fbpx

Art and its Limits

Whenever we decide to analyse a question which pertains to art, it is only natural that we should fall upon its abstract content and indefinite limits. Nevertheless, these are the elements that we consider necessary if we are to define the tools and the criteria with which we shall approach the question of art. Therefore, with all due reservation required in arbitrarily defining what is indefinite, we shall attempt to chart the artistic domain in which we are interested.

Provided that this is agreed upon, art may be seen as something extending to every human activity carried out with care and possibly with passion, which aims at an end-product characterized by quality and beauty, thus addressing the majority of people and offering them pleasure and satisfaction.

Such an approach has the advantage of simplifying discrimination, to the extent of (almost) eliminating it, and facilitating common acceptance in human communications, since it covers the majority of human activities. It would thus be appropriate for the implementation of specific criteria which may easily be understood, in terms of the intentions and effects of each qualitative act, but it would not suffice to cover that strictly perceived artistic domain which exists solely because the spiritual personality of the creator is associated and combined with the evidence of his presence in the world and which is all the more necessary as it seems inexplicable.

For the sake of a more effective analysis, we can accept as art's (unclear and elastic) limits those which confine the region where the creation of man, without a dominant but only with an incidental functional and material purpose, attempts to render through the senses the spiritual image which the artist-creator has of the world and, at the same time, the image which he himself has of the specific artistic medium which he employs. Thus, the conscious cooperation among senses, emotions and concepts is ascertained; the complex object is to render the spiritual character of the world through the material character of the specific work and through the filter of the artist himself.

This complex identity of the artistic creation, which is different from what we have become accustomed to regard as origin, direction and attitude to our acts, breeds questions, clashes and misinterpretations. And this is more evident when it comes to art, since art has the additional peculiarity of dealing with an abstract concept which is expressed through the presence of a specific work of art.

The artist vis-à-vis art

The artist may confine himself to the manual labour required for producing his work and may thus refrain from any further involvement with the reasons which caused it or which, later, justify its existence. Such an innocent and, at the same time, wise approach would spare him any doubts and divergence. Focusing on the material aspect of his art would protect the artist from dangerously wandering beyond it. Besides, such an innocent and wise creator could only give us his own view of the world and of art, without allowing any influences. Artists who produced work in the name of God in the past solved their artistic problems in this way. The only thing they had to do was solve specific problems which pertained to technique; through matter, they thus mastered the spiritual aspect.

In our days, art is open to any interpretation or challenge; the way in which the artist or the public approaches art may well provide different answers to the same questions. A creator thus finds himself, whether by his own choice or not, vis-à-vis the need to have a personal stance before the very important questions which pertain to art. In other words, the artist must know who he is gratifying by "creating". Defining his position will help him set his artistic course; this will allow him to see, using his imagination, the public with which he is establishing this personal communication and will relieve his creation from any unnecessary anxiety, except inasmuch as his quest should breed such anxiety.

Photography invariably presents greater problems than other forms of art. These problems pertain to its very recent history, its non-existent or belated acceptance, its classification into the world of commercial applications -almost from its very beginning- and, of course, the speed and easiness which characterize it.

The artist who seeks to express himself through photography hopes for the same gifts as any other creator and is haunted by the same curses. The answers to the never-ending questions may be similar, but they are not the same.

There is no reason why the photographer (just like any other artist) should be obliged to have pre-defined his approach to art and this decision should not constitute a prerequisite for the creative process to begin. However, in the course of producing art, he may have to invent ways in which he will work and incentives he will use, which will make him take photographs and which will make him confront dilemmas.

In a strange if enchanting way, these discoveries, which also make up part of a photographer's virtues, may well evolve into threats and snares. Thus, every attempt of the photographer-creator to conquer something, must be made with due care, so that he may avoid the traps which this conquest will have set. One's overall artistic approach may help in this alertness. Snares had always been there; it's just that today they are so more deadly, because the limits and values of every work and conduct are not clearly defined. Let us then try to define some of the most common creative incentives or artefacts which photographers use and which may easily evolve into traps.

