The whole question of “being” a photographer has changed profoundly. Or maybe it’s going through a cycle. I’ve read some interesting articles recently on the web concerning what photography, or even art, should or shouldn’t be. Who is an artist or who is a photographer, or should I say, who is a VALID photographer or artist seems to be a questions which burns in many hearts.
Joerg Colberg’s recent title “Is the Internet Killing Socially Awkward Artists?” or Colin Pantall’s “Art that sells is the destructive 1%” are both provocative examples of reflections on who is the photographer, what is he doing and on the mechanisms which decides who emerges and who doesn’t.
I’ve also read some violent reactions from fellow followers of Instagram since it’s Facebook takeover. People are worried about what photography has become, who is showing and who isn’t, who is famous and who isn’t, etc. etc. In my opinion, many people are confusing terms and desires with their own personal need for definition. I mean definition in the sense of “meaning”, both personal as well as philosophical. We all need “meaning” in our lives, otherwise we loose our sense of self. So the question is not such a banal one at all and I’d like to try and clarify what I think this discussion is about.
Photography as a means of expression is easily manipulated, both physically as well as conceptually. It always has been. From the days of confusing a photographic image for the “truth” to the more recent qualms about Instagram filters making any idiot into a decent photographer, people are always quick to ascribe attributes to the medium which, in fact, pertain to the viewer’s subjective opinion.
We have to be very careful about our terms, otherwise all kinds of confusion can result. One can not ascribe to a medium a set of rules which clarifies who is using it as an artist or who is using it as a game. The act of “writing” does not mean anything more than making graphic signs on a page. Whether those signs are understood or not depends simply on sharing a common language. Likewise, whether what is written is a poem or a grocery list is up to the writer’s intent. And still further along the question, whether that poem or that grocery list becomes part of a cultural expression is a subjective choice, not an objective one. It is the choice of a group of people, a society, which decides to find meaning in either the poem or the grocery list or both. Meaning, after all, is always a cultural question.
So when Colberg, responding to a comment by Aaron Hobson, ponders the question as to “who” is a valid photographer and how Social Media affects more and more who is emerging and who isn’t, what he is really doing is begging for recognition (not personally, which he already has, but intellectually). He is asking if the “filters” that society uses to recognize valid photography have moved into an area where the validity of the photograph is less important than the capability of the “photographer” to manipulate Social Media. An interesting question but a poorly placed one. The reason is that in every historical period and in every society, the “reasons” for recognition are continually in flux. There is no such thing as eternal beauty or perfect photographic composition. There is no such thing as a universal language nor universal values. All meaning is cultural and all meaning pertains to the society which recognizes itself in a series of values, meanings and codes. That’s what makes up cultural identity.
Therefore, what is changing is society’s use of photography and consequentially who emerges is changing. Colin Pantall goes much farther in personal confusion. He actually proclaims that images which are recognized by the circuit of galleries (where? In the whole world? In New York and Paris? In Tokyo or Moscow?) which sell photography counts for only about 1% of the valid imagery produced. And beyond that, he says that the 1% recognized by the galleries, critics and media mongers is a negative factor in the “true” use of photography by all the rest of us. He goes on to explain how the market turns the image into a product which, therefore, is a reduction of its true value on a human and emotional level.
I must admit that Colin Pantall is in my mind a wonderful person and I appreciate the fact that he puts his neck out to try and understand a series of complex questions. But he really can’t get away with his own personal (and highly shared) opinion as being a serious analysis of the question of who puts value on what. We’d have to delve into an in-depth discussion on economics in order to understand what a market is and why it puts value on certain things and not on others.
My friendly criticism is about clarifying and, certainly, not about personal criticism. Pantall’s statement that “For me, art is something spiritual and physical. It’s a way of being, a way of making that is more to do with the making than what is made…” is a highly sharable opinion. For his comfort, Ananda Coomaraswamy stated the same concept in his delightful “Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art” published by Dover Books in 1943 and I agree totally. But to take this starting point and continue by adding his personal refusal for market economics, politics, power and a series of modern “evils” brings him more into his own personal world than into the world of meaning and culture.
Most people confuse, as does Pantall, expression with art. All of us can be creatively expressive. In fact, all of us, each in his or her way, ARE creatively expressive. Some are creative visually, others are creative emotionally and still others are creative in more formal and structured ways. Being creative is not to be confused with what a certain society determines as “art”. Art, in any society, is not a fixed value, it is a cultural value in the sense that it has to do with values and meaning agreed upon by most members in that society. What some consider to be art is interpreted by others to be irrelevant. That is the mechanism which governs the attribution of social and cultural values. It is also the mechanism which governs our sense of self. So before jumping on the friendly wagon of criticism of our society and it’s values (which is very tempting for us all), we should all be a bit more discerning about social and cultural values which we may not share and our own personal interpretation of the world we live in. That’s what gives us our identity but that is not what determines what or what is not art.