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.