Time as an enemy and time as an ally

The artist trades in terms of time. He confronts time, he uses time, he avoids time. The feeling of the flow and threat of time or, simply, of the time that eludes us, is a significant incentive to create.

The trap that lies ahead of every creator may drag him through the socially established perception of the value of time. This value is estimated in pure quantitative and monetary terms and may thus bear no significance to a work of art, nor may it bring it any benefit. Accepting this valuation takes one to two roads. The first says that what can be done in less time (and, hence, with less effort) must be preferred or, in other words, that the time/effort ratio must be taken into consideration along with the end-product. It is merely a combination of the theory of making the minimum effort and the principle of value added (value for money). The second says that, with the same amount of time, effort and energy, we must attain more than a single desired product. In other words, to kill two birds with one stone.

If time, however, is seen as a value of art and not in terms of quantities, then it functions in the following dual and, only apparently, controversial way. It is an enemy, since the artist wishes to manage to promptly bring to life his visions. But it is also an ally, since the artist has a reason to create merely because there is the threat of time. It is therefore enough for him to perceive that his work shall benefit if he sails along, and not against, time and that, consequently, the time that is required for the realization of an infinitesimal part of his work, if this time is functionally necessary, may justify the entire work and life as a whole.

The second, and rather practical, approach concerning saving the "stones" conflicts with the general principle that whenever any human action is interrupted, the strength of the result is also shattered. This becomes even worse when the aims are different, as is often the case, and frequently controversial. And in such cases the stone hits more birds.

If the photographer, in his pursuit to construct a personal artistic language and to express, through this language, his own persevering thoughts, hopes, through his work, to attain something over and above that, there is nothing he should be criticized for and all would wish him the greatest success. But if the verb "hopes" is replaced with "seeks", then it is fairly certain that the multifarious and indefinite pursuit will bring about equally indefinite and, hence, vague results.

Ambition, Competition, Publicity

There is probably no other term which is as dangerously indefinite or provocatively ambiguous as ambition. The reason is that ambition constitutes the prerequisite for the production of work of value which will last; at the same time, however, it can, in itself, destroy the genuineness and honesty which co-exist in every great creation.

Ambition changes the way it functions if it incites or drags the artist. In the first case, it acts as a motive force; in the second, the artist is transformed into its servant. Because glory, which the creator envies, imposes its own rules.

In our times, ambition can be influenced to a great extent by two other dominating, by current social practices, parameters: competition and publicity. It is only natural that a person, who is vulnerable and sensitive, as an artist is, will easily succumb to these two sirens and he will then not become involved in a productive competition with himself and his standards, but with others; and each of these "others" is fighting his own struggle, perhaps, with different aims. And he will only do that to achieve maximum public acceptance.

Competition, however, is fertile if it serves the creative aims of the artist rather than his social climb. Publicity is useful, if it functions in support of the production of the work, rather than of the promotion of the artist as an end in itself. Publicity, indeed, should contribute to attracting the public to the artist, rather than the artist to the public. In such a case, the artist's need for communication, which is a secondary but significant purpose in creating, is transformed into a strife to proselytize people and a hunt for appeal, where the artist will have to use the most effective means to attain this, rather than those which help his creation.

The pressure which is exerted on a new creator is truly difficult to bear. He wants to produce work, just like his idols; he wants to have his own fans, in the same way that he was a fan of others. They taught him that everything should happen fast because, on the one hand, time moves faster than him and, on the other hand, somebody else will move faster than he does. And they have set as the measures to assess success the opinion of the majority, acceptance by those who are in the limelight and, of course, money. The combination of these prerequisites is overtaxing even for those who are most capable and it drives them to resignation or compromise.

Creating generates great demands which are hard and become even harder if one thinks of the difficulty of defining the measure by which the success of such aims is to be assessed. But for the other non-artistic aims which the creator might pursue and attain through the creation of his work of art, the difficulties may be great but the measure for the assessment is well-known and, indeed, it is well-known to all of us. It is only natural that there should be a tendency to move in the direction of these aims and to see defectors from the others.

