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Wednesday, 09 May 2012


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How about a picture of the cat swatting at the hanging thingies in picture one? Now that's a picture I'll bet even the populists would love.

And I might point out that in an auction situation, Ctein's point is far more acute still. When Edvard Munch's "The Scream" set an auction record for a work of art last week, only ONE person willing to pay $119.9 million needed to be found...not even two. (Although you do need one other person willing to pay almost that much.)

The point is also well made by many bands, who have small but avid fan bases and are very happy with that situation. Not everybody wants to be [insert name of biggest selling current pop star].


I would suggest that you might be able to predict a photographer's potential stature in the fine art world by looking at his efforts to cultivate an audience. If he makes little or no attempt, he could become "great" (or die in obscurity, and have his photos thrown in the trash.) If he makes a heavy attempt, he could become "fashionable." I think those two possibilities would rarely merge -- at least, not before death. The problem with cultivating an audience is that you bend away from your interests, and start shooting other peoples' interests. Really great artists tend to be obsessives and tend to have a vision, and they rarely deviate from that vision (although they might thoroughly explore different aspects of it.) That's why Ansel Adams isn't really celebrated as a brilliant portrait artist, or Cartier-Bresson for his landscapes. So if you find a photographer who "does everything well," he probably won't be on anybody's top-ten in anything.

Maybe I missed something, but I thought the basis for offering the print you did had to do with its technical qualities, not its artistic ones? Truth be told, I'm not particularly enamored with it as a piece of art, but as a yardstick by which to judge the quality of my own m4/3 prints, it stuck me as well worth its modest price...

Taking a flier here for fun, what about Moonrise over H... Ansel Adams. I can't remember the full name. Or Pepper #30 Weston. Although Pepper is a little abstract.


I very much enjoyed reading your column, even though (or rather because) I am part of the 97.5%.


I'm glad you staked your claim at "love", and declined to at "like". I'm not sure you're right at "like" (depends how you define "audience for photos" and such, too). And I don't know much how to resolve it, either. "Love" you can definitely have, that's clearly true.

It's useful to remember in all sorts of artistic and craft contexts that people who care at all are a minority, and people who like what I do are a small minority. Thanks for the reminder!

Yes, very much.

Not so much, but it's interesting.

Yes indeed.

Absolutely not! Really loathe photos of domestic cats. Tigers and leopards, in the wild, are another matter.


Just to be a bit pedantic, Democracy is a popularity contest, so the phrase "Art is a popularity contest, but it's not a democracy..." doesn't quite convey the contrast that I think you are pointing out. Democracy is just a popularity contest with a higher than normal break even/profit threshold, but things that succeed in a democracy are by definition popular; The properties are connected.

There's a bigger contrast between popularity and say, objective value. Something can be very popular, but objectively worth little, or vice versa.

"There is no photograph out there that is loved by the majority of the photographic audience. Not a single one. Genres and tastes are too fragmented for that." I couldn't disagree with you more. Doisneaus "Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville", Westons "Pepper No.30", Adams "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" are three of many I could mention.

In total agreement with you Ctein, right up to that last photograph and caption. It's a ginger and white cat, of the sort that bit me when I was about 3 or 4, the scars of which I still bear on my wrist. Thankfully, my father shot it with his shotgun (it was in the wilds, and may have been rabid - rabies was rife at the time). Just looking at it brings on murderous thoughts.


Any other cats are of course, adorable.

I think what Ctein was getting at was that in a democracy, you need a majority or at least a plurality. In art, you don't need anything like that much approval.


"I couldn't disagree with you more. Doisneaus 'Le baiser de l'hôtel de ville', Westons 'Pepper No.30', Adams 'Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico' are three of many I could mention."

I know lots of people who don't like all three of those pictures. (John Gossage, when last heard from, had a photo book collection of 5500 volumes and not one by Ansel Adams.)


I think it's fair to push this down the road just a little bit more. There are photographs, and more generally pieces or art, that are more broadly liked than others. If not liked, at any rate appreciated.

This goes, I think, beyond genre and format. Many of the most widely appreciated photographs are black and white, for instance, in a world that mostly doesn't get black and white photography.

