Of art and photography....

This post was originally written over two years ago for my previous, and now defunct, blog, Conspicuous Consumption. As the blog focused on wine and food I decided to bring it across to this new photography focused blog.

  Poison Glen, South Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012 Digital C print, 50 x 80 inches© Richard Mosse Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Poison Glen, South Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2012 Digital C print, 50 x 80 inches© Richard Mosse Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

I know this is a 'wine' blog (of course I do, I've been writing it...) but I have other loves and interests and today I feel like venting.

I read a 'fascinating' article today, you can read it here - http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/dec/10/most-expensive-photograph-ever-hackneyed-tasteless.

How are we still having this debate? How is it that in the year 2014 after photography has been exhibited in every major gallery from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Venice Biennale in... um... Venice that this arts journalist is still wondering if photography has arrived as 'art'. How is it that even though we live in the uber post-modern present where someone's bed covered in bodily secretions and a pair of slippers is considered art, we are still discussing whether a photograph can be art? What is so un-art about photography?

Lets look at the author of this Jones' first paragraph:

'Photography is not an art. It is a technology. We have no excuse to ignore this obvious fact in the age of digital cameras, when the most beguiling high-definition images and effects are available to millions. My iPad can take panoramic views that are gorgeous to look at. Does that make me an artist? No, it just makes my tablet one hell of a device.'

Lets just say he nails his colours firmly to his mast. It also shows a very bizarre and limited idea of what art is, which is particularly strange because the author apparently was previously a judge on the panel for the Turner Prize, one of the UK's most important art prizes. So what is wrong with his view? In my eyes it is the fundamental definition of what he views as art. The author seems to assert that since all the photographer does is press a button and then sit back and let technology do all the hard work that photography can't be art. He also asserts that since he himself has access to a camera that can take 'gorgeous' panoramic views that photography can't be art. This is a somewhat elitist and myopic view of what can and can't be art.

We don't need to look too far back in history to find examples that take exception to this view. For example, in 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal for exhibition in a group show by the Society of Independent Artists. It was described by philosopher, Stephen Hicks, in the following terms:

'The artist is not a great creator—Duchamp went shopping at a plumbing store. The artwork is not a special object—it was mass-produced in a factory.'

Perhaps unsurprisingly, and perhaps in support of Jonathan Jones' argument, the piece was not accepted for exhibition and caused a definite controversy regarding what is art. In contradiction to Jones' argument though, in 2004 it was voted as the most influential artwork of the twentieth century by a jury of 500 leading art world professionals. This was also no flash in the pan, Tracey Emin's personal bed covered in the detritus of life was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. This means that a bed, which Emin bought at a bed shop, covered in detritus such as cigarette butts, clothes and empty booze bottles, which she didn't create either, and human secretions, most of which she created (I'll give her that), was one of the four most important pieces of art created in the United Kingdom in 1999. In fact the previous year Chris Ofili, a painter, won the Turner Award for paintings that used a fair amount of elephant dung in their creation. I can promise you that the artist had no part in the making of those materials. So, where does that leave us? I think the basic tenet is that you can buy groundbreaking art from a plumbing store, a bed shop or a liquor store, you can get it from what the London Zoo throws away (without even buying it) but you sure as hell cannot get it from a camera.

I'm sorry but that makes no sense to me. I view art from a distinctly Hegelian point of view, which I will vastly dumb down to the following points:

1. A work of art is not produced by Nature; it is brought into being by the agency of man.

2. It is created essentially for man, and it is addressed to his senses

3. It contains an end bound up with it

I particularly like this basis of what art is because it is completely unprescriptive. It doesn't dictate mediums, colours, technology (granted Hegel did pass on before the formal unveiling of the first 'camera' in 1839 but its use is in no way contradictory of his three points) it merely says that art must be created by humans for the consumption by other humans with a particular goal in mind. In its essence art is about the conveying of ideas and perceptions of the intricacies of life and reality. In my opinion the only criteria something needs to realise in order for it to be called an artwork is that it has to have been created by an 'artist' with a degree of purpose and clarity of vision.

 

The medium, materials, venue, time of day are completely immaterial. You can use a cow in formaldehyde, a crucifix in a jar of urine or even, god forbid, a camera and you CAN make art but there sure as hell aren't any guarantees that you will. This is why truly inspirational art is so rare. It is not about a pretty painting (regardless of how long it took you, how difficult it was to make or how much it cost you) or even a striking sculpture or fragile bowl, it is about a coherent, original and, ultimately, accessible idea and very few people are capable of creating that, even with an IPad that can make 'beautiful panoramas'.

 Phantom - Peter Lik

Phantom - Peter Lik

Which is also why I very slightly also agree with Jones. I don't think this image is art. It is reasonably striking in the way that attractive landscapes often are and it was done with a degree of technical skill, although it has way too much post production for my personal tastes, but I would challenge the photographer to come up with anything meaningful behind its creation. There is no critique or question underpinning this image. In contrast Duchamp was directly critiquing the pretentiousness of the art world with his urinal and Damien Hirst questioned society's consumerist tendencies with his diamond covered skull. They were real ideas that fuelled the creation of those art pieces just like there have been real ideas that have created massively thought provoking photographs. Images by David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng and Jo Ractliffe spring to mind and these are just some modern South African examples. Even though some of these photographers desperately avoid the title of artist one would be a fool to try and argue that the images they have produced could not be regarded as art.

I really wish we could move on from these prescriptive ideas of what materials can and can't be considered art. It would seriously make my day if the next time a photograph is sold for an amount of money usually reserved for paintings that the Internet didn't explode in denials of photography's ability to be art. That happened today and it happened in 2011 when Andreas Gursky's image, Rhine II, was sold for £4.3 million. I understand that you might not like the photograph but that does not stop it being art nor does the fact that he digitally manipulated the image in its creation. That just means it is not a piece of journalism because thankfully there ARE very strict rules in that profession which dictate what is and isn't acceptable.

OK... I think my rant is over and I feel much better.

Now to tie this all together with some wine talk... Can wine be art? I think so. It is created by humans for humans and we sure as hell know that it addresses our senses. The major stumbling point would be if it could articulate an idea and I think we could argue that that is already being done. One would only need to look at the brave and independent winemakers in the Swartland crafting unique wines from rather new ideas... Unsurprisingly, they're causing a bit of controversy themselves.