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The nature of art through the lens of in[+]frame

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One of the first issues that emerged during the birth of in[+]frame’s idea was at what level it is possible to approach photography as an art, with the traditional or with the modern meaning of the term “art”. Instantly, it became clear that an approach like this could not be dogmatic, while at the same time it required persistent effort and internal quest towards understanding certain perspectives and assumptions about art, which reveal a special affinity –or even variation- with what is called art photography .

But let us start from the beginning: In order to explore the relationship between photography and art we should firstly explore –if possible- the very nature of art in general.

The nature of Art through the lens of important others

It is not within the purposes of this article to precisely determine what art is, neither to objectively define its essence. This has been a quest between artists and philosophers during the past centuries. We can instead, put into this old discourse, certain issues that frame up this quest. A conventional starting point in order to approach the term “art” could be drew upon any of the many modern definitions of art. According to one


«[art is] 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 above definition provides already a basic context with which one may possibly identify a work of art. Nevertheless, this context appears to be quite general and includes certain assumptions when using terms like “beauty” and “emotion”, which are being interpreted subjectively by most people. This observation reveals a first difficulty in approaching art, the problem of subjectivity. Maybe, if one utilizes this subjectivity as an analytical tool for understanding art, then he may reach closer to its essence, comparatively to using rules, specific criteria or strict specifications. On this basis it would be interesting to consider some famous quotes –even if it seems somehow superficial- stated by well-known philosophers, artists, art critics etc. Furthermore, without adopting these words as rules or as an objective truth, we could reveal and emphasize on some interesting dimensions and perspectives. Let us take, for example, what Edgar Allan Poe (1849) had stated:


"Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term Art, I should call it 'the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.' The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of 'Artist.'"

With these words Poe distinguishes art from mere representation of reality –despite of how accurate it may be-. According to Poe, a work, in order to be considered as a work of art, should be filtered by the very soul of its creator. Thus, it’s about the development of a relation, a connection between the nature, the senses and the artist’s inner self. The words above might remind what Bresson had said about photography

«To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart»

Hereon, we can comment for a start, the obvious, but also important, that the art presumes the involvement of senses and deep emotions in an attempt of skillful representation of reality. Taking this thought further, it’s worth mentioning the words of the American philosopher Susanne Langer (as cited in Innis Robert, 2009):

«The artist’s eye sees in nature, and even in human nature betraying itself in action, an inexhaustible wealth of tensions, rhythms, continuities and contrasts which can be rendered in line and color;… …Art is the objectification of feeling, and the subjectification of nature."

Langer here refers among others, to the dialectical communication between internal forms –emotional and psychological- and external forms –as expressed by the works of art-. Hence, the natural forms –what exists in nature- are being perceived through art, as the projections of objective internal forms of emotions. Langer also indicates the importance of the artist’s “eye” through whose subjective perspective succeeds in “objectifying” emotions, thus making internal forms visible and concrete. In addition, we could append the words of the German painter Paul Klee (1920):


"Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible."

Klee summarizes the difference between the mere imitation of reality and the expressive power encompassed in a work of art. When he speaks about the “visible” he does not simply refer to what everyone sees, but to what conceivably can be seen. Therefore, when he states that art “makes visible” he implies that art features what commonly is not noticed, creating a way of seeing things (Elderfield, 2013). Through the elements of form, a work of art can reveal multiple meanings that a simple representation cannot. So, if we consider that the creative and revealing representation and the expressiveness are two important substances in a work of art, we can proceed to what Renoir (1912) had said:


"Shall I tell you what I think are the two qualities of a work of art? First, it must be the indescribable, and second, it must be inimitable."

If a creation is indescribable and inimitable, then one can understand the difficulty in defining it as art… Thereby, how can one submit art into evaluation, into judgment? How can one distinguish the “good” art from the “bad” art? Regarding this, the existential writer Albert Camus said:


"I have the loftiest idea, and the most passionate one, of art. Much too lofty to agree to subject it to anything. Much too passionate to want to divorce it from anything."

Nonetheless, the above words keep us away from any effort to define art and to impose any evaluation or distinction procedure, as it would not have any essential value. According to Camus, the real value of art lies in his passion about making art, as a process inextricable from life and reality.


Reasonable questions and theoretical answers

From what has been already mentioned, several important questions are raised concerning the function and the role of art. Questions which philosophers and historians often approach differently regarding the social and cultural context of reference. For instance we can summarize the following reasonable questions:


  • What is the purpose of art? /is it the aesthetical development or its practical and social utility?

