Art, the Art World, and On Taking Pictures

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one of my favorites is On Taking Pictures. For those of you who don't follow it, On Taking Pictures is a weekly podcast in which hosts Bill Wadman and Jeffery Saddoris—to use their own words—discuss the art, the science, and sometimes the philosophy of making images. They cover photo-related news, there's the occasional bit of gear talk, but what I really love about this podcast is the conversational tone. Listening to these guys talk about photography reminds me of the conversations I used to have back in college with Juliette's theater friends, an experience I miss.

One of the recent episodes included an exchange that got me to thinking a lot about my own struggles with making art, which I've excerpted below. To give a little background, Bill had recently been to an exhibition of photographs by Zoe Leonard, at which he found himself frustrated by what he perceived to be a lack of quality or substance to the photographs, as well as by what he considered to be a very pretentious artist's statement. (A somewhat frequent refrain on the show is Bill's dislike of what he terms "art-school pretense.")

BW: To your average person, this is crap! But to somebody this isn't crap, and I'm sure her pictures are very well regarded, I'm sure Zoe Leonard makes a good amount of money taking the pictures she takes. And more power to you. I don't get it. Now, somebody could say, well you know what? Maybe your work is far too pedestrian and too derivative and too boring and too commercial in a "lower C" sense.

JS: But you're also not waxing poetic about the significance of that.

BW: Exactly. I'm not writing labels that are 250 words long about how my photographs are objects of objects and the objectification…

JS: Yeah. "I'm creating a new movement, pedantic objectivism."

BW: Exactly. You just spent everyone's artistic pretense.

The conversation spoke to some of the frustrations I've had with the art world, both as a member of the audience and as someone who's trying to do something with my own work, and I couldn't help but want to respond. So I ended up writing a somewhat embarrassingly lengthy and rambling email to Bill and Jeffery, which they were very gracious about. But once I had gotten the whole thing written out, I realized that I wanted to broaden the conversation and include the people in my own life. So, with Bill and Jefferey's blessing, I've taken what I wrote to them and adapted it for this blog. I hope you'll bear with me while I meander.

Now, I think it's useful here to distinguish between "art" and "the art world," the latter being a community of gallerists, curators, and critics, and to some extent the artists who are supported by that community—largely the kind of MFA-holding elites that get Bill so hot under the collar. From both my own observations and from what I've read, contemporary art is kind of all over the place, encompassing a huge range of styles and themes and techniques, but the art world has more or less decided on a particular sort of conceptual and intellectual approach to creating and understanding art that it will embrace, and it rejects everything else.

The art world tends to reject beauty and sentimentality—in fact, art that engages directly with most emotions seems to be something that the art world has difficulty with. Art that deals with or springs from sociopolitical concepts tends to do well, especially if it's shocking or ugly. Especially in photography, work that is exalted tends to be project-based and conceptually driven, rather than "grown" in a more organic way.

All of this has been tough for me, since the focus of my own photography is finding and engaging with the narratives of my own family life and the places I live and have lived. I know what it is that I'm trying to do with my work and although I know I haven't gotten to where I want to go just yet, I think I'm good at what I do, photographically speaking. The stuff I show at portfolio reviews and local crit groups tends to get good reactions, but when it comes to submissions I deal with a lot of rejection. I've had gallerists tell me that my stuff is good but that they probably couldn't sell it. I've had art competitions and photo magazines reject my work with comments that the pictures are well done but aren't really "fine art."

So on the one hand, I often find myself shaking my head at what does get embraced by the art world. I often find myself being able to appreciate contemporary art on an intellectual level—saying to myself, "OK, I see what you were trying to do here"—but a lot of it utterly fails to move me. I think I feel some of the same frustrations that Bill does, in that way.

But when I step back and think about it, I can't really see why intellectualism is necessarily an invalid way of approaching art. It frustrates me that there doesn't seem to be room for other kinds of work in the art world, but, really, what's wrong with this kind of conceptually driven art?

