Sunday, May 26, 2013

Artist? Says who?

I see more and more photographers self-identifying themselves as “fine art” photographers.  I doubt that it is intended as a comparison: fine art, good art, mediocre art, awful art.  Nor does it seem likely that it indicates a grade like sandpaper: fine art, medium art, coarse art.  I seem to recall the terms “fine art” and “applied art” – the latter being illustrations, magazine covers, etc.

So perhaps fine art photographs are those photographs made with no other purpose than to be regarded as art.  Would that disqualify the Karsh portrait of Pablo Casals,  Carier-Bresson’s “Little Parisian”, Garry Winogrand’s “Man in the Crowd”?  Odd, I’d swear I had seen each of these in a major art museum.

So I guess I haven’t a clue what “fine art photographer” means.  I’m not even sure what “art” means.  Art is what artists make.  Artists are people who make art.  No help.

Some years ago I was snooping through a gallery operated by the local (Chico, California) arts organization.  The blue-haired lady behind the counter asked if I was an artist to which I replied “I am a photographer.”  Her response was that they didn’t regard photography as art.  I usually think of something good to say about 15 minutes after it is needed but this time I got it out straight away.  “Oh I agree – but neither is painting or drawing or sculpture. However, some photographers and some painters and some sculptors are artists.”

In the circus jargon, a performer who is among the best – clown, aerialist, animal trainer – is noted by their peers as “great”, as in the Great Emmett Kelly.   It recognizes not only skill and talent but long-term achievement.  Moreover, it is a serious breach of etiquette to misappropriate or self-appropriate the term “great”. 

I believe that it was Robert Frost who said that “poet” is a gift that must be given to you – that you cannot claim it for yourself.  Like the Great Robert Frost, I regard “artist” or “poet” or “novelist” as sort of informal honorifics to be given not taken. 

So I am uncomfortable to self-identify myself as an artist.  If somebody else wants to identify me as an artist that’s just fine.  However, nobody can disagree that I am a photographer.  I make photographs.  Most of the time the result of doing so is rubbish.  Sometimes it is a product. Once in a while it may be art.  Nobody, not even a Great, always get it right.  I suspect that even the Great Picasso had a full trash can.  The Great Mark Twain burned a lot of his drafts so that nobody could pick through his rubbish after his death. 

How often to you need to get it right to deserve the honorific?  John Nichols wrote one terrific novel, The Milagro Beanfield Wars.  That’s all folks.  The second and third books of his hastily devised trilogy after its success were just awful.  Is that enough to earn “novelist”?

It’s easy enough to understand why a photographer would like to self-identify as an artist.  Photographers do have an especially ambiguous medium.  If you say you are photographer then the next question is too often “Do you do [weddings, bar mitzvahs, kid birthday parties ….]?”  Painters probably have the same problem.  “Interior or exterior?”  Sculptors not so much – that is a much less ambiguous word.  But I digress.

Who gets to decide?  There are no board exams to qualify artists.  The opinions about what constitutes “art” or the quality thereof are hardly consistent.  As I reported in an earlier entry, one reviewer dismissed my portfolio as (insert sneer here) “documentary”.  We don’t have (thank St. Ansel and St. Henri) the French or British academy to pontificate.  Well, we do have the Photographic Society of America with its point ratings and so on but who cares.

I had a very hard time getting this entry started and now I’m having a hard time getting it finished, too.  I’m not even sure if it went anywhere between start and finish.  Anybody want to argue?


  1. There is a related discussion that seems to surface every year prompted by NaNoWriMo, the national novel writing month. There is a small but vocal faction among professional, piblished and working writers that rabidly objects to NaNoWriMo because it dilutes the label of "writer" and "novelist".

    On the one hand I can see some validity to this argument. It is a hard thing getting the general public to view being a writer as a real job and I can understand being somewhat protective and wanting to keep a level of exclusivity to the whole thing.

    On the other hand I don't think anyone would think twice about someone who plays golf casually on weekends referring to themselves as a "golfer", nor do I think anyone would feel that said casual golfer's adoption of the label would in any way diminish the achievements of, say, Tiger Woods.

    To be sure, someone who golfs on weekends is certainly not a professional golfer, just as someone who cranks out 50,000 words over the course of NaNoWriMo is not a professional writer but I would say they ARE a writer and I think the same holds for artists in any medium.

  2. Well, that's a good point. Saying "I'm a golfer." or "I'm a writer." or "I'm a photographer." is a statement of fact (given that you do play golf, write stuff, or take photographs). Saying "I'm an artist." seems different to me -- perhaps partly because the definition of art is pretty slippery. That's such a subjective and contentious term about which thousands of pages of drivel (oops, got a bit subjective there myself) have been written with no consensus emerging. Even "poet" is less ambiguous -- "I'm a poet." implies that you write stuff that at least you consider to be poetry. I suppose "I'm an artist." implies that you make stuff that at least you consider to be art. English sure is a slippery language.