Painting from Photos – What defines Art or the Artist? (4)

September 15, 2007

Alan wrote as comment on my last post:

“I think most people believe that photorealist? process is relatively new. Many people may not realize that as early as the fifteenth century, artists were using optical devices to help create their art work. The desire for realism and a close depiction of nature and its beauty enticed the Renaissance artists to use optical devices to give them the ability to reflect far away images onto flat surfaces to aid in painting, etc.

I’m somewhat torn on photopaintings as being art or not.

For that matter I’m not even sure if photography in the strictest sense is true art and that photographer’s themselves are true artist. Some photographic work may, yes, be termed art and artistic but really, a picture of a sunset, a flower, etc…….is that art?
I don’t know……….personally, much of my work, especially shot for commercial purposes, I don’t call it art.
These days, anyone with the camera is termed an artist but truly in the art world I’m not sure someone is called an “artist” just because they pick up a brush and throws paint on a canvas.

Would we call a monkey who picks up the brush and paints on canvas, an artist?
Or a camera for that matter. I would imagine a monkey could take a picture and some of it might be rather interesting,,,,,,,,,,,but no, not Art.

Yes, we put our personal spirit and passion into the work but are we truly creating…………….”

Alan, thank you so much for the comment.

I must admit that I had the same “uncomfortable” attitude before I started to learn more about photorealism. When you read my earlier posts about painting from photos you will see that I have changed my mind completely. This all started with a kind of unpleasant feeling I had towards my own work, somehow struggling for the “sense” behind this all, searching for some re-assurance within myself whether I was on the right track or not. And just like many other creative people I hate to be put in a drawer – be it personally or artwise.

There are many definitions for Art – none can claim to be the ultimate validation simply because it is subjective:

“Generally art is a (product of) human activity, made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind; by transmitting emotions and/or ideas. Beyond this description, there is no general agreed-upon definition of art, since defining the boundaries of “art” is subjective, but the impetus for art is often called human creativity.” (from Wikipedia)

This at least answers one aspect of the discussion namely art has to be executed by humans not by animals although there exist opinions about animal intelligence being able to conduct communication – so why shouldn’t it be possible to talk about art executed by higher developed primates and other mammals? We know so little.

The discussion whether something is art or whether someone is an artist seems to have risen since the introduction of the industrial era i.e. with the 20th century. Before that there was no discussion about what art was and what not. Even the use of simple technical equipment such as the camera obscura, grids, ruler and other mechanical tools would never have been seen as adjustments to reality – on the contrary – as you said, Alan, the intent was to represent nature or reality as close as possible. So why do we sometimes consider the use of technical equipment today as a means for “cheating” and creating “fakes”? Where do we draw the line? And who defines what the line would be? Only because we possibly accelerate the whole process of creation and only because we do not constrain to classic techniques any more we do not create less art. Although sometimes acceleration goes at the expense of quality.

We are using multiple tools today to create visual art – pencil, brush, carving knife, turntables, camera, video, laserlight, all sorts of electrical tools – the list is long. You wouldn’t say that someone is not an artist only because he uses electrical devices instead of a regular carving knife – would you?

On the other hand everything that is produced through an automated process in multiple numbers would not be called art – right? It would be a commodity product, a household item. Yet the original design or image could have been a piece of art once. This applies f.e. to prints that can be found on mugs and other objects. Who would say that a bag with the print of the “Mona Lisa” is art? Probably no-one. But who would deny that the original image of the “Mona Lisa” is true art?

The problem arises when someone creates a one-of-A-kind bag with a handpainted image (meticulously copied or not) of the Mona Lisa, puts it in a frame or on a podium, makes it part of an installation or conceptual art or even casts it in resin or other material. Some would call it art, others crap. What now?

The same applies to photography. I don’t think there is a difference between taking the brush or taking the camera. In both cases you use a tool. Of course I wouldn’t call each photo of a flower a piece of art but in the pure sense it is: I have created an individual image of a flower with a tool. I have seen it with my eyes and I have reproduced what I have seen with my hands – i.e. I use a tool, the camera. And of course the same applies to you shooting commercials.

