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The Beautiful Gift of Outmoded Non-art — Part 2

January 2, 2015
Nobody At the Wheel, Nordegg

Nobody At the Wheel, Nordegg

In the first part of this series I posted a few opening thoughts about recent discussions fine art photographer Peter Lik triggered, when he announced the sale of his black-and-white photograph “Phantom” for a record-setting $6.5M USD. Rather than directly commenting on Lik’s work or whether I thought the photograph is worth the price, instead I indicated my plans to take on the position of art critic Jonathan Jones who posted his thoughts on the sale. Jones attempted a beat-down, not only of Lik’s photograph and its selling price, but of black-and-white photography as a visual style, and indeed the entire body of photography as an art form.

As recently as early 2013 in another article in The Guardian, Jones himself wrote that “photography is the serious art of our time.” But in his December 2014 article for The Guardian, Jones claimed this in the title and tagline:

The $6.5m canyon: it’s the most expensive photograph ever – but it’s like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel

Peter Lik’s hollow, cliched and tasteless black and white shot of an Arizona canyon isn’t art – and proves that photography never will be.

As I suggested in Part 1, Jones’ most recent article is pretty much logic-challenged; if there’s any debate about whether or not photography is art, clearly Jones is debating with himself first and foremost. But I wanted to address some of his key points because they’re not just about his liking or disliking of Peter Lik’s work or the price tag of this big sale. Rather, Jones’ argument seeks to undermine the creative identity of every photographic artist. I say bollocks to that — if you’re a photographer who also identifies primarily as an artist, go for it. The 2013 version of Jones was right, while the 2014 Jones is dead wrong.

Let’s see why there’s nobody at the controls of the logic train in Jones’ most recent article.

Bogus Claim #1: “Peter Lik’s hollow, cliched and tasteless black and white shot of an Arizona canyon isn’t art – and proves that photography never will be.”

This is the tagline summing up Jones’ December 2014 article, so I’ll start with it. It’s a grandiose, sweeping statement that my nephew would have had no trouble at all dismantling in his former high-school debate club. Here, Jones claims that Lik’s “Phantom” is “hollow, cliched and tasteless.” Well, perhaps. That’s Jones’ opinion, and in a free society he’s certainly entitled to it. Since Jones is an experienced critic, judge and journalist working in the art world for a long time, presumably we must grant some credibility to his viewpoint about this specific photograph.

But Jones quickly ups the ante by moving on to claim that not only is “Phantom” not art, but it proves no photography ever can be art. To see why Jones claims this, you have to sort through the rest of his article and then do a lot of crooked reading between the lines. It looks to me like the core of his argument is that the photograph is monochrome, which Jones feels is an invalid treatment. (More on this later.) Also that “Phantom” is a hackneyed scene from a heavily-photographed, iconic slot canyon in Arizona; Jones clearly doesn’t believe the photograph has any sort of originality. From that point, he jumps forward sight-unseen, straight into a giant gap in reasoning.

Check Your Visions, Calgary

Check Your Visions, Calgary

Okay, it’s true, Antelope Canyon has been photographed a million times, and most photographs of it have little originality. Most are in colour, but even the reference B&W treatment of the place probably is already a lock, having been so amazingly realized by Bruce Barnbaum. But so what? As far as I know, there’s no requirement that every artist be 100% original, or that every work of art must 100% avoid all derivative aspects. In fact, if you read Austin Kleon’s great little book “Steal Like An Artist” — and you definitely should read it! — then you learn that the opposite more likely is true. Most artists are standing on the shoulders of and influenced by those who came before. I mostly agree with Kleon’s thesis:

Nothing is original, so embrace influence, school yourself through the work of others, remix and reimagine to discover your own path.

Total innovation may be possible in some cases, but the truth is that it’s not necessary to be obviously unique in each piece of work, to be an artist making real art. I believe it’s a false target to be worried first about producing work that looks different than anything people have seen before. Rather, it’s a far better goal to be personal and authentic as an artist… and you can do that even if you produce pieces that bear some resemblance to something that has gone before. Your personal stamp will take hold more in the body of your work over time.

Does Peter Lik’s “Phantom” bear his stylistic stamp; is it congruent with his body of work? The press release doesn’t provide any details about the “Phantom” print — not even size, media, etc. Unless any of us have seen the photograph in one of Lik’s galleries, really all we have to go on is the tiny little web image. But Lik has a signature style and he’s likely pretty keen to maintain his reputation for it. So understanding the nature of his photography, especially based on seeing it in person rather than just looking at tiny little web images, I suspect the answer would be, “yes — ‘Phantom’ fits with Lik’s body of work”. The fact that it’s a photograph made in a place that has been heavily photographed by others bears little relevance in my mind, as to whether or not it’s art.

