Art in Times of Click Baiting

| January 20, 2015

If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude, which is its natural ally. It is time, then, for it to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts … –Charles Baudelaire

The quotation above is from an essay written by poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire in 1859, and similar missives had been repeated in one choice of words or another many times since, by people of varying degrees of notoriety and fueled by different motivations. In recent weeks I read essays and blog posts yet again proclaiming photography to not be art, the death of artists and the rise of “creative entrepreneurs,” and one particularly short-sighted piece suggesting that professional photographers are no longer artists, and even wondering parenthetically if they ever were. To anyone even somewhat familiar with the history of photography the inevitable gut reaction is this: “really? again?”

We live in a time when we have fewer scholars and more influencers; fewer mentors and more bloggers, tweeters, posters and status updaters; when curators no longer concern themselves with matters of history, conservation, presentation or provenance, and instead monitor social media hashtags; and when entire business disciplines are founded in the number of one’s followers, likers or plussers. It is no wonder (and even a bit entertaining) that so many “social media marketers” have to keep out-sensationalizing each other like so many advertisers competing for eyeballs, seeking low common denominators and hoping to command attention not by demonstrating wisdom, inspiration or expertise, but by making hysterical proclamations, including ones already debated and settled more than a century ago and several times since. It is no wonder that such people prefer to think of themselves as “creative entrepreneurs” rather than “artists,” and such characterization also illustrates a larger and more disturbing trend: the monetization of creativity – imagination in the service of financial goals, shareholder profits and corporate branding, rather than the intimate and personal pursuit of insight, meaning, enlarging experiences, inner reflections and elevated states of mind.

Beyond a commonality in ideas, I think that it is important to highlight that Baudelaire, perhaps photography’s harshest critic but also one of the greatest art critics of all times, truly was concerned for what the technological/industrial trend personified by photography meant for the future of art as he knew and loved it; whereas most such recent accounts usually are written by those financially invested in a new status quo and who often have little interest in, or knowledge of art. And of those, Baudelaire was equally critical, writing, “The disease which you have just been diagnosing is a disease of imbeciles. What man worthy of the name of artist, and what true connoisseur, has ever confused art with industry?”

I am baffled and uninspired by portrayals of artists primarily as shrewd business people, prolific marketers, experts in SEO or some other acronym-du-jour, confidants of industry, owners of exotic gear, bringers of tips and tricks and inside rumors to the unwashed masses, debonaire globetrotters or extreme sportsmen. I can appreciate that such skills can indeed be useful and rewarding in themselves, but I do not consider an artist anyone who places a lesser value on art than they do on the business of art.

Painter Henri Matisse wisely advised, “Hatred, rancor, and the spirit of vengeance are useless baggage to the artist. His road is difficult enough for him to cleanse his soul of everything which could make it more so.” And so, rather than becoming mired in criticism, I wish to share with you the experience of making the image posted at the bottom of this essay, which I titled, Slow Dancer.

I was on my way back from Colorado with a couple of days to spare for personal exploration. A series of monsoon storms unleashed heavy rains and floods throughout the Southwest, and, having the time, I decided to see if I could drive a steep dirt road leading to a remote desert overlook. It took some effort but I managed to do so and to find a camp site not too far from this view. I noted the procession of clouds drifting from the west, and the way shafts of sunlight filtered through them, moving about the landscape like searchlights, dipping into canyons, isolating random formations and obscuring others. I hunkered down at times when lightning hit too close for comfort, and walked about during breaks in the storm, breathing the fragrant air and admiring the silence. Later, upon trying to drive out, I learned that the road had washed away and I went back to spend a couple of extra days before making another attempt, and made several more images I liked in that time.

Other than Slow Dancer I identified a couple more potential compositions within the span of about three hours. I noted which formations had to come into light and what portions will need to be in shade in order to produce a number of visualized compositions I hoped will materialize, and as the light moved about I tried to position myself accordingly to be sure I was ready for the proverbial “decisive moments.” For Slow Dancer I hoped to use the selectively-lit flanks of the canyon below as leading lines, and I needed them to be lit at the same time as the foreground so the tree would not be lost in the shadows. It took some time but when it finally came together I felt elated and grateful. A couple of hours later, as darkness began to set, I spent some time processing images on my laptop with great excitement.

