But Is it Art?

Red Leaf Circle, photomontage, © 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

Everyone has an opinion about what Art is or isn’t. When asked to explain their opinion they may say art is whatever the artist says it is. Or, I don’t know much about art but I know what I like. Neither response is satisfactory and each is a protestation of ignorance.    

But what then elevates something to the status of art with a capital A? In the Balinese language, for example, there is no word for art or artist, even though the Balinese people produce exquisite paintings, carvings, weavings, music, writing and dance. In their culture artistic expression is an inextricable part of their religion and rituals. 

And then there is the question of beauty. Many people, probably most, would aver that art must be beautiful. But what constitutes beauty? 

In his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” His words posit that the measure of art is how close it brings us to the truth‚ regardless of whether that truth is pleasant or disturbing. So a truthful painting, depicting the horror of war, may be a beautiful picture brilliantly executed by a skilled and passionate artist—a genuine work of art. But it will not be pretty or pleasant to behold.

The following are some of the many questions about what is art that defy definitive answers but are worth pondering:

  1. How broad and inclusive can the definition of art be before it becomes meaningless?
  2. For something to be a work of art, must its maker have intended it to be art?
  3. Marcel Duchamp said of his work, “It is Art if I say so.” In today’s art world this is an accepted dictum. But, is art really whatever the artist says it is?
  4. Can one become a legitimate artist just by proclaiming that they are? Am I a chef because I can scramble eggs and brew coffee?
  5. If everyone can be an artist, and art is whatever the artist says it is, what meaningful measures of artistic quality and excellence can there be?
  6. Is art always political? 
  7. When a work is fabricated by skilled craftspersons and technicians, following the artist’s specifications, are they all the artist? 

Loupe, Lightbox and Community

Rana sylvatica (Wood Frog) © 1993 Michael Maurer Smith

PhotoMart was not a place Architectural Digest would have featured. It was dilapidated, dingy and stunk of chemicals. Its paneled walls were unadorned except for a wall clock and a couple of photographs. A rack of sundry photo supplies and accessories stood against one wall and just inside the front door and below the big plate glass windows there was a long, wall-mounted light box and two chairs that once belonged to a cheap dining room set. Between the chairs sat a single wastebasket, invariably overflowing with discarded transparencies, film canisters, and pickup envelopes.

By the late 1980s I had become serious about my photography and would no longer entrust the processing of my film to a drugstore. I began searching for alternatives. PhotoMart became my favorite.

Whenever I came to claim my images I was eager to tear open the sealed envelopes knowing that each held a plastic box with 24 or 36 fresh 35 mm transparencies—Kodachrome or Fujichrome testaments to my vision or the lack of it. I hoped I’d be surprised but always I worried that I’d have nothing in the batch worth saving. And if I had done the shoot for a client I was doubly concerned. So I’d take a seat at the light box and before leaving I’d contribute my share of discards to the basket. For the serious photographer the rule of thumb was that only 2 to 4 images out of every 36 would be worth keeping. Shooting film was an expensive process.

Sometimes, Marty Kies, the owner, or his son, would greet me at the counter saying, “you got some nice ones this time.” That was always a pleasure. Even more satisfying was talking with them and the other photographers who happened to be there holding forth on techniques, film characteristics, composition, lighting, and working with various photography subjects and clients. There was in this a sense of community.

PhotoMart is now long gone. Today I photograph with digital cameras and do most of my own printing. It is an isolated process. I go from shooting the subject matter to immediately seeing the results on the camera back and I can archive a file or delete it with the push of a button—no mess. The final sorting process is done at a computer monitor. And because I shoot raw files I can adjust them in Photoshop and save images that would never have been salvageable on film. I appreciate all of this and I would not want to go back to the costs and waste of film. But, I greatly miss the community I found at the PhotoMart, and I miss the anticipation, waiting to discover what would appear in those transparencies and negatives.

© 2013 Michael Maurer Smith, revised 8 December 2016