Recently, Guardian reporter Jonathan Jones wrote a scathing, almost bitter piece on the $6.5m sale of Peter Lik’s photo Phantom to a private collector. ”Photography is not art,” Jones said. “It is a technology. We have no excuse to ignore this obvious fact in the age of digital cameras, when the most beguiling high-definition images and effects are available to millions.”
Now, as someone who has devoted the majority of his life to photography, one would assume that my immediate reaction would be to take Mr. Jones to task over his flagrant dismissal of the thing I love, but I’ve spent no small amount of time questioning the eligibility of photography as art. I would look at my friends who could draw, sculpt or write fiction and envy them. With a few simple tools; paper, a pen, paint, they could create a limitless connection from their imaginations into the material world. Meanwhile I, with my literal thousands of dollars of equipment, could only document what was already there. I felt like a thief, stealing the beauty of models, the wonder of nature, the complexity of the human condition, trapping it in my tiny box and calling it my own. I’ve spent years trying to reconcile where my attempts to capture the world around me ended and my own ability to create began. I could have just compared my work to a dictionary definition of the term “art,” but I find arguments based solely on semantics to be shallow, bordering on empty. So, I took it upon myself to start exploring for an answer. Now, I have come to an answer that I have accepted as satisfactory, but, in order to truly convey that answer, I am going to need to retrace my steps.
If photography can’t hold status as art, what else can’t? According to an excellent essay written by renowned film
critic Roger Ebert, video games cannot be art. The crux of his argument is that video games have both rules and a “win state,” meaning that they aren’t art in the same way that a game of chess or football can’t be considered art. But this never quite settled with me. What about the breathtaking visuals of Okami? What about that creeping realization that you, the player, are becoming more of a monster than the giants you slay in Shadow of the Colossus? And I can’t recall a single film that made me care about its characters and break my heart as much as The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask .That game showed me a world of people whose lives were being torn apart by an apocalyptic threat they could all see but do nothing to prevent. I wasn’t playing to win, I kept going because I genuinely wanted to take care of these characters. I believe that writer Jerry Holkins put it best when he responded, “If a hundred artists create art for five years, how can the result not be art?”
Now, Holkins is famous for writing comics, a medium consisting almost entirely of illustration and writing, two of the most universally accepted forms of art, and therefore would be an artist himself. But, the legendary Rube Goldberg, a comic creator himself, derided the medium saying, “Comics aren’t art, they’re vaudeville!” He said this to Will Eisner, a creator whose work was so prolific and powerful that the industry named its most prestigious award after him. Goldberg said this at the emergence of the medium that would give us the story of intergenerational trauma that is Maus, the cross cultural breakthrough of Persepolis, and the beautiful, heartbreaking tapestry of Sandman. But still, we’ll take Goldberg at his word and rule that comics aren’t art.
To bring things full circle, there are works that I, myself, have deemed unfit of the title of “Art,” the most immediate example being Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a piece that is literally nothing but a urinal with a signature. It sounded more like a teenager’s attempt to get out of actually working than a widely recognized and celebrated work of art. But the kicker is, the Fountain’s designer did too. See, Duchamp was at the forefront of a movement called Dada whose main tenet was absurdity for or the sake of undoing the status quo. Dada was, in the eyes of its idealists, anti-art.
If all of this seems like a confusing mess, that’s only because it is. The more we try to define art, the more the creative community will fight to transcend that definition, because that’s what art does. And on the way to achieving that, it will either ignore its detractors or make it a mission to prove those detractors wrong entirely. Art is, in a sense, everywhere and can be anything.
Art and culture serve as mirrors facing each other, and whether intentional or not, dismissing something as “not art” is to dismiss that culture. When someone refers to Electonica as “noise” instead of “music” is, on some level, saying that they can’t stand those damn kids and their raves and their strange outfits. If Phantom isn’t art, then the photographers, whom Jones perceives as doing nothing but showing up and pressing a button, can never be artists. When someone scoffs and decries work as not being art, they are trying to dismiss the existing or emerging culture surrounding it, so that their own views may remain unchallenged.
This mentality isn’t just some intergenerational quirk; it can have very real, very harmful consequences. In the 2012 documentary Revisionaries, the predominantly white, conservative Texas Board of Education struck a reference to Hip hop from a history text book and replaced it with Country-western music. Here, we see an attempt to literally erase black influence from history, sending the message to children that urban and black culture does not even merit considering. They consider an alternative culture as “others” and therefore beneath their consideration.
It is still possible to address shortcoming of a work while still validating its creator. Instead of asking ourselves about the validity of a work’s status as art, the more constructive question is, “is it good art?” While this question is every bit as subjective as asking if something can be art, it both not only acknowledges that subjectivity, but forces us to think about why the subject in question deserves status as high or low art.
Ultimately, whatever detractors might say to discourage art, they can never take away the impact a work may have
had on its audience. Those feelings of excitement, empathy, tragedy, and beauty will always stay with you because that’s what art is. Jones’ claims that photography is more technology than voice or creativity will never be able to lessen the emotional impact left by iconic pieces like Migrant Mother or Napalm Girl. He can’t make the work of Jerry Uelsmann or Margaret Bourke-White any less stunning. And clearly, Jones’ remarks weren’t enough to stop someone from seeing over six million dollars of value in an image.
I know we want to defend the things that we’re passionate about, but we need to remember that they don’t always need defending. The detractors are only hurting themselves limiting what they will allow themselves to experience. For all the vitriol artists face, their work lives on, their voice immortalized. And we, the artists can take comfort that art is all of its forms will always find a way.