At a recent workshop, I expressed some of my thoughts on photography as a medium for art. I said that I considered art to be the product of creative artists. Though seemingly a simple statement, it holds an important implication: art does not exist in vacuum, nor unto itself, and it is not a random product of circumstances; art is a deliberate and purposeful creation of a human mind. I also mentioned that creativity is often defined as the bringing into existence of something both novel and useful, based on a commonly-quoted definition by Dr. Michael Mumford, who is widely regarded for his innovative essays on creativity. The participant agreed with my definition, but asked if I knew that some may disagree with it. Of course I do. In fact, most academics and MFA graduates likely will disagree.
There is a school of thought in art that rallies behind the banner of “art for art’s sake,” claiming that true art exists independent of meaning and purpose, use or message. In other words: art – a product of humans – should have no bearing on, or utility for, people. Its value is inherent in it simply existing.
The thing about the way art is defined by a given movement or school is that, much like the weather, if you don’t like it, wait a while. A new “ism” will emerge soon enough, negating or even overturning the sensibilities and “rules” of its predecessor. And that “ism” surely will not come from the ranks of those invested, academically or financially, in the current school of thought.
Art for art’s sake is an interesting philosophical exercise, but one that in my mind loses the argument when considerations of value come into play. From here, you could easily make the jump to whether there is value in “food for food’s sake” – food that has no flavor or nutritional value and that exists in its own right, without needing to be appetizing or palatable. Or, how about “books for books’ sake” – bounded tomes written (or not) in letters that do not need to spell out actual words or narratives and exist for the mere sake of being books. It seems obvious that a deliberate product of a human mind should possess a value justifying the work, attention, time and materials that went into its making, not to mention the investment required of its audience. And, indeed, much of what is created under the creed of “art for art’s sake” is rarely left to exist in its own right as the ideology might suggest, and, instead, ends up being traded like so many commodities, culminating in “hype for profit’s sake.”
The “novel and useful” definition is powerful in that it does not stop at creative work being merely unique; the work needs to also possess demonstrable value. For visual arts, the simplest and easiest value to accomplish is aesthetic appeal. Accordingly, it also is the least venerable. The staggering amount of exquisitely-beautiful creations posted to online media on a daily basis makes even a “dime a dozen” seem like a bargain. How about millions … for free? This over-saturation of beauty led many connoisseurs to become jaded about it’s value as the primary purpose of a work. The more extreme art aficionados may go as far as to dismiss the value of beauty altogether. This is a great shame. Beauty, when used as an ingredient, carefully blended with others to produce a work of greater meaning, can be a powerful and evocative force.
This is the crux on which photographic art relying on natural aesthetics stands – the crossroads between gratuitous benign aesthetics and more complex ulterior meaning. Regrettably, too many practitioners believe that a heaping overdose of objective naturally-occurring beauty is sufficient to carry a work, and they never venture into more subtle, complex, nuanced and subjective narratives.
A review of the most celebrated art in human history reveals the error in such thinking. For a work of art – any art – to endure beyond the capricious fashions of its day, a certain degree of complexity is necessary. The genius of Leonardo or Beethoven is not that they produced work that simply appeals to the senses, but that, centuries after their lives, we still discover new meanings in them and are inspired by the degree of forethought, work and insight woven into them by their creators.
To create is not to simply capture or record; it is to infuse – knowingly, deliberately and expertly – something of the artist’s own mind into the work so that it is elevated not by its literal appearance alone, but by the deliberate narrative inscribed, stamped and sealed into it by the mind and hand of its creator, a narrative that would never exist if it were not for them. This requires hard work and expert knowledge of the artist’s chosen medium, not only in operating tools, but in understanding the minds of their audiences.
In my mind, art must exist for people’s sake. Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, it also should enhance and elevate the experience of its audience. And that audience may not be anyone and everyone, but those who choose to seek and grow and be inspired by it, and who allow themselves to be moved by it. Consumption of art is not a passive endeavor; it requires deliberate work and a consent to be altered by the experience.
To claim that art should have no value outside merely existing is to ignore what art had always been and continues to be for the human experience. It’s enough to simply consider the role of an artist in any human society to derive the true value of art. Artists, seemingly, produce nothing of material value, and live off the generosity of those willing to pay for the experience of being inspired, or to further their own inner artist. And it works. It had worked for tens of thousands of years. That says something about the intrinsic value of art, and the purpose it serves.