The Blog Library
“Photography Isn’t Art.”
Check your gut reaction to the title.
Because it’s less of a title, and more of a psychological test. I’ll explain this in a minute.
First, settle down and let me tell you a story about bees.
As childhood memories of swelling red welts may remind you, many kinds of bees (and wasps) should not be messed with because they sting. Many bees and wasps also have a characteristic yellow-and-black striped coloring. Insect predators categorically learn that when they see yellow and black stripes, it’s time to stay away. They know that instead of a tasty snack, they’re going to get a mouthful of venom. Predators are happy with this yellow-and-black system because they know who to avoid munching on, bees and wasps are happy because they don’t get eaten.
But at some point, other insects “figured this out.” By developing yellow and black stripes, these insects looked like they belonged in the category of stinging bees and wasps, even though they couldn’t sting. Yet potential predators would assume they were poisonous and leave them alone. Score!
This sort of imitation by non-stinging insects is known as “mimicry” (Batesian mimicry, if you want to get specific). In this case, the “mimic” gets an advantage of not being eaten without having to go through the expense and energy of actually producing poison and stingers.
Bees can’t write op-eds, but if they could, you can tell they’d be pretty mad about this. Over time if predators figure out that stripes don’t always categorically equal poison, it dilutes the advantage of having stripes, and they’ll start eating more bees. Then bees will have gone to all that work of creating poison for nothing.
The moral of this tale?
Categories are important.
Categories are information shortcuts. Not just for bees and the predators thereof, but to us as humans. It’s easier to remember “don’t eat stuff with yellow and black stripes” or “X brand makes great jeans” than to actually evaluate every option under the sun and decide for yourself. But for that to work, categories need to be accurate.
Back in the not-so-distant past, if you mis-categorized an unfamiliar berry, spider, or cloud in the distance, you could wind up dead. Even today, we’re quite invested in categorizing things correctly – not just so we can avoid getting stung or missing out on good food, but so we know how to spend our money and precious resources.
And because money is often on the line, people are going to be invested in maintaining the integrity of categories in commerce – because they represent rules for how people shell out their money.
“Art” is also an important category.
Although there are some negative connotations to the word “artist,” the word “art” carries along with it ideas of respect, refinement, technical mastery, tradition, and self-expression. Artists carry and communicate cultures, and have a place in history alongside nation-builders and powerful leaders.
Even though you can’t necessarily eat, use, drive, or keep yourself warm with art, we still tend to acknowledge its value to the human family.
It’s understandable to me why some artists wouldn’t want photographers to be called “artists.”
On the surface, you wouldn’t think it would matter so much. Far stranger things are called “art” than a beautiful photographic masterwork.
And yet, if too many mimics are called “art,” then it dilutes the category.
That is, if people encounter “art” that they don’t think carries the true characteristics of art, then (just like the harmless flies with black and yellow stripes) those assumptions spill into their perception of the rest of “art.” People might start to accord ‘artists’ less respect. And “real art” could be worth less if there’s more of it.
The problem, of course, is that “art” is a valuable category, but there are no clear yellow-and-black stripes that stand out to say “this is art.”
It’s hard to decide the rules. Does art have to be beautiful? Must it be ‘original’? Is art just human creative expression? If a machine is involved, does that mean it’s not human creative expression? Does it even need to be human – can elephants make art?
There’s a fantastic debate on this website about whether or not photography is art.* While some arguments can be easily dealt with (“photography is just pressing buttons”), others merit nuanced discussion. Like whether or not photography can be considered original, or whether it’s inherently a copy of whatever is in the real world. Or whether or not originality is even a requisite part of art.
When it’s hard to decide the rules, then your own personal definition probably reveals a lot about you.
If you believe “art” means toiling over a painting for weeks on end, then you’ll probably balk at the idea that a “work of art” could be recorded in 1/120th of a second. And you might worry that a
mimic photographer (who can perhaps churn out more “masterpieces” in one week than you can) might drag down the value of art.
If you’re a photographer and you believe that what you do is art, and especially if you feel that value is added to your brand by calling yourself an “artist,” you’re probably going to be extra mad about someone saying what you do isn’t art. 😉
If you believe that art is just fundamentally about aesthetics, including masterful choices about light and space, then you probably care less about the medium.
None of those opinions definitively describe art itself, but they do tell you a little something about the opinion-holder.
For this reason, if you can’t resolve a debate, it’s fun to watch it anyway.
Quick example: Take the word “messy.” If I took 10 of you and asked you to tell me whether or not my office closet is “messy,” I’d probably get 10 slightly different answers.
If you pride yourself on your inner Martha Stewart, and my closet has fewer labeled boxes than yours, you might say it’s messy.
But if your closets at home require you to back up against the door to get it closed, then mine might seem super-organized.
The answer might reveal more about you than it does about my closet.
So just for fun, consider your reaction to the title of this post:
Did the title make you mad? Or nod your head vigorously? Or raise your eyebrows and click to read more? That’s probably going to depend on a lot of things. Things like: What associations you have with the term “art.” How much you stake your identity on the word “photographer” or “artist.” How you earn your living. How valuable or legitimate you consider “art” to be.
Most importantly, your reaction depends on how you personally define the word “art.” What is it? And is art an actual thing in the physical world, or is it just a label we apply to a bunch of other things, like the word “blue” or “inspiring”?
Overall, or at least until philosophers and artists and photographers get together and sort out how to categorize our relatively young medium, your reaction to the phrase “Photography Isn’t Art” probably says as much about you, how you define and formed that category, as it does about photography or art itself.
Fun food for thought.
* My own take on this debate? If someone says “Photography isn’t art,” then that seems to tell me one of two things. Either:
1) They think they have come up with a solid, exclusionary definition of “art,” solving a problem that has plagued artists, philosophers, and even legal courts for centuries (in which case I’m going to be pretty skeptical), or
2) They describe “art” the same way the Supreme Court once described pornography: “I know it when I see it.” In that case, there’s still a subjective element, variable from person to person. In which case many genres are still eligible for inclusion.
But again – this says more about me than it does about art. 🙂 What do you think?