Art that is widely appreciated and enduringly so, I think, has a specific identifiable feature (albeit, identifiable only in hindsight), namely that it uses widely understood techniques and symbols to communicate something easily grasped and yet felt to be significant.

The simple fact that people's tastes in art vary widely always makes me leery of attempts to define and identify capital-A Art.

"Who doesn't love cat photos?" Heh.

While I certainly can't produce absolute statistics, I suspect that a much higher proportion of the "photographic audience" love the photographs I mention than don't. Isn't that why they're so famous?

cats - i just think of my allergies

Read Dennis's post after I wrote mine, and I appropriated his point without realising it/meaning to. As to what John (Camp)says, The Westons (brett and Edward) were pretty much up there with the benchmark in just about any area of photography they turned their beady view camera eyes upon. Angel Adams made some beautiful portraits.

Ansel, iPad, Ansel.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't see the world in such generic terms for conformity. Years ago when someone asked me who my favourite band was I'd say Metallica, they assumed I liked heavy metal music. I don't like 99% of heavy metal though. I don't like 99% of classical. I don't like 99% of Ansel Adams photos. The individual things I do like are because I consider them on their own merit, not because of the fame or popularisation of what has come before.

Sometimes its the technical challenge of a creation that I respect and enjoy rather than the creation itself. Generally I enjoy things that really make me stop and think or provoke an emotional response. Photography for me is a private hobby: I do it for my own enjoyment and I try to test my own creativity according to my own personal values. When I do allow others to see some I occassionally get the response "wow, that's great! what's the story?" to which I respond "it provides its own story to me, it might provide its own story to you...or not. you decide".

Here's a story:
"Aw, c'mon, it's a cat! Who doesn't love cat photos? Really!" - Ctein
The Cat doesn't like cat photos. Clearly some ignorant human has invaded its personal space (the universe), disturbed its valuable slumber in order to take a photo without bringing edible offerings. Clearly this servant species will need retraining with Cat's (All Hail!) mighty claws.

I for one welcome our Cat overlords!

Well said, Ctein.

The problem I have with your work (if you can call it a problem, maybe I should call it the challenge), is that I never know what I'll think or expect, as your portfolio is quite varied.

For instance, I like most of your landscape and volcano work. (I've always loved `Swamp with Lilypads near Loch Sionascag', it's probably my favourite of your pictures, as far as I know them. If I could afford it, I'd have long ago ordered a print).

On the other hand, your floodlit spaceship pictures do very little for me. I appreciate (and admire!) the technical excellence required to make the photos and prints, but having grown up with wall-sized posters of such things, I just don't get excited by them.

The recent print-sale picture struck a middle ground. My first reaction was like some others, wondering if the shown thumbnail was a crop. But I did have the feeling it would grow on me (which it did, though not enough to order a print in the end).

All in all, your work is unpredictable to me. I think you should take that as a compliment :-)

PS: I prefer the second picture of the four, while the first one leaves me ice-cold (which I suppose was the point of the examples?)

Dear Tom (and Mike),

I'm positive you're wrong. Fame doesn't require a majority, not even a plurality. Johnny Cash is famous. Few music lovers in the English-speaking world don't know his name. Folsom City Blues may be his most famous song (it's certainly high on the list).

Most music lovers, though would not add that song to their preferred play list. Why? Because most music loves don't especially like country-western! (That's not opinion, that's known market information.)

Hey, Mike, wanna do a Reader Poll? Put up screen images of the three photos Tom mentioned and ask our readership to vote on each of them-- they can vote "love" (for whatever that word means for them), "like" (meaning that they'd be happy to have a print of that hanging on their wall, ignoring the fame and value of it), or "not" (which doesn't mean they hate it, could also mean "not my thing" "don't really care" "it's OK, but...").

I know the answer for the real world, but it'd be fun to check out our subset of it, doncha think?

pax / Ctein

Dear Ray,

What Mike said. To win at art, you don't need anywhere near a plurality. A 1% vote will make you rich and wildly popular, even if a hundred other artists poll higher than you.

So, yeah, technically, it doesn't even qualify as a popularity *contest*. But it was such a clever title... [g]


Dear Darr,

That would be a REALLY large cat.

I'd pay to see that.


Dear Jeff,

Nope, the purpose for the endeavor was educational, but the print had to be one which was not only technically at the pinnacle but one that I really, really loved.

