The value of art

I just picked up on a blog post that Digital Photography Review published recently. It got me thinking about the value of art.

Value of Art
Castle Rock, Arizona

It’s a very thoughtful piece by Mikael Cho, the founder and CEO of Unsplash, “a community where photographers can share their high-resolution photos for anyone to use for free — no credit or payment required.”   It seems to have touched a nerve among some pursuing photography careers.

“…every contributor we’ve spoken to has enjoyed the impact their photography has made toward moving creativity forward,” says Mikael Cho, founder of Unsplash.

I won’t go into the specifics of the piece, because I’d really like you to read the article and the comments from folks (mostly photography-oriented) who visit DPREVIEW.

I think both Mr. Cho’s philosophy and business model are fascinating. I’m also, for the most part, good with this approach to artistic democracy. It’s a kind idea. However, I certainly hear the fear in the voices of the professional photographers who believe that this sort of enterprise is yet another way (among many) to devalue their work. What is the value of art, they seem to be asking?

You think just anybody can do this?

Which gets me to the talking point I take away from this article, that I’m sure has very little to do with what the author was saying…or even implying.

The only way an artist can have their work devalued is if people don’t want it.  And that’s assuming there was a value to begin with, beyond the maker’s wholly subjective imaginings. It has value if someone wants it, unless the artist is content with being the end audience. Which is OK. Really. What the artist does is determine for themselves what value they need. Recognition? Community? Cash? None of the above?

Art doesn’t serve only one purpose.

But, the ideas that are brought up in Mr. Cho’s article, and the responses to it, seem to have to do with money…or lack thereof. So let’s look at that.

Art and money

Do I believe that if I give my work away it will drive buyers to me for other work? Nice idea, but nah. Do I believe that giving work I choose to give away draws people away from work I want to sell? Absolutely not. Do I believe that easier access to the art community, its practitioners and its products helps move creativity forward? You bet.

Value of Art
Bean Boys, Chicago, Illinois

 First of all, if you have pieces that you believe might sell, it would be silly to upload them to Unsplash. However, if you’re anything like me, you have a handful of images that are really, really good. You also have a bushel basket full of them that are “quite good,” but not really very marketable. And finally, if you’re like me, you have terabytes of stuff you’ve stashed away to “get back to later” and have promptly forgotten about in the mish-mash of always moving forward.

So I think to myself, “Hmmm…store on my overcrowded hard drive or make them available so someone else can be wildly creative?”

I say share.

Value of Art
Summer field, Iowa

I sometimes think that we, as artists, separate ourselves from the “real” world. In our hearts, I think we cherish that separation in a way. We believe what an artist can do is special and comes from an intrinsic talent that others don’t have. Which is, of course, true. And what’s even more true is that every human being on the face of this earth is equally as talented and special in some aspect of their lives. It may not be in art…but it’s just as valid.

The value of art now

Where the problem comes in I think is when the two groups begin to overlap…to encroach on each other’s territory. For example: A very talented and unique bioengineer is asked to photograph her friend’s wedding. She agrees and charges her iPhone in advance of the big day.

Shit, more competition. An iPhone? And she said she’ll do it for free!

Now three things can happen in this scenario:

  1. They get the wedding photos and the happy couple is devastated by the quality of the work, or
  2. They absolutely love every shot and can’t believe how the photographer really captured the essence of their love, or
  3. They immediately post the photos online to share their joy, quickly receive a bunch of likes…and then archive them to join the terabytes of photos they mean to get back to (see my earlier paragraph).

Do any one of these outcomes devalue my work? I don’t think so. There was a reason that a professional photographer wasn’t hired to do the wedding. All kinds of reasons actually: Too expensive, the couple didn’t know any, it wasn’t a priority, or they simply don’t see a value difference between pro and amateur.

On top of that, the iPhone-wielding photographer/bioengineer may have brought a perspective to the event that I would never have caught in a million years. Maybe her shots were fabulous. Maybe they were horribly artistically inept. Either way…maybe they were exactly what the couple wanted. Regardless, the value of art — the kind professional photographers make — still stands.

When expectations clash

Clearly, consumers have remarkably different expectations than the photographer. We, as providers, obsess over details that often mean absolutely nothing to our client. We know a good image from a bad image — or believe we do — and are eager to pass on that set of values to people who don’t understand what we’re talking about or, more likely, could care less.

Value of Art
Skyline, Chicago, Illinois

What I have to get through my thick skull is that everyone’s sense of beauty is just as valid as mine. The value of art is completely subjective.

All too often we set ourselves up as arbiters of art and hold on very tightly to this perceived position. If we aren’t part of a potential client’s equation we may pass it off as “they just don’t get it.”

On the other hand, maybe “I just don’t get it.”

A client’s point of view is just that. WYSIWYS. What You See Is What You See. My work has no intrinsic value to anyone. But if a person does happen to have a creative taste for what I’ve thrown out there…great! If a number of people share that connection, then I must be doing something right.

