Without reciting the many twists and turns of the history of Western Art, it is fair to say that much of it is rooted in what is commonly referred to as Classicism, dating back to ancient Greece. Classic Art celebrates an aesthetic beauty manifested in grace and the glorification of the subjects portrayed. It refrains generally from making social commentary and adheres to strict stylistic rules. The Classic traditions were revived during the Renaissance and remained the dominant paradigm for several centuries.
Classical artists were elevated and believed to possess a special gift of inspiration not available to the common person. It was the role of artists to convey their inspiration to the masses who otherwise would never have attained it on their own.
As history had shown time and again, power indeed does corrupt, and in time artists were co-opted to convey not their own inspirations but those dictated by religious and political power mongers. Ultimately, nearly all art depicted biblical scenes and the likenesses of the rich and powerful, setting the stage for rebellion by freethinkers in the name of reclaiming art’s independence.
Tired of Classic Art and its place in the service of political and religious authorities, artists decided to do away with its glorified beauty, celebrated subjects, and shallow message, and began exploring new grounds. The seeds of the revolution began with Realism, depicting common scenes and people previously considered unworthy of being the subjects of art, yet still with an eye towards aesthetic beauty. Still, this was not satisfactory to some artists who wanted to distance themselves further from the sensibilities of the Classics; thus began the era of Modern Art. In the late nineteenth century, Impressionists established a new paradigm based on light and pattern rather than detail, evolving over time into progressively more abstract renditions and styles, ultimately culminating in Postmodernism, marked by art existing for its own sake with no relation to beauty or ulterior purpose.
The primary concern for Modern Art was not rooted necessarily in the art itself, but rather in a desire simply, and at all costs, to be different from anything that had come before it, primarily Realism. While it may seem plausible to do away with the past in the name of artistic freedom and reinvent the arts in a manner more suitable to the ideas and sensibilities of a new era, several babies were thrown out with the bathwater. These included the notion of art’s role in enriching the human experience, relating to emotions and morals, celebrating beauty, and representing the creativity, skill, sensibilities and identity of the artist behind it; and the Realistic recognition that anything and anyone can be a worthy subject of art.
And what is photography if not the very embodiment of Realism: the very thing Modern Art was conceived to oppose? If you wondered why your beautiful landscape photographs often are considered personae non gratae at art museums and prestigious galleries, know that the wheels were set in motion during the rise of Modern Art, when Realism and beauty began to fall out of favor. Moreover, if your photographs are designed to evoke emotions or represent personal interpretations and ulterior meanings, these qualities will disqualify your work as worthy art in the minds of many Modernists.
What is Art and Who is an Artist?
Ask a hundred people to define the term “art” and you will have a hundred definitions. Put two passionate artists together and ask them to agree on what “art” means, and you may have a script for a reality show.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines art simply as “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination”. In other words, anything created by a conscious being, for any or no purpose, can potentially fit the definition. Forgive me for not accepting “it can be anything” as a definition for, well, any thing. Although similar in concept, I suggest a minor adjustment to the above: “art is a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill, imagination and purpose”.
Skill alone can make for superbly crafted artifacts. Still, craftsmanship is not limited to art. Every single day, engineers, architects, carpenters, machinists and other professionals produce objects of great beauty and utility but with no artistic aspiration or purpose. Requiring skill and imagination means that the result should be something of the artist’s own conception rather than merely interesting or well crafted. Put another way, where there is no artist, there is no art.
However, what is likely to be the more contentious part of my definition is the requirement for purpose. The most prevalent purpose for art in human history is the creation and sharing of beauty. Other purposes may include social commentary, moral values, the honoring of people, events or things, etc. All of these were abolished explicitly and systematically from the mainstream art scene throughout the twentieth century, as art became a thing unto itself, removed from any greater context or utility.
I suspect that any survey will show that the majority of people do seek purpose in art, whether in mere visual beauty or in a more complex narrative. Simply put, the notion that art should be judged only by objective measures and without placing value on purpose, demonstrably is incompatible with popular perception of art, making contemporary art the domain of a small elite: the very thing Modernism sought to oppose.
Indeed, as is evident from the words of many artists in the early Modern era, the real goal was to leave the purpose and interpretation to the artist rather than to suggest that art should have no purpose at all. Painter Paul Gauguin lamented that “the history of Modern Art is also the history of the progressive loss of art's audience”. Henri Matisse admitted, “all my efforts go into creating an art that can be understood by everyone”. Paul Cezanne went as far as to declare that “a work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art at all”. By comparison, later artists dismissed the role of art as an agent of social change or ulterior meaning. Pop artist Andy Warhol defined an artist as “somebody who produces things that people don't need to have”.
Next comes the question of who can be considered an artist. The belief that artists are endowed with a special gift not available to others, obviously does not sit well with many. As we all know, skill, imagination and purpose are not limited to any special group. Every one of us possesses them in some form. Any one of us is entitled equally to express ourselves artistically if we choose. An artist is one who creates art.
The Irony of Art for Art’s Sake
In their effort to shed the restrictions of the past, Modernists promoted the idea that art should be completely free in expression and purpose and independent from any preconceptions. Thus was born the term “l’art pour l’art”, art for art’s sake. Initially coined as an affront to the expectations of the rich and powerful, the expression was meant to suggest that art should be at the complete discretion of artists, to be used and applied as they please.
