The Beautiful Gift of Outmoded Non-art — Part 3
In this series, I’ve been putting out a few thoughts related to photographer Peter Lik’s recent record-breaking sale of his black-and-white photograph “Phantom” for $6.5M USD. I’ve put out even more thoughts on the criticism of Lik’s photograph and sale, and indeed all of photography, from a December 2014 article by art critic Jonathan Jones. If you haven’t read them yet, you can go back to review Part 1 and Part 2 of this series to catch up.
Jones’ recent articles claiming that photography isn’t an art form don’t really add anything to that tired old debate, a debate that in my opinion was settled decades ago — concluding that yes, Virginia, there is photography as art. Despite the debate not being a thing any more, I decided to address some of his key points. Jones is an experienced art critic and journalist writing in a significant publication. While I’m neither of those things, and don’t want to fall into the trap of “feeding the trolls” on the interwebs, I also didn’t want to let his ideas pass unchallenged. In my opinion they’re completely misguided.
In the Part 2, I argued against Jones’ tagline for his December article. In it, Jones summarized his position like this: “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.” I absolutely disagree. Ironically, Jones himself had it right in his own early 2013 article where he claimed that “photography is the serious art of our time.” Now that’s more like an idea I can get behind.
Why Jones has had such a turn-about in his thinking, I can’t say. But to clearly show why I disagree with his criticism circa late 2014, let’s see if I can dismantle his next mistaken claim.
Bogus Claim #2: “Photography is not an art. It is a technology.”
Jones further builds on the shaky foundation of his tagline in the first paragraph of the December 2014 article:
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.
Sorry, but this claim is far from an “obvious fact”. In actuality, we have several more examples of Jones not establishing his position. First off is a repeat of the opening idea that photography is not art; but simply asserting something over and over doesn’t make it true. This is another type of rhetorical tactic, the proof by assertion fallacy. The theory is that if I state something often and loudly enough, maybe I can fool people into realizing I don’t actually have any basis for the claim.
Jones does try to build some substance by adding a new wrinkle — that photography is just nothing but a technology. Since he presumably feels everyone would agree that mere technology is not art, therefore photography also is not art. This is easy to see through, because it’s another debate error… the appeal to equality fallacy. If I can’t prove one statement, I’ll just assert that it’s equal to another statement that’s easier to prove, or even accepted as a given without additional support.
Related to this is the association fallacy — if I can associate my claim with some other statement based on something the two have in common, maybe the other statement makes it easier to slide my main claim across. For example, computers and software are digital technology and we all agree that computers aren’t art. Well, cameras today are also digital technology, so photography must not be art. Presto change-o! In both cases, as long as nobody notices my sleight of hand in substituting one point for another, I might get away with not having to give any real reasons for my claim.
Let’s look closer at this statement about technology. I argue it’s untrue that photography is technology; rather, it’s a visual form created using technology. “Is” and “created using” are two different things. Has Jones never heard of the potential for things to be more than the sum of their parts? Since when do we define the results of a creative process to be limited to nothing more than the tools and materials employed? If photography is only technology, then is painting only some plant fibres coated in a mix of minerals and oils, slathered on with animal hairs bound to stick? To the contrary, I say that any process that can produce a creation that connects at an aesthetic, emotional, symbolic level between creator and viewer is working at a level beyond mere technology.
I argue that artists throughout history have used the technologies of their day, and have also fought against the constraints of those same tools and materials, to create artworks that rise above the mere level of technical exercises. Certainly photography is capable of doing this. Photographs may be created using technology, but great photographs — like all other great visual artworks — can impact viewers in ways that have nothing to do with the technologies that were used to produce the photographs.
High-tech or low, film or digital, the technology is irrelevant when you experience the final result. I’ve seen work of photography masters from Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams and Yousuf Karsh, to more latter day masters such as Freeman Patterson, Sebastião Salgado or Galen Rowell, to contemporary work from Guy Tal, Darwin Wiggett and Bryan Adams… to name only a few. These are photographers — yes, artists — whose work has made an impact on me, and technical concerns were far from my primary thoughts when seeing their work.
Looking at it from another direction, technology is employed by all art forms, including painting which Jones appears to hold up as the arch art form. Every art relies on tools, techniques, media and materials, all of which drag along a substantial technology base with them. Look at what goes into the development of dyes and pigments for paints or inks. Or examine the history of different types of papers and other media. Jones may take pigments and papers for granted, but they represent hundreds (in some cases thousands) of years of materials science and technical development.