Do you seriously imagine I'd want to put a photo of mine in many hundreds of people's hands that I didn't really think was one of my best? I'd have to be nuts!

'Course, some people bought it for the art, some for the tech. 'S'cool; a sale's a sale.

pax / Ctein

1. Yes, I like this.
2. Meh. Maybe as a large print. Some pieces I believe are size specific as well. eg what may not work on a small iPod screen may make for a fantastic large print.
3. Meh. Ditto.

"Well, guess what? You're not the center of the universe."

Ok, that tears it. Ctein, I have put up with a lot of sh*t from you, but this is over the line. I want to see evidence. I want to see proof. Just exactly where is the center of the Universe, such that I am not located there? Huh? Can't tell me? I suppose you're going to resort to some weak rhetorical move like shifting the burden of proof, and demand that I prove I am the center of the Universe. Yeah, right. You made the assertion, pal, you prove it.

Oh, yeah, also, the center of the Universe thinks you have a cute cat.

Mozart or Beethoven,Picasso or Matisse, Weston or Eggleston, it's surely obvious there are no absolutes in personal preferences. Ah, humans...but still, some pieces resonate, and persist.

You could say that art is not like "our" democracy, winner-take-all, two party. It is, however, a little more like proportional representation, which is supposed to be more democratic anyway. You only need enough votes to reach that threshold, and the Ctein party is in the house.

Yes to number one, not enthused on two and three, OK on four, after all, it's a cat and I'm a cat person.

And I did order one of yours, will be glad to get it!

Bill Pearce


"What about Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico..."

Which one? Ansel printed the image quite differently over a period of years. I like the earlier versions better than the later ones, everyone else's MMV, etc.

To answer your questions about the four photographs at the end: No, No, No, and, even though it is a cat, No.

Good column though.

"formalist vs. casual composition, staged vs. candid"

You say that like they were mutually exclusive, take Philip Lorca diCorcia for example.

Speaking of formalism, is the top photo a pun, or am I reading too much into it? It sure looks like either a Minoru Yamasaki or maybe a Edward Durell Stone building, the two proponents of "New Formalism"

Is Ansel Adams formal or political or both?
Image, Source: digital file from original neg.

Not completely true Ctein it is not popularity in the general public that defines art but popularity in the elite that invests in artist (and art).

If you want te sell numbers (like Miss Gaga does) you are right, her CD is not 4.000.000 million dollars for being the most popular artist around today (arguably but lets not get there for sake of my other argument). But Gursky's Rhine II is not for the masses. Okay he sell photobook in the 1000-thends but there are only 5 copies of the real McCoy. And I guess billions are aware of Ms. Gaga's every move (including her sexual escapades or lack thereof). Now go to a Madonna concert and take Madonna from Gursky with you. How many of the 65.000 filling the Amsterdam Arena as fans of the middleaged lady would know Gursky and be aware of the fact that he shot her at a Rio concert. I think a few but a limited amount of few. Art is not about popularity. Art is by nature elitist and art that is liked by everybody by definition is not art. But being liked by an elite can help. Damian Hirst was an aspiring little artist in the early nineties untill Saatchi discovered him and turned him into the Damian we now know, butterfly paintings and all. And not without good reason, art is also a business and Mr. Saatchi sees a sound investment and has the means to market art as well as anything. So first Saatchi notices and artist, then the inner sanctum of the art world takes notice and then a part of the general public notices him.

As for high auction prices Mike, if one person liked a Van Gogh (as Theo did not the film director Theo van Gogh but the Theo the brother of Vincent after which he was named) they were wearth nothing. But when they were sold by the wife of Theo (who died one year after Vincent) because the lady had the good sence to take them from Paris to Bussum. She sold 247 paintings to art dealers in Amsterdam en Berlin and from there they found their way in various private collection (for instance the collection of steel magnats Kröller Müller, the Astors (some went down with the Titanic) and in Germany the Folkwang clan. It took till 1910 and the interbellum for him to be recognised in the art world and only after WWII the general public took notice.

So it is not popularity that dictates art, it is popularity within a certain circle of people (opinion leaders in the art world).

