Fine Art – Redux

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A good friend of mine commented on my recent Fine Art post, and raised some excellent questions. Here are some thoughts that I penned as a result.

First, I recall Alasdair Macintyre’s point that discussions about non-empirical issues (such as values, ethics and aesthetics) are often doomed to failure as the ‘world views’ of the parties involved are from different philosophical backgrounds. The discussion invariably moves to personal views rather than some kind of provable objective truth about ideas such as ‘beauty’ or ‘art’. So, I don’t think it’s ever a question of converting one person to another’s views – just exploring the issues.

To clarify the purpose of that original post, it was this: I dislike the arrogance of the language of ‘fine art’ when it gets in the way of people learning. I have learnt in all kinds of settings that the language we use can cause problems, and never more than in discussions about photography.

Sadly, most language on the issue tends to be rather flowery and often with the big words, smacking of elitism, however we would wish it wasn’t. And that can be counterproductive. On the other side, dissing of academic interest and research into photography doesn’t help, either. At the end of the day, it’s ‘just’ photography and in my view should be interpreted as such rather than seen as some form of proxy requiring justification against other media.

In the original post I wrote:

 … words such as ‘pretty’, ‘vernacular’, ‘decorative’ or ‘pictorial’ are wielded like elite weapons to dismiss work that doesn’t reach the stratospheric heights of ‘fine art’

Strong words, perhaps, and it should be noted that there are differences in types of work – Proust is different to H.G. Wells, for example, though both are considered important writers. Pierre Bourdieu did some empirical sociology work that placed Goya and Breughel as ‘fine / elite art’ and Renoir as ‘middle brow’ at best.  His research is dated, but the point remains that certain kinds of people prefer certain kinds of art.

It is possible that I am making a category mistake (as defined by Gilbert Ryle) to conflate ‘fine art’ with various descriptions of it. Yet often in the real world that is exactly what happens. I do not think I have ever heard or read, for example, that Wolfgang Tillman’s, Sally Mann’s or Robert Frank’s work is ‘pretty’ or ‘decorative’. ‘Sublime’, yes, at least in Tillman’s case.

Once ‘pictorial’ was a gold standard for photography, yet now it can be a word of dismissal. ‘Vernacular’ has its own charm, of course, though at best it’s probably Bourdieu’s ‘middle brow’.  ‘Pretty’ is different to ‘beautiful’ and that in turn is different to ‘sublime’.  I might have been better served to quote ‘picturesque’, which has a long history dating back to Uvedale Price, who located it between the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘sublime’, and which had its own contemporary controversies amongst landscapers.

There are degrees of response that a viewer will experience when encountering art, and the words describing this have power. I had a tutor at Falmouth that described Joe Cornish’s work as ‘vernacular’, a point vehemently disagreed with in a recent RPS conversation which called him ‘romantic’. Personally, I’d consider Cornish’s work as ‘picturesque’ whilst still being ‘vernacular’.

This is just looking at things from a Western tradition, of course, but I guess we should stay with that for now.

In any event, language can be weaponised far too easily. Words are powerful and emotive – and need unpacking and explaining. It is too easy to use them as dismissive critique. Hence my comment on Facebook group arrogance which comes in all kinds of forms. It’s almost certainly my inner Wittgenstein that is talking here, but I do stand by the statement above. The context in which words are used matters greatly.

Still, I do not think that debating the definition detracts from my other point that whatever an individual might say their work is, it is the audience / the market / the context that cements the definition. That might be immediate recognition, or it might take decades. To be clear, when I say ‘market’ it is not just the exchange of cash for art. It is an exchange of ideas, exemplified by museums and curated exhibitions. For example, when I mentioned the impact of UK entrepreneurs in the late 1890s / early 1990s, it wasn’t just that they bought portraits or postcards, but they built museums, which in turn led to curation and public knowledge.

Post-modernists like Roland Barthes went as far as to argue that the ‘author is dead’, and it should be all about the audience. Perhaps Barthes did not mean this literally, but rather meant that in critiquing a work of art we should consider not just the author and his / her context, but also the reader’s / reviewer’s context. Certainly, Michel Foucault powerfully took him to task on this by demonstrating that it is virtually impossible for us to avoid our own experience and contexts.

Related to this, I happen to think that the idea of any photograph being intrinsically context-free is the ultimate superficiality. This is exactly how camera club judges operate, looking at a two-dimensional surface and awarding it points, and not considering any kind of intellectual content or social /cultural/political context. It is not for nothing that ‘bodies of work’ are prized by the art world and the RPS alike; the one-hit wonder just won’t cut it.

My friend’s painting is very much ‘fine art’ as it meets all of the above positive criteria, however we unpack the words. The artist declares it as such and it is received by ‘the market’ as such.

But is my photography of Cambodia ‘fine art’? No, it isn’t, to me. It’s just photography, even though it has a market, cultural context, concept intellectual content etc. And I am cool with that as I do not think the label is the issue. The work met my intentions, I can describe its antecedents, and it was happily received by my intended audience. Naturally there is much work that goes into a project which isn’t seen by audiences – but the final result invariably is.