It is worth mentioning at this point that I had been to this place several times before and that this was my third attempt at making this image. The day in which I made Slow Dancer happened to have been a Thursday. I spent the entire day within the span of about half a mile, following the light, visualizing possibilities, thinking of titles and metaphors I may be able to evoke, jotting notes and stopping every so often to appreciate how immensely fortunate I am to be able to do this, to be there, on a whim, on a “workday,”  in this wild and magnificent place, and to have it to myself. It was a satisfyingly exhausting exercise, both physical and intellectual, and as much effort as I would have put into other endeavors I once practiced professionally. To me that is what makes what I do art, and why I can do some things as a “pro” that I could not do as an amateur.

The freedom to explore deeper, to take the time needed, to study and hone and practice my skills, to fail again and again before getting it “right” – these are the things afforded to me by being a professional artist, and they are founded in the most primal and organic aspects of being a human being – whole and flawed and emotional and inspired and unencumbered by mundane matters. Conversely, I have no desire to force my creative energies into a manufactured, managed and marketed brand, and I will take offense if someone called me a “creative entrepreneur” or some other label fashionable in the simplistic and single-minded world of business and that has nothing at all to do with my reasons for practicing my work. Such considerations are only important to me in the sense that I need to make sufficient income so I can continue to practice my work, but no more. Why would I willingly submit to the tyranny of analyses and plans and work hours and cold numbers and other trappings better reserved for other professions and that likely will rob what I do of the very reason I do it?

To most non-professional photographers, photography is an enjoyable pastime; they travel to places like these for short visits, hoping for “good” light and to enjoy the simple pleasures of being outdoors. That is a wonderful thing. But, having made up my mind to assume the risks of being a professional artist, I have the privilege and time and desire to do more challenging (and ultimately also more rewarding) things than to photograph the predictable sunrise or sunset in the usual places. When the visitors leave, I get to stay; I get to spend a few days in a place that inspires me without concern for “vacation time;” I get to study and to feel these places, to immerse myself in them, to learn things about them that are rare and not obvious, to smell them and to hear them and to see them and to live in them and to experience them in ways not possible on short random visits. I get to investigate interesting squiggles on the topographical map even if it takes a few days to drive or walk there; I get to spend hours reading and studying the history and science of my vocation; I get to see these places in their most peaceful and their most violent; I get to interact with wildlife and trees and flowers; I get to “engineer” flood-damaged dirt tracks so I can drive myself out; I get to look at a distant hill and wonder what’s there and just go see, and when I get there I have the freedom to decide to spend a night or two in a sleeping bag at a favorable spot. Just as importantly, I get to teach and to share what I make and what I learn and to see it making a difference in people’s lives. Certainly there are risks and sacrifices that go with such a life, and that will not appeal to everyone, but that is part of what makes these experiences more meaningful and personal and elevated.

And so, to the pundits: I don’t envy you your followers, your corporate sponsors or your entrepreneurial zest; I don’t begrudge you the bully pulpit of “social” media or your celebrity or your thriving small business. I am not out to eat your cake beyond the small slice I need to keep a roof over my head, and have no interest in investing my creative time and energy in competing with you. Indeed, some of us had even been in your shoes and realized that, just as our approach to art may not resonate with you, your approach to life did not resonate with us, and we are happy to coexist. But please do us this one small favor: stop telling people that people like us don’t exist. Not only are we real but our lives to us are, in so many ways, richer and happier and more inspired because we made the deliberate and defiant choice to be artists and not “creative entrepreneurs.”

 Slow Dancer

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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 (23)

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  1. Great post as always, Guy. For some reason your steep dirt road made me think of the Moki-Dugway. I’ve also had fun w/ an impromptu fix of a few washouts, but on the backroads of the Channel Islands.

  2. Richard Wong says:

    Love it Guy! The way some people portray themselves online makes me wonder if they even got into photography because they love to create or to draw attention toward themselves. If social media didn’t exist would they still be creating photography? People are certainly entitled to earn a good living for themselves but money is not everything in life. Strive to enjoy the artistic side of things and put food on the table. If fame and fortune come from that great if not, who cares; you still have art and food.

  3. Jack Larson says:

    Thank you. I agree with the main thrust of your essay. However, I take issue with some of the assumptions that you seem to make about amateurs. Everything you say about being a professional is equally true of many amateurs, especially those who happen to be retired.

  4. Guy Tal says:

    No offense intended, Jack. I deliberately put the “I” and “most” in there.

  5. An extremely well said and erudite discussion of the current state of art, not just photography.

    Thank you!

  6. Thank you for this Guy, I have been wrestling with these ideas lately as well. I cringe at the idea of being a creative entrepreneur, I would much rather lead a meaningful life through the creation and sharing of art. I have not been successful at fully achieving this vision and started to go down the wrong path, but I feel I have been course corrected through your writings and David DuChemin’s, of course with much internal reflection.