  • From the artist’s view, does art presume special skill? Does it require knowledge and high taste from the viewer/receiver?

  • What is more important in a work of art, form or content? Aesthetic experience or the conception of an idea?

  • Are there any concrete and universal criteria for evaluating art? Who can “measure” its value? Who has the right or the power to do it?

  • Does art evolve? Do its criteria remain the same?

  • What is the role of aesthetics and “beauty” on modern art?

  • Is art a conscious or unconscious process of creation?

  • What is the artist’s incentive? Is it the communication of ideas, of emotions? Is it an internal purification process? Is it the joy, the recreational function of art?

  • Who is expressed through a work of art? The individual? Society? A nation? A civilization? A historical period?

  • What is art after all? Is it a window? Is it a mirror? Is it an alternative reality?


Apparently, there is no unique answer to these questions. It seems like we are forced to conclude that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to define what “art” is and what “beauty” is (Goguen, 2000). A British art historian, Ernst Gombrich (1995), apposes a symbolical statement upon this old dilemma:

«There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists»

During the past centuries of course, many different theories have been propounded, affirming this way the difficulty in establishing an universal interpretation theory. One can easily identify some of the most popular theories and summarize them as following:


  • Mimetic/representation theories – art as imitation or representation of reality.

  • Expressive theories - art is interpreted as the representation or expression of the inner state of the artist. Specific internal emotions are being projected and it is considered that art should successfully communicate what the artist wants to express.

  • Formalist theories – they focus mainly on the elements of form (lines, shapes, rhythm, balance etc) as a organic unity, and not in the content of art.

  • Aesthetic theories - based on the idea that art exists to reveal «beauty» alone.

  • Pragmatic theories – focused on the effects of art upon its audience in order to create specific common experiences.

  • Theories of subjectivism – the main function of art is to present, into cohesive form, what is really abstract. The artist recreates reality, representing it selectively, and emphasizes on certain aspects, while subtracting others, for the purpose of meaning.

  • Institutional theories – a modern approach of art which explains that an object is work of art, as long as the «world of art», or those who have the proper authority or power (museums, publishers, galleries, other artists etc), consider it art.

Concluding, let us focus on the basics

Lets leave aside any sophisticated theories and let us remember –for simplifying reasons- that from the artist’s perspective, as mentioned earlier, art is at least a subjective representation of reality. A representation of nature, people, facts, relations, objects etc seen through the artist's eye. For instance, the works of Picasso or Dali are evident examples of such an objective representation. Nonetheless, the various art movements developed in the past –impressionism, realism, surrealism etc- express the diverge perspectives through which man “sees” the world. The essence of a work of art grounds in singularity and in creator’s unique view and perspective, which challenge the viewer/receiver to stop, to see beyond the obvious and finally to experience and reflect. Additionally, even though the creators approach is triggered by common concerns of mankind, it surpasses the common reasoning and functions in a higher mental and emotional sphere.


Having mentioned all these about art, can we finally conclude how to position photography in this discourse? In a next article, in[+]frame will focus on the question above and we will try to set the basis for such a discussion.

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References

  • Camus, Albert. (1994). In J. O'Brien (editor) Notebooks, 1942-1951.

  • Elderfield, John. (2013). Old Art Terms # 5: Making Visible. Retrieved from https://www.artsy.net/post/johnelderfield-old-art-terms-number-5-making-visible

  • Goguen, Joseph A. (2000). What Is Art? , Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7, No. 8–9, pp. 7–15

  • Gombrich, Ernst. (1995). The story of Art. Phaidon Press Ltd

  • Innis, Robert E. (2009). Susanne Langer in Focus: The Symbolic Mind. Indiana University Press

  • Klee, Paul. (1920). Creative Credo. In B. C. Herschel (Editor) Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968

  • Oxford dictionaries. (2015). “Art”, Oxford University Press

  • Poe, Edgar Allan. (1849). Marginalia. Reprinted in G. R. Thompson (Editor) Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews. 1984.

  • Renoir, Pierre Auguste. (1912). Interview with Walter Pach. Scribner's Magazine

  • Whitehead, Alfred North. (1943). Dialogues

  • Τσιγκόγλου, Σταύρος. (2013). Σύγχρονη τέχνη, Εκδόσεις Καστανιώτη

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