My Idea of Good Art

| March 6, 2016

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.

A Tangled, Fragrant, Mess

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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.

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Sites That Link to this Post

  1. My Idea of Good Art | Ed Lehming Photography | March 7, 2016
  2. Of Interest in Photography for March 24, 2016 | March 24, 2016
  1. richard t. o'kell says:

    A point well made.

  2. Would you have been happier if the Indian Restaurant had taken the time and invested the money to create a successful business, getting rid of the Mexican decor and running ads to attract more customers? Then it would have stayed open! I’m certainly not a fan of the Peter Lik’s of the world and I am terrible at running a business myself, but I admire the people who marry art to commerce. I don’t admire them because they have money or any of the trapping of success. I admire them because they care enough to promote their art enough so that it reaches more people. People need art, we all do. It enriches our lives in a very real way, just like food. It satisfies and nourishes the soul. We should be celebrating those who are successful at sharing their art. I’m glad Weston finally got his due, but figures like Stieglitz and Adams understood marketing, promoted beautiful photography, and the world is better for them.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Certainly I would have been happier if the restaurant found a way of remaining profitable and open (as I’m sure the owners would). That was my point about balance. They did not find the balance point (and it may not have been there for them to begin with). Stieglitz was born to a wealthy family and married into one (the first time) so never really had to worry about bills. Coincidentally, his comments about the benefits of being an amateur vs. a professional referred to amateurs who can make art without concern for profiting from it. Adams was actually accused of spending much of his successful years preparing his legacy rather than taking artistic risks, which he did earlier in his career, but in my mind this is a tenuous argument. I’m pretty certain he enjoyed his work very much.

  3. I believe you nailed it when you said that it’s all about finding the balance point. It’s also important to recognize that the balance point will likely shift during the course of our life. In the early years, it might be skewed a bit towards money and security, particularly if one has family responsibilities. Later years might see the balance point shift more towards art. The danger, of course, is in failing to recognize when the time to shift has arrived. Once we become committed to earning a living, we easily become myopic and incapable of discerning when enough is enough. I’ll be financially secure if only….

    We form ourselves by what we do on a daily basis and if our daily life is centered around the pursuit of money then that is who and what we become. If we wish to be an artist, we must first center our daily life around that pursuit.

  4. Thomas Rink says:

    “We form ourselves by what we do on a daily basis and if our daily life is centered around the pursuit of money then that is who and what we become. If we wish to be an artist, we must first center our daily life around that pursuit.”

    Isn’t the pursuit of success the original problem? I believe that in many careers, money is just a proxy for success. If your goal as an artist is just recognition, then how is that different?

    Just do your thing, create something that satifies you. A regular employment will free you from commercial pressure and market demands. Balancing both is not that difficult. Do not attach yourself to success, however, because the definition of success very easily becomes dependent on the opinion of others.

    • I agree with many of your sentiments, Thomas, but I do think there’s a difference between recognition and money as measures of success, though the mindless pursuit of either is equally pointless. Personally, I am content to pursue my photography with no monetary reward in sight but I am not content to do so without some degree of recognition. Whether that recognition is simply the appreciation of friends and family, the acceptance by a wider audience of G+ friends or the formal recognition of galleries and studios, I need recognition that my work is valid and connects with an audience. Otherwise, I would simply store the images on a hard drive in the bottom of a dresser drawer. I know of no photographer who does not want to share their images with the wider world in the hope that others will see and appreciate the same beauty that led them to create the images. My definition of success is to reach an appreciative audience and to move them and, yes, I attach myself to that pursuit.

      • Ed Lehming says:

        I wholeheartedly agree Sam. While I love being out there and. Asking photos for myself, and growing in the art and technique of being able to capture and share the ‘feel’ of my subjects, if I don’t get feedback from person, friends, or family,mi fear I will not grow and improve. It can be a frustrating journey, with its highs and lows. It is tough not to get discouraged when critics claim your work is not ‘high art”.

        I post my photos on my website and blog, because I enjoy sharing my work, as you stated, hoping others see and appreciate the beauty I see and hoping for feedback as I try to establish myself in a world filled with talented photographers. If my hobby can pay for itself, I’m satisfied. If people enjoy what I share, it brings me joy, knowing an image has triggered an emotion in another human.

      • Thomas Rink says:

        Sam and Ed, my point was not to keep one’s work for oneself. Art should be shared with others, of course. What I tried to say was that if one heavily depends on appreciation by others as a measure of success, then there is the risk that one may never be satisfied with what one has. For example, there is a difference between having a full time employment just to make a living on one hand and pursuing a career on the other (in the latter case you depend on judgement of your superiors for validation of your success). If you quit a career track just to pursue artmaking *with the same competitiveness as your career*, chances are that you won’t be happy with it, either.

        Having your work appreciated will help during dry spells, like a medicine. But medicine is not food.

  5. I remember distinctly THAT korma at THAT restaurant, Guy. It was good – very good.

    The perennial difficulty of selling unique work (or food), as Minor White so eloquently stated, is finding “those persons in the world who are sensitized intellectually, emotionally, and kinesthetically — not a numerous audience to be sure.”

  6. SB says:

    Interesting reflection. I particularly understand what you said about people wanting to understand and interpret what they’re seeing very quickly. For me, a good work of art challenges expectations and delivers something different. I have always enjoyed a perplexed reaction to my work. It always engages viewers and they stick around for dialogue. Art, good art, encourages commentary and reflection. Best of luck with your work.

  7. Very beautifully explained. Enjoyed it.