in the book, but where did the art come from?

Are Mandel and Sultan the artists in this case by virtue of acting as curator-editors?
It might be easy to say that they are the authors of the work , especially in light of their own photographs and the whole notion of framing, but you are on a slippery slope.

What about Eugene Atget? He wasn't thinking of himself as an Artist until Berenice Abbott came along and "framed" him as one. Would that "framing" happened if Eugene Atget had not been Man Ray's neighbor and Berenice Abbott been Man Ray's assistant?

I guess this is veering off towards the whole "outsider artist" realm which is where it started.

"But what is it then? If Van Gogh's early work isn't art, what is it? Craft?"

It's a painting. Are all paintings automatically art?


"According to Mike's 'would a museum curator buy it?' criterion for determining whether something is art,"

That ABSOLUTELY is not something I have EVER claimed. Please don't put words in my mouth and misrepresent me.


Mike, I'm amazed you don't think that Michael Paul Smith's photography is art. The only reason I can deduce is that there must be some educated intellectual reasoning fogging up the spectacles.

It seems that art, like governing, requires more common sense than Ivy League sense.

Woodrow Wilson/ Paul Klugman, Princeton, hahaha.

I just went to The New Yorker web site and printed out the McPhee article to read (hopefully) later today. I have always been a fan of McPhee's writing and vaguely remember reading the article, many years ago. I ended up with forty three pages coming out of the printer simply because , after the first two pages, each page of the article was one column per page, sandwiched between ads (I did not print out the full page ads). A real reminder of the days when print was a far healthier medium.

"A real reminder of the days when print was a far healthier medium."

I noticed that too. The NY'er used to be fat with ads, especially before Christmas. Now it's pretty skinny.


"The question is why do you want to change my perception?"

I would say because almost everybody I know who likes art knows that it is a journey, throughout which one's tastes are always changing--we're continually being opened to new things. I hardly know anyone who likes art who isn't interested in sharing new enthusiasms, turning friends on to new experiences with art, and (broadly speaking) broadening the experiences of others.

That doesn't mean you have to go along, but it's reasonable for others to assume that you might want to.



I am very sorry to have misrepresented your argument! My interpretation was based on my misunderstanding of your statement that "(curators) have to be able to tell the real from the fake, the good from the bad, the authentic from the near miss, the master's hand from "the school of." The issue is critical for them: wrong moves can affect their entire careers." To me, this implied you were advocating that museum curators were responsible for choosing true "art" pieces from the "non-art" near misses, etc. My interpretation was clearly inaccurate (probably based on the time of night I read it!), and please understand that absolutely no slight or misrepresentation was intended.

The discussion over the past two threads has been amazingly insightful, and though I disagree with many of your positions, I most definitely value your insight. I am reminded that we seldom learn anything new from discussing controversial subjects with people who agree with us!


No problem. But I was just summarizing the perspective of the article, not necessarily agreeing with everything it says.

It's still a most interesting piece. It does get down to a more nuts-and-bolts interpretation of what art is, and then describes in detail the ways that people dealing at that level have to rely on their gut and their intuition. Fascinating tensions.


What I find far more fascinating than the "are tools art?" debate is that no one in the class recognized right away what it was and named it, including Hoving, who realized it was a tool but didn't know what it was used for. That tells me something significant about Princeton in that era.

And the comments like "Do a Google image search for obstetrical speculum" tell me a bit about this forum in this era. This is something one has to look up?

'I would say because almost everybody I know who likes art knows that it is a journey, throughout which one's tastes are always changing--we're continually being opened to new things. I hardly know anyone who likes art who isn't interested in sharing new enthusiasms, turning friends on to new experiences with art, and (broadly speaking) broadening the experiences of others.'

Therein lies the trap. It is too easy to spend more time debating what is art then learning about, or practicing art.

Thanks to Janne and Ctein for the insightful comments.

Indeed it is a very complex area full of grey areas and disagreements. Partly because an aesthetic experience is so amazingly subjective.

And THANK YOU to Damon for saying:

"I do take issue, though, with equating "art" and "successful art." It really does seem needlessly elitist to me to put down unsuccessful art as being something other than what it was intended as. But what is it then? If Van Gogh's early work isn't art, what is it? Craft? Likely not accomplished enough to qualify as craft. No, sorry, it's art. You may not like it; it may not work for you as art. It may work better as a wrapper of fish and liner of birdcages, but it's still art."

This is exactly what I've been arguing more than once on my blog (like here). It seems almost nobody is capable of grasping a definition of art which does not include an evaluation of quality.

Yes, I do think a painting is automatically art, just like an apple is automatically a fruit no matter if it's edible or not.

