Drawing The Line

| July 16, 2017 | 8 Replies

In fact every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability. ~Edward Steichen

The only definition for art that I was able to come up with that is both unequivocally true and that also can be put to use to clearly delineate art from anything that is not art is this: art is the product of artists. This is because, in one context or another, practically any object or experience can be considered art, but not every person can be considered an artist.

Defining art as the product of artists also serves to appropriate the term to things created consciously by a human agent. As artificial intelligence advances in leaps and bounds, it may well be that machines will soon be able to manufacture artful, perhaps even creative, products, which indeed will be a spectacular technological accomplishment. But we will do well to exclude such developments from the definition of art at the outset, lest we risk losing what art is beyond mere aesthetics. Machine generated art may be indistinguishable from human made art to someone viewing it, but there is one aspect of art that no machine can ever replace: the inner experience of the artist.

I’m of the opinion that defining a thing as a work of art describes its function (at least within a given context and/or period of time) but should not be considered a value statement. I believe that there are many worthy things that are not art and that are as, or more, worthy than many great works of art. Documentary photography, for example, has been responsible for some of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, including the proliferation of information about, and awareness of, some of the pinnacles of existence and of human endeavors, both grand and terrible. Commercial photography is responsible for much of our industrial progress, our knowledge of what people and things look like even if we never get to see them in person, and much more. But why do these have to be art? It seems odd to me that many hijack the term art as a marketing label, or as an indication of elevated quality, creativity or other things, even when such things are decidedly absent, or irrelevant to the work’s intended use. When everything is art, nothing is art.

I’m of the opinion that what an artist wishes to express is of greater importance than the means they choose to express it with. As such, I consider such things as purity of process, tradition, or any other constraint that a photographic artist may choose to adhere to, as important to understanding the artist’s temperament, but otherwise less important than their reasons for creating their work in the first place. I am more interested in the why than the how.

Having made such statements before, I recognize that sometimes viewers may assume about my work what lawyers call, “facts not in evidence,” namely that my tolerance for what some may call “manipulation” suggests that I push the boundaries of (to borrow a term from Ansel Adams) “departure from reality” to a greater extent than I actually do.

I do, absolutely and unapologetically, create images that are departures from reality. In fact, I do not believe that any product created with the aim of representing (literally re-presenting) reality qualifies as art. The very origin of the term art is a Latin word implying something manufactured by human skill, rather than occurring naturally. But, I also wish to make clear that my departures may be far more nuanced than some may believe. I practice my work as self-expressive art, meant simply that in my images I wish to reflect a true, subjective, inner state. I unequivocally do not seek to manufacture images just for aesthetic beauty, nor to elicit emotional responses that I had not experienced at the time of making the image. And those inner states I wish to express most often are inspired by my experiences in wild places. And I do not wish for my work, or the emotions it expresses, to depart from those real experiences.

My goal of expressing my own inner states in my work, using natural beauty as a vehicle for such expression, rather than its ultimate goal, also explains the things I do not do. Images ensuing out of technological feats, such as aerial photography or renditions of the night sky that I am unable to see or relate to emotionally (at least not until after the image is made), while interesting to experience as a viewer, do not interest me as an artist. They may arouse an emotional reaction in the viewer, but they do not ensue out of an intuitive one. At least for me.

I also rarely create images in the company of others. This is because I am extremely introverted and do not experience emotions with the same depth and power when around people as I do when alone. No matter how beautiful the scene, if I feel uncomfortable, distracted, or self-conscious, I will not photograph it.

And so, although I do not presume to impose my boundaries on anyone else, nor claim that my reasons are in any way more “true” or valid than those of others, I draw my line for departing from reality at the extent that such departures distill and emphasize those aspects of an image that are conducive to the emotions I feel and wish to express, and that I hope to elicit in the viewer. The image in its aesthetic aspects, to me, serves as a conduit for real inner experiences and subjective feelings, making tangible things that otherwise will only be available to me, and offering a means of relaying them to others.

This is to clarify my own approach, and not in any way to disparage the works of others who choose to draw their lines elsewhere, or whose motivations in creating their works are different from mine. My reason for making these statements is that I find it eminently interesting to understand the motivations and choices of other artists, and I wish to encourage anyone engaged in producing expressive work to similarly think about and to articulate their own motivations in writing. As a viewer, it greatly enhances my experience of your work.

