A working Definition of Art

I am leading of with this blog, because I am interested in photography as art. In order to learn more about art, I feel I need to understand what I am looking for. For that reason, I need not only to define what is art, but to define it in a way that is “actionable”. My definition must serve as a roadmap to follow.


Mainstream Definition

Most definitions online are similar to this one: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”. The emphasis is mine. It stresses creativity and imagination and the goal is to convey beauty or emotional power. I agree that creativity and imagination is an essential part of art and it is this creativity that separates art from craft, which is basically a learned skill. 


My Issues with the Definition

I have more issues with the second part. I am very fond of analytical cubism of Picasso and Braque for example (arthistory.about.com/od/glossary_a/a/a_analytic_cubism.htm,www.google.ca/search?q=analytical+cubism&espv=2&b...) but I do not find the images strikingly beautiful and I do not react emotionally to them. I still find these images fascinating for their substance and intense intellectual stimulation.

Perhaps more importantly, I do not see this definition as something that could guide me to become an artist. OK, so I need to be creative, I get that. However creativity comes with a timestamp - an expiry date. If you come up with something creative, it will soon be emulated to death. These days, if Ansel Adams submitted his images to competitions, many of them would not necessarily fair well because we have seen so many well done copies of his work and without realizing that he was the first or among the first to photograph landscapes the way he did, we would not see his work necessarily as creative. 

What about beauty OR emotional power? A lot of of what I would consider “rolodex photography” (meaning cliche photography) has become cliche particularly BECAUSE they are effective, because they evoke strong emotions and because they are beautiful. Rolodex photography dominates landscape and other photography. Experienced photographers travel around with a mental rolodex of images that work and whenever they come across something that matches the rolodex, they take the image with the right lens, right shutter speed, right height angle and they process in the right way to match the convention of the rolodex. If these works replicate great many existing works, I do not see such works as art, because the creative observation and the creative sequence of decisions involved in capturing and processing  have already been pioneered  by other artists. The maker which replicates these works just needs to know the sequence and be good enough craftsman to deliver a beautiful and emotive image. There is no creativity, no exploration, nothing personal. At best, it is a very well turned out craft. In my view, vast proportion of advanced photographers fit this category


I Prefer this Definition of Art

Online Oxford dictionary ( www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/art) defines the phrase “art for art's sake”. This phrase is “used to convey the idea that the chief or only aim of a work of art is the self-expression of the individual artist who creates it”. I really like this definition as a definition of art, when coupled with the absolute requirement for creativity. To rephrase than, for me a work of art is the creative self-expression of the individual artist who produces it. First, it is a fairly general definition, in that it does not specify a direction in which the artist must move to be an artist. That I think is important, as art comes in many flavours. Secondly, an essential component of art is the creativity of the artist. I think that there is a broad consensus that creativity is an essential ingredient of any artwork. Thirdly, it gives us an important goal in our search of creating art - a self expression. Artistic work contains a piece of the artist within and we do know something about the artists by looking at their work. This definition urges us to go beyond recording of what we see around us and to try to convey creatively something of ourselves through our work. The definition leaves it to us how we go about accomplishing this goal. 

© Pavel Muller 2016