The problem is that there should be a pretty objective definition to aid communication about art, and the quality of experience is totally subjective. How many people have to agree that it's art for it to be art? How do we decide who is right? Is it a matter of education? Or innate sensibility?

"Yes, I do think a painting is automatically art"

Not me. I've seen too many paintings. [g]


Just popping in to let you know I've been enjoying these recent longer pieces on the nature of art and its relationship to photography.

Unfortunately, I no longer have anything worthwhile to say on the subject having gotten all of that well out of my system after 7 years of art school.

Mu indeed.

Dear Eolake and Mike,

Painting's a MEDIUM of communication and expression (closely related endeavors, but not quite the same). So's writing, drawing, photography, music, dance, and so on.

You can use media of communication to create art. You don't have to, and you don't always. Most writing is not art and not meant to be. Pre-photography, most drawing and painting was also not art and not meant to be-- it was for documentation and record keeping (though sometimes, rarely, it was done as both art and record).


Dear David, JC and Mike,

Seems to me there are two broad categories of definitions of "art" I see floating about, both with legitimate proponents. One is meritworthiness-- summarizing it trivially and somewhat inaccurately, "Is it art or is it crap?" Most of what's out there in any medium is crap; most of it isn't art. In this category of definition, "bad art" is close to an oxymoron.

The other is intentional, again putting it trivially, does the creator or the audience think their engaged with art. In this category, there's a great deal more art out there, but most of it is "bad art," no matter the aspirations of the creator.

Both are legitimate positions. I haven't figured out any way to reconcile them, conceptually or philosophically. Doesn't mean there isn't one, but I don't know what it looks like.

I happen to like the latter category of definitions; it fits with the way I view art. Doesn't mean I think I'm right, doesn't mean Mike and JC are wrong. I don't think 'right' or 'wrong' even could apply in this arena.

I call myself an artist, 'cause that's what I'm trying to do. I get to make the basic call in my conceptual framework. But, others get to decide if I'm a good one or a bad one. In Mike and JC's frame, they'd get to make the basic call, and they might very well decide I'm not an artist, at the same time they like my photographs.

S'cool; both concepts can coexist in my mind.

pax / Schroedinger's Ctein

Were you reading the book while you were driving? I think that's against the law.

Since the original idea was posited toward photography, and against the double play of making models and the photographs taken of them, it would be interesting to make the mental construct of a thought experiment via the Mcphee example of the obstetrical speculum.

If if someone, say, Paul Strand, had taken an abstract/extract of that speculum, and assuming, like his other images of ordinary found objects, it was considered art then why are the automobile photographs not art? Are they not also an original use of the camera? Certainly it can't be against the subject, as most of what is now considered "fine art photography" was also about creative use of the subject, not the subject itself. And it cannot be intent, as we now consider some photographs fine art that certainly were not intended to be art. And that leaves methodology, were by we can look at say Ctein's work, again in a double context of a) the type of printing he does as a form of artistry and then b) the actual images he offered to sell in that dye print, which I may not agree as an artistic image.

So then, at what point, beyond the individual's taste, does something become "art?"

(Please note I'm not arguing for or against. I just happen to be personally at that point where I'm attempting to learn, as a student, how to view photography. Interestingly, I'm flogging through On Photography at the moment, where some of the issues of photography as art are discussed.)

Reminds me of a self-portrait:



"Were you reading the book while you were driving?"

No. But I might have been reading when it wasn't my turn to drive.


Having just spent the day photographing "pots" posing as ART, I'm changing my opinion. The basic pot is rarely going to transcend to Art, maybe never, as JC contends. Tools, no they aren't art, though they may have beauty and function. In fact, most paintings are rarely ART, and many are just pretentious crap. This comes from having spent the last month photographing several hundred "objects of ART". Mind numbing.

However, what is the point of such rigid definitions? I may be broad in my appreciation of many disparate objects, many of which are not art, by JC and Mikes high standards. ART, High ART, seems a modern term and concept; my favorite painting still is a 15th ? century altarpiece by Martorell of St. George and the Dragon, an object that was created probably with out a lot of concern that it be high ART.

Because I'm a practicing craftsman, in a field that is not even a decorative ART, I'm probably a little loose in my definition, but don't question my discernment, and or my taste; I know good craft, good painting, and in spite of a lack of degrees, I have and still do instruct university professors in the technical aspects of painting and craft.

And, whether you call me artist, craftsman, fool or poltroon, if you hand me a check for the work I've just completed, that is the the real, and true acknowledgment of whatever I am.

Pre-photography, most drawing and painting was also not art and not meant to be-- it was for documentation and record keeping (though sometimes, rarely, it was done as both art and record).

I don't have anything to quarrel with in this sentence. But it leads to another question...

What made art out of the records?

Take a group of respectable burghers, paint them against a dark background so the faces are more distinct and they can brag around. 400 years later, you mention "Night Watch" and everybody immediately thinks art.

