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The mechanism of questions

After teaching artistic photography for almost twenty years, I am able to identify the mechanism of questions and queries as well as their content. The questions I hear in the course of a class or lecture repeat themselves at an almost steady frequency and at predictable moments. Sometimes I try to answer them before they are expressed, and sometimes I enjoy waiting for them. These questions have less to do with the nature of photography or its terminology than they have to do with art in general; its role and function in relation to the individual and society at large.

My lessons were in danger of becoming a matter of routine from this steady repetition had I not recognised that the unique and most charming role of the teacher is to have to convey an idea which is already clear in his mind, frequently and to different people. Questions I hear time and again seem new each time they are asked because they come from a different student and are the result of that particular student’s curiosity and inexperience. For reasons I have trouble explaining, I am often impatient and abrupt when these same questions are asked in a social setting. Perhaps I have the feeling that people who ask these questions in those circumstances, do not trust their curiosity or their innocence. They are mostly motivated by arrogance and a need to provoke in the face of something which evades them and which does not fit nicely into their familiar forms of explanation. Maybe my students are absolved from this characterisation because their presence in a class is proof of their true interest and of the humility with which they approach an unknown area.

The first observation made from these questions, is the absence of any form of artistic education or even a sense of enquiry provided by the basic educational system in contemporary Greece. Most of these questions should have been answered or at least asked, at a much younger age than my average student. This would have allowed us to discuss more important issues surrounding the appreciation of art and its relationship to the more specialised medium of photography.

What is most frustrating, is that these questions rarely arise from a genuine query someone may have from coming into contact with art for the first time, but as a result of common (and often mistaken) positions regurgitated by people with a smattering of knowledge during social gatherings. If we add to this that nobody accepts their ignorance, especially on scientific subjects, then it is not surprising that we are bombarded by remarks such as: artists express themselves, artists serve, art must have an educational character, art is communication, the criteria for judging art are subjective, art is what I like, my taste is the criterion, everything which is beautiful is art, art must be for everyone, art must be populist and not elitist, and many more which seem to have composed a common code of defining art. My attempt here is to deconstruct some of these unshakeable stances taken on some of these rather ‘hot’ artistic issues.

Art and its usefulness

One of the most basic and common questions regards the usefulness of art and the causes of its birth. Thankfully, I started teaching after the start of the omnipotent Marxist empire’s demise. Otherwise, I would have been blocked by the concept -blindly assumed by the majority of the active left-wing world- of art’s direct relationship to its social outcome and its socio-economic origins. Today it has become widely recognised that Marxism, despite its indisputably interesting views on the direction of economic analysis, did not succeed as well in approaching questions of art. Causes and motives proved to be insufficient tools to explain genius, and even socio-political goals, however nobly dressed, were not effective artistic motivations.

Nonetheless, the social role of art has remained deeply ingrained in many people’s minds. It’s their justification for its existence. These people, who are sceptical toward the ‘phenomenon’ of art, are quick to apply the logic of utility seen throughout the contemporary world, to this event. Thus, art must either entertain or decorate, and it must always educate. This art should express the lowest common denominator and encompass the majority of people.

This ignores, or even scorns the privileged relationship between an artist and his work, where the work becomes the mirror of its creator. The audience may use this mirror as a window to the world, but only through the distorted filter imposed by the artist himself. The relationship between the audience and the work is thus as individual as the artist’s. Appealing to the lowest common denominator is impossible, since it would require that all these individual relationships become restricted in a similar and common framework. The artist’s personalised distortion would disappear as an obstacle.

The existence of art per se, with only its birth as an explanation, brings forth another equally mysterious concept, of man’s existing through art. The artist discovers that art is one (and perhaps not the only one) of existence. The ‘religious’ artist thus creates ad majorem Dei gloriam -for Gods greatest Glory. Art expresses his relationship with his own existence, as religious consciousness dictates. This argument does not explain the usefulness of art. Art cannot be vindicated merely by its result, but by the element connecting the artist to the creation and in effect, his Creator.

Conceit and elitism

The previous thought process almost certainly leads to the question of an artist’s conceit and elitism, since art does not aim at serving a broadly social purpose. The artist is driven foremost by personal need and desire.

Motives which are vague even to himself, and examined through the creative process. The effort made to pacify the need and desire, essentially leads to the creation of art whose function and purpose in society is ever-changing. The artist hopes his work will be accepted by society, but this is not the primary goal, and should not be. It is always personal need and desire. The artist may be artistically honest and thus creatively interesting, only if he is artistically conceited. Changing the order of priorities would only serve to blunt the creative result.