    It is a constant battle against the lure of money and fame, big personalities who tell you how great it is at the top. Of the great artists in history, how many created art simply to make money? I am no art historian, but I would venture to guess very few. They created art because they had to, something deep inside them told them this is their purpose and they were true to themselves.

    I look forward to meeting you at the symposium, maybe some time around the campfire if you’re so inclined.

  7. Marty Knapp says:

    Dear Guy,

    What else can I say?

    Thank you for sharing your exquisitely expressed thoughts and feelings with words.

  8. Jamey says:

    I have felt very hesitant to try and market myself for fear of corrupting the pure art that pours out when I have no inhibitions and can produce on my own terms. Monetizing art is necessary, I suppose in this economy and culture (if you wish to do it full time without another source of income) but the more I think of it, the more I lean towards not even trying to market. Doing photography and other art for only myself. Which also would bring up art’s impact… Art won’t make any impact on anyone but yourself if it isn’t shared.

    I’m always bummed when people tell me that you have to sell yourself to succeed… But the catch, or ray of hope I get from your words is this well thought out concept of balance. So long as that the making and doing of art is more prevalent in your life than marketing, selling, and the $$ and fame are not the reason for which we create…

  9. A wonderfully written and, as usual, quite thought provoking piece, Guy. I am most fortunate to have no need for profit from photography, allowing me a certain freedom in how I pursue this art. I have no need to please anyone but myself. Nonetheless, I am not unconstrained in the manner that you describe, free to linger in the landscape and the light, to wait for that “decisive moment,” a fact that I find increasingly frustrating. The times that I so wished to remain but had to leave are countless, and I often find myself unable to sleep at night as I recall the sights and the smells, wondering what beauty revealed itself in my absence. I understand that, at this point in my journey, I must be thankful for those moments I am given. And I am.

    Perhaps, one day, I will have the freedom to stay, to wander, to experience, and to connect in the unhurried and truly thoughtful manner that you describe. Until then, I will remain awed and inspired by the beautiful words and images that you share.

    Wishing you a wonderful 2015.

  10. Dude, if this were the last think you ever wrote, you could die a happy man. It’s perfect.

  11. Jim Crotty says:

    Another excellent article. Thank you Guy for holding high ground in the social and technological onslaught to reduce the art of photography to something only suitable for mass consumption. It’s passion that makes the difference and you have it in spades.

  12. Tif says:

    Perfect. Again. Thank you, Guy.

  13. Eric Fredine says:

    Confirmation of the apparent inevitability of the social media effect: The First Conversation Is No Longer About the Photography It’s About the Photographer.

    Even artists with the necessary time may not use it to intensively know their subjects: The Helicopterism of Art-Editorial Photographyr.

  14. Misha says:

    Ha, makes me feel less insecure about not being a shrewd business person, prolific marketer, SEO expert, industry confidant, exotic gear owner, debonaire globetrotter, or extreme sportsman, thanks!

  15. Jimmy Gekas says:

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful article, Guy. This is so perfect. This is so you. I think you really nailed it. I hope to some day be able to go out there and have my “workdays” be so energizing and fulfilling. While I would love to just set out and explore being more of an artist, that would lead me away from another creative, fulfilling and loving “job” I have with my volleyball coaching. It’s quite a battle for me, but like you, I get just enough of the “entreprenour” to eek out a modest living from coaching. Cheers.

  16. Brad Mangas says:

    Thank you Guy for the personal thoughts and experiences. So much seems to have fallen the way of the mighty (though life sucking) dollar. We are inundated with it from all directions. Waved in our face like the snake oil salesmen of old. An entire generation has now been raised to believe popularity is were life happens. Fortunately, this does not mean everyone believes this.

    I would like to mention one addition thought. There are some in which I am one, that have not taken the risks of becoming a professional artist but, as you mentioned remain non-professional. I am not sure I can except that one must acquire all incomes from a chosen craft to be considered professional but that does seem to be the criteria or at least a definition. Even though I do not derive much income from my art and my physical time producing it is “part-time”, though in the punch clock world of 40 plus hours per week would be considered a full time job, it is still art to me for the same reasons you have mentioned. More important, even though it is not my main source of financial livelihood it has allowed me to understand, appreciate, and have a life. One in which without my non-professional endeavors would not be possible and 10 years ago I could not and did not even dream of. For that I am and will always be grateful. It is the ability to be grateful that instills life within me, no monies needed.