Can we call a photo “Art” only when there is emotion in it or a personal affiliation? What kind of emotion does count? What about photos that have been shot under weird circumstances such as war scenes, rape, torture, natural catastrophes? Clearly these kinds of photos have been called art and the creators are called artists. Whereas no-one would call the shots from paparazzis “art” – but why not? Why are photos done in a studio with all the fake filters, artificial lights and all sorts of tricks called art? Only because the photographers are famous?

What about paintings we call trite, the umpth painting of a sunflower – is it art because it is painted with a brush? If it is painted by your granddaughter at an age of 6 and exhibited at the school’s gallery – you would clearly define it as art – right? But would it be called art by someone else who is not affiliated with your granddaughter?

So why do you refrain from calling your commercials art? Only because you are doing this for money? This cannot be the reason because then there won’t be any artists in this world. Who can live from love, air and a warm handshake only? And haven’t the old masters not been paid as well? Da Vinci was paid, MichelAngelo was paid and thousands of others. Even my great-grandfather was paid because he was a painter.

Does art that is sold turn into a piece of non-art? Whether contemporary or not – is it the value that counts to make a painting into a piece of art? I don’t think this is the case either (yet sometimes I have the feeling I am wrong here!).

Getting back to the photorealists.

Photorealists paint the motif that has been shot with a camera before (normally). For the moment it is not important whether the photo has been taken by the same artist or not, nor is the technique – the point is, a photo has been transformed into a painting. This process is clearly an act of creation and therefore art – in the sense of something artificial that has been produced manually and not through an automated process.

The result may be trite or not – it is a piece of art by definition even if that definition is generally not agreed upon.

Painters of the abstract, non-objective, paint without clearly defining an image of an object – it could be patterns, textures, monochromes or simply colour blotches. How quick are we here to express our opinion of seeing “non-art” but only “throwing paint on a canvas”?

Check out the work of Gerhard Richter, said to be one of the most important artists in Germany, who lately created the new stained glass window in the cathedral in Köln. He used a computer program to create the window – the result was a composition of many different colour tiles without any specific order, a play with colour pixels. On photos the 113 m² large window looks like an extreme enlargement of a digital image, the single pixels are turned into huge quarters, composed out of 11500 pieces.The historical window had been destroyed in WWII and replaced by a simple, non-ornamental glass window that had always been considered as a stigma.

There is no doubt that Richter is an artist. He continuously avoids classification – his portfolio ranges from hyperrealism to abstract, painting to photography. One of my favourite, abstract paintings is Red,Blue,Yellow

Who would deny that this is a true piece of art although we cannot recognize any defined object but only similarities, patterns and textures.

But what if we look at paintings such as these: Colour Charts
Are these art? I am sure most people would clearly refuse this. I have my own difficulties accepting these as art – I admit – but that’s only subjective.

“Richter wasn’t interested in the purity of art. Idealism had disillusioned him from an early age. Instead he painted images without glory; images that rendered the ridiculous, ordinary; the tragic, ordinary; the beautiful, ordinary. Throughout his career Richter has shrunk from giving a psychological insight into his art, leaving his admirers and critics guessing and at times confused. According to him, his work forms from structures and ideas that surround him, nothing more profound than that.” (from his website, biography)

So what does all this prove?

Art is something so utterly subjective, emotional, that it clearly depends on the viewer, education and knowledge. Art can have many styles – none is better than the other. Art is made with classical tools or the modern inventions of our century – none can claim to be more worth than the other. Art can be created from new materials as well as found objects or recycled parts – none can be considered to be the truest art.

Art will always be a result of our spirit, our emotions, our convictions and beliefs – how much we put in it cannot be measured nor even made conscious – therefore it is impossible to define the benchmark when you start to create art. A piece of work you started as art might very well end up as rag in the sink and vice versa…


7 Responses to “Painting from Photos – What defines Art or the Artist? (4)”

  1. Barney Davey Says:

    We are far too far along into the digital age be getting hung up on the whether use of certain media disqualifies something as art. In the hands of a talented visual artist a book of matches can be made into something that no reasonable person would it wasn’t art. If that’s the case, then why fuss over digital media. It is a burgeoning field that will continue to grow into importance in this new millenium.

