The modern art (and photography) problem

In “Modern art: I could have done that… so I did: After years of going to photography exhibitions and thinking he could do better, Julian Baggini gave it a go. But could he convince The Royal West of England Academy with his work?“, Baggini writes:

there are times when we come across something so simple, so unimpressive, and so devoid of technical merit that we just can’t help believing we could have done as well or better ourselves.

He’s right—except that this happens entirely too often and helps explain much of modern art’s bogosity. I’m not the only person to have noticed—in Glittering Images, Camille Paglia writes:

the big draws [for museums] remain Old Master or Impressionist painting, not contemporary art. No galvanizing new style has emerged since Pop Art, which killed the avant-garde by embracing commercial culture. Art makes news today only when a painting is stolen or auctioned at a record price.

She’s right too; many people have noticed this but few apparently have in the art world itself, which seems to have become more interested in marketing than making (a problem afflicting the humanities in academia too). But there are enough people invested in and profiting from propagating bogosity that they can remain indifferent to countervailing indifference.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYears ago I was at the Seattle Art Museum and looking various pieces of modern supposed “art” that consisted mostly of a couple lines or splotches and what not, and they made me think: “there’s a hilarious novel in here about a director who surreptitiously hangs her own work—and no one notices.” Unfortunately, now I’ve realized that people have already done this, or things like it, in the real world—and no one cared. It’s barely possible to generate scandal in the art world anymore; conservatives have mostly learned about the Streisand effect and thus don’t react to the latest faux provocation. The artists themselves often lack both anything to say and any coherent way of saying it.

To the extent people respond to art, they respond to the art that people made when it took skill be an artist.

Photography has a somewhat similar problem, except that it’s been created by technology. Up until relatively recent it took a lot of time, money, and patience to become a reasonably skilled photographer. Now it doesn’t take nearly as much of any of those things: last year’s cameras and lenses still work incredibly well; improvements in autofocus, auto-exposure, and related technologies make photos look much better; and it’s possible to take, review, and edit hundreds or thousands of photos at a time, reducing the time necessary to go from “I took a picture” to expert.

The results are obvious for anyone who pays attention. Look through Flickr, or 500px, or any number of other sites and you’ll see thousands of brilliant, beautiful photos. I won’t say “anyone can do it,” but many people can. It’s also possible to take great photos by accident, with the machine doing almost all the work apart from the pointing and clicking. Adding a little bit of knowledge to the process is only likely to increase the keeper rate. Marketing seems to be one of the primary differentiators among professional photographers; tools like Lightroom expand the range of possibility for recovering from error.

One of the all-time top posts on Reddit’s photography section is “I am a professional photographer. I’d like to share some uncomfortable truths about photography,” where the author writes that “It’s more about equipment than we’d like to admit” and “Photography is easier than we’d like to admit.”

The profession is dying, for reasons not identical to painting but adjacent to it. In photography, we’re drowning in quality. In fine art, we’re drowning in bogosity, and few people appear to be interested in rescuing the victim.

8 responses

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  3. I’ve been heavily involved in photography the last year or so. I’ve discovered that the only way to make money is by having other people pay you to take photos for them (events, portraits, weddings, pro social media). All other forms of the medium are dead. I can see art going the same way. Commissioned work is the future, which means marketing is key. Unless you’re famous, your soft skills are more important than your technical skills; and if your famous you probably have a good personality anyway.

    In terms of photography, everyone has a cellphone camera that is better than the point and shoots from 5 years ago; the barrier is gone. People are discovering that they can take pretty good pictures with the camera that’s on them. The last bits of technical skills that can make you stand out is lighting and posing. Posing is interesting because it combines soft and technical. Lighting can be intimating because of all the equipment that is needed. The latest generation strobes makes lighting a lot easier due to the improvements in TTL and wireless triggers, but it’ll never be small and compact like a cellphone; it will always require special equipment.

    For art the problem is supply & demand, paired with the minimalism movement. There is more art than buyers. Not being burdened with stuff is further driving down the demand.


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  5. Technical skill and Art are not the same thing.

    For example, if someone paints a very good picture of my 1999 Camry, no one cares (at least probably not — I will return to this later). Even if the painting is a technical masterpiece (i.e. an exact representation), it’s not doing the thing that makes art Art: allowing the transcendent to penetrate our world.

    Here’s another example. Beethoven was an artist. Someone who mindlessly plays his music is not an artist. That person is Beethoven’s canvas, but they are not the artist. I know we could quibble here, but you get the point.

    Maybe a visual example will help.

    Look at this:

    Whoever painted this had technical skill, but they also had something else: Vision (or whatever).
    “The Awakening Conscience” is not just about some attractive woman with a man. If it were, it would be technically good (at least to an ignorant person like me), but it would not be Art.

    As I learned from reading the Wikipedia article, “The Awakening Conscience” is saying the same thing as this painting:

    So let’s talk about photography.

    Technology has made it so that everyone is a technical master at taking pictures. So if you are an artist whose medium is photography, you don’t have to worry about the technical side of things as much. Or if you do, you are worrying about it on a new level (Photoshop, etc.).

    As far as complaints about the market for photography, most people are not looking for Art. I think a lot of the old masters made a living painting portraits and things like that, right? So it’s not strange that photographers who are into Art are going to need to do weddings and other stuff like that. Spinoza was a lens grinder.

    However, you can still make Art through photography. If you are an artist, you are looking at things differently. It’s not about making an exact replication of a lamp post. Everyone can do that. It’s about seeing things differently.

    Ok, blah blah blah.

    Jake, I agree with you about modern art. Especially in literature, most of it is junk. Some of it is not.


    The whole thing about Warhol and the Campbell’s soup cans is interesting. Can anyone take pictures of Campbell’s soup cans? Yes. Is it art? Maybe so. Maybe not.

    If it’s saying something about our commercialized, mass-produced society, maybe it is art. But that also requires the viewer to be looking at it beyond the surface level.


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