Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “Dada”

What Is Art? (Part 2)

Last year I started collecting my thoughts on the continual debate in my head about what art is, and how it can be (among other things) an effective form of communication. That effort was and still is intertwined with the process of further understanding my own art, and all other art, as well. In hindsight, I thought the initial writing (here and here) was a bit unfocused, and since it was also incomplete, I took the time recently to revisit those blog entries and rework them into a more cohesive essay.

The final part of that essay, as mentioned in the second of those prior blog posts, is about my belief that photojournalism can be viewed as a creative art form, possessing an almost-accidental form of raw beauty capable of inspiring other works of art (such as many of my own). This critique of photojournalism introduces broader questions about the “unintended” as art, and–for now–completes my investigation into the sneakily complicated debate “What is art?”

In the future I’ll post the final version of the essay in its entirety, but for now here is the “part 2” continuation of those prior blog posts.

Photojournalism and the Unintended as Art

In the last 100 years, photojournalism has become a fixture of our visual landscape. On the surface, it’s simply defined as the use of images to tell a news story or to report on current events. In this role, the photos are not art, and their photographers are not acting as artists, which means their images are typically held to strict ethical standards of honesty, impartiality, and objectivity. But these attributes are graded on a scale that becomes increasingly inexact amidst the complexity of postmodern thought and the digital age of endless reproduction and re-appropriation. This is the point at which the question “What is art?” becomes relevant and fascinating to me, when applied to the medium of photojournalism.

I’ve always appreciated the naïve purity of an image that’s been produced with no pretense of art, utterly uninhibited by the finicky shackles of artistic rules or the whims of unreliable muses like inspiration. In this open and wild space, artistic qualities and natural beauty are given the chance to emerge on their own, unintended and raw, like the strongest of weeds in a perfectly manicured lawn, and photography seems to be an ideal medium for this phenomenon. This element of chance can produce quite powerful images, capable of communicating intensely to the viewer while remaining—and precisely because they remain—firmly grounded in the truth of reality “as it happened.”

And so the commonplace photos we’re bombarded with through ever-increasing media saturation begin ostensibly as visual data comprised only of ‘facts’ or neutral information, yet end up loaded with symbolism, embedded with the perceptions and beliefs of their creators and audience after becoming the subject of this artistic line of inquiry.

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One of my all-time favorites (sorry I could not find the photographer or image credit online).

In studying art history, it seems this afterlife of the journalistic image became much more possible in the wake of the Dada movement, when artists (including photographers) carved out new niches for their work beyond mere decoration or commemoration of important people or places. Art in the 20th century became increasingly deconstructivist, philosophically charged, and conceptual in nature, filling multiple roles while having its meaning manipulated by the increasingly complex worldviews of both creator and audience1.

Because of this evolution, just about anything could be considered art in the right context, meaning that most contemporary art now resides as much in the blurry, ambiguous realm of provocative ideas as it does in the realm of traditional craft. Hence a museum visitor might encounter an exhibit of random paint splotches that, beneath its completely underwhelming, childlike appearance, contains a metaphor referencing complex political or psychological theories learned by the artist through years of intense academic study.

This can be maddening to the viewer who simply wants to marvel at a skillfully executed object of beauty, or it can be liberating for those who want to engage in debate, controversy, or social change through the arts. My own art has always attempted to straddle this fence by incorporating the best of both worlds: technical, precise handling of paint in the realism tradition, yet depicting modern subject matter and informed by the angst and alienation of postmodern philosophies. It is my belief that photojournalism in the modern age, thanks to that 20th-century process of expansion and deconstruction, straddles a similar fence, one separating objective observations from subjective beauty and meaning.

This ability of the journalistic photograph to transcend genres is confirmed in the academic community by the fact that “Breaking News Photography” is a Pulitzer Prize category.  This prestigious yearly award started in 1917 as a way to honor impactful achievements in American journalism, literature, and music. Winning photographs are resurrected as art objects, receiving appreciation for their poignancy and beauty—a second life of sorts, after their initial purpose or function in the journalistic media has been served.

This second life also takes the form of photo essays, curated and arranged into cohesive narratives, which are now commonly presented in art and lifestyle publications, fine art galleries, and museums throughout the world. Depending on the intentions of the photographer and exhibiting institution or publication, as well as the sensibilities of the viewing audience, these photographs may be appreciated for their communication about the world events that comprise their content, or for their artistic qualities—or both.

In his 1995 essay about the modern age of photojournalism, writer Richard Lacayo wades into the debate surrounding artistic subjectivity and meaning:

“Photojournalists tend to stay aloof from talk about camera aesthetics. There is something about dodging gunfire in Beirut that discourages ruminations on style, understandably enough. More to the point, no one who catalogs bloodshed or poverty wants to be thought of as yet another vendor to the senses. Some news photographers spend half their lives chasing wars; who can blame them if they reach for the door when they hear the word art? …The stereotype survives: artists have visions; journalists have assignments. They may both think to themselves, ‘I am a camera,’ but each means something different.

“Yet aesthetic questions have a moral dimension. Color is pretty; misery is not. How does one keep the simple appeal of color from confounding the full range of meanings a photograph may convey? If pictures of genocide come to us in the muted pastels of a GAP ad or the vivid hues of a rock video, how does a photographer keep atrocity from looking palatable?”2

While the moralist in me sympathizes with this sentiment, the artist and rebel in me, raised in an age of cynicism, desensitization, and ambiguity, views adjectives like ‘palatable’ as mere subjective opinions, impossible to resolve into an absolute truth for all to agree on. Human culture is so diverse that practically anything could be considered palatable art, by someone. And so I answer Lacayo’s question with another question: “Why should the photographer keep atrocity from looking palatable?”

