Monday, March 18, 2019

Category Error

There are lots of ways one might get value from a piece of Art one acquires.

At the high end, part of the value of a million dollar piece of Art is in being able to brag that you spent a million dollars on a piece of Art. Sometimes it's just decor, masses of color, tone, and line that appeal to you and which match the couch. Sometimes Art makes you think, or amuses you, or delights you in some way. Perhaps a piece of Art reminds you of something, or someone, it sparks a poignant memory. If you made the Art yourself, or if you personally know the artist, there are myriad personal connections which might have value of one sort of another.

Good Art makes you think, enlarges you, creates an "art-like experience" and is rare. There is a thing, which is not common, and which has this uncommon effect on us, and we have decided to call that rare thing Art. This is, ostensibly, what the million dollar piece does, and which it sometimes does (in part, because of the price tag.)

Setting aside the matter of personal connections, if we assume that we're looking at some Art made by a stranger, we're mostly likely to value a thing in roughly the same ways. There may be outliers; for you, since the girl in the picture reminds you of your first wife, the picture takes you much differently. But for the other 10 of us over here, we kind of look at it much the same way.

There is a thing photographers do. I suspect all artists do it, but since there are so damn many photographers, and because I attend far more to photography than to painting I notice it more among photographers: they overvalue their work.

There are roughly a billion web sites out there with some photographer, styling himself (rarely, herself) a Fine Art Photographer, and offering fairly expensive photographic prints.

Usually these things are landscapes, less often they are "street", almost never are they anything else.

What kind of value does one get from one of these things, if one buys them?

For the most part, they are decor, I think. Landscapes don't have much choice here, basically they can be pretty, or they can be sublime, and sublime is really hard. Street photography that sells (or at least which is popular) is graphical and cute. It's decor. It goes with the couch, it's appealing, it might be slightly amusing.

So why is it offered in canvas wrap for $700 or whatever? You might as well buy a poster. It will cost you far less, but yield the same (or better) value.

This is a variation on the "you get no credit for working hard" theme that gets talked about a fair bit. It turns out, most photographers do want credit for their hard work, or their not so hard work, or their m4d skillz.

This brings us around to what got me started on this. Over of ToP, Mike did a recent print sale of Ctein's work. Mike discusses the photos that were up for sale in this post.

The one that really got me was the Christmas Lights picture.

I am sure it looks fantastic in print. I am sure it was very difficult to make. Far be it from me to judge if Ctein wants to spend his time making that print, and far be it from to judge if people want to purchase that print.

But it's friggin' christmas lights, dude. It's decor, and kind of weird decor at that. Whether it's worth $169 or not is entirely up to you, that's a genuinely pretty low price as these things go.

Mike, being in love with printing and the solutions to difficult printing problems, seems to me to be overvaluing these prints.

We are being asked, here, as we are on the web sites of endless Fine Art Photographers, to imagine that these essentially decorative masses of color and form are, in some un-articulated way, more than they actually are. There is a Category Error in play here. I suspect that all these photographers are hoping that their work has more weight than it does, they want to to carry whatever it is that Serious Art has, and thereby to be valuable.

They are, generally, wrong. These are frequently lovely pictures, and in many cases were very difficult to make, but they do not carry any of the je ne sais quois (except I jolly well do know what) of Important Art.

They have many appealing properties, but they do not have that.


  1. Do you think it's a difference in kind, or in degree? In other words, are you saying that photographs can't be what you call “serious art”, or that they can be, but rarely are for some reason?

    I'm guessing you mean the latter because you have talked about photographers and work that have an art-like reaction on you (Sally Mann among others). That being the case, I'm curious about your reasons. You refer here, and elsewhere, to the volume problem: photography is easy and everyone is making photographs – with implicit comparison to other art forms that are much harder and more laborious (sculpture, painting, drawing, etc.). I think that’s not the whole story.

    Some photographers who are artists definitely try to make up for the “easiness” of photography by deliberately making it hard. I like Thomas Joshua Cooper’s Atlantic Basin project, but I think he relies too much on how damned hard it was to make the work (old large format film camera, literally sailing to the ends of the earth…). I don’t buy this playing on hardness though. In my view, whether or not something succeeds as art doesn’t depend in any way on how hard it was for the artist to make the thing.