This conceit causes no harm, taking into account that art is not a necessary component in the happiness and survival of most people. Art is a ‘tragic’ luxury needed by some but which should not be enforced on all. Those who need it will seek it either directly as a creator, or indirectly as a recipient. The State has the obligation to show its citizens the way to art, opening it to those who want to explore it.

Artist’s creative and positive conceit is often interpreted as elitism, a term used in a derogatory manner, as if people are afraid of those who seek improvement. If for argument’s sake, we accept the negative connotation of the term, then we must also note that (negative) elitism appears when other opinions and approaches are held in contempt.

The artist who enjoys and gets involved in searching for means of creatings does not place himself above others. He merely has the need (and right) to protect himself by placing himself in a personalised (and often anti-social) position. Contact with the rest of society is restricted to the minimum. Anyway, most people give emphasis to those things which are closest to them.

The argument that society and not the individual is most important is passed through law to place art and the individual in a lower position, subject to the common ‘good’. Advocates of this argument judge the artist’s conceit as “useless” and “pointless”. The problem therefore lies in a difference of philosophical approaches rather than perceptions of art.

Artists must preserve their conceit so they can protect themselves from becoming restricted within the narrow borders of the lowest common denominator. The great American photographer Walker Evans, justly pointed out that artists are concerned by thoughts which the majority of people pays little attention to.

Art as a means of communication

Many artists feel isolated and alone, not belonging to the majority. This becomes even more painful as the artist reaches greater depths of analysis. All artists want to be accepted by society, but there is no worse way to cultivate art than to make this desire obvious. This does not mean that artists don’t want to communicate with the world around them. But those who believe that art is foremost a form of communication, are committing a serious error by focusing on one of many aims. A work of art starts and ends with the artist. It’s journey from that point on is like a bottled message thrown to the sea by a shipwrecked person. He waits and hopes, and does not know what will happen. This is visible in all important actions: Our life is full of actions that we feel obliged or drawn to make. Actions on which we depend our happiness, success, or failures, but which do not determine our behaviour. The artist hopes to find support for his work; he would like to live by his work, and gain the admiration of those he loves; it would be a great honour for the artist to see his work change and educate people, but these are just possibilities; uncontrollable results of the artist’s primary urge to create. Even if someone convinced him that none of these possibilities would occur, the real artist could do nothing but keep creating.

Art and education Subjective judgement and objective knowledge

Half-knowledge in combination with a personal complex and the absence of self-criticism, make for an explosively provocative combination. I have encountered often encoutered this arrogance, and it has saddened me more than it has angered me. I feel it hides fear more than anything else. Most people cannot admit their ignorance. New means of communication and the modern mentality have given a false sense of self-assuredness and a brash defensive attitude similar to that which psychologists spend long hours of sessions to instil in patients.

Every kind of art has its own language, its own discipline, its own rules. And all of us still have a lot to learn however much we know. The adventure of creation is also an adventure into the world of knowledge. Art specifically, departs from the logical dimensions of established knowledge and requires different tools to be deciphered. The audience is by necessity an active participant in it, and this requires knowledge, thought, and effort. The average person in modern society has learned to enjoy himself without applying these three tools, leading to the idea that if something is not entertaining, then it is not good, fortifying the individual behind the walls of subjectivity. This absolves him from making even the slightest effort of understanding, but also ensures that he will never understand. As his opinion is not based on knowledge or a specific thought process, it is based in his personal ‘taste’. Taste though is but the last (and very important) stage of our choices. It is also less obscure than it appears for it is founded on many different parameters, some of which have been enforced on us or chosen by us (despite the obvious contradiction), without our knowledge. Taste is developed and in this development, knowledge and mental exercise play a central role.

The criteria used in art cannot necessarily be explained logically, but they do not cease having a strong base of objectivity which is supported by knowledge and more importantly, knowledge of the past. Especially if we accept that the basic characteristics of art are its linear (straight or cyclical) passage through time and its uninterrupted connection with its own past. Judgement of art is always relative. A masterpiece is not understood without a monstrosity, and neither is a masterpiece today understood without its counterpart from the past. Knowing this process of evolution dictates our judgement of a work and more importantly, our level of appreciation.

Of course, nobody is trying to exclude personal choices and preferences toward art, as long as we accept that these are more objective and less subjective than we think. The right to subjective valuation is gained through objective knowledge. As this knowledge grows, subjectivity loses its credibility in the face of accepted criteria. This does not result in the loss of a subjective point of view. Anyway, this is what separates the average and genius artist or audience.

A means of expression

Even before the fashion of communications, art was seen by many as a means of expression. If I have distanced myself from the concept of communication, then I will distance myself even more from the one-sided advantage art has taken of the concept of expression. I cannot deny any human activity the power of its expressiveness. We live, and so we constantly express ourselves.