If we could realize that creation is a contest of endurance rather than speed, that there will always be someone running along by our side and that this is good so that we don't feel alone, and that the measure of success is something that we ourselves define and that we select our publicity on this basis, then there is hope that we may use our ambition in a creative way rather than allow ourselves to be consumed by it.

Technical ease and exaggeration

Technique is the artist's consolation. His effort to improve it allows him to remain close to creativity during those hours when the artistic impasse paralyzes him. The solution of technical problems, in any case, often leads to solutions, questions or new findings in creative processes. The relatively easy technique of photography is at the same time a bliss and a curse for the creator. It does not allow for any justification nor does it walk along by his side when he is crossing the desert of his art. If he should dare to give it more attention than he needs, he shall lose his bearings. If he should decide to ignore it, he shall find himself exclusively confronting the theoretical and difficult to solve problems of the content, without any support from technique. On the other hand, this ease will take him directly and without any preparation to the track of creation. And this feeling generates fear and elation. Any one of us can create. Today. Right now.

That is precisely where this ease could be transformed into a slippery trap. The elation can absorb the fear. And the new creator may mistake this ease in the production of a work as the key to immunity/unaccountability, which opens up all gates of creation. The photographer does not have to go through a tedious and agonizing process in order to master the photographic tools and language. It is enough for him to read a manual and to have a dictionary. But this agonizing process introduces every artist to the world of respect and discipline and the photographer must discover these dimensions by himself through the shrewdness of his self-criticism. And if he should not do that, his work will never acquire a language and a style but will remain awkward, just like sentences which are formed with the aid of a dictionary.

It would be simply irrational for anyone to transform an easy technique (which becomes even easier as time goes by) into a difficult one, simply to add some gravity to the work and the process. However, one should be able to realize that there will always be difficulty and that we will always have to master something. The difference is that in photography (just like in poetry) this cannot be done through specific speech or image exercises. In photography it is our eye that is being put to the test, and it is our eye indeed that is the tool we use in our creation. And this demands time, patience, knowledge and, most of all, discipline. If we get carried away by this ease and look upon the products of these stages of the learning process as complete and comprehensive photographic works, then we would be pampering ourselves and lulling the viewer. And if out of fear of this easy aspect we should be led to the other end, thus refusing to acknowledge our first creative proposals, then we shall remain barren of excessive virtue.

Technical perfection is confined by the limits imposed by the work itself. Exaggeration in technical stunts buries the work beneath excessive arrogance, vanity and hypocrisy. The content vanishes to the benefit of a consumable surface which transforms the photograph into a valuable object. In a work which is characterized by a balance and clarity -and these features should be seen both in the final work and in the intention- technical perfection has served its purpose by disappearing beneath the image.

A good photographer must be able to master technique in order to be able to make it vanish beneath the photograph. A bad photographer highlights the little technique with which he is familiar in order to conceal his artistic incapacity. The intelligent viewer can feel the perfection of the technique beneath the work which moves him. The naïve viewer succumbs, together with the photographer, to the affectations of technical hocus-pocus.

Talent and how to ignore it

Talent, through its presence or absence, has tormented nearly every artist. And that is a mistake. First, because it would be a pity for someone who has no talent to abandon something which gives him pleasure and satisfies a need. Second, because, even when someone does have a certain talent, it would not be reasonable and effective for him to do something which gives him no pleasure. Thirdly, because there are very good works which were produced by people who had no talent; and, again, it takes talent to produce something which is really bad. Fourthly, because nobody will ever be satisfied with the talent he has got, since it will always be less than what he desires.

