Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 19

Photography. Ayn Rand, to the bewilderment of photographers everywhere, denies that photography is an art:

A certain type of confusion about the relationship between scientific discoveries and art, leads to a frequently asked question: Is photography an art? The answer is: No. It is a technical, not a creative skill. Art requires a selective re-creation. A camera cannot perform the basic task of painting: a visual conceptualization, i.e., the creation of a concrete in terms of abstract essentials. The selection of camera angles, lighting or lenses is merely a selection of the means to reproduce various aspects of the given, i.e., of an existing concrete. There is an artistic element in some photographs, which is the result of such selectivity as the photographer can exercise, and some of them can be very beautiful -- but the same artistic element (purposeful selectivity) is present in many utilitarian products: in the better kinds of furniture, dress design, automobiles, packaging, etc. The commercial work in ads (or posters or postage stamps) is frequently done by real artists and has greater esthetic value than many paintings, but utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art.

(If it is asked, at this point: But why, then, is a film director to be regarded as an artist? -- the answer is: It is the story that provides an abstract meaning which the film concretizes; without a story, a director is merely a pretentious photographer.) [RM, 74]

Beyond demonstrating her lack of specific knowledge about photography, this passage also shows the weakness of her theory of definitions. Much of Rand's argument against photography as art stems from her entirely arbitrary definition of art as "selective recreation." Of course, Rand would deny that her definitions are arbitrary; yet they are. Definitions merely define what people mean by the words they use. They are usually social conventions in that they arise from the attempts of many individuals to make their meanings understood by other people. There is no such thing as a right or wrong definitions: there are merely definitions excepted by most people and definitions accepted only by individuals or eccentric groups (e.g., Objectivist definitions). Generally speaking, it's best to follow standard usage in the use words; otherwise, the chances of being misunderstood will tend to increase, sometimes dramatically.

Rand wants to believe that art requires selective recreation. She tries to defend this point of view by emphasizing the importance of selecting only those concretes that are "abstract essentials." This touches upon another fallacious aspect of Rand's view definitions, words, and concepts: her essentialism. Since Rand never provided a convincing explanation of how to distinguish an "essential" from a non-essential abstraction, her essentialism merely becomes a cover for her arbitrary assertions. The essential is whatever Rand declares to be essential. Once Rand grants herself the exclusive right to determine what is essential, she can arbitrarily dismiss any type or genre of art as non-art on the grounds that it concretizes "non-essential" abstractions.

On purely philosophical grounds, therefore, Rand's assertion that photography is not art is insupportable. Yet, curiously enough, it's not even consistent with Rand's own definition. Rand's belief that art photography involves only an insignificant bit of selectivity demonstrates her ignorance of that particular art. It also demonstrates the dangers of making dogmatic assertions about subjects you don't know much about.

To be sure, Rand appears to have at least inkling that she might be in over her head. She does at least understand that there is some selectivity in photography. She mentions camera angles, lighting, and lenses, but what she fails to mention is the most important aspect of all: selection of subject. The most important aspect of any photograph is the subject, and this is most emphatically chosen. Indeed, photographers will go to a great deal of trouble to get the subject they want. I speak from my own experience as a photographer. Except in rare instances, spectacular photos don't just happen by accident. They take enormous amount of planning, of placing oneself in situations that are likely to yield find images. As an example, consider the following photograph, which I took about a month ago:

There was an enormous amount of "purposeful selectivity" that went into that photograph. It is a photo I had been thinking about for over a year. It required a great deal of planning and effort to bring off. There's only a brief time of the year where you get to this specific location (i.e., Discovery Point at Crater Lake) while snow is still present around the caldera; and there's no place to stay, except at an expensive, well-booked-in-advance lodge, within 25 miles. In other words, a picture like this doesn't just happen. You have to want it: which means, you have to select it, just as a painter or a sculptor selects his subject.

Rand acknowledges that photographers can exercise some selectivity, but not enough to make photography an art. Photography, she claims, is mostly a technique; but the same could be said of painting and sculpture. The main difference between painting and photography is the tools: one creates images with paint, brushes, and canvas, the other with a camera, lenses, and filters. Otherwise, they are merely two means of achieving the same end: creating two-dimensional images.

