Close this search box.

Musing on the Nature of Art

This is taken from a long email interchange between me and a very good friend who has since passed.  A terrible blow which makes rediscovering this essay so much the sweeter.  From 2002.

The other day I got to thinking about the role of art in life and dug out an old email thread between me and one of my long time friends, Steve Foster. 

Back in 1998 I was just starting to get interested in photography in a big way. This led me in a number of different directions. One was to take classes, read books, and do everything else I could think of to learn technique. 

When you’re just starting to get serious, the technique part can be overwhelming. A lack of it can easily get in the way of producing an image that approximates what you thought you saw. The inverse is not true: just because you have good technique, doesn’t mean your pictures are good art.

Four years later, Steve’s thoughts on art still seem as important and interesting to me as they did then. 

My post . . .

I’ve been reading a biography of Ansel Adams written by Mary Street Alinder who was his number one aide the last ten years or so of his life. At different points she takes great care to discuss Ansel’s relationships with folks like Stieglitz, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and all the rest. Being relatively unfamiliar with the history of American photographers, the relationships between all these folks are fascinating to me.

For example, I am now aware of two early debates in photography that I knew nothing about. The first was pictorialism (championed by a chap named Mortensen) vs. so-called “straight photography” as practiced by Adams,Weston, Stieglitz, Cunningham, Paul Strand, etc.  

The other which raged during the depression was art for art’s sake (Adams and Weston) vs. art for life’s sake (Walker Evans and the other Farm Security Administration photographers). The first group believed that beauty was even more important a subject during those terrible times, the later believed that you needed to show the grit and horror of daily life.

As I’m writing this, I have on my coffee table (silly name for a low table) a copy of a book of Ansel Adam’s photos and another by Eugene Smith which strikes this same juxtaposition.  Hard to know which is the greater force but they’re both moving in very different ways. 

All of this leads me to a question.  When you grab your camera and go out to take pictures for yourself, do you go in search of beauty or with the purpose of telling a story, righting a wrong, illuminating the absurdity of the human condition, or something else entirely?  

Steve’s Post . . .  

Ah you have carved away at this to where I think it’s back where we began all of this discussion a year or so ago. You will remember I asked you about your intent.  If you had a style, a POV, what your photos were about. Isn’t this question of intent the same issue?    

I have thought long and hard about this one and knowing full well that there is no larger-than-life great truth to be cognized here. I have no qualms about dancing merrily out on the skinniest of limbs with my own humble opinion.   

I think that regardless of the artist’s intent, he/she will always be misunderstood and misinterpreted and ultimately reanalyzed out of context. But it doesn’t matter. You mentioned the WPA stuff the other day. I love it, but remember that that style is called Socialist Realism and those guys were Socialists and Communists and Anarchists whose avowed goal was to change the world and in many cases overthrow the government. That’s what the heroic worker stuff was all about.  

Remember Andy Warhol and those multiple portraits from the 60s? Stars and politicians all wanted to have one of themselves done. It was a big deal to be famous enough to have an Andy Warhol of yourself done. 

But what those things are about is how fame destroys who you are and how you become an image of yourself, a ubiquitous reproduced face backed up with nothing.  They were very cynical: not at all flattering pictures. But that isn’t how we see them. 

In Athens there is a wonderful display of Classical Greek sculptures. One can trace the evolution of styles and fashions but the thing nobody is ever cognizant of is that they were gravestones.  

If you think about it, what kind of picture would one draw of this culture by analyzing the cemeteries? Picasso’s Guernica was a magnificent protest against war when the Nazis bombed the village in Spain. But it’s not the context that makes it a great painting. You would still be able to tell it was a great painting even if you knew nothing about Spanish Fascism.

Art is a form of communication. If an idea can be better expressed in writing, it should be poetry or prose. If it can be best expressed through sound, it should be music. The visual arts express something other or more than what can be expressed in words, the gestalt thing again.  

We see in painting and photos what we absolutely cannot express any other way. We use a whole lot of metaphors trying to do so, but there always remains a little more that makes it work.  I don’t really believe that the intent of the artist matters much. It matters even less the more wrapped up he may be in his particular agendas.  If the work is good it will be appreciated because it’s good, period.  

So why does an artist make art anyway?

The best answer I ever heard was my friend Rick in Cincinnati who said he had to. Next best was my friend Bob who said he made art because he needed the therapy. I make art because I like to, it’s fun. I enjoy it, it amuses me.   

On a grander scale I think I’m really going for the beauty thing but I mean beauty as a form of knowledge in the sense of the great Renaissance ideas. The point. Find what speaks to you don’t try too hard to analyze it because it will quit speaking to you and you will have to find another muse or seek another vision. It’s using the other side of the brain.  

Good art comes from the gut and you can’t quite explain why or how it works. Don’t worry about it. I have often thought that if I were going to do it over again I would go to school and get a BS in anthropology or philosophy and then when I was all done and had learned how to think, then I would go and get an MFA.  

Despite the fact that the technical aspects of what you are doing seem a little daunting, the technique really doesn’t matter at all. I have seen lovely images made with a shoebox pinhole camera and I have seen stuff made with some really high priced gear that put me to sleep.  

What makes it art and what makes it work is between your ears.  Think whatever you think and take pics of, whatever inspires, amuses or looks funny or right and trust your gut instinct.  If you are fortunate and it speaks to somebody else as well, it will say something different to them anyway.