If again this common suggestion is presented as the only way that man can express himself ‘spontaneously’, the error is even greater. Art is not spontaneous, it is a result of practice, discipline, schooling, and hard work. Art is subject to rules and spontaneity plays a very limited role in its creation. Unless of course people think that art is a sudden burst of song, dance or play; an extension of childlike behaviour. Bursts which are necessary to relieve tension, but which have nothing to do with the creation of a work of art. Anyway, it would be very selfish to limit man’s need and right for expression to the area of art, an area made only by choice and practice.

For the sake of art

The idea that the artist must serve his art is as deeply rooted as the concept regarding art and expression. It is mistaken on may fronts, if only because it gives art a higher value than man, a value which is possibly holy or godsend and which man, the new preacher, is called upon to serve. On the other hand, it relieves man from his own responsibility. He is no longer the dominant and determinant factor, but a tool which serves a higher force, whether purposefully or not. He becomes the worker who places small stones in a construction, along the lines of every enforced idea of education.

Quite in the contrary, art exists only because artists exist, and the history of art is nothing more than the history of artists. The importance of artists may be different in terms of the quality of their contribution, but it is the same if only by the fact that they create. The construction is not a result of the stones, but a combination of many small, independent, and self-completing constructions.

Definitions and terminology

Taking the above arguments into account, it is clear that a definition of art would clear many controversial issues. A definition would allow the exclusion of many areas which share common surfaces with art, but which are different in their essence. This fine element of differentiation, which allows us to define a work as art regardless its quality, is what raises so many points of argument from the public. The limits are vague on the one hand, and the element of differentiation abstract, on the other. Recognising this element becomes easier through knowledge and frequent contact with art. It becomes visibly clearer, without meaning that it becomes any easier to define.

The issue becomes even more complex in the modern world, where every work which shares the slightest resemblance to artistic activity, is quickly defined as such. This is suppose to lend it prestige and social standing. Thus, whoever designs is considered a painter, and whoever writes is considered a literary writer, and so forth. The abstract characteristics of art just add to this confusion. For example, good taste is seen by most as an artistic dimension in a person. But good taste is thankfully, encountered in many people and in many daily occurrences which have nothing to do with art. Anyway I cannot imagine how anybody could characterise Picasso’s ‘Les Mademoiselles D’ Avignon’ as being in good taste.

The characteristics which could possibly clear the air a bit are so vague themselves that they would only lead to an even vaguer definition. The ‘spirituality’ of a work of art for example, although existent, cannot be determined. We shall also discuss the absolute necessity for a work of art to fit into the historical evolution of a specific form, or a particular discipline, or in the personal development of new forms. The logical mind, which is not well acquainted with art, also sees this as abstract.

Often, the aim of art helps us define it because in effect, art is ‘without purpose’. Therefore, when a work has another motive than art, we could say that its ‘artish’ decor are used to serve the main, non artistic purpose. A picture whose sole aim is to advertise a product, or on a broader level to be sold, will inadvertently use every expressive tool in its service to this end. Even its originality and sense of beauty must bow down to the original aim. In very marginal circumstances, this work may be categorised as a work of art after it has served its original aim, but this is so rare that it is not even worth taking into account. The position of the latest post-modern movements which afvocates that all applied expressions of daily life, among which is also advertising, compose of art, (and to this I disagree categorically) is worth discussion, but it is not an excuse for a smattering of knowledge. Indeed, even the advocates of this concept would not want this.

Advertising’s definitive commercial character helps people keep an artistic distance from it. This is not the case in entertainment. The majority of people actually see entertainment as art and vice versa, so that the two areas are identified by one another. Entertainment though, especially in this day and age, obeys rules and directions which are formulated by people other than the artist. Even artists know that art is not necessarily entertainment, if by entertainment we mean a sense of relaxation and ease for the mind and senses. Art on the contrary, tires us, makes us think, it requires active participation (in contrast to modern entertainment which often requires passivity). If art fulfils it does so through the senses and even more through the intellect. Even the most serious art lover wants and needs entertainment, and realises that art will not provide it. The limits here are also indistinct. In order to assists in clarifying these vague concepts, it is necessary to choose extreme examples. It is both pointless and tiring to keep repeating that all abstract meanings in life (and which are the most important) have vague perimeters. Even science avoids absolute definitions in it’s most advanced theories. Only the Law (and not Justice) owes to have distinct limits and this is why it is (unfortunately) often unjust.

