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“A 5-year-old could paint that!” – understanding contemporary art.
In the last decades, photography grew to probably the most often picked art form up by amateurs, mainly due to its accessibility and the easiness of starting, hugely influenced by the introduction of digital photography, and then smartphones capable of creating high quality images. Photography is “just pressing a button”, after all, and the beginning of the journey isn’t as disappointing as in the case of drawing or painting, where one usually needs to acquire a certain level of technical skills by practicing for tens or hundreds of hours, before achieving at least moderately satisfying result. That doesn’t necessarily mean photography is an overally easier form of art than drawing or painting, but it sure is much more accessible than classical forms of visual arts.
Just like in the world of painting, or of fine art in general, there’s is a huge distinction between work exhibited in art galleries, or in the pages of the most glamorous magazines, and the works created by “internet photographers”. I use phrase “internet photographers” due to lack of more appropriate term – however, it’s important to note, many of those photographers are full-time professionals whose main source of income is photography. The gap between the art world and work created by the “internet photographers” is so big, that members of the latter often don’t even know how actual fine art really looks like, and if they do, they just don’t understand what’s so great about it, sometimes even assuming it’s some kind of art-world-hoax.
Just like in the world of painting, “enthusiasts photographers” very appreciate value technical aspects of photography more than anything else. They like perfectly sharp, harmonically composed, obviously kind of beauty, just the way amateur painters often desire the most realistic presentation of the reality, which for many, is the final and last step of their artistic development.
It’s good to have some basic knowledge of art history, to understand better why such an approach is a dead end, and if one wants to create something truly meaningful, he has to move past that, or maybe even ignore completely, as modern art has proven that technical aspects aren’t objectively relevant.
That obviously doesn’t mean technical skills are useless – obviously not all artworks moved away from technique completely, and even if some of them did, having good technical skills usually is helpful even when creating art that isn’t technically demanding, and even the artists creating works that are not technically demanding, usually possess at least decent technical skills, as improving them is simply a natural step in one’s development. It just means technical skills are the very first, little step in the pyramid of artistic development and value, that isn’t necessarily mandatory. And the fact that certain artwork seems to “lack technical quality”, isn’t necessarily a valid argument in the discussion about the quality of the work, especially when discussing work of experienced artists, because, in art, there are no rules set in stone, and “being sharp/realistic and harmoniously composed” certainly isn’t one of them.
Actually, making a photograph that is aesthetically pleasant – which for most of the photographers is the most important and often the only goal, in the art photography world, which puts a much stronger emphasis on content, rather than form – having an aesthetically good picture often is also just a “first, little step, that isn’t necessarily obligatory”, which I’ll discuss in detail in further entries. And if you are not really interested in creating or understanding fine art – this definitely applies to fashion photography (and many other photography genres, but fashion is the closest one to it) too, at least to some extent, at least when considering work that’s admired internationally, and not just by the local community and one’s Instagram followers.
The climax of such approach in art history was academicism. It was when realistic, pretty, and easily consumable paintings of the social elite looking flawlessly were considered the highest form of art, and other themes were simply rejected by the art world at the time. One of the persons who challanged that was Gustave Coubert, who believed that art doesn’t need to picture the perfect, idealistic form of reality.
He started paining ordinary life, like working-class doing their chores. Now we call this period in art history “realism”, and even though his work has been rejected and not considered real art at the beginning, eventually it was the major factor contributing to the end of academism, permanently changing and expanding the definition of art. However, after academism ended, art, in general, remained realistic. And realistic painting might sound nice to a beginner, someone who’s new, but once you see hundreds or thousands of such artworks, they are not really able to offer anything new, it gets a little boring. It didn’t last long until people questioning standards and rules of that time emerged, changing the art world once again.
Impressionists came with the conclusion, that paintings shouldn’t reflect the reality, but rather the impression of reality. Expressionists went even further than that, and instead of focusing on reality, they claimed that art might serve as a reflection of emotions and inner states of the creator. Those artworks are not very good if you judge them by technical standards – but once you get rid of that limitation, and let yourself experience art on a deeper, emotional level, it starts to make sense. At least it made sense for some people since expressionism is considered as one of the most important art movements in the world history.
It might all seem like a hoax if you approach art without any kind of knowledge, with the “it has to be realistic to be good” kind of approach, but it all makes sense with some very basic understanding of how current state of art was achieved through evolution, or in many cases, revolution. Many things happened since the time of expressionism, leading to now – which has led to the fact that technical skills are now considered a very marginal component of artistic value – if any at all. Yet, art consciousness of the majority of today’s photographers (or amateur enthusiast of drawing/painting) is suspended around 18th century, often leaving them confused and sometimes just irritated, when confronted with exhibitions hosted at contemporary art museums/galleries, or with work of some of the world’s most admired artists – that sometimes is “merely a snapshot”, or “something a 5-year-old could paint”, if judged according to the technical criteria.
In the world of the internet, there are many, many places for the “it has to be sharp” kind of photographers, and few places for photographers interested in more “ambitious” and fine art kind of approach to photography. However, I have never found a place that would try to fill the gap between them, and that’s the purpose of this blog.