Or take a woodcut of Rhinoceros unicornis, based on somebody else's depiction and a sketch, apparently for the sole purpose of creating a record for people to see. 500 years later, it's Dürer's Rhinoceros and it's art.

And so on and so forth.

Is art just a function of time? Well, we know it isn't, but as Gilles said, what is it, then, that makes something art?

I'm personally opposed to the theory "what I point to is art" because it's ultimately just a whim, so to say. But then, I (and we) may be trying to apply strict scientific principles of reasoning to something that cannot be known through such principles.

Most of what's out there in any medium is crap; most of it isn't art.

Sturgeon's Law is valid for everything, not only for SF. :-)

After all the word games, the cleverness, the self-aggrandizement, does anyone now truly know what "art" is or isn't?

Why does it matter?

I agree with Ctein's comment that there seem to be two broad categories in definitions of 'Art' -- one rather narrowing the definition down, and another rather extending it.

My impression from the last days' discussions here is that, the more one thinks about this problem of defining 'Art', the farther one moves into one of these directions. Either, the more you think about 'Art', the more you accept more and more things, concepts and ideas to be 'Art' -- or, the more you think about it, the more you realize a need to establish criteria to restrict the definition.

But why does this question, "Is It (Not) Art?" really matter in the end?

Of course, 'Art' is an often-used term, and it makes sense to have a word properly defined before you use it -- very helpful for communication, ain't it?.

But beyond this and philosophical matters, why is it important, for example, to have a definitive categorization of early Rembrandt paintings as being 'Art' or not? What difference does it make whether people interested in photography value an individual photographer's work as being 'Art' or as "very interesting as photography, and [it's] very skillful in many dimensions, and [it brings] (bringing) up interesting questions, and [it's] good to look at, fun, poignant, nostalgic, delightful."?

You, Mike, wrote about M.P. Smith's work: "But to my view it's not even playing at being art—it's not operating in that sphere at all."

What does -- or should -- 'being in that sphere' (independent how we define it precisely) really mean, besides an abstract categorization?


PS. A big thank-you to Mike for doing all the moderation work on this monster of a discussion!

"For people who know what art is, it's apparent; and there are not just a few of us, there are millions. It's like the Supreme Court and pornography: you might not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it."

Hockney pucks. This presumes a universal set of facts, but, ART History is not fact but opinion. Malleable opinion. When active most people of discernment, considered Van Gogh a producer of childish crap; an opinion that seems to have changed.

I concede that the mass produced object is not, though the original designs and macquettes might be. But, I also think many mere illustrators to have produced ART. See James Montgomery Flagg's "Puss in Boots".

As Mike says, just cause it is in a museum doesn't make it art ... because opinion changes. The cream that we see rests on a hidden mountain of dreck in the vaults and storerooms, til the next curator discovers a"masterpiece", long thought to be crap. At one time, W.A. Bougereau's could be acquired quite reasonably; now I doubt the French government will allow you to export one from France.

The problem I see with Ctein's first definition of art, the one Mike and John Camp propound, is that it has to set up an idea of an arbiter, or else (and this is more practically true), the definition is different for everyone. Isn't it enough that we use adjectives like 'good' and 'bad', or 'successful' and 'unsuccessful?' Must we also turn the very noun into a subjective experience?

I'm reminded of a time many years ago when I worked in a bicycle shop in Harvard Square that only sold Fuji bicycles. A competitor a few blocks away sold many other brands, but not Fujis. When a customer asked a salesman at the other store how a certain model in his shop compared with a certain Fuji, his response was disdainful: "The Fuji is not a bicycle." So the customer went to our shop and bought a Fuji, because, duh, obviously that salesman was insane.

I find that when critics say that a painting which was intended as art is not art (or in the words of Truman Capote: "That isn't writing at all, it's typing."), I am no longer able to trust that they are able to defend their own opinions without dismissing the opinions of others. In short, it makes it hard or impossible to have a conversation at all. And aren't we trying to have a conversation?

Dear Player,

It is no sin to live a life without introspection...

... but it is no blessing, either.

Enlightenment does not require resolution, only consideration.

Indeed, the comments from the self-aggrandizers and word-game players in these various threads, are achieving nothing, not even much purposeful thought.

There are as many, or more, comments from folks who actually are thinking about *why* they think and feel as they do.

That is not a waste of their (or my) time.

pax / Ctein

Mike said:
Of course, most photography isn't art. Most of the photography I like best isn't art: it's photography. That's okay because I'm more interested in photography than I am in art.

Makes me wonder what all the self anointed "fine art" photographers are - good at using wide format printers perhaps

Perhaps "fine art photography" is just a label meaning the photographs have no other purpose.


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