In a thoroughly commercialized society, an artist is respected if he makes money, and because he makes money, but there is no genuine respect for the works of art by which his money has been made. ~Bertrand Russell
In a neighborhood where I used to live, for a short period of time, there was an Indian restaurant I liked to dine in. It was run by a family of quiet and hard working immigrants who cooked, served and performed all cleaning and maintenance work. The building the restaurant was in was formerly a Mexican eatery and the family, lacking in means, kept the original decor, replete with red, green and white trim, lavish plastic vegetation, and paintings of Aztec era scenes. The owners recognized us on sight and knew our usual favorites, among them the best coconut korma I have ever tasted–a family recipe prepared by the family’s matriarch. Coconut korma is a favorite dish of mine, to the point of obsession. Over the years I sampled dozens of recipes in various restaurants, and this one surpassed them all: complex in flavor, smooth and creamy and spicy, and beautifully served alongside fresh baked flatbread and various fresh made chutneys.
The restaurant stayed open for about a year until one day, to my great disappointment, I arrived to find it shuttered behind a large sign announcing the building was available for lease. With that was lost–to me, and to the greater public–a dish that was nothing short of a culinary work of art.
Surrounding the building are several standard fare chain restaurants: burger joints, sandwich shops, and establishments serving Americanized derivations of Mexican and Asian cuisines. All, I’m sure, sold many more meals and were more profitable than the little family run Indian restaurant, all benefitting from expertly produced branding and marketing campaigns funded by their parent companies, and all likely will remain open for years to come. At various times, when in need of a quick and easy meal, I sampled the offerings of such restaurants, which are generally satisfying; although I am comfortable stating unequivocally that none are even remotely as gratifying as that korma.
In photography we find similar scenarios: standard fare variations on the same themes, often even the same subjects, yielding easy and satisfying experiences for both photographers and viewers, and that are generally easier to sell. Original work, especially if possessing some complexity and requiring an experienced eye to fully appreciate, often garners less attention and is less profitable. And, just like a generic chain store can legitimately call itself a restaurant, same as an establishment serving the creations of a genius chef, so can these generic standardized views legitimately pass themselves as art. But likewise, to a discriminating connoisseur, not all art is equally satisfying. The distinction, to be sure, is a subjective one.
Having studied photographic art for some time, my own criteria for evaluating images consists of the photographer’s skill–both expressive and technical; the uniqueness of the work; how personal it is; my emotional response to it; and its presentation. Put another way, no matter how interesting an image is, if it is technically flawed I will have a hard time looking past it; no matter how interesting or colorful the subject is, if there is no emotion or other ulterior “message” skillfully woven into the visual experience by the photographer, it is unlikely to hold my attention for very long; if it is a copy or derivation of something I have seen before, even if technically superior, I will be bothered by the photographer’s lack of creativity; and if it is presented in a manner that I know to be an inexpensive shortcut to something that can be easily thrown on a wall, my impression is that its creator considers their own work a lesser art, not worthy of greater investment. But most importantly, if I know something about the artist’s philosophy and their relationship with the medium and/or subject, and how a given work fits within such personal, expressive, context; I find it profoundly more interesting and satisfying.
It is the bane of any serious artist, and especially those who choose to make art their profession, to balance creative expression with the realities of sales and marketing, almost always requiring a degree of compromise, at times even a great one. How is one to decide how much to invest in promoting their work? How much should one simplify their message to appeal to less discerning audiences? How much “suffering” for one’s art is appropriate? An example often given to budding artists is that of Vincent van Gogh, who lived in poverty and only sold one painting during his lifetime (at what today would seem an astoundingly low price). Similarly, painter Paul Cézanne toiled for four decades in near obscurity, frustrated by scathing–at times even cruel–critic reviews, and refused to yield to public opinion until receiving the recognition he deserved. The great photographer Edward Weston never saw his work commanding high prices while he was alive. Certainly there are also many more examples of artists who suffered and sacrificed for the purity of their art. Of course, there are also examples to the contrary: artists who found great success and recognition in their day.
Not a fan of extremism in most situations, I believe that the deciding factor should be one’s satisfaction with their life and lifestyle. To this I will add that I suspect most people living in industrialized societies falsely believe they require more material rewards than they actually do in order to maintain a satisfying life. I do not want to live as van Gogh did (and he suffered much, as evident from his letters), but a simple life such as Edward Weston’s is more appealing to me than the lavish lifestyles of other “great” artists. As such, so long as my life is satisfying to me and my bills are paid, I see little reason to compromise or to invest my time in activities that bring me little joy. In this latter category I include incessant marketing; competitions; time spent on “social” media sites beyond a basic level of meaningful interactions that I find useful and enjoyable; or worrying about what legacy I might leave. My reward for such budgeting comes in the intangible currencies of time to wander, meaningful experiences, and the freedom to live away from the bustle of cities and without many of the anxieties of a career-driven lifestyle.
This is not to say that my way is the “right” way for anyone but me; but I think it is a great shame that many never take the time to make such decisions deliberately and with the goal of making the most out of their living experience, rather than become concerned with sales alone, or put up with other frustrations in order to maintain a standard of living that, while comfortable, fails to satisfy in other, perhaps more important, ways.
What has this got to do with good art, you may ask? In my mind, both making and appreciating good art are among the most rewarding means of elevating one’s life experience and warrants a degree of sacrifice. It is my great hope that the Indian family whose restaurant failed in my old neighborhood did not opt to manage a generic franchise, instead, and continued to pursue their calling, perhaps accomplishing success in another place. Likewise, my advice to those who aspire to be artists is to aim for the sacred balance that allows for making truly meaningful and unique work so long as basic needs are met.
My idea of good art is art that elevates the living experience of its creator, whether by tangible or intangible means. In weighing the benefits of making good art against those of making a good living, it is worth remembering that, in the grand accounting of a life, there is a point of diminishing returns, and a point where the value of the former begins to exceed the value of the latter.