Consider the following two images. Which is the painting and which is the photograph?

They are actually both photographs. Nor has either photo, beyond some minor tweaking of exposure and contrast, been digitally manipulated. Rand would have us believe that such images may contain an "artistic element" but are otherwise not art. Wherefore so arbitrary a declaration about something she really doesn't know much about?


Xtra Laj said...

One of the limitations of human beings when empathizing with each other is the kind of emotional repertoire they have. If they can't feel pain, how do they empathize with someone else who has not felt it if they cannot channel something similar? Because of similar physiology, consciousness etc., analogy can get you close. But oddities like synesthaesia have shown me that human beings are incredibly diverse, even mentally.

Until Greg described the pains he went through to produce that particular photograph, I never really understood how photographers felt about their work (I never felt that even reading Sowell).

It doesn't mean we can't disagree with other people over how they feel, but it is naive of us to believe that we always understand how they feel when we haven't even attempted to walk in their shoes. And sometimes, we might even be unable to for reasons related to nature/nurture. It is amazing how much nonsense Rand was able to write authoritatively without serious experience about what she was writing about.

Dragonfly said...

It was obvious to me that both images of flowers were photos (although a clever photorealist might perhaps create similar images by imitating the soft focus and out-of-focus of the camera lens). However, artistic photos don't have to be "spectacular" landscapes (mountains, valleys, lakes, etc.) with bright (or even garish) colors (Americans seem to be fond of that category), for me the most impressive photos are often in black-and-white, with very ordinary and unspectacular subjects, and without trying to imitate paintings (just as I'm not very fond of paintings that try to imitate photos, no matter how cleverly that may be done). It's not the resemblance to a painting that makes a photo artistic.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

Ahh, photography as non-art. I always wondered where the line was drawn.

Greg uses examples of photos that have been subject to little or no editing, and they do illustrate a few of the artistic possibilities of photography.

But in my experience, the more interesting case for challenging Objectivist dogma is precisely the photo that has been heavily edited -- say, rearranging a mountain ridge, pasting in a human figure from a different photo, etc. You can Photoshop an image to the point where it's fair to say that everything in it is a product of selection, no less so than in a painting. Would that be art?

I've asked a number of Objectivists this question over the last few years. And most (thought not all) have insisted that no, it's still not art; it's photography. Frankly, I never could see how Photoshopping was inherently less selective than painting. Apparently, neither could they; when pressed, they'd typically fall back on some theory that the mere fact of starting from a photograph of a real subject automatically and permanently excluded the end product from the realm of art.

So then I would ask them what about a completely computer-generated image? This turns out to be a hard question for Objectivists; Rand never commented on CGI so they have to figure it out for themselves. Not surprisingly, the responses I'd get would be a lot more diverse than what I got from asking about manipulated photos.

A few people (usually younger) would be willing to say that in the context of CGI (though not Photoshop, mind you!), a computer is just another artistic medium, not really different from, say, oil painting. A more common reaction was a reluctant acknowledgement that controlling a computer to produce an image could maybe be "selective recreation," at least under some circumstances, but stopping far short of acknowledging that CGI could be art. A few at the opposite extreme would insist that computers can't be used to create art, period. For them, the artist has to ink the image directly onto the paper; anything else is somehow cheating and not art.

The reluctance to acknowledge CGI as an artistic medium never made sense to me, even on Rand's definition. To me, it's obvious that every element of a CG scene is present because the scene's creator puts it there and looks like it does because the scene's creator chose to make it look that way.

But many Objectivists are reluctant to consider it art. I wonder if that's because manipulating a computer seems to them more like manipulating a camera and/or darkroom equipment as opposed to manipulating a paintbrush or chisel ... and if Rand Sez the latter can't be art, then neither can the former.

Jonathan said...

Back before digital imaging, I used to do a lot of old-school, analog special effects photography commercially, and I occasionally experimented with fine art photography using the same techniques. I was inspired by photographer-artists like Jerry Ueslmann (do a Google image search!), Man Ray, etc., and then later by the stuff that George Lucas's crew at Industrial Light and Magic was doing.