The same is true in various ways for other art forms — drawing, sculpture, glass work, print-making, weaving, writing, music, you name it. Even seemingly “pure” human-based art forms like singing or dancing today benefit from technologies involved in kinesiology or the study of voice acoustics, for example. Shall we say that all forms employing technology in any way actually aren’t art? That’s clearly ridiculous, and would quickly mean the end of virtually every known form of “art” — although we would still create all of those forms. In fact, looking even briefly at art, it becomes clear that new technology has always played a role in the evolution of both existing and new art forms. Throughout history, artists have seized on new technologies to make art in new ways, or to make entirely new art. On seeing early daguerrotype photographs in the mid-1800’s, French painter Paul Delaroche famously declared “henceforth painting is dead”… such was the impact on him of this new visual form.
Jones attempts to add more substance by dragging in his iPad and digital processing effects. The fact that digital cameras, software and “beguiling high-definition images” now exist has no bearing on whether photography is or is not technology, or is or is not an art form. Likewise, the fact that these new tools are available to millions of people doesn’t reduce the legitimacy of those who use the tools to create art.
Fine art photographer Dan Burkholder uses an iPhone and mobile editing apps (among other digital tools), combining these with classic wet darkroom printing techniques to create amazing artworks. What millions of other people are doing with their iPhones doesn’t detract from Burkholder’s work in the slightest. Painter David Hockney has been doing digital painting, photography and composite works, by the way including use of iPhones and iPads. Are these not artworks, and is Hockney no longer an artist?
Though Jones overlooks it in this article, it’s important to recognize that film-based photography continues to exist; whatever it was, it still is. Different types of technology have been involved in photography since its inception — optics in lenses, mechanical functions in apertures and shutters, chemistry in film and print development, materials in glass or film plates, metal and paper print media, and more. Many of these remain largely intact as they were at the beginning, sometimes now quaintly described as “alternative process”.
Adding digital to the mix is a matter of having an additional technology base to work with, but the photographic process at its core is still the same as it ever was — using optics to channel light onto a photosensitive layer where it’s captured in a form that can be developed further, and then rendering the results visible on physical media. Indeed, some photographic artists, like Burkholder, are mashing up both traditional and digital tools and techniques.
Photography is and always has been an end-to-end creative process, whose components have changed periodically based on advances in technology. The use of digital makes no difference to the essence of photography; and just as with other art forms, the essence of photographic art is not bound up entirely in the process of its creation. Rather, it’s found in the final works that express the creative intent of the artist and evoke responses in the audience. This is key, and lies at the heart of this part of Jones’ mistaken position.
Jones incorrectly asserts that “photography is a technology”, confusing the tools used to create a thing with the nature of the thing itself. In attempting to cement this idea, he makes a final error — stating that a person isn’t an artist just by virtue of possessing some kind of tool. So Jones has an iPad that can take panoramic photos. Does that make him an artist? No, he triumphantly declares, as if this somehow demonstrates that nobody at any time who uses any camera could possibly be an artist. However, once again, he makes a hasty generalization error. Jones admitting that he’s not an artist because he can make iPad snapshots says nothing about any other photographers’ work.
A person can possess a fancy kitchen with every kind of implement, and not be a chef; does that mean everyone with high-end culinary gear is not a chef? A person could pound the keys of a word processor all day long, and not be a poet; does that mean anyone who uses a writing instrument is not a poet? A would-be painter could use the same watercolors, brushes and papers that Picasso employed, without being an artist — what does that mean about all other painters? Nothing, that’s what. If photography is art, which I maintain it is, it’s equally true that simply having a camera or taking a picture doesn’t turn a person into an artist. So what? It’s irrelevant, because people who are artists do use the tools of their art.
Being an artist involves more than simply using the tools and technologies employed by those who are artists. Make no mistake — virtually all artists use technology in some fashion. But being an artist also involves more than the technology, if the goal is to make artworks that rise above the ranks of the technical practitioners. It takes mastery of the process and its tools, combined with intent. It takes imagination and a knowledgeable application of aesthetics. And it encompasses creative goals that are subjective, interpretive and expressive. Jones’ assertion that photography isn’t art because it’s just a technology is both false and irrelevant. It does nothing to counter his own previous recognition that “photography is the serious art of our time.”
In Part 4, I’ll address another Jones claim — “The fact that it [‘Phantom’] is in black and white should give us pause. Today, this deliberate use of an outmoded style can only be nostalgic and affected, an ‘arty’ special effect.”
Side Note: Next week, 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. We’ll look at the tools and techniques of black-and-white photography and printing, but through the lens 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 only a few days remain to join us.
Technology and art sometimes seem to be at odds… but do you agree that artists have always employed technology in creative ways that go beyond the technical? Do you find that digital technology makes it easier or harder to concentrate on artistic intent with photography? Feel free to share your thoughts…