All is Well

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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 (8)

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  1. Eric says:

    Guy, wonderfully stated my friend. I really enjoy all of your writing and your ability to express your thoughts so clearly and make it so relatable for me. You are able to explain things that I feel, but I cannot transform those feelings into words like you seem to be able to do. I own “More Than a Rock,” it sits on near my computer where I edit my images, and I am always referring back to different parts that really impacted me as an artist on a journey to reach his full potential. I love your photography but I think I almost equally enjoy your writing. Please continue to do both for as long as you can, I depend on your inspiration.

    Peace and Love


  2. Greg Rodgers says:

    Guy, I always enjoy your writing – as well as your art, or should I say as well as your “photographic art”. I think defining art is an “age old” task that has never been completed successfully. In your opening paragraph:

    “The only definition for art that I was able to come up with that is both unequivocally true and that also can be put to use to clearly delineate art from anything that is not art is this: art is the product of artists. This is because, in one context or another, practically any object or experience can be considered art, but not every person can be considered an artist.”

    the last phrase: “but not every person can be considered an artist.” highlights the issue. By saying art is what artists do, you have merely shifted the question from “What is art?” to “Who is an artist?” And left that hanging.

    The phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” comes to mind. And suggests to me that as no one has successfully given an objective definition of art, that this clearly falls in the the nature of a transaction in the form of “I think this is art or I know this as art” It is in essence a transaction between the one who makes the object to be considered as “art” and the one who values it as such.

    In viewing any object, we can simply view it as a whole emotionally, or deconstruct it into various elements which may appeal intellectually. In either case, how we perceive and react to the object is as much determined by “who” we are as individuals as by any intent the producer may have had in mind to convey to the observer. So, I would say that there is little way to objectively lay the term “art” on a piece of work since that determination (and hence the appellation “artist” applied to the maker) is dependent not only on the intent of the producer, but the “eye” of the beholder. Pieces are placed in museums and galleries because of consensus of beholders, sometimes based on current fashion and taste, tradition, or “norms” of institutions. They become thereby defined as “art” culturally. However, for each personal beholder there is the individual transaction between the beholder and the producer that actually defines “art” and the maker as an “artist” in that moment. Otherwise, “art” is just a convenient label for something made by someone.

  3. Tom Coverdale says:

    Excellent discussion of the concept of art and artist. Thanks for continuing to challenge and stretch my thinking! Keep up the great writing!

  4. Peter Higdon says:

    Excellent thought provoking post. After reading this last night, I spent some time today trying to come up with a definition of art that worked for me, and failed. I agree with you that an art photograph has to be based on the photographer’s involvement with the world and her emotional reaction to it. From a viewer’s point of view, I want an image that invokes an emotion in me, or, shows me the world in a way I hadn’t looked at it before. The problem that that gives me is that some of the most evocative images I have ever seen have been taken by photojournalists. Can a journalist produce art?

  5. Matt Payne says:

    Guy –
    Wonderfully written and I agree on almost every account of what you wrote here. The expression of art should be a personal one and I think that is where landscape photography has gone off the rails so to speak. Many “artists” are producing images not because they move them or that it is driven by some intrinsic response to the environment, but because they want likes or they want to reproduce the work of someone else. I really enjoy that you drew a line in the sand for yourself but expressly stated that this is YOUR line and that you understand why someone else might feel differently. I personally LOVE taking photos of the night sky because it takes me back to those magical nights under the stars where I feel so small and filled with wonder. That’s my reason. Does not mean it has to be your reason. These are topics we discuss on my new podcast, f-stop collaborate and listen, quite a bit. I’d love to have you on sometime, even if you say you’re an introvert. The conversations are very laid back and unscripted. Thanks again for your writing – it is always a good read.

  6. Brad Mangas says:

    I can relate to your thoughts on this. There seems to be a few very specific reasons, or possibly conditions that create the highest level of creativity within my own work. Solitude being one of the most dominant. I recently experienced some personal struggles that led to great desire for solitude. As I typically do, I headed to nature in seek of such solitude.

    I am not the one to determine if work created during such personal conditions is good, or bad, which is not the purpose anyway. But the act of creating was, and seems to always be soothing to my soul. This can only happen during those times of solitude. I am very grateful to have discovered this some years ago.

    Then again I relate very closely to the “extremely introverted” condition as well. Which I also cherish. Some may think it selfish, but I learned to appreciate the value of personal expression simply because “I” needed something. Though I can appreciate others opinions they never seem to enter my mind before, during or after such experiences. Which is a complete blessing as well because I am self conscious to a fault.

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