It is true that behind every important work of art there is a talented person. It is impossible, however, to tell how much of this talent this person was born with and how much of it he acquired through his perseverance. Very often, though, the ability to do things more easily, combined with a more acute and broader perception -which talent bestows on the photographer-creator- divest him of his diligence and persistence; conversely, someone who feels less endowed with the divine gift of talent will invest these qualities in his work. We even see that artists who have great talent may show an inclination to self-destruction, as if they cannot bear the idea that they have something although they never did anything to acquire it.

Talent, intelligence and inspiration are parameters which the artist ought to ignore. Intelligence, which is essential for every important work, will never worry him since he will only be able to perceive it to the extent that he has got it. He will try to identify inspiration and talent in the finished work, invariably with a touch of doubt, since their presence makes him seek a greater amount than what he can see. In any case, none of these parameters is a motivation to create; on the contrary, they often act as a constraint.

It is not right for creation to serve man's doubt as to whether he has or does not have special skills. The artistic product should not aim at protecting the creator from his insecurity. If art functions in such a way, then it transforms the artistic process into a psychotherapeutic treatment, the work which is being produced into evidence, and the receiver into a critic rather than a target for communication.

All artists tend to overestimate and, at the same time, underestimate themselves. Total lack of self-confidence does not allow the artist to create. On the other hand, extreme arrogance does not allow him to investigate and, by questioning himself, to move ahead. Even modesty, which is so agreeable, very often conceals arrogance or, more accurately, extremely high aims; so extreme, in fact, that they lie beyond the artist's capacity and lead him to non-creation.

A perfectionist conscientiousness and the components in the image

Attention to detail, the aspect which draws the line between a conscientious and responsible person as opposed to a slovenly and disorganized person, is the creator's essential companion in order to underline the seriousness with which he approaches his art as well as the viewer. Photography's easy and mechanical production, which is beyond the personal responsibility and expertise of the artist, casts a heavy shadow which breeds meticulous perfectionism in order to substitute a complex which is born because of the fact that this product can be produced at industrial rates by anyone who has the fundamental knowledge. We thus see newly-coined photographers hysterically paying the utmost attention to the flawless and impeccable presentation of their photographic images to such an extent that the presentation takes the place of the truth in their work or makes it vanish. It is exactly the same as when someone shows off his skill in other forms of art and thus testifies to the absence of any content.

This reaction is also related to the basic complex concerning photography when it is compared to painting, whose value (both artistic and economic) is associated with the physical presence of the work of art. Thus, the more attention we pay to the way in which we will present a photographic work, the closer we feel to the "artist" who has been recognized for centuries. At the same time, however, we are also moving away from the genuineness in our photographic expression; there will come a time when the tree will cover the forest and we will be satisfied with the glitter of our photography, as if it were a jewel, and with the stunned admiration of the usually ignorant public, although this admiration will be for an ability which has been generated by the surface, rather than the depth, of our work.

Promotion of the work and the photographic identity

In his artistic course, the photographer sets himself questions concerning his photographic identity. In other words, at what instances he may claim it. The easiness of the technique and the fact that everybody today takes photographs give rise to a certain doubt as to the element which would contribute to a person being accepted as a photographer by society, as well as by himself, since the picture that society has of us more often than not precedes the picture that we have of ourselves.

The seriousness and the passion with which the photographer approaches the photographic process are not enough in themselves to convince him that he may regard himself as a photographer and expect others to do so. At the same time, he wishes to communicate with these others so that his work can be assessed through their eyes.

This desire understandably leads him to the promotion of his work through exhibitions and publications; these are, indeed, the only appropriate ways in which a photographer's artistic work can be publicized. At this point, however, priorities are reversed (ηάμαξατοποθετείταιμπροστάαπόταβόδια) and instead of having an exhibition because it is essential for the promotion of the work, the work is created in order to have an exhibition. The difference is tremendous; consider that if there is to be no exhibition, there might be no work.

Nevertheless, as was the case of meticulous perfectionism, the method of promotion (exhibition or publication) underlines the honesty of the photographer's attitude towards his work. There is a sense of moderation, a certain balance, which links the kind and the level of the work to the way it is to be presented. Otherwise, we are doing no more than use the widespread advertising methods in order to promote a work which, the weaker and shallower it is, the greater the apparent support it will need. Fanfaronade is then on its way.

