Art and difficulty

A recent piece in the Guardian newspaper asked whether smartphones were killing the art of photography. Central to its argument (for and against) was the idea that smartphones represent a “democratisation” of the art form. This argument has been made in other areas, most obviously in relation to music, where it’s been claimed that software like Apple’s Garage Band eliminated the need for traditional musical training or instruments – that now anyone could make music and this was a good thing.

It seems to me a good thing if the relatively easy availability of such tools brings more people to explore expressive media and find out what they can do. But it’s something else altogether to suggest that democracy is a good thing for art.

Strictly speaking democracy only makes sense as a political concept, as a system of government accountability. What people mean when they speak of an art form becoming more democratic is a vague notion of putting that art in the creative hands of many more people, possibly even the majority of people, and trying to arrogate the generally positive feeling most of us have about political democracy to a more dubious proposition about art.

It’s dubious because one of the things every culture has valued in art is the sense that it is something exceptional, something beyond ordinary abilities or experience. The expectation that some craft skill at least will be visible is why the ordinary (democratic?) response to much abstract painting has been “a child could do that”.

While I understand the ideas behind abstraction, and can enjoy the results, this popular response is a problem for the art world, which from time to time makes claims that visual art in particular has reached out into mass culture, is no longer tied by the patronage of the rich (though that’s a strange claim given the continuing influence of individual collectors like Charles Saatchi).

The claim about accessibility is even stranger, given that in the early 20th century art in all media began to turn away from any kind of populist pretensions just as full political democracy was becoming a reality. Art became self-consciously difficult, pre-occupied with its formal unreality, which in turn produced an exclusive focus on the artwork as object rather than representation (which is why it seems we have to talk of work being “made” rather than “painted”).

Contemporary practice has mostly wanted to hang on to the formal self-consciousness, but has become uneasy about the difficulty. Ironically though, there’s nothing more baffling to ordinary people than the art world’s attempts to find a new immediacy, through “readymade” objects, performance and so on. It’s ironic because it’s trying to solve a problem that didn’t exist in western art before the 20th century. Western religious painting was explicitly conceived to offer something for everyone, and while more aristocratic art could include elements that might only make full sense to the cognoscenti, even the least-educated might still find ways to enjoy what they saw.

The fact that any exhibition of (say) Turner is likely to be far more popular than (say) a Martin Creed show doesn’t in itself mean that the Martin Creed is worthless, but it points to a disingenuousness in the way the art world talks of itself. What’s exhilarating about Turner is partly his vision, but it’s also his mastery of his medium, his virtuosity, giving the sense that you’re in the presence of something quite exceptional. Contemporary visual art dogmatically rejects virtuosity, claiming (more or less) that it’s irrelevant to the power of art to recast and refresh ordinary experience. But there’s the paradox, the irony: in its attempt to engage with the everyday, the commonplace, contemporary visual art (and particularly conceptual art) has become the most elitist phenomenon in cultural history.

Photography, arguably, was the cause of all this, quickly forcing people to question the traditional representational value of painting, and one of the obvious things about photography as an art form is the more limited scope for virtuosity. There’s a technical element of course, particularly around the knowledge of how to manage the inevitable compromises of exposure. But then such decisions are not just technical; exposure, depth of field, focus and above all the way the shot is framed will all determine the final image, so are part of the creative process.

Even with these limited means, and a dependence on the physical world of objects (including people and landscapes), it’s still possible to produce images that are personally expressive and distinctively characteristic. But any photographer will also have to acknowledge the possibility of the usefully accidental, the unforeseen. Photography, the art of stilled life, is unusually open to the accidental, and this can be a real strength, but it’s also what makes it vulnerable to the claims of “democratisation”: anybody with the technology (ie a camera) can press a button and create an image.

Then again this has nothing to do with smartphones. It’s been true since the Instamatic cameras of the 1960s (or arguably Box Brownies before that).

Digital compact cameras replaced the Instamatic and its film derivatives, and because digital removed the cost of film and processing, it brought the possibility of the accidentally great shot within reach of everyone.

What’s different about smartphones is their ubiquity. Few people carried their compact cameras everywhere, but a phone is usually in your pocket, and social networks offer an instant virtual gallery. Smartphones and social networks have nurtured a mania for recording and presenting aspects of our daily lives, usually artlessly. While this is interesting culturally, and perhaps psychologically, satisfying an urge that has traditionally been the preserve of art, does it make any sense to call the results art?

Few people taking and showing these shots would make that claim, because few of those shots would benefit from that kind of claim, or the scrutiny that should follow.

Then there’s a technical issue. The best smartphone cameras struggle to match the quality even of a decent mid-range compact, let alone a good dSLR. I appreciate that the artefacts, the graininess of the smartphone pictures can contribute to their quality, but why would anyone choose to work with a tool that constrains your options rather than opening them up? It’s like a painter choosing to work with a ballpoint: he or she could still create images, and they could have their own interest (certainly working with constraints can be inspiring), but for most creative work it is self-evidently better to have enabling rather than disabling tools.

Far from “democratising” photography, it would be truer to say that the possibility of getting interesting images from something as crude and immediate as a smartphone challenges the artistic pretensions of the medium: if what we respect in other art forms is the sense that something special has been wrought, that difficulties have been overcome, then the push button element of photography will look as though it belongs to a different kind of activity.

But this is probably an illusion. Backgammon seems to involve a large degree of luck, but good players consistently win. Likewise great photographers take consistently great images. Their work reveals a way of seeing, a characteristic attention to certain details or ways of framing their shots. These things will come through whichever type of camera they are using, and simply having a camera does not make you a good photographer: in this light the argument that the easy availability of the technology represents some kind of “democratisation” of an art form is stupid on every level.

Paradoxically, the way smartphones, and digital technology more generally, makes it possible to record and share our everyday experience highlights the way that art, while often rooted in the urge to record and share, is something quite different and more reserved. I think if it is to mean anything, it has to denote something special, something probably founded in the everyday but which lifts us above the everyday, which demands and (crucially) rewards our attention.

A further irony surrounds our veneration of artists. Because art is something special, it’s natural enough to respect artists. Perhaps inevitably this respect has got tangled with the cult of celebrity, which in turn seems to have weakened the critical faculties of some who should know better. Not least, to do any art requires a degree of self-belief, but hearing the way many visual artists talk about themselves it’s hard not to wish they had a little less self-belief. I have been arguing that art is special, something above the commonplace, but that doesn’t mean we need to treat art as if it was exempt from ordinary critical standards. It’s pretty hard to define what constitutes art, because doing so takes you quickly into elusive abstractions, but it’s not so hard to articulate why we like some things and think others are bad, not so hard to challenge hollow pretensions and laughable posturing. There might always be room for argument, but it’s an argument worth having.


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