As I've tried to explain to Objectivists, usually unsuccessfully, any image that can be imagined can be created on film, including without using real objects as a starting point. Photographer-artists aren't limited to merely "recording reality" as Objectivists ignorantly claim.

Here's one simple example of my experimental work that I've posted in Objectivist forums in the past:


The image isn't made of any real objects, nor is it drawn, painted, cut out or in any other way rendered by hand. It's purely photographic, and is the result of a combination of multiple exposures, film alignment tricks, filters, blurring and depth techniques, etc. It's nothing but the controlling of light using cameras and other photo equipment.

I think that I could probably spend a year or two trying to teach the average Objectivist how to create a photo like my flower image, and they still might not master it, so it's always funny to hear snotty little know-it-all Objectivists asserting that there's only a small amount of selectivity, control and creativity involved in photography -- that photographers are limited to choosing camera angles and lighting, etc.

Beyond special effects, though, there's also the issue of photographers using real people and objects in fictional or symbolic roles, just as they do with movies. Here's one such example that I've posted in Objectivist forums:


One question that Objectivists don't like to answer is, "If a movie of fictional events is a work of art, why is a single still photo of a fictional event not art?" The few who do answer tend to say that a movie tells a story, and that a still photo of a single moment can't accomplish the same thing, apparently forgetting that they believe that a single moment portrayed in a painting can tell enough of a story to qualify as art by their rules.

Long story short, I don't think it really matters to most Objectivists just how much selectivity and creativity are available to a photographer. It's not art, and it will never be art, because Ayn Rand said so.


stuart said...

Laj, your comment is beautifully insightful. Interesting that you mention synaesthesia, it is basically absent in a person's life of work and intention, and many I suspect do not even know that they have it. It hardly comes up in casual conversation. "Merry Christmas Uncle Doug! Say, is December a matte=gray month to you, or beechwood colour like to me?" I thought it was just normal with everyone until you informed me of it here! Thanks again.


Ken said...

This reminds me of the part of Jack London's "The Sun-Dog Trail" where Sitka Charley is puzzled by the pictures in a cabin, or actually by the very concept of pictures; "That picture is all end. It has no beginning... Something happen in life. In picture nothing happen."

The narrator then explains his view of pictures, which is that they are bits of life. He uses the analogy of glancing through a window as you walk past a cabin, and seeing something within. It is life, but you don't know what came before, or what will happen after. He's talking about paintings, but it's also true of photographs (perhaps even more so).

Daniel Barnes said...

>Long story short, I don't think it really matters to most Objectivists just how much selectivity and creativity are available to a photographer. It's not art, and it will never be art, because Ayn Rand said so.

Yes. This is simply cultism. And of course it also demonstrates the futility of essentialist "what is the nature of x?" (In this case art) type questions. A definition of art, like anything else, simply should be useful for the problem you're trying to solve. For example, I'm going to run an exhibition of famous large painting, so I'll define large as any painting greater than 3mx3m, and famous as anything that already hangs in a national gallery. Of course problems will emerge from this particular definition, but if you don't take such definitions too seriously, and just use them in a utilitarian fashion, they will not be serious problems either!

J. Goard said...

but the same artistic element (purposeful selectivity) is present in many utilitarian products: in the better kinds of furniture, dress design, automobiles, packaging, etc.

Is this meant to imply that purposeful selectivity is absent in the worse kinds of furniture, dress design, etc.? So that the only way to make something badly is to make it completely batshit randomly?

Daniel Barnes said...

Good point.

Jonathan said...

Rand, as quoted above:
"The commercial work in ads (or posters or postage stamps) is frequently done by real artists and has greater esthetic value than many paintings, but utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art."

But utilitarian objects CAN be classified as art according to Objectivism! If something that we want to be art "does not recreate reality" and is utilitarian, all we have to do is announce that it's in a special "class by itself" -- the class of objects which qualify as art despite not meeting our criteria (and even blatantly contradicting them). Using the methods of the Objectivist Esthetics, anything and everything can qualify as art!


Daniel Barnes said...

>Using the methods of the Objectivist Esthetics, anything and everything can qualify as art!

Of course. The quote "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments" describes, say, propaganda just as easily.