So… if Jones claims that “Phantom” is not art only because it’s not unique and from a location often seen, I disagree. But even if Jones got that right, he goes on to really jump the shark, claiming that “Phantom” proves that all of photography never will be art. This is a colossal blunder in debate terms. It’s an example of a logical fallacy, in fact two of them: a hidden decision fallacy combined with a hasty generalization. You start with a claim of limited facts (which may not be open, true or agreed upon), and based on them you make a sweeping conclusion that isn’t at all supported by those “facts”.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Peter Lik’s “Phantom” is hollow, cliched and tasteless. That’s Jones’ opinion. Opinion, not fact, since a fact is something that can be objectively verified and must be agreed upon to serve as the foundation for a conclusion that itself isn’t merely another personal opinion. But I think it’s quite possible to imagine that somebody with experience could argue the opposite — that Lik’s “Phantom” is a creative take on a classic iconic location. I could take a run at it myself, but let’s consider Jones’ own words from the self-same article: “Lik’s photograph is of course beautiful in a slick way […] The monochrome detailing of the canyon is sculptural enough, and a shaft of sunlight penetrating its depths becomes the phantom of the title.” So Jones recognizes that the photograph possesses beauty, form and symbolism, all of which seem to pass the bar for a work of art. Yet Jones decries it in another paragraph as “derivative, sentimental in its studied romanticism, and consequently in very poor taste.” Herein lies the difference between facts and opinions: individuals of equal sense and experience are allowed to differ on opinions, while facts are not subject to debate. When Jones himself provides mixed messages about the qualities of “Phantom”, it’s far from clear that he’s standing on fact when takes his next step.
  2. Because Lik’s “Phantom” is hollow, cliched and tasteless, it is not art. This is the hidden decision fallacy, and relies on the unstated (and I think false) idea that art can’t be hollow, cliched or tasteless, whether at the time it was created or on later review in a different context. Art has all kinds of qualities, and it simply isn’t the case that all art made throughout history has been always judged as 100% “good”. Jones can’t jump to the conclusion that “Phantom” isn’t art just because of his claim of its inferior quality. This is the problem with confusing “degree of something” with “kind of something” — where someone tries to argue that because something has a lesser degree of a quality, it must be an entirely different kind of thing. Not at all. While not everything is art, to be sure, art is a big tent and encompasses an incredible range and diversity of works. Old-painting-masters-height-of-their-powers fine art of the sort that Jones clearly admires isn’t the only kind of art. Apprentice- and journeyman-made art is still art. Pop art and appropriation art is still art. Commercial and decorative art is still art. Hollow, cliched and tasteless art is also still art… even bad art is still art. This step in advancing the position is a stumble.
  3. Because “Phantom” is a photograph and is not art, all photographs are not art. This is the real howler, where Jones goes from a single case and generalizes to the entire body of all photography. This type of hasty generalization fallacy is something one learns to avoid in an introductory study of logic or rhetoric, and presumably also journalism. Asserting a small number of dodgy claims about one member of a group isn’t sufficient to safely make sweeping generalizations about the entire group; there are standards of evidence and proof in making such claims. Jones certainly provides no such proof in the article. Even if “Phantom” isn’t art, this has nothing to do with all other photographs made before or after it. The idea that it proves anything — let alone that photography never will be art — is laughable. At this point the stumble is a collapse.
The Sun Is Shining… But the Ice Is Slippery, Preacher's Point

The Sun Is Shining… But the Ice Is Slippery, Preacher’s Point

The sloppy and slippery nature of Jones’ escalating claims in the article tagline seems to stem from his premature conclusion that photography can’t be art, rather than coming at it the other way around. His opinions about the quality of “Phantom” just reinforce his position while he glosses over any number of obvious questions. (This is also known as “confirmation bias”, another big no-no in logic and journalism.)

In reality, he fails to persuade that “Phantom” is not art; and even if that was true, he shows no reason to believe that “Phantom” in any way proves that all of photography isn’t art. The entire premise is doubly bizarre in the context of Jones’ own counter-claim from January 2013 — that “photography is the serious art of our time.”

In Part 3, I’ll take on Jones’ next bogus claim, namely that “photography is not an art. It is a technology.” I hope you’ll check back for it.

Side Note: This month, from January 15 – 19, I’m co-leading the Winter Monochrome Masterclass, along with Olivier Du Tré and Costas Costoulas of Calgary’s Resolve Photo. All three of us believe the B&W photographic print is a legitimate form of artistic expression. We’re looking forward to spending an intensive several days with a small group of photographers to help them further develop their B&W photography and printing style. Click through the link if you’re interested in details; some spots remain open, but group size is limited.

What do you think — does art have to be “good” to be considered art? Or is there such a thing as bad art? Who gets to say if art is good or bad, or what it should be worth, for someone else? Feel free to share your opinions and facts…

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