The Medium Is Not The Message

| August 14, 2012

We may never agree on a definition for art, but we can still have meaningful conversations about it. In that sense, art is one of a distinguished set of words, along with consciousness, time and existence. It is, however, unique among such polysemous notions in that it refers wholly to things of human conception.

I tried to define to myself what great art meant to me, and I failed. More accurately, words failed. Yet, I knew that it was there. I knew it when I found it, when I was moved by it, when it affected my mood, my outlook, even my life. To hell with words. I know what it means.

I chose the path of an artist because my encounters with art changed me in profound ways, and I could think of no better way to engage with the world. Not everyone will understand my art, and that’s OK. Those who do, however, will also understand me, beyond the hindrances of lesser human preoccupations, or the bothersome things that divide and force us to take sides on various matters. When you connect with art, you connect with the artist, without regard to their appearance or language or politics or religion or nationality; you connect with them at a much higher common denominator, as incarnations of consciousness rather than flawed and mortal animals struggling to maintain an Earthly existence.

Like most photographers, art was not on my mind when I first picked up a camera. In that sense, photography as a means for art is handicapped. Most who set out to be painters, sculptors or musicians aspire to become artists. Not so for photographers. The practice of photography as art, therefore, demands that artistic photographs distinguish themselves as such, lest they are doomed to be judged and sentenced by criteria having little to do with their artistic merits.

How does one distinguish their work as art when they can’t clearly articulate the qualities of art in the first place? The answer is in the question. Rather, the answer is in knowing that this is the wrong question to ask. Art is not distinguished by its products. It is distinguished by its creators and the things they wish to convey through their work. Great art can only be defined as the product of great artists. All the measurable qualities in the world will not elevate a work whose creator has nothing meaningful to express.

Artists find ways of expressing themselves by whatever means and skills are available to them. By coincidence alone, the camera was the medium most available to me when I decided that I wanted to be an artist. And so, I happen to be a photographer. This fact, by itself, means nothing.

Art is not about the production of things; it’s about the expression of things.

By the same line of thinking, a painting is not inherently better art than a symphony; and a sculpture is no higher a work of art than a photograph or a building or a wood carving. Miles Davis is what makes Kind of Blue better art than the majority of paintings; van Gogh is what makes Starry Night better art than most songs; and Dorothea Lange is what makes Migrant Mother better art than most sculptures.

Pick your medium by whatever criteria you wish but if art is your goal be an artist first. Don’t just create things; express things in your creations. More than that, have something to convey to the world that is worth expressing.

True artists speak not only about their art; they speak through their art.

Tafoni Glyph

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (13)

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  1. Ted Griffith says:

    “True artists speak not only about their art; they speak through their art” And I think that the true artist is the one that lets the art speat through them. As an artist, we not only need to speak, but to hear. We serve as the translator of a ‘language’ only we can hear.

  2. Guy Tal says:

    I agree, Ted. I tried to express a similar concept in an earlier post (Rethinking Visualization):

    “Think of the artist as having the job of bridging two worlds: one of feelings, notions, meanings, and abstractions available only to them; and one of literal objects perceptible by physiological senses that can be shared with others. Visualization is the point of translation, where a work of art assumes shape and crosses from one world into the other.”

  3. Spot on. I never intended on being an artist either when I picked up a camera. I did however want to convey what I experienced out in wild places to others who did not understand why I went there. So in that sense I was ‘being’ and artist before I even knew it.

  4. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks Youssef! It’s funny how sometimes you realize you had the answers all along and were too distracted to see them. Maybe a certain process of maturation is unavoidable.

  5. Like Youssef, art was the last thing on my mind when I first picked up a camera. After years of snap shots, I gradually began evolving into more serious photography, and finally into art, and I continue to find myself evolving even today; perhaps even more so today. I find myself in agreement with your sentiments, as I often do. BTW, love the image, that’s one of my top faves of yours.

  6. “How does one distinguish their work as art when they can’t clearly articulate the qualities of art in the first place?”

    For one thing, art tells us as much or more about the person who created it as it tells us about other things.


  7. Rafael Rojas says:

    Really spot on. I see a camera as a catalist or as water poured over a pot of earth: it might trigger certain reactions or growth, but depending on the seed which was buried.

    When I started watering that pot, I did not even know what was going to grow…What I thought was going to be just a way of showing others what was out there, became a way of showing others what had always been “in” there. A revelation indeed. And that revelation was the best gift photography could have brought with it, since it allowed me to know myself. It did not changed my life, just showed it to me, and then, to other people. The door to an exciting journey…

    Great post Guy,

  8. Alister Benn says:

    Very well said indeed… it is a path that I too came to by chance rather than design, but has opened my life and career in ways I simply could never have imagined. Living each day and each breath as a photographer and artist is a peaceful existence for me.

    That I can express myself with images that are appreciated by others is wonderful.

  9. This is the fourth of fifth time I have read this, and I like it better each time.

  10. Well argued, Guy. Your concluding line is something it seems many “marketers” of art have forgotten these days. Though I’ve noticed that there has always been many loud artists who usually are the ones whose work itself speaks the least.

  11. Terrific post and image, and I love many of the comments being made as well. I always enjoy the train of thought that follows a visit to your blog!

  12. Pranay says:

    Guy, you are one of the person who has inspired me all the way of my photography journey. This is one more inspiring writeup for me to understand deeper meaning of art.
    Thanks, May you exceed all the boundaries of what you want to become.