Themes and pretexts

The long-winded pursuit of photographic images and the game of integrating the entire visible world in them will characterize every photographer's early steps. This is natural and beneficial for the development of his photographic eye and the identification of his sensibilities and preferences. In time, however, he will begin to formulate the first themes and patterns to which he tends to adhere more; these will not remain permanently invariable, but will evolve, traverse and complement one another. Choosing specific directions in creative photography, whether by using limited themes or by selecting a composition individuality, promotes artistic creativity in depth, since it protects the photographer from aimlessly wandering and wasting his time in superficial varieties.

This very choice breeds, at the same time, a sense of security and, perhaps, of relaxation, both in terms of the creative process and in terms of the acceptance of the work by the public. A thematic series, for instance, may uphold pictures of questionable artistic value simply because they are linked with the other similar images in the series and, moreover, may well impose them on the viewers, since the series will cover up any weaknesses they may have. The theme itself has often been the main interest and content of a photographic work, assuming the importance of the photographs themselves in whose artistic value nobody seems to be interested any more. This was often seen in the last decade and, indeed, many times the impression was given that the artist confined himself to finding an original theme and that the actual realization was merely a task of secondary importance which could be placed in the hands of a simple operational instrument.

Thus, something which begins as a source of the creative process and defines the domain within which it is to move, in the end substitutes it and obliterates it. And we get to the point where the effect brought about by a common, specific theme on the photographer changes from stimulating to soporific.

Words and images

Thinking is part of the artistic process, since in art the mental contribution and the equally important instinct cannot and must not be precluded. Thinking, which precedes and follows a photograph, is beneficial because it directs the artist and defines the regions in which he is interested and within which he will move.

Expressing these thoughts as a companion to the work of art is a different matter. This becomes either a crutch to help the viewer interpret what he sees, or an integral element of the image; most often this functions in a very weak way, since a thought which is important for the photographic process cannot also constitute an independent poetic or philosophic expression of intrinsic value.

In such cases the theoretical reinforcement or support of the photograph tries to bring value into an otherwise unimportant image. In other cases, the air of importance of written words may ensure that photography is received seriously. Invariably the viewer is assisted by being offered a rational and comprehensible approach at the point where he may be confused by artistic abstraction. In fact, it is a misleading assistance because it precludes the creative self-acting reaction of the viewer before the composite aesthetic-real happening which makes the photographic image.

If a photographer wishes, even if for reasons of policy, to add to his photographs text or thoughts which may have actually been dominant in the process of producing the images, then he would do well to ensure that these texts bring out the abstraction which every form of art requires and to protect the domain of his photographs. Otherwise, even if this may seem as a beautification process, in effect he will be merely illustrating a thought (the photograph usually cannot match the text), or producing a comic strip or a collage patchwork.

Unfortunately, however, something which could only be accepted as the exception has become the rule. Exhibition organizers, teachers and theoreticians have spotted an easy solution in explanatory and supporting texts since this facilitates (at least so they think) judging and understanding a work of art. For this reason they usually ask for such texts and they often want them before the actual work. The aesthetic poverty of the photographs which are shown with the text does not seem to make them sad or angry, as long as the text covers the desired air of importance of the intention's.

It would be enough to think that a text which supports the birth of the specific photographic process cannot fully match its end-product, since it is well-known that the creative starting point seldom matches the creative result. And if the text reflects the result, in effect it is a review. The photographer should also consider whether the text covers all aspects of his photographs (and only those). If this is the case, then why does he need it? Unless, of course, it functions as a deciphering code, which would be an insult both to his viewers and to his photographs. If the text offers interesting aspects to the photographic work, then the photographer should wonder why he did not choose (or did not manage) to express these in a photographic way. And if the text is an artistic part of the work, then music, sculpture and anything else could also be added to contribute to its multimedia function. Then, however, discussing such a work would be beyond the scope and capacity of this article.