    Generations born now cannot conceive of a world not digitally enhanced in every way from Blackberrys to Gameboys and and computer in the refrigerator, none of which is a marvel to them. If their elders don’t, they will completely accept and embrace digital arts of all sorts. And, just as with matchsticks, it will be subjective but the wisdom of the many will prevail to determine what is popular and the supposed wisdom of the art cognoscenti will determine, or attempt to determine what is fine art.

    In a recent blog post, I suggested artists working in multi-media digital formats use the term, Convergent Media. When an artist takes a digital photograph and works it in any number of software programs and outputs it on a digital printer, it requires a masterful use of a convergence of media. The term is informed by the established use of Mixed Media, which describes how an artist uses various techniques and components of more traditonal art to create a work of visual art. When we see a well rendered mixed media piece we don’t question whether it is art or not, our eyes and wisdom tell us it is. We may not always like the result, be we can see that creative artistic talent was required to imagine and render it. It’s the same with all matter of digital media, in my humble opinion. We just need to get over what ever stigmas and dogmas we cling to that keep us from realizing art rendered digitally is not only here to stay, but here to make a huge impact on the art market going forward. The link to my Convergent Media blog post is:

  2. vyala Says:

    Thank you very much, Barney, for checking in and your comment. I am going to answer this in a separate post as it is not directly related to painting from photos but rather to defining Art in general or what we conceive as Art.

  3. m6fan Says:

    Personally, I believe Leo Tolstoy best explained art and society for me.

    “In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.”

    ” Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression.”

    Art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is has been lost. In order to be able to speak about the art of our society, it is, therefore, first of all necessary to distinguish art from counterfeit art.
    There is one indubitable indication distinguishing real art from its counterfeit, namely, the infectiousness of art. If a man, without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint on reading, hearing, or seeing another man’s work, experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with other people who also partake of that work of art, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art. And however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it).”

    “It is true that this indication is an internal one, and that there are people who have forgotten what the action of real art is, who expect something else form art (in our society the great majority are in this state), and that therefore such people may mistake for this aesthetic feeling the feeling of diversion and a certain excitement which they receive from counterfeits of art. But though it is impossible to undeceive these people, just as it is impossible to convince a man suffering from “Daltonism” [a type of color blindness] that green is not red, yet, for all that, this indication remains perfectly definite to those whose feeling for art is neither perverted nor atrophied, and it clearly distinguishes the feeling produced by art from all other feelings.”

    “The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s – as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express.
    A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist – not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.

    If a man is infected by the author’s condition of soul, if he feels this emotion and this union with others, then the object which has effected this is art; but if there be no such infection, if there be not this union with the author and with others who are moved by the same work – then it is not art. And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art.

    The stronger the infection, the better is the art as art, speaking now apart from its subject matter, i.e., not considering the quality of the feelings it transmits.

    And the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:

    1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
    2. on the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
    3. on the sincerity of the artist, i.e., on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he transmits.

    The absence of any one of these conditions excludes a work form the category of art and relegates it to that of art’s counterfeits. If the work does not transmit the artist’s peculiarity of feeling and is therefore not individual, if it is unintelligibly expressed, or if it has not proceeded from the author’s inner need for expression – it is not a work of art. If all these conditions are present, even in the smallest degree, then the work, even if a weak one, is yet a work of art.

    By this definition, and instinctively and inherently I feel this to be true, I do not feel my commercial work is art. My intention for creating the work was not for the purpose of expressing MY feelings but the feelings others who wish to impress upon others.
    This is not intercourse in a spiritual sense between myself (creator) and the viewer and in many ways as in a sexual context, one feels almost whorelike in it’s literal form.

    I’ve always felt art and all it’s forms has stood for a sense of purity and intent.
    When one turns everything around them and starts calling it art then it cheapens the value of art.
    If one starts to call all minerals that glitter and glow as gold and diamonds then it debases the value………

    I remember my post of the great violinist Joshua Bell and the ignorance and lack of recognition by the masses to a true gifted artist, I contribute this as that our society is so full of counterfeit art in all its forms that one cannot recognize genius amongst ourselves.

