Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Word of Power

Thanks to all for looking at my pictures. I'm very happy with the reactions, positive and negative.

A few days back I stated that the phrase I don't know held some special power. Of course my readers knew immediately that I was going on to the but I am jolly well going to find out from there.

This is a phrase that drives science and engineering, of course. It's what causes us to find out new things.

In Art, though, it's a little squishier, and little less obvious. When I don't know why an experiment went wrong, or how to solve a problem in a piece of software, I really don't know it. I may occasionally think I know, but always in a Oh, I know, but I will just quickly check it way, and I am rapidly shown the error of my thinking. When you're trying to solve a problem of Art, you may also think you have the answer, and you'll try your answer out. The difficulty is that you're not rapidly disabused of your silly notion.

You get a picture out, or a sculpture, or a piece of music. Your quick answer was correct, look!

Except that altogether too often it is not. What you have is a stupid cliché, not a good answer. The competent and capable may well produce a technically excellent piece that bears the unmistakeable mark of the artist. Absent the starting point of I don't know all too often that's all the artist gets. Look on the internet, pretty much anywhere, and you'll see these things.

We know more or less immediately that we've built a bad bridge, because it falls down and a bunch of people die. We may never learn that we've made a bad photograph, especially if we surround ourselves with people who have more or less the same set of answers to these problems. We become complacent. If you believe in yourself, and by golly you better if you're planning to make some Art, the temptation to believe in your quick answers is almost overwhelming.

I think it might well behoove us, therefore, to explicitly step back and say I don't know when we start something out. Create some distance, some space between yourself and your bag of tricks, the pictures you know how to make. Tell yourself I don't know how to make this picture, these pictures. But I am jolly well going to find out.

The point is to be confident not of your ability to make as such, but in your ability to learn and discover what to make.


  1. I understand what you're saying, but I'd say that "art" is more about rephrasing the question or, as some have put it, asking a more beautiful question, which prompts the viewer / reader / participant to provide their own answers.

    Photography is not always "art", of course (neither are painting or film-making, for that matter), and does not need to be -- a good pack-shot or head-shot is a good answer to a specific problem.

    A good example of your penultimate paragraph are the "how to make great head-shots" videos of Peter Hurley -- the guy's a very successful commercial photographer, with a good bag of tricks, but a million miles away from producing "art".


    1. It sounds like there may be two different "I don't know"s in play here.

      The one I mean is before you make the thing, or before you're done with it anyways. It's a summary of "I have this idea, this thing I want to get out, but I'm not sure how to do that".

      The other one, perhaps, is afterwards. Art should, at least in the modern conception, raise questions, right? If I'm looking at something and my first response isn't a lot like "hmm, I dunno.." I think one could argue that the piece has failed already in some important way.