Reconstruction and abstract

One of the greatest concerns of the broader public about art is based on the belief that art must skilfully reflect reality. The success of non-representative art was not enough to dispel this perception. A scene in a film which realistically reconstructs an event someone in the audience has experienced, brings praise to the director in the same way that a theatre actor is complemented on a very realistic performance. Art according to this predominant opinion, must be about life and must copy it in the finest detail. The artist is nothing more than a master of reconstruction. The work of art, little else than a doll house whose realistic furniture excites admiration.

Art observes life not so it can copy it, but so it can create ‘points’ on which to raise its observation to new creations. This is also, more or less, the misunderstood concept of exaggeration. The artistic result refers to life, it does not represent it. This is why art is never really realistic, even if it adopts a naturalist form. The only way to achieve this angle of representation is abstraction. In other words, to raise the form to a level where the details are freed from their real role, and allowed to take on the new role given to them by the creator. This is in fact why we use the term ‘creator’. Otherwise, we would just call him ‘reconstructor’.

Divine inspiration

The well-known icons of the Apostles with the Holy Spirit hovering above their heads, giving them divine inspiration, seem to have affected the judgement of many who believe the ‘God of Art’ inspires in much the same way. The idea that artists wait helplessly for inspiration gives art a charming metaphysical character, but is far from the truth.

Artists produces work by combining thought with sensation and spirituality. These three elements have to be painstakingly cultivated and well co-ordinated for a work to be produced. Cultivating technical means, thinking about the nature of the artistic medium and the world in general, freeing and respecting the psyche, function only through the artistic act. Inspiration is a result of artistic activity. An artist finds what he wants within and not beyond the artistic process. Not before, not after, and not at the same time.

Inspiration therefore, whose existence is unquestionably witnessed in the end result, should not concern the artist. Practising art will reveal it to him. It does not exist outside the practice, which is simultaneously a part of inspiration. The artist places himself in a condition of inspiration, which is no other than a condition of work.

Theme, form and content

Audiences of photography are completely convinced of the reality of the displayed scene, despite the fact that photography, more so than cinema, theatre, or literature, reflects just a hint of reality through a hint of truth.

The first way to approach the particularities of a photographed image is to begin recognising the importance of the morphological elements which compose an image. To understand that for a photograph to exist beyond the dimension of a print, it must be composed of elements of form which emphasise the choice and rejection of other forms. To understand the importance of the four corners, the angle, the choice of lens, the depth of field, the choice of contrast, the arrangement and disarray of shapes, etc.

Once this realisation is made, it has the powerful effect of turning the viewers attention to the form, and almost ignoring the subject. This tendency (which is necessary at some point) is just as wrong as ignoring the form. The combination of subject and form lead to content which is, logically, the core of the work. Understanding the concept of ‘content’ is very difficult for the public. The first and easiest way out of this dilemma is to look for symbolism. After form, this is the next thing grasped by the average viewer. However, symbolism is often just a message. This is what most audiences perceive. This type of symbolism loses its attraction once it is deciphered.

Understanding the essence of ‘content’ is another one of those artistic ‘mysteries’, because if it could be defined or characterised, then it would have no purpose as a work of art. It would become a simple illustration of an idea or phrase. The specific combination of form and subject yields a content each time. This content comes from the subject at times, the form at others, or both without distinction, and it is always (at least in the great works) abstract and symbolically complex.

Post-Modernism, Pictorialism, conceptualisation etc.

The great, yet attractive difficulty of explaining the concept of content in art, and especially of ‘new’ and ‘scant’ photography drove experts and others to look for short cuts. Ideas stating that art represents only the signs of its time and it is not connected to its creator, or that art is an illustration of ideas conceived before production as additions and later as results, or even that photography is just a modernised form of painting, come and go. They become fashionable and are exchanged for other ideas in a general trend of succumbing to the charms of the obvious and shallow. These trends answer many questions regarding art and they pacify those anxious to find answers. Those people who cannot accept that all important things in life (and art is one such thing for some people) do not always have clear and easy answers. The more specific and clear we try to become on these important things of life, the farther away we distance ourselves from them.

Effort and rewards

All the questions and queries discussed have been asked in almost all of my lessons. At times, the discussions surrounding them became acute, in the way that only such important issues, those which defy logic, can provoke. On very few occasions though, someone would ask me the following question:

So why should we spend our time with art, either as artists or as viewers? Why should we sink into something which alienates us from the lowest common denominator, which restricts our ability to communicate with the majority of people, which requires intellectual torture and constant questions, which fills us with disappointment more often than it does with satisfaction, which makes us anxious without entertaining us?

The answer is plain and simple. Nobody has to do it. But if you have tasted the inexpressible joy and pleasure of filling your mind and soul with a beautiful work of art, or of applying your own mind and soul to the smallest example of creativity, then you will want to relive this deep and constant joy however many efforts, questions and queries it hides.