  17. Beautifully written article, Guy. I am one those hacker photographers, producing derivative and cliche work with no eye for originality, but all the same I enjoy what I do!

  18. Eric Fredine says:

    Also, I recently read that Henri Cartier-Bresson sometimes ‘laid in what’ for people to walk into a pre-visualized composition.

  19. Patrick says:

    Hey, Guy

    I think this is the one article that is fundamental to what you do.
    I see you were greatly inspired to make your photographic work and to write this article and I can feel the substance, the energy and the enthuziasm you put into it and is greatly fulfilling to read it.

    I didn’t know Baudelaire was a criticizer of photographic art and it was quite a surprize for me know this.

    I also think that a great voice is needed in these times of confusion, of intellectual choices made from the mind and not from the heart and ultimately from the Soul, and I think you are doing a great job at it and I thank you again for the inspired writings and please, don’t stop! I think we all need you.

    Also, I really think that the artistic moment is trully unique, just like Victor Hugo used to say: “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” And the idea is always originated in imagination, which is the main tool of the artist. It represents the eye of the artist. I always say that the mind has two eyes, with which it can reflect both the negative and the positive aspect of every thing, but imagination has only one.

    When that artistic moment has come there’s nothing stopping you to witness it and to later sharing it. 🙂

  20. Sarah Marino says:

    This essay really resonated with me for the reasons that David Kingham articulated above. Now that I have decided to try to make a modest living through my photography, I keep coming back to the question of whether it is possible for someone relatively new to this field to make even a modest living without playing the social media and “creative entrepreneur” game to some degree. It is demoralizing to reduce a pursuit that means so much to me to something as trivial as seeking out thoughtless likes and clicks but such activities also seem necessary to some degree. Still, I sincerely appreciate this perspective and will come back to this in times of doubt.

  21. Johan says:

    Let me start by thanking you for sharing many thoughtful essays with us over the years. I find both your work and words inspiring. Thank you.

    Tonight I choose to break my silence in this space, which is ultimately yours Guy, as I have something modest to say:

    Seneca make a few pertinent points in his excellent essay titled “On the Shortness of Life”. He neglected to add the need to make peace with our selves and our choices.


  22. Hi Guy – I enjoyed this piece…everything you describe in this post as your experience creating art professionally mirrors mine precisely, despite the fact that I do not earn much of my living from photography.

    Photography crept into my personal orbit thanks to wilderness experiences I was already creating. I’m sure others here, and many pros, can say something similar to this. At some point I began exploring photography as a means to share these external/internal experiences with others, but this evolved into something far more personal. Specifically, I don’t spend quantities of time wandering a small piece of ground where I’ve seen something, or return many times to that indelible territory, solely to make a photograph. Yes, I do these things, and do so to make a photograph and to see what others I can make, and primarily I’m there to learn and experience. The photographs, the words — these are benefits of journeys I take because of who I am.

    If I’m correct about the blog post you reference in your own, you’re responding (don’t intend to put a fine point on your motives) to an organization that demonstrably has sold websites by creating perception. Theirs is a business that uses inspiring notions associated to art, among others, as a means to profit from a technology and services stack, and that enables a community and communications strategy. This, I think, is reality, not perception (as is, for those of us who are not salaried workers, the need to promote in order to earn).

    Nonetheless, that they have accomplished this is not a legitimate basis for making proclamations about photography, art, or photography as art, and to do so is disingenuous and opportunistic on the author’s part. Sadly, our unfettered connectivity means no end to the race to the bottom. Contrary to this, I originally found you’re blog because you’re a professional photographer with a website. Thanks to this I now get to say that Slow Dancer is lovely, you are very talented, yet I read your blog because I believe you’re honest.

    Thank goodness for honest people — even if they are also influential — and those who, as William Deresiewicz wrote in his Atlantic piece, “need a vessel for our inner life”.

  23. Darcy says:

    Thanks for this well written piece, Guy. There is no doubt that an artist, to have much success, has to be part creative and part business person. However, it seems that photography has attracted a higher per capita of people who are competitive marketers and even boast about their entrepreneurial expertise. If true, it may be because much of the photography done today is produced and then delivered on-line within days of the start of the creative process. Artists using other mediums often take longer to produce their work before they wish to reveal it, and often are not as preconditioned to receive immediate feedback.

    Every artist needs validation, but I find too much marketing in the form of unabashed self-promotion, as uncomfortable – and am sometimes embarrassed for those purveyors.