    In closing, I’ve never felt the means to an end to creating the art as being relevant as to if it is art or defining art. Meaning that it doesn’t matter if one picks up a camera, brush, glue and paper, computer, etc, and whatever to create art.

    For me, Art becomes Art when distilled, it boils down to intent, sincerity in it’s form to communicate, and the spiritual bonding that happens between the artist and the viewer.

  4. […] well written post by Petra  and to one which I feel anyone who creates art or in ones mind, tries to determine if their […]

  5. vyala Says:

    Alan, thank you again for this very interesting and thoughtful answer. I am going to answer this in a separate post again and hope that this discussion leads to more interesting thoughts.

  6. I Says:

    Got here from alan’s blog and I thought I would like to respond to your interesting discussion.

    On the point of digital editing, the making use of photoshop and its cousin devices, I have a point to raise.

    In my short ‘stay’ at Flickr, the photo-sharing site, I have realized that HDR pictures are getting increasingly popular. At first, I thought they were photoshopped (because they looked like they really are) but when I checked it out on the net, it seems that HDR is an in-built setting in some cameras.

    I’ve long been averse to pictures that look unnatural after going through a ‘photoshop experience’. I’m perfectly fine and settled with pictures that come out creative, interesting, fitting to its subject if photoshop were employed.

    But if the incorporation of a photo-editing process were to destroy an originally beautiful picture, it just evokes some kind of ________ (inexplicable mixture of pity+rage+mocking-at-the-curren-state-of-society-and-where-photography-is-heading-to kinda feeling).

    At that said, we might have noticed that some photoshop detractors are fine, totally comfortable with HDR, simply because by definition, is not a post-photograph editing.

    At this, I’m feeling the same kinda mixture of feeling come unto me.

    And with the oncoming technology, we can find settings in cameras that allow tweaking of contrasts and brightness, saturation, and whatnot, before we snap that shot.

    Now, is this considered as a post-photo editing software? or need we be so particular about that?
    Art is just art for me. I think art is a feeling. when I ‘feel art’, it is art. It is in our intuition, and our intuition is a system that gathers all our values, principles, our soul, our mind, everything into one, so that we can decide in a split-second. Like when I ask you,”how do you think of my avatar?”

    You’ll immediately respond in accordance to your intuition and not go,” Ah, I see the blue, um, a girl over there, maybe on a swing, uh.. um.. I got it! Swing in the sky–! And then..”

    I think art is a ‘feeling’. each painting creates a certain feeling, each photo too frames a scene of still emotions that’s left to the imagination, as with poetry and our cousins. try it out with the others, you’ll find that art is a feeling. When the viewer feels ‘art’, it automatically becomes art for him/her.

    If it fails, it is not art for that individual, but still remains as art for perhaps another, who feels art. And it is not ‘the more the merrier’, perhaps it can be, but the artist will never know, or know little about how people receive his art.

    Therefore, as artists, we usually plop out this statement at least once in our venture– that it is we whose judgements matter about our works, not how the benchmarks decides to view it.

    Rather defensive, but true, its our nature. For me, I can’t really take it when I spend hours on a poem and have someone say that they want 2 stanzas changed or removed from the poem—its just not me! Or for you, perhaps you don’t like having people say that they like the painting better before you put on a new stroke. (annoying!!)

    All that’s said, I think art is personal and everyone has a different set of definitions to it, some of the points over here at your interesting discussion we might agree to, some we might think differently to, from each others’ responses.

    When I looked at your painting a little down from this post, I feel art.

  7. vyala Says:

    Thank you very much for your comments and kind words, Jane.
    I love this discussion about art and am glad to hear about other thoughts. It helps to revise one’s own opinions and potential prejudices. It helps to clarify one’s own goals and attitudes – simply building up a larger horizon and learning to look beyond.
    You are saying mainly the same what I tried to answer on Alan’s post. I am looking forward to continue this discussion.

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