Greetings, Ed

i'd pay $20, scratch that, $40 for a print of the nasturtiums!

When I was at high school, I got fed up with people saying things were crap (music usually) just because they didn't like it and quickly learned that it was possible to judge something as good or very good but still not like it.
Conversely, I also found a lot of stuff which actually was crap - but I liked!

I believe Athena had a helping hand in what work became 'popular' over time.

Well, I'll jump into this swampy ground, having lived it more or less professionally since the '70's.

First, I'd like to hold Ctein to his promise to write a series of articles on this. This is one of the only places on the interweb where such a discussion can be had with a cross section of people, and not have it turn into idiocy. That said, right out of the gate I've got some strong problems with several of the assertions above.

Possibly this has to do with a mixing of quite separate, although clearly related, topics. But I'll just say this as clearly as possible: art has nothing to do with popularity, democracy, or any sort of numerical measures of audience approval, even highly structured/focused audiences. The art is one thing, and the audience response is quite another.

Secondly, I'm getting a whiff, or more, of that separateness cloak that seems always to be getting thrown over photography, even after it has been repeatedly cast away. Those of you indulging in this, and that includes Ctein it looks like, are decidedly old school, and not necessarily in a good way. It's one thing to be devoted to a particular medium. It's quite another to believe that medium separates you or the work in some way from the welter of the rest of the visual arts. This is an artifact of a previous age, one in which photography was considered inferior.

I have so much more to say on this topic, but I won't gum up the works with some mega post. And BTW, I was within a hair's breadth of buying that print, even though it's not the sort of thing I would normally get---but $19.95! Come on! But I'm in the tiny % of people who have so many things still unframed, and already on the walls, and my own work besides---I just didn't have the wall space. Pity.

I hope we revisit this topic---please take note, Mike.

Any update on the '1000 True Fans' experiment?

Thank you for starting my day with a great read. Excellent words of advice in your closing.

I can't quite figure out this article, at least based on the title. Popularity is surely not the right word to use when comparing art, is it? Take the case of, say, Jack Vettriano - he would certainly win a popularity contest, but against what and based on what audience?

Ctein seems to be conflating popularity with the number of people prepared to buy a print, and by defining art as a popularity contest, is he saying that artistic quality is measured by purchases? But consider that the purchases of his prints on TOP are determined by the fact that they are presented in this context to a particular audience, I don't think any general conclusions can be reached.

"The center of the universe is everywhere and nowhere." Giordono Bruno.

Boy, I'm going to largely stay the heck away from this one!

I think John Camp's earlier remarks rhyme most closely with my thoughts on (what I think are) the main points here. Particularly:

"Really great artists tend to be obsessives and tend to have a vision, and they rarely deviate from that vision (although they might thoroughly explore different aspects of it.)"

The popularity of a picture, or two, doth not an artist make.

Dear Richard, (and Ed, et.al.),

Nope, not what I'm saying. I do believe you're conflating "successful artist" with "great artist." I am taking pains to not do that. Notice that in didn't discuss artistic merit anywhere in the post.

Not that that isn't a worthy topic for discussion. It just wasn't *my* topic.


Dear Sven,

Yes, I've been meaning to write another column reporting on that experiment, but it keeps getting put off. Sometime in the next coupla months, fer shure.


Dear Tex,

I'm not sure I entirely get your point, but it sounds very interesting. If you could think about it some more and write an elaboration, I'd be most interested in reading it (either as a comment or an email sent to me).

I don't think I'm a seperatist. I've always thought of my self at the other end of that scale. But that doesn't mean I don't harbor unconscious assumptions and notions about it.

However. I'm intrigued. Please, do go on!

pax / Ctein

Heck, I have enough trouble liking my own work...

Dear Bernard,

Actually, what you talk about is a real problem for someone who wants to be a successful artist. I think Mike has written about this (Mike, can you recall?); I know the two of us have talked about this. What it boils down to is that an artist is a lot more marketable when people have a clear mental picture of the kind of work they do. It can be about style or about substance or about subject, but if there isn't a fairly tight focus they don't have a clear sense of the artist in their heads. It's advice I was given almost from the day I decided I wanted to be a professional photographer-- tighten up my focus.

