Ben Brooks on technology and art →

June 26, 2015 |

Ben Brooks makes an interesting counterpoint to my piece on technology as a substitute for discipline:

(…) Knowledge of the tools is not, in any way, a prerequisite for art. Art, photography, or any other creative pursuit is in no way lessened or enhanced because of the tools used to make it.

If someone takes a gorgeous photo, it remains gorgeous no matter if the camera was set to manual or set on auto. Art is art. It’s the vision to create the art that matters, not the knowledge of it.

He makes a perfectly valid case, and though I was initially inclined to concede the point, ultimately I disagree. To me, the vision is a direct consequence of the knowledge. Perhaps art should be self-sufficient, it should stand on its own merit, but that is hardly ever the case.

I just want to clarify something, because I do feel it was poorly expressed in my original piece: I didn’t mean to refer to knowledge of the tools, but the discipline. You can absolutely create a work of art with a point-and-shoot camera, or with an iPhone, for that matter. It’s not about knowing how to operate a particular camera, but about knowing what makes for a great photograph, which is something entirely different.

The photographic discipline tells us how bodies should relate to each other in a scene, or what makes for a powerful composition. It tells us what to look for in an image, and what to avoid. These rules — this knowledge — are what artists leverage to form their vision. They’re not strict by any means, but they do offer guidance. Some people just intuitively get them — art can be incredibly visceral — which is why they can create amazing photos without being fully aware of how they’re doing it. But they’re doing it just the same.

My point on the long exposures was that they’re often considered special mostly because they’re difficult images to create, which makes them unusual and rare. If technology ends up making them as commonplace as selfies are today, will we still consider them special in the future? I may well be wrong about that, but I think it’s worth considering.

In any case, photography is a difficult medium to use as an example, because it’s fundamentally literal. It’s an objective medium that’s used as a form of visual storytelling. When we say a photo is great, we’re often referring to the scene that’s being captured rather than the photo itself. And in order to create a compelling scene, most of the work usually happens before the artist even touches the camera.

If we look at a more figurative form of art, it’s perhaps easier to see that knowledge and discipline do matter. Discipline is why the Blue Nudes cut-outs by Henri Matisse have been shown at the MoMa, whereas if I were to glue a few blue pieces of paper on a white canvas nobody in their right mind would give me a penny for it. Not all works are created equal. The tools don’t matter, but the knowledge does.

When we say those works have incredible artistic value, we’re mostly saying so because we know it was Matisse who created them. We say so because through his entire body of work, Matisse has proven his skill. We’re implicitly trusting his judgement and recognizing greatness in his work because we already know him to be great. His vision is a direct consequence of his knowledge and experience, as is the case for every artist.

In any case, this is only my opinion, and I’m no more right than Ben is. Perhaps what makes art so unique, and so great, is precisely the fact that there’s no formal definition of what it is, or should be. We all find value and greatness in different places, and that’s fine. To me, art is in the choices an artist makes, it is something deliberate. An accidentally great photo may be art — I suppose a product of chance can have artistic value in its own right — but in my opinion that doesn’t necessarily make its author an artist, if that makes sense. To me, art is all about the conscious and deliberate act of creating something that is uniquely yours and in that regard, discipline is essential.