I want to ask this question not because I enjoy atrocity, but because I am capable of the postmodern complexity of holding multiple feelings and competing appreciations within me simultaneously. In this case, that multiplicity includes the horror and revulsion at the tragic events occurring in our world as well as the aesthetic delight at the spectacle of color, shape, line, emotion, symbolism, and meaning on vivid display, emerging somewhat accidentally (and perhaps with more purity) through the photojournalistic medium.

As if to concede this very point I’m making and pay homage to the “What is art?” debate, the author goes on to admit, “The most capable photojournalists…have learned to incorporate the unruliness of color into a deliberate statement. …Barbaric rule can operate in the broadest daylight, suffering can happen in sensual settings, a place can be cruel and inviting at the same time.”

And so we see that through the inescapable conduit of subjectivity, passive observation becomes intentional communication, and thus, photojournalism can also be the highest of art forms, loaded with inspiration for artists working in any medium. I’ve always appreciated the best journalistic photography for this transcendent ability, the point at which the happenings of this world become awe-inspiring images, and the deepest truths contained in the human condition are put on poetic display.

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Various newspaper and magazine clippings I’ve saved over the years for reference and inspiration.

 

So once and for all, “What is art?” This question may never be fully answered. But with an integral approach and an open mind, artists and viewers alike can use this line of inquiry to enrich their experience of reality, to deepen the communication that is the purpose of all art, and to find beauty everywhere, even where it may be unintended.

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Another powerful, poetic image (sorry I couldn’t find the photographer or image credit online for this one either).

 

1The Situationists of the 1960s took this evolution to the extreme, espousing radical anarchist views on art that embraced destruction and merciless re-appropriation of all imagery, in the service of transforming society and conscious reality into a powerful and playful dialogue with the present moment.

2Lacayo, Richard. “IV: Resurgence 1980-1995.” Eyewitness: 150 Years of Photojournalism. New York CIty: Time, 1995. 166. Print.

What Is Art? (Part 1): Self Inquiry

“If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

This is the kind of existential crisis I circumnavigate when considering (read: having anxiety about) the effectiveness of my paintings and the symbolism I choose to communicate with. Am I effectively expressing my intended meaning? And is my intended meaning aligning with the viewer’s perceived meaning? Does it even matter?

It can be argued that what makes something art is the group participatory act; it almost always requires someone other than its creator to see it. Art is, in general terms, a unit of cultural information that is put forth by participant A, and taken in by participant B. Hence, a communication. Always. A message is always put out, whether the artist intends to or not. This visual communication is even more fundamental than our ever-present and taken for granted verbal communication. At its most primal level, visual art certainly is more direct–it’s sub-verbal, it requires no complicating exchange of written or oral language.

But, contemporary art in the postmodern era is often maddeningly indirect and complicated. A product of an exceedingly complex society, annd having been created either intentionally or instinctively on the foundations of modern philosophical thought spanning hundreds of years, it does actually beg the need in the viewer for a more advanced knowledge of the visual language of symbolism and metaphor. That red means “stop” or “danger” or “look here!” is basic and even primal knowledge. That a picture of surgeon’s hands manipulating opened flesh might symbolize the oppression of technological civilization and the material-reductionist paradigm which has separated spirit from matter and meaning from life is quite frankly, a lot less obvious to all but the most studied art critics and curators. That’s where the ‘art as communication’ issue gets complicated and sticky…and so necessary for any conscientious or ambitious artist to ponder.

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Anointing, oil on panel, 24 x 24 in, 2012

Having established all of this, I ask myself again the artist’s version of the tree falling question, “What is art?”

In the case of visual art, I follow this line of inquiry to a fork in the road separating the act of creation from the result of creation or the art object, the painting that hangs on the wall. So when I ask myself what art is, I must remember this important distinction (thanks to the clumsy imprecision of the everyday English vernacular), because what I discover that I really mean is: what is an art object?

I then find that this line of inquiry opens up the need for even more distinctions: Does intention make something art? Meaning, the creator intends the work being produced to carry a conceptual pretense, some kind of idea or symbolism beyond the literal depiction or the physical, material object. In such cases where there is presumably no overt artistic intention (such as photojournalism*, the simple documenting of events), does viewer perception make it art, retroactively? Following the postmodern ethics of subjectivity, a viewer’s perception can not be disproven; if someone says it’s art, then for all intents and purposes, it is…to them.

(Insert Dada and Duchamp’s controversial urinal into the debate here.)

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So I guess what all this means is that part of my ongoing refinement as an artist is a constant evaluation of my message, its truthfulness, and its effectiveness, and in order to do this I have to dig deep into the world of art theory to prove or disprove–and IMprove–what I’ve done. What am I intending to say, and what do viewers think I’m saying based on the feedback I’ve received**? Do the two match up? If they diverge, how and (maybe more importantly) why? What symbolism and what artistic strategies can I experiment with to bring intention and perception into alignment to produce powerful, life-altering, inspiring communication?

 

*Sometime between now and forever I’ll write about my love for this “artform” and the unintentional masterpiece in What Is Art? (Part 2): Photojournalism

**Praise be to the all-important critique session!