Back in April, a writer acquaintance of mine—Daniel Abraham—posted the following quotation to his blog with the instructions to discuss it: "Inaccessibility in a work of art is either a failure of craft or a statement of contempt." The comment thread produced some interesting conversation, I thought. My response was that that presented a false dichotomy—while inaccessibility could be a mark of failure or contempt, it could also be due to the fact that not everyone is equipped to hear what you are trying to say. From the standpoint of literature, the point of a book is the experience one gets from reading it, and some experiences that are worth having cannot be had if the book is easy to understand. The act of working to understand the book is in itself an integral part of the experience. That doesn't mean that this is the only valuable kind of experience you can or should get from a book, but there's room for lots of different kinds of books and lots of different kinds of experiences, and accessibility is not a virtue unto itself, only a means to an end.

And, of course, the reverse is also true: difficulty and opacity are also not virtues unto themselves, and just because a book is an easy read doesn't mean that it can't be a profoundly valuable experience. And it's also certainly true that some work is simply pretentious or contemptuous and has no substance, and can't provide a worthwhile experience no matter how hard you work at it.

What this says to me is that art need not be universal. That some experiences—valid, even important experiences—are simply not going to be accessible to every potential audience member. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Or rather, if it's bad, it's bad in a way that's tragic for the artist rather than condemnatory of him. But just because some people—or even most people—won't get it, doesn't mean that a work of art is bad or shouldn't have been made, or that the approach used in creating it is invalid, or that the people who do get it are wrong for celebrating it.

Bringing this back to contemporary photography, I think that the problem with the art world is not that "art-school pretense" is a bad thing, or that 250-word artist statements are ruining art. I think it must be the case that some contemporary art is a load of bullshit, but I think it must also be the case that some of it is merely designed to elicit reactions that I either miss or that I don't value, and that has to be OK. The problem isn't with conceptual roots or an intellect-only approach or "pedantic objectivism," or any of those things in and of themselves, but rather the problem is that so many other valid approaches to art are shunned.

What I haven't really settled on for myself is whether the kind of egalitarian, inclusive approach to understanding art that I seem to be in favor of has any limits, and, if so, what those limits are. Am I really saying that anything goes when it comes to art? I don't know, maybe. I don't like the idea of art that's mean or intentionally condescending. I have a lot of trouble with "appropriation art." And I haven't really settled for myself whether art has to be about something, whether it has to be trying to say something. I don't really like the idea of saying that it does, but whenever I run into an artist who claims he's not trying to say anything—I find this happens most often with painters, for some reason—my first reaction is always to wonder why he's bothering to make anything, then.

And, of course, almost all of the art that has really spoken to me, especially recently, has all been about something. Judith Fox's book about her husband's Alzheimer's—which is about Alzheimer's, of course, but is really about aging and loss and enduring love. Elizabeth Fleming, whose take on parenthood has been a big inspiration for me, and whose recent work about family and place and loss I really enjoyed. Deborah Parkin, who makes pictures about memory and childhood and depression. Even Alec Soth, who I've always seen as making work about manhood and loneliness and, in some ways, immaturity.

As always, I'm interested to know what other people think about all of this. Does art have to be about something? I was particularly interested in Bill and Jefferey's thoughts because they both enjoy portraiture a lot—Bill is, in fact, a professional portrait and editorial photographer—and that's a genre I've always had trouble connecting with. I tend to feel about portraiture the same way I feel about ballet—I appreciate the technique, but it rarely moves me. When it does really work for me it tends to be portraiture that's more project-based and conceptual, in which case what it's "about" is more obvious.

The OTP guys were kind enough to respond on the show, so if you're interested you can have a listen. There aren't clean answers to these questions, but in spite of that—or perhaps because of it—it's important, I think, to ask them and think about them. If you have any thoughts on any of it, I'd love to hear them.