Ironically, the term was hijacked and its meaning altered to suggest that art should be judged independently of purpose and using objective measures such as colors, shapes and lines, effectively eliminating subjective aspects such as meaning, beauty, message and purpose, to the detriment of artists who used their work to express their own sensibilities and narratives.
Beauty as a Purpose
I mentioned that perhaps the most prevalent purpose of art had been the creation and propagation of beauty. Pablo Picasso expressed it best when he said, “the role of art is to wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life”.
In the mad rush toward abstraction and sterilization of art, stripping it of meaning, emotion and message, beauty was among the casualties. In the minds of many, though, beauty remains synonymous with art and is its primary reason for existence. Yet the most celebrated contemporary works, at least among current art connoisseurs, often are those judged primarily by their monetary value or by the degree to which they are similar to or different from past works, rather than by any emotional or aesthetic context.
Evolution in art, as in life, is not linear. Every evolutionary tree starts with a trunk; a foundation for all branches. The trunk of art is beauty. Many branches split off this trunk over the centuries; some added value and became the basis for the growth of other branches and some declined and petered out. Although dominant within our lifetimes, it is my opinion that the branch leading towards increasingly abstract and purposeless art will be one of those doomed to fizzle out.
While beauty may not necessarily be the purpose for all art, it is an important and valid subject (perhaps more so than any other) and it provides great value to the life experiences of individuals and societies. To say that art can exist independently of purpose is akin to saying that it can exist independently of people, that food can exist independently of flavor or diners, or that books can exist independently of stories or readers: an interesting concept, perhaps, but ultimately of no real value.
The Fine Arts
The term “fine arts” is used to describe works created primarily for their aesthetic beauty. Originating from the French term “beaux arts”, the fine arts were considered traditionally to encompass a limited set of disciplines such as painting, sculpture and printmaking, and later expanded to include other forms of visual and performance arts.
A source of much confusion is the use of the word “fine”, as it is not meant to represent an objective measure of quality. Instead, it is used to place emphasis further on separating the emotional and creative aspects that differentiate art from craftsmanship. As writer and art critic John Ruskin explained, “fine art is that in which the hand, the head and the heart of man go together”.
Photography as Fine Art
Knowing the history leading to current-day art and understanding what constitutes “fine art”, we see some challenges facing artistic landscape photography. For starters, landscape images rely in whole or in part on real visual elements. In addition, the purpose behind the majority of natural landscape images is to evoke emotions rooted in the land’s inherent beauty. Both realism and beauty, as I mentioned, were pushed to the sidelines in the last few decades.
In addition, there are many who doubt that photography can be conducive to art in the first place. Recall my definition of art as an expression of skill, imagination and purpose. While purpose is evident, the skill of operating a camera is admittedly much easier to master than, say, painting or sculpture. And, with the introduction of computerized and automated cameras, it can be said that creating photographic images requires no special skill at all. Similarly, there are many who consider photography devoid of imagination since the camera merely records what is in front of it and is incapable of manufacturing visual elements at the artist’s bidding.
Thankfully, much of the criticism above, although plausible at first blush, can be attributed to ignorance. Skill in photography is required, not so much in operating the camera, which is but a small part of the photographic image’s lifecycle, but more in identifying and crafting meaningful compositions from the abundance of elements available to the photographer, as well as in the processing and printing of the captured image.
Whereas the laying of brush strokes on canvas may indeed require more skill than operating a camera, composing a coherent image from a given scene requires as much if not more skill than having the freedom to paint and arrange elements at will.
Similarly, the skill required to control every tone, hue and detail in the image using a variety of processing techniques easily could surpass anything available to painters, sculptors and other artists. Some photographers are known to have taken decades to hone their skills before being satisfied with the quality of their prints and their ultimate interpretation of exposures originally produced by the camera. Processing also opens up creative opportunities limited only by the artist’s imagination.
Clearly, landscape photography is capable of meeting the criteria for being considered a fine art. You may think, then, that acceptance of artistic photography by the mainstream is just a matter of education. But there is a larger issue at play than ignorance, and one much harder to rectify: prejudice.
It’s easy to attribute prejudice against photography to elitism on the part of proponents of the other arts. However, much of the blame lies with photographers themselves, including those proclaiming to be fine art photographers.
To start with, many photographers self-apply established art terminology, such as “fine art”, without understanding fully what it means. To wit, many are under the impression that an archival digital print is a “fine art” print. To a serious gallery owner this assertion will be perplexing at best, as it says nothing about the philosophy and purpose behind the image.
Perhaps the greatest challenge, though, is photographers’ failure to distinguish between editorial/documentary work and creative/artistic work, treating both with the same set of “rules”, especially as they pertain to photo-realism. To say that all photography must abide by the demands of editorial usage makes as little sense as saying that all written works must be in the form of journalism. You will agree surely that the rules that apply to a news report have no bearing or utility when applied to, say, poems or fantasy novels. Still, many fail to make the same distinction when it comes to photography. The foolish insistence on applying rules of reportage to creative art also inhibits the degree of freedom artists have in interpreting, processing and presenting their photographic works.
The case for landscape photography as a fine art is not a hard one to make. Letting go of prejudices, though, is the real challenge facing photographic artists. Until photographers themselves accept that documentary images and artistic images are distinct in purpose and should be created and evaluated by different criteria, photography will continue to struggle as an art form.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 13 of Landscape Photography Magazine.