Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Actually Seeing

When I look at my refrigerator my first impression is of a stainless steel box, two doors, with various pieces of paper attached with magnets. I think lists, coupons, children's art. But that's not what is really there. As a summary it's not wrong, but it's exactly the kind of thing that our brains come up with as a summary. It's incomplete, and based on memory as much as the visual input. If someone attached a ransom note in the middle of the night, I might not see it.

I school my brain, and look closer. I see lists. I think, ah yes, the list of tools we ought to acquire some day for the garden and my mind wanders off to the hardware store. I drag my mind back and see another list. I see my daughter's summer reading challenge paper, with little squares labelled things like "biography" and "I liked the cover" to indicate the kinds of books she might read. If she fills in enough squares, she gets some little award from the library. I had forgotten this, and therefore not "seen" it in my first impression.

Looking again, mentally stepping back, I see the pattern of rectangular scraps of paper at this angle and that. I see various colors and shapes of both paper and magnet, and how they form a haphazard design, against the two handles of the doors and the other features on the face of the 'fridge. I've lost the lists, I see shapes, but I have no notion in the moment of what is on each piece of paper.

I see the design but have lost the content.

The whole thing is a slippery chimera, the many layers of material slipping away, retreating and then advancing, as I focus on this or that. I can't really see the thing all at once. My mind intrudes and distracts with thoughts of shopping, of the library. I can't hold both the details of the papers and the pattern they make simultaneously in my mind. Only just now at this very moment did I even notice the way the lights in the kitchen create streaked highlights slanting diagonally over the handles, and I just lost awareness of everything else about the thing for a moment.

In short, seeing in a deep and meaningful way is not easy. Even a relatively modest and familiar object is an intractable mass of layers of detail.

Photography is, in essence or at least at the initial instant of exposure, the act of selecting from this intractable mass.

There are other kinds of selection. Selecting from a group of foals which one will, at the age of 3 years, be able to run a mile the most quickly, is difficult. If you can do it with anything better than random results, you can make a great deal of money.

Nobody claims that the act of picking out the right foal is creative as such, although the subsequent training, the moulding of the animal into a champion, arguably is. Everyone sensible agrees that selecting the right foal is difficult, that it takes a degree of wild talent to do it well, and so on.

Nobody (much) claims that thoroughbred horses are Art, either. They do not generate what I refer to as an Art-like experience. While seeing a champion run can inspire great emotion, it does not have the enlarging quality of Art, it does not induce reflection particularly, it does not expand us. Not much, anyways. Thus, it is not particularly Art.

Art is that which generates that Art-like experience. Duchamp demonstrated that there need be nothing creative in the process, one need merely, with some authority, declare that a certain thing is Art, and lo, it generates the Art-like experience. At least, some of the time. We see this repeated in this amusing anecdote related in the New York Review of Books. In this story, Janet Malcom all tongue-in-cheek declares what she considers an objectively bad photograph to be Art. She is subsequently surprised and amused to learn that her designation has, to a degree, stuck.

It is an amusing story, and it reveals something to us (again) about Art and the nature of that particular social construct. But, it is the same thing Duchamp was at some pains to teach us in 1917, and which we, really, ought to have grasped by now.

If we say that photography in its essential state much the same as the act of selecting a thoroughbred colt, if we say that it is much the same as selecting a suitable urinal to display, then we must say also that photography is not creative as such.

There is often plenty of creativity, making, in what happens between the exposure and the display of a final print, but none of that is really essential to what photography is.

But this does not mean that it is not Art. All too often people assume that Art must be creative, that the artist has to actually make something, and this is simply not the modern conception of Art at all.

Photography, despite being neither particularly creative, is neither easy nor not Art. None of these properties implies any of the others, they are all independent.

Is there a word for the act of picking out the right thoroughbred colt? Is there a word for that kind of talent? Other than simply "talent?" I don't know of one. I wish there was one.


  1. Ah, the specter of conceptualism ....

  2. There is a word, but I may not tell it, for fear my secret tattoo will burst into flames. See:

    I have said enough, probably too much! What's that burning smell? Argh!