    What about the volume problem? I think there’s an unfair comparison going on here. When we talk about “painting” we don’t include all painted objects. We actually only count the paintings made by people who intend to make art. So why would we include the billions of photographs created by people who are not trying to make art? I take them off the table.

    So now I’m back to the beginning. Even subtracting out all the photographs that aren’t art, there’s a huge mass of people presenting photographs as art. I think what you’re seeing is real: loads of photographs presented as art and (over)priced accordingly. The problem is quite basic: photographs failing as art simply because they’re not doing what art is supposed to do. You can make paintings that fail at what art is supposed to do. But it’s a damned sight easier to make photographs that fail as art despite their technical qualities, so we see a lot more of them. This isn’t surprising because huge numbers of photographers don’t imagine themselves to be making art, or don’t know how (and their stuff looks a lot like the work of people who do, whether or not they’re successful).

    1. I think that many photographers don't really know what Art ought to do. They seem to have some notion that there is something like Serious Art, but they don't know quite what it is, how to identify it, or how to make it. They merely hope that their pictures are close enough to be worth a bunch of money.

      I believe this, but at the same time I don't understand it. Surely everyone feels the difference between a bunch of Monets hung on a wall, and a bunch of some goober's sharp and colorful landscape photos hung in a coffee shop?

      I feel the difference instantly, clearly, and I have spent a great deal of time trying to sort out what the hell it's all about. Now, I don't expect everyone to do the second bit, but surely that first bit, the simple sensation of the difference, is widely felt?

  2. I used to display newly printed photos of mine twice each week on the wall outside my office. I offered to sell prints to my coworkers for the cost of the paper and ink, which I estimated to be five bucks.

    Over the more than a decade I worked there, no one ever took me up on my offer.

    However, I later discovered that several coworkers had "borrowed" my prints from the wall and made photocopies they tacked onto the dividers of their cubicles or taped to the back of their office doors. (There were also several instances where prints I had torn in half and thrown away after I took them down were fished out of my trash bin, taped together, and then displayed on the back of office doors!)

    In a few cases, the photocopies were so crappy, I offered to replace them with a real pint for FREE, if only to preserve my reputation, and each time, my offer was politely declined.

    When I asked these people why they thought it was okay to copy my prints -- literally! -- they said they didn't think I would mind because I was already offering to sell them at cost, so I wasn't losing any money as a result of them making copies.

    Needless to say, this was the moment when I realized there was no profit (for me, at least!) in trying to sell prints of my photos, as I couldn't even give them to people who actually liked them well enough to hang crappy photocopies on their walls.

    1. That strikes me as supremely weird. I have, clearly, worked in different offices!

      How very unpleasant.

    2. I hesitate to point the finger at an entire generation, but in every case, the culprits were 25 or younger...

  3. Anyone could've taken those pictures @ top. There's nothing authorial about them. Only Sally Mann takes photos that look like they were taken by Sally Mann. Chuck close said about Photography that it is the easiest medium with which to be merely competent, but the hardest in which to have some sort of personal vision and signature style.

  4. JG, a depressing tale but I think you missed an opportunity.

    You could had made technically immaculate photographs of the photocopies and torn prints in situ and used these new photos to replace your original prints along with a price tag of $1,000, edition of 5.

    Nice to turn the tables on your co-workers. Who is being used now?

    And of course you would now be exhibiting in a NYC gallery. :-)

    Remember Art mirrors Life.....

    1. Hah!

      Better still, if I then posted those photos on the wall outside my office and they were copied as well, the cycle would repeat itself, with the price of a print no doubt increasing with each subsequent (re)generation...

  5. Your comment "friggin's christmas lights, dude" is interesting. A lot of Barnett Newman's paintings are about "stripes" of various kinds. I make no artistic comment about the value of either, I don't consider myself qualified to judge. I liked looking at the christmas lights photo but not enough to buy a copy.

    Barnett Newman's stripes strike a nerve here in Ottawa, where the National Museum spent a lot more than $169 on a painting of his called "Voice of Fire" a few decades ago that to this day is brought up when discussing art expenditures.

    It seems to be difficult to discuss the value of art without reference to what it sells for, but selling price seems to be more about fashion than anything else. Imo, $169 is a pretty trivial amount of money, some people spend more than that on coffee every month.

    JG's experience is not surprising. People generally don't purchase art without an expert