For better or for worse, it was never advice I was inclined to accept. Mind you, I thought it was very good advice, it just wasn't in my nature. This may or may not mean I've done better art over the years (we will leave future generations to decide that), but it very likely means I've been less successful at making a living from it than I would have been otherwise.

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

Dear Mike and Ed,

I think there's a slight statistical fallacy in this idea that the elite determines success and that it takes only one (well, two) people to make a $100,000,000 sale of a work.

Yes, it only takes one buyer with that much money and interest. But if there's only one person in the world who likes that work, what are the odds that that person will be a billionaire? It's still a popularity game; the more folks who like your work, the more likely some of them will have lots of money.

Putting aside the old argument about whether the elite have different taste from the masses (booooring!), I can still make the same argument, just subdividing the world into two camps-- those with tons of money and those without. That top 1% isn't a handful of people; there are millions of them. So you're still striving for some modest subset of them that will support your art. And, still, it doesn't have to be a very high number. I mean, if one tenth of one percent of the top 1% collect someone's work, that person will be rolling in dough.

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

No argument from me Ctein but I'm still struggling to have my photography pay for itself. A few more people liking my work would be fine with me. I don't expect or need everyone to like it.

Art is neither a popularity contest nor a democracy. It is the expression of an artist and his/her muse. Society makes of it what it will.
The good fortune to find an audience (wouldn't vidience be better...no one can hear a photograph) usually means to an artist that they get to continue to work on someone else's dime. But most of us continue to express our muse even minus the dime, or the recognition. Because Art is alive on its own.
An investment portfolio that includes artworks misses the muse and misses the art. But it has its own reward and for the investor, that is its real and perhaps only merit.

"Because Art is alive on its own."

History is very much against you on that...The greatest art is almost always produced when it is most valued by the public and/or those who will pay for it. Lack of interest and demand almost always suppresses achievement and accomplishment. The Emily Dickinsons, William Blakes, Han Shans and Vivian Maiers of this world are the exceptions.



"The greatest art is almost always produced when it is most valued by the public ....."

You're gonna have to justify that "greatest" epithet....

History is very much against you on that...The greatest art is almost always produced when it is most valued by the public and/or those who will pay for it. Lack of interest and demand almost always suppresses achievement and accomplishment. The Emily Dickinsons, William Blakes, Han Shans and Vivian Maiers of this world are the exceptions.

I've always maintained that you and I will never know the greatest art produced because so much of it lives and dies in obscurity. The Vivian Maier work was found and then promoted by a single person. How many Vivian Maiers or artists in other genres work sits in moldy basements because they were more interested in making art than self promotion?

My Note taking on art readings:

Is art quality relevant?
Why a popularity ranking is unpredictable?

We want to believe that our delight in a fine painting/photography or bottle of wine is due entirely to its quality. But that’s not the way reality works.

The scientists argue that price shift the preferences of the wine tasters, so that the $90 Cabernet seems to taste better than the $35 Cabernet, even though they were actually the same wine.

Subjects consistently report that the more expensive or famous paintings and photos are better, even though they were actually the same art. It is a perennial truth of the art business that high values or fame tend to attract critical endorsement.

The attractiveness of a photo increases with the number of people liking it. Popularity is like a snowball. The popularity itself play as large a role in determining the popularity rank of a photo as its technical skills qualities. A popularity ranking is unpredictable in practice due to their extreme sensitivity to initial conditions of exposition. Why a photo is popular may not have any answer. What we call talent usually comes from success, rather than its opposite.

But stools by artist Ai Weiwei, for half a million dollars? If art quality does not predict popularity why is art so damned expensive?

Art buyer pleasure these days is to be found in having their lovely friends being awestruck, in the important business of being seen as cultured, elegant and, of course, stupendously rich. You pay a premium for a piece once owned by someone famous.Something that has been shown in a museum is worth extra.

The people who are spending record amounts on art buy more than the pleasure of contemplating pictures, which they could get for $20 at any museum. They’ve purchased boasting rights.

In Henri Matisse time, his bold colors and distorted forms were outrageous. A century later, what was once shocking is now considered beautiful art. There are no rules of art that explain the evolution of art in history. Why would anyone think that their taste can predict what is necessary to make a work beautiful or meaningful? Anyone claiming to be a photo critic expert is selling something.



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