What is Art?

DietmarTallroth-0001.jpg“You know it’s art, when it’s bigger than two metres and priced higher than five figures“. This quote attributed to British photographer Martin Parr nicely highlights not only Parr’s sense of humor, but also some of the friction between photography and the art market. The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones in turn has become quite (in)famous among photographers as he regularly declares that photography is not art. This begs to revisit the old question: “What is art?”. Here is my attempt of an answer.

In the year 1917 Marcel Duchamp, with his work “Fountain”, declared a urinal as art. The sculpture was a Dadaists declaration of war on aesthetics and other forms of classification of art. Ironically, the work (or rather its later replicas) became an object of desire achieving prices in the millions at auctions. This has many concluding that art is what sells on the art market.

But only taking the sales prices as basis for valuation has its problems. Auction prices are based on an expectation of re-sale value. That re-sale value often has nothing to do with the intrinsic quality of a work, but with factors like investment climate, ownership history and fame. This leads to the many examples of artists and works that were first seen as worthless and only over time built re-sale value. But that makes these works not more or less “art” at any given time.

There are other ways to define art, like a through a historical view measuring influence of a work or even a view that everything an artist creates as a result of a creative process is art. I think all these views have their problems as they either look into the past (only in hindsight we can determine the value of a work) or are difficult to judge (we can’t look into the mind of an artist).

Quite recently though, cognitive science has come up with a new theory of art based on the psychology of ideasthesia. Ideasthesia is a phenomenon found in psychological tests showing that sensations (e.g. visual stimuli) are connected to ideas in the brain.

When shown the above figure, 95 – 98 % of the respondents associated the name “Kiki” with the spiky figure and “Boubou” with the rounder one. But “Kiki” was also seen as nervous and “Boubou” as lazy. Simple figures thus triggered associations with complex concepts. Based on these insights, cognitive scientist Danko Nikolić has proposed an art theory based on the balance between meaning/idea and stimulus/sensation. He contrasts thus art to entertainment (only sensation/little meaning) and science (only meaning/little sensation). According to Nikolić we perceive something as art only when sensation and meaning are in a balance.

I think this theory has many interesting aspects. It is important, though, to remember that the collection of ideas and concepts in our mind are wider than our language repertoire. That means that not all concepts in our mind can be expressed in language. If ideasthesia is right, such non-verbal or post-verbal concepts could still be activated by e.g. visual stimuli. But ideasthesia also highlights that the experience of art, of a balance between idea and aesthetics is highly individual, because the network of concepts of ideas in our mind is individual. Simply stated: not every piece of art would appeal to every one. Which is basically what we experience.

Finally, for an artist, there is also the aspect to effectively communicate an idea. If an artist wants to communicate “Kiki” he or she shouldn’t draw/show “Boubou”.  That there are more and less effective ways to communicate a certain concept seems obvious – after all, advertisement has been studying and using effectiveness in communication already for a while and with great success. Still, for any visual artist it remains the core challenge to find and refine methods to effectively communicate feelings and “non-verbal” insights.

I have been writing about this already in the series about the Five Painters who tried to visualize abstract ideas like ch’i in nature or the inner nature of reality. But I think it is worth revisiting the topic and to discuss some of the tools in the photographer’s communication arsenal, namely composition and light. Thus I plan to write a new series on these two topics and will start with composition.

But to Mr. Jones’ question whether photography can be art we now have an answer. Not all of photography is art, of course. But like any form of visual communication, photography can be art if it can “touch” our mind and emotions and give us ideas through its form of expression. Well, we kind of knew this already, didn’t we?


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