But, if no one is jumping onboard, I should maybe check my dinghy for leaks before conjuring a scenario where someone else is pirating them away. Nice movie, bad business practice.

There’s no such thing as a new idea

I want to believe that I’m unique. So there you have it, I’m unique.

However, my work is not. At best, it’s a composite based on thousands of ideas from hundreds of different sources that have floated through my life for over 60 years. I re-process them, blend them together into a wad of something I call art and then spew them back into the world as my own.

By the way, I think my particular take is fabulous and important, but possibly no more or less fabulous and important than someone else’s take. And I’m happy to let the consumer out there decide what “take” is most fabulous and important to them. That doesn’t devalue my work in the least.

The only possible way to devalue my work (beyond the possibility that nobody likes it) is by my own hand…not another artist’s. I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe that any other artist’s work or way of working threatens our creativity or our client pool.

On the contrary, I believe that it often challenges us to inject new power into our processes and outcomes. I also believe that every piece of art that gets put out in front of people has the potential of hatching a new idea or triggering a new conversation. It might even bring an unexpected new viewer into the room to join the spree.

More and better access to art will breed creativity the likes of which I can’t even imagine.

There simply can’t be too much. The more art there is out there — “good” and “bad” — the more we’re driven to think, to consider and to open ourselves to innovation. Revelation can be a sneaky bastard.

 

Value of Art
Tempe Town Lake, Arizona

If any of my work that I’ve freely given away (or that I’ve made money from, for that matter) has the power to “make an impact toward moving creativity forward” then it seems my duty as an artist to send it merrily on it’s way into someone else’s inspired vision.

“It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”

                                                                                        — Jean-Luc Godard

 

Read my musings on the value of digitally-created art here. And of course I’d love for you to see my work at ImageAfterimage.com.

Never Far From Home

 

 

I don’t remember a time without art. I do remember hours as a child spent sitting on the kitchen floor making things. We had a cupboard under the kitchen sink that was filled with a coffee can of crayons, various stray rulers, stacks of new and used construction paper, a rainbow of pipe cleaners, water colors in a tin box and an ancient plastic egg encasing a dollop of Silly Putty (for transferring the Sunday paper cartoons to the afore-mentioned construction paper). It was here that I figured out that I could make something that didn’t exist before I put my hand to it.

We had no money and imagination was free … so why not use it as often as I pleased?

Because of my mother I was never inside a box I had to think outside of. She made such a safe home that there wasn’t any reason to build walls to hide behind, nothing to fear, so I was always encouraged to picture the world any way that I saw it at any given moment.

This simple realization has permeated and, in fact, directed my life. I had the power to not only see my world but also be able to change it. As a kid that meant that I could see the clouds AND the dragons hidden in them. The movie stars’ faces on the cover of the weekly TV Guide were inviting me to add moustaches, missing teeth and warts. Plastered walls, tree bark and the floral living room curtains contained layer after layer of fantastic images. Thankfully, this freedom of thought as a child made me an adult who didn’t need, nor accept, the “way things are.”

My childhood gave me the confidence to create something from nothing.

I grew up in Iowa and graduated from a tiny Midwestern college where I learned that the arts were not only the thing that made me happy — but were a center around which I could craft an adult life. I took a few studio art classes, art history— even a little dance — and then happened into a role in a play during my first semester of school. Even though I’d worn out my Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw kit from years of use and thoroughly enjoyed my Intro to Watercolor class as a freshman, it was the actor’s life that completely turned my head around. I wanted to be an actor. No, I wanted to be in the theater. Maybe an actor maybe not, but mostly I wanted to be involved in creating living, breathing pictures inspired by an ensemble of other artists.

The visual arts took a back seat to theater for many years after college. I was hired as an actor right before graduation and over the next 10 years or so was fortunate enough to continue to find work as an actor. I continued to draw, paint (oils) and take photographs throughout these years … but only as time permitted. Toward the end of this period I was given the opportunity to direct a play and a wonderful new world opened up to me. Directing was the perfect marriage between the visual and theatrical arts.

Directing live theater kicked all of my artistic inclinations into overdrive. Suddenly I could use images and actors and music and dancing and literature and anything else I could imagine to tell a story. Limitless modes of expression opened up to me to “paint” my pictures. I had been given a great deal of creative license by my employers so I could completely immerse myself in the “what if.” It was in these years I discovered that creativity was not so much about answers to challenges but learning to ask challenging questions. And it was here that I truly learned about manipulation … in the best sense.

Little Shop of Horrors- Photograph by George Henry

In directing, I learned how to manipulate pictures and ideas and all of the artistic elements at hand to sincerely move a viewer emotionally and intellectually — to move a willing audience to laughter or fear or tears or love. In theater, I learned that art is simply about movement. The artist is successful only when he can create an environment in which a viewer is allowed to feel safe enough to be moved, then takes them by the hand and moves them in an utterly unexpected direction.