Life or a curriculum vitae

The standard practices which have prevailed in recent years in the world of art and science have brought, among other things, the establishment of the curriculum vitae in a dominant place which is often appreciated more than the essence of the scientific or artistic work.

Our identity becomes tantamount to the list of our activities every year. And our activities merely have to be listed. And our life has come to seem incomplete if the succession of these activities in the celebrated CV is not unbroken. We may begin to wonder if, perhaps, we did not live through any particular year if we are not able to define succinctly what activity marked it.

It seems that we are as good as our CV proves. The distance is short between this ascertainment and the point where our life becomes a process in which we try to build our CV. For the artist, [ησυνείδηση: τοπαρέλειψα] this function of the curriculum vitae is extremely dangerous because it makes him diverge and move towards what is socially acceptable and neglect the values which he himself has set.

While the creative artist should have the desire to fill his life with action and experience -even with failures since they also make a most fertile element for any creation- he ends up regarding as useful only those acts which would add a line to his curriculum vitae and, indeed, a line with a socially acceptable content.

External novelty and old originality

In the difficult course of the artistic quest, the path is full of impasses which the photographer must overcome, since going back amounts to resigning. In such instances it is quite common to see the photographer adopting purely external novelties which are related to the tools he uses for the production of his work or with the presentation of the end-product. A new camera or a change in printing methods, film, print size, framing or the process of showing the work, are all useful devices which may make a creative machine which has temporarily gone out of order start anew.

However, it is easy and, unfortunately, quite common for such devices, which are effectively sparks, to be regarded as the fire itself. Modern art critics are especially lenient with work which exhibits obvious novelties which any critic can identify, as opposed to novelties which pertain to more substantial and, hence, more hermetic parts of the work. Thus the photographer does not hesitate to see his desires as accomplished reality and hasten to regard the initiation as a conclusion.

External novelties may be placed in a broader chapter with traps for the photographer, which contains all sorts of originalities. It is true that something new is an attractive lure for the viewer and the creator alike. This lure is of crucial significance in our times, since open communication and information make the individual more and more part of a vast society where uniformity tends to annihilate his personality.

The perception of the artist's uniqueness is expressed through the uniqueness of his work, which secures him an identity. Only, he does not seek this identity through a creative need but (subconsciously or consciously) for social reasons. If originality was generated from the need to express a creative proposal or language, then it would never be at risk of being fake. But when a (usually new) artist seeks originality, he does so primarily because he is afraid of the devastation which his work may suffer through the multitude of creative proposals in history. Inevitably, then, the originality pertains to obviously superficial options which, through the advertising directness which is characteristic of our times, will secure the artist an equally superficial uniqueness.

There is a consolation which new artists, due to their anxious desire to conquer the present, do not seem to notice. The consolation entails the realization of the fact that everything has been done before. This realization would, in itself, be enough to relieve them from their anxiety to find something new. Having realized this, the only thing one has to do is become involved with art itself. The discovery of a slightly different new perspective of something which is already known is merely a possibility; but it would bring sufficient satisfaction to a creator. Perhaps, though, not enough satisfaction to make him soar to the sphere of the limelight to which the society of advertising has accustomed him.

Epilogue

If one considers the slippery paths of the artistic process, the dark impasses, the luring sirens, the threatening snares and the constant disappointments, one may end the journey before even setting out. It is therefore wiser to retain the taste of adventure and surprise, the taste of the game and the challenge. The journey will thus be promising and enchanting.

On his journey, however, in order to become strong and confront any difficulties and adversities he may come across, he should be armed with the compass of his views, this code of conduct which we gradually build and develop within ourselves and which is founded on the personal values each one of us gathers from venerable teaching, invaluable experience and people who we hold dear. There is no reason why art should be exempted from this control of values; we [τοσούτωμάλλον: τοέφαγα] shall thus have an automatic and personal answer in the difficult bends on our artistic career.