Rewarding Creativity

| January 3, 2017

To award prizes is to attempt to control the course of another man’s work. It is a bid to have him do what you will approve. It affects not only the one who wins the award, but all those who in any measure strive for it. ~Robert Henri

A few months ago, some who follow my posts expressed understandable surprise when I announced that I will be judging an upcoming photo contest. After all, I have repeatedly expressed my own disinterest in participating in such contests, and offered many times my belief that competition ultimately is detrimental to expressive work by introducing motivations and impositions that encourage conformity and appealing to low common denominators, rather than liberating artists to pursue and express their true voice. I still very much stand by all that.

So why is this one different? Because I agreed to do it on the condition that I get to judge entries by how creative they are. Admittedly one of my prime motivations (I’m not compensated in any way) is subversion.

By a common definition (coined by Michael Mumford), creativity is the production of “novel and useful” products. Usefulness in art is a topic of much philosophical debate and I wrote about it elsewhere. In a nutshell, what makes a work of art useful to me is the degree to which I’m better off for having seen it—the degree to which it inspired me, improved my mood, surprised me, soothed me, or any of a myriad ways in which art can elevate my living experience. Novelty is easier to judge: the work has to be original, at least in some way, whether it is an entirely new concept or a surprising new spin on a well-known one.

The first thing I learned is that people who enter images into contests, especially when there is little or no cost to do so, seem to pay little attention to the judging criteria. Many of the entries to my “Creative Landscape” contest are decidedly not creative, and some are not even landscape.

Most photography contests, alas, judge images by simplistic criteria, usually amounting to: “which picture is prettiest?” and without regard to much else. Indeed, some contests go as far as to impose draconian limitations to creative expression, requiring such a degree of fidelity to perceived reality that images forced to comply have to be, practically by definition, uncreative. Consider this my small attempt to liberate creative minds from such petty things and to encourage divergent, rather than convergent, thinkers.

I believe art is most rewarding when it is self-expressive and free from preconceptions. I also believe that creative self-expression is more interesting and worthy the more creative and interesting the self being expressed. And this requires that the self, first and foremost, be a self—differentiated and original in some significant and interesting way(s). It is these things—the desire to express one’s self, and to strive for a self that’s worth expressing—that I wish to reward.I wish to encourage up-and-coming artists to invest in them, to reap the life rewards that come with them, and to reward us all by pushing art into realms not already exhausted by their predecessors.

I do not wish to reward new artists for striving to please seasoned artists, by creating replicas, repeating formulas, or pandering to some low common denominator in the name of popularity. There is no need, as far as I am concerned, to redo what’s already been done. Not only do I believe that creativity and complexity of personality yield tremendous personal rewards, but as a consumer of art I also don’t care to see more renditions of that same waterfall/arch/tree/whatever again. My living experience is better when I see novel and creative art—things I have not seen before; ideas I have not contemplated before; skills I do not possess myself or know many who do; new ways of seeing and interpreting and relating to the world.

I do not wish to reward anyone for being like me, or like anyone else; I wish to reward creative artists for daring to be themselves, and to invest in making those selves deeper and more interesting. Rather than award such meaningless things as camera technique or following the masses to the same old spots, or using some visual gimmick, I would much rather encourage artists to explore that which I have not thought, or was able, to explore myself; or that was already thought and explored by others.

I want to reward creativity in the abstract. I don’t care how pretty your work is, or whether you share my sensibilities. I don’t care where you traveled to or what kind of camera you used or how you processed your work. I don’t care if you figured out how to photograph the night sky. I want to know something about your personality and what’s meaningful to you, how you felt or want me to feel when I see your work. I want to know that you have that defiant impulse of a free thinker; and if you do, I want to encourage you to nurture and pursue and invest in it.

Think you have it? Enter here. Although a lot of entries have already been submitted, I daresay creativity is still lacking.

Lithic Cubism

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an 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 (1)

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  1. Dave Benson says:

    So… after considering the challenge for the past 10 hours I have decided to accept… but with a couple thoughts…because I too like subversion… the first being I seldom “do” contests… because as Robert Henri also suggest, don’t paint for the panel… second I do not believe in “themes per se… but a landscape can be interpreted, by some, as any image taken in the horizontal format…and it “might not even be a landscape” by someone else’s criteria… my submission will be More Than a Rock, or Landscape to me… it may be a grand vista or an intimate selection as an abstraction… and when I select an image I take the time to careful submit one that carries a significance to me… it is a careful and time consuming task that will by its very selection be one that did represent me and the land at the moment in time… I trust the judges will also take a little time to consider each image and not quickly dismiss any for their lack of beauty… thanks for putting the challenge out there…