When I talk of myself, I say that (historically) I was a ‘painter’ or ‘poet’, and today I say that I am a ‘photographer’ and ‘writer’. Perhaps it is reverse snobbery on my part, but I do not use the word ‘artist’. I do not think that it is necessary to make that claim, which is in my experience often used pretentiously or as a defence. The world will judge what it wants to judge, whatever I say or write.

As I said above, my intent with the original post was to provide a few simple pointers on the issue of ‘art’ and ‘photography’. It wasn’t to write a new ‘Critique of Judgment’. I am not expecting deep debate amongst readers of Amateur Photography on whether ‘photography is art’. Most readers of such magazines want to learn and to make better photographs, and not debate philosophy. They perhaps also want to learn how to better critique and curate photographs, which means having some tools and language to use beyond camera club competition points. Sadly, however, there still can be a level of commonality in many entries to camera competitions. It is a kind of self-reinforcing environment, as the work is what judges expect. Vilém Flusser called Camera Clubs ‘post-industrial opium dens’.

Amateur photographers’ clubs are places where one gets high on the structural complexities of cameras, where one goes on a photograph-trip – post-industrial Opium Dens’.

More helpfully, he also goes on to say that:

‘… experimental photographers … are conscious that image, apparatus, program and information are the basic problems that they have to come to terms with. They are in fact consciously attempting to create unpredictable information, i.e., to release themselves from the camera, and to place within the image something that is not in its program. They know they are playing against the camera’.

That also goes back to intention … when a camera club member uses Intentional Camera Movement (ICM), they are ‘playing against their apparatus’ which is designed to always get a sharp image and not deliver such blurry photographs.

Many people’s technical skills dramatically improve because they learning to master their apparatus via competitions. In turn, this technical skill forms the basis for other kinds of photographic development. This is why I feel that the use of anti-camera club language is arrogant and does a great disservice to the genuine efforts of other people.

A camera club member that I know creates very mindful, abstract, natural images, and is rightly proud of them. But she also says that no camera judge will look kindly on them, so why bother? The way to help is not to talk of art versus photography, nor to dismiss camera competitions, but to help the individual with perspective and context. Rizaku Susuki’s work provided her with helpful context, a photographer she did not know. Is his work ‘fine art’? Possibly. But does it need to be defined as such to stimulate creativity? No.

The question (to me) is not to really to keep debating what ‘fine art’ is and what it isn’t if we genuinely want people to learn. Let’s try to demystify it all – which is where Grayson Perry enters the frame and why I quoted him at length in my original post. He has a lovely knack of speaking in ways that people understand.

As in everything else, there should be a balance. Just as Roland Barthes said that ‘the author is dead’ (and probably didn’t totally mean it), Grayson Perry is saying that ‘context is all’ (which is also not totally obvious as he reserves the right to do things he likes – why else did he do ‘weird’ pottery in the first place?). I do agree, by the way, that there is a blending of ‘decoration’ and ‘concept’ in his work which is unique and interesting.I find it hard to accept that ‘art’ is all about the artist, without consideration of the audience. I doubt that few people today are totally happy to churn out work after work of unliked, unsaleable or unexhibitable stuff. If we think it’s all about us, why bother posting even to Facebook or Flickr? Why bother sharing?

Related, I don’t often agree with Martin Parr, but his cynical comment about the commercial value of photography depending on the scale of the image rings true, as I doubt A4 Gursky’s would sell for as much! The capitalist market at work.

My friend commented on several photographers and artists. So here’s a few final thoughts on them as related to this post.

Bernd & Hilla Becher – they took a while to be ‘discovered’ by the mainstream, and perhaps Damian Hirst is a better example of a ‘market’. But I still think that the idea of series is an interesting one in considering the impact of someone’s work. Andy Warhol for sure knew this, just as he knew about sizing, performance etc. (your point).

Jasper Johns – in saying he could sell a can if his gallery decided to exhibit it,  Johns is proving Grayson Perry’s point.

Vivian Maier is an interesting case. She took photographs for herself, and clearly loved selfies. So, she only gets to be considered as part of some kind of ‘New York School’ in retrospect. Rewriting history, perhaps? Of course, this is only after she’s been ‘found’ by that infamous market, and subject to some very clever (gallery) marketing.

Vincent Van Gogh. My point on Macintyre was that when we really ‘see’, what are we seeing? Do we see white spots on a dark background, stars which we understand scientifically, or exquisite brush strokes? Different kinds of viewers, with different levels of skills, will see different things. Macintyre was making the point that straight empiricism – i.e., a world of ‘objective facts’ and no context – is a pretty sterile universe for a human being emotionally, even though it is essential to science. I need to think more on where this logic might go.


Header: Grayson Perry. 2014. Comfort Blanket. Tapestry


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FOUCAULT, Michel. 1969. What is an Author. Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie, 63, No. 3 (1969), 73-104. Available at: (accessed 20/12/2020).

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