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Blog: What Even is Art Anyway?

Last year, I gave what I thought was the most controversial presentation of my high school career: a PowerPoint with a black background, a gray fleur-de-lis wallpaper texture, and the title “Photography & Fine Art.”

Needless to say, I didn’t keep my Theory of Knowledge class’ attention for long.

In this presentation, I briefly discussed fine art photography, commercial photography, fashion photography, photojournalism, and Facebook albums full of selfies. I discussed the implications of how the camera has made an artist’s technical ability to accurately depict a subject almost obsolete–supported by the popularity of abstract art when photography became popular.

A snapshot of a sunset can take about one millionth of the time and energy that an oil painting of the same scene could. And, at that, photos are about a million times easier to reproduce en masse. What’s the point of practicing painting for years and years to perfect your artistic technique if someone with an expensive camera or just a cell phone can capture the same scene with the click of a button?

In short, photography went and made fine art not the same fine art anymore.

Admittedly, my presentation may have made me come off as a sort of radical purist who would only be happy if the people with the title “artist” had to be apprenticed to master Italian painters and work for years to perfect a brush technique to sell to the Medici family.

Don’t get me wrong; I love photography. I too have a DSLR and a Flickr account. I love the idea of art being accessible and, yeah, Banksy is right, art shouldn’t be reserved for pristine gallery spaces and condescending analysts. It should be pointed, it should be biting, and it should speak to real people in a relatable way.

Art must strike a balance between concept and technical execution. Where is the boundary between art because it’s pretty and art because it’s meaningful?

That’s not to say that paintings are always meaningful. True, it’s not fair to say that a wedding photographer isn’t an artist if a Renaissance portrait painter is. A lot of artists–both photographers and painters–fall into the trap of portraying what they see instead of showing something meaningful in what they portray.

Really, really good photographers overcome that obstacle. Some of the most widely recognized photographers draw inspiration from their own lives. Larry Clark, for example, is widely recognized for his work in teenage drug and illicit activity. Rather than staging his photos, he photographed himself and his friends as his subjects, making his work even more personal.

Jamie Livingston took a Polaroid photo every day of his life from 1979. They begin casually with snapshots of friends and events. Gradually, his personality, daily life, and sense of humor show through. You can look through his photos online and spy on him throughout the years. Suddenly, in May of 1997, we understand that he now has cancer and his health steadily declines. In early October of the same year, he gets married, and, in late October, he dies. His photographs aren’t edited, they aren’t individually stunningly beautiful, but they develop a meaning over time as a body of work that transcends the false ideal of art being all about the prettiest technique.

Photography has had its troubles gaining recognition as an art, but the work of certain photographers proves that it can be just as expressive and personal as any more classical artistic medium like painting. While I will always be offended by the the possibility that selfies taken by a camera phone in a mirror could ever be in any way equated to an oil painting that took years to finish, photography itself has made art an interest to many who would have never picked up a paintbrush.

Plus, the controversy made for a decent presentation, if I do say so myself.

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Emily Donovan

Emily is a senior at East who has happily joined the Harbinger as a Staff Writer and Anchor. Besides would-be writer, Emily is an International Baccalaureate candidate, "theatre kid," and artiste-wanna-be. Read Full »

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