West Side Story- Photograph by Stephen Eckert

Toward the end of my career in theater I found myself drifting more and more toward images, stage pictures, color and movement. My favorite part of the job became working with designers (scenic, costume, sound and lighting) and finding ways of integrating slides and video into the stage productions.

I was fascinated by the layers upon layers of information you could incorporate onto the stage.

Before digital projection equipment was readily available, I took photographs — of textures, people and anything I could get my hands on to help tell a play’s story — and projected them onstage with a slide projector. As we entered the digital age, this process became easier to do and much more fascinating as a process for me. I was doing the play Angels In America when my artistic life took its most recent change.

Angels In America- Photography by George Henry

I found Angels In America to be a beautiful and tragic love story written with intense intellectual imagery. I wanted a visceral, immediate feel to the piece and landed on the idea of making the entire set, props, furniture, costumes white — a blank canvas.

In front of that canvas, I told the story with actors and music. I enriched the telling of the tale by projecting hundreds of images directly on the set and the actors to work in tandem with what was going on onstage. The effect was stunning to me. I was finally seeing the layers in these people’s lives … and all at the same time.

Angels In America- Photography by George Henry

In creating and implementing all of the images used in Angels In America, it became clear to me that my artistic inclination and drive was headed back home to the visual arts. This was the culmination, of sorts, of my entire artistic life. I was creating images from my imagination, manipulating them and then layering them one upon another to create a complex, dramatic story. I was a kid again, sitting on the kitchen floor with my can of crayons and Silly Putty.

Today I make pictures by layering ideas. Photographs and text and environment and fractals and dreams may inspire these works, but in the end, their commonality is that they are uniquely visual and when finally merged, manipulated and mashed together, they form something beautiful.

I’m not a realist and choose to deal with reality only in small doses. In being acutely aware of the world around me for so many years I’m committed to not portraying its darker sides … so many others are quite talented in that area.

I try to craft my work always with a viewer in mind. It’s extremely important to me that I can give people other than myself the opportunity to be moved. I don’t make pictures for my walls. I’m inspired by shape and color and how they speak to one another rather than expressions of intellect and erudition. I can go on for hours about what was involved with creating a piece but am stumped when asked what it means.

When asked where I get my inspiration, I have to say from a lifetime of observing and remembering, married to a wide-eyed awareness of today. I’m inspired by the interrelationship of memory and how it is affecting the right now. I’m inspired every time I see something I’ve never seen before. I’m humbled by the beauty I try to give voice to by layering my impressions of its complexities.

Imagination is free. Why not use it?

See more of my work at www.imageafterimage.com

 

Is abstract art real art if it’s created on a computer?

Here’s what I wonder: Is digitally produced abstract art like mine really art at all?

I live in a part of the U.S. that has loads of galleries filled with really terrific paintings and sculpture. Incredibly talented artists are making and selling beautiful things – for a lot of money – in Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona. Roosevelt Row in Phoenix is brimming with “new art”…but again it mostly has to do with a brush and pigment.

So even though every iota of our existence today is digital, for some reason we still demand that our art remain very, very analog. What’s that all about?

Abstract Art

For all of the wonderful art that’s available around me, I rarely see a digital painting or manipulated photograph in any gallery or museum. A lot of people are making digital art, but apparently no one wants to buy it. So I ask myself, “How come?”

I think the digital artist is thinking and shading, and manipulating and storytelling and dreaming and creating just exactly as Rembrandt and Van Gogh and Rothko did – with their hearts and minds.

Is digital abstract art less valuable because it can be so easily reproduced? Maybe, but if that were true why do lithographs and engravings and screen prints catch the art world’s attention? Photography – granted, still considered fine art’s bastard brother – has picked up steam over the years. And people pay pretty high prices for giclées of a famous artist’s oil painting. Digital prints of a painting. Hmmmmm. Maybe it has to do with the artist’s name? Certainly many, many art collectors buy this way. Perhaps digital work just hasn’t been around long enough to have any star artists.

Is digital abstract art any less creative?

Honestly, I think it has to do with the artist’s tools. There is so much history and romance and storied behavior tied up with the paintbrush or chisel. The tools and the outcome are truly magic to us. And many of the artists using those tools were as colorful and tortured as their works, which adds even more to the art’s mystique. But a piece of abstract art done on a computer? How mundane! A little Photoshop or Corel Painter, and you’ve got art.

Abstract ArtYeah, but see I don’t think so.

I think the digital abstract artist is thinking and shading, and manipulating and storytelling and dreaming and creating just exactly as Rembrandt and Van Gogh and Rothko did – with their hearts and minds. But instead of a paintbrush they’re using a stylus and their painting medium is pixels. Knowing a little Photoshop can’t make you a Monet. But being a digital artist might.

I hope to begin seeing digital art in galleries and museums, and not just because that’s what I do, but because that’s the medium that our young artists are completely immersed in. I’d love to see them have long, lucrative careers in an ancient field…just using different tools.

Ready my related post on the value of abstract art here. Then check out my work at ImageAfterimage.com.