What Makes It Art?

What makes something a work of art? Who decides whether it is art? Where is the line between ‘fine art’, and ‘commercial art’? Between craftsmanship and artistic expression? Is there a line?

Questions that spark vigorous debate among those steeped in the art world. Questions argued over by those who know art, and too often by those who don’t. Questions that get asked constantly by those who feel such questions need to be answered.

For me, despite having a degree in Fine Art, they’re questions I never felt compelled to debate. I’m content with the slightly modified axiom that “Art is in the eye of the beholder.”

Or perhaps it might be better said that ‘art is in the heart of the beholder,’ because what has always ultimately defined art is that it stir something in the person who beholds it.

And that, of course, still leaves plenty of room for debate. But, as I’m writing a blog and not a book, I think I’ll leave it at that. And, as I’m writing a blog ostensibly about photography, I really ought to narrow it down to that.

So, what makes a photograph a work of art? Can a photograph be a work of art? Questions that the art of photography has faced far more stridently that most any other form of art, and that it has had to confront repeatedly.

Why has photography been subjected to such heated and repeated debate? The answer is as simple as it is fundamental to the art: the camera. How can a tool that simply creates and records an accurate 2-dimensional representation of the 3-dimensional scene it’s placed in front be capable of creating art?

The answer, obviously, is it’s not. It’s no more capable of creating art than a brush and canvas is.

Semantics, you say? Of course the machine is incapable of functioning on it’s own, just as the brush.

The very point, I say. It’s not the machine that creates the art, it’s the mind behind the machine. A camera no more creates a photograph than a brush creates a painting, or a chisel creates a sculpture. A camera is a tool in the very same way as a brush or a chisel. It’s not the tool that creates the art, it is the artist wielding the tool.

You’d think that was that. problem solved; creator = art.

For photography, it’s never been that simple. The specific problem that photography faces is that the camera isn’t just an ordinary tool; it’s a highly developed tool, a tool that anyone can use and easily create ‘technically’ good photographs. And one in which a great deal of time, ingenuity, and money has gone into making even easier to use.

So now the question becomes “How can something that anyone can create, a photograph, be a work of art?” Followed quickly by “Is everyone who takes a photograph an artist?” Or more to the point, “Is anyone who takes a photograph an artist?’

Perhaps a little history might help answer the question.

No art started out as art. That’s an important concept, so I’ll state it again: No art started out as art.

Painting didn’t begin as a form of personal expression (back to the definition of what is art?!). It began as a form of communication: drawings in the sand, most likely, communicating where food was to be found, or where danger lay. As technology improved, colored powders, chalk, ‘paint’, purpose changed as well. What was being communicated evolved from practical, every day information, to ideas; from the representation of ‘buffalo’ as a specific animal, to ‘buffalo’ as source of sustenance, to ‘buffalo’ as sustainer, as spirit. This evolution from the concrete to the conceptual proceeded right along with the evolution from ‘proto-human’ to ‘human.’

Time marches on, as does technology. The human spirit evolved, the tools and forms of art evolved, but the basic principle of art was set in stone with that single step from the concrete to the conceptual. That is the purpose of art: to communicate concepts. That is What Makes It Art.

So what about photography?

Remember, it’s not the tool, but the intent. Photography is unequaled in it’s ability to make a record of what we see, to record the concrete, and unequaled in it’s ability to communicate. Want to show Granny how the kids have grown? Send her a picture. Is it art? Nope! Vacation photos? Thanksgiving dinner? Christmas with the in-laws? If you’re intent is just documenting the event to communicate what happened to someone else, the photograph does it better than any other medium, but it ain’t art!

These days, anyone who can point a camera and push a button, can create a photograph (even a monkey!); but that doesn’t make them an artist.

Intent, intent, intent! It’s all about intent!

You can stand in front of a building and take a photograph of that building; if it’s a pretty building and the light falling on the building is just right, you might even end up with a pretty picture. At the least, you’ll have a record of the building, and sometimes, that’s enough. You can gain a lot of experience at taking pictures of buildings, and be very proficient at it; if you become proficient enough at making ‘records’ of buildings, you’re considered a craftsman. Often, that is enough.

But, if you want more than just a pretty picture, if you want to say something about the building, about it’s purpose and how it uniquely fulfills that purpose, it takes more than craftsmanship. It takes intent, and intent takes understanding, understanding of that purpose, and an ability to see the beauty in how that purpose is fulfilled. With intent, the photograph becomes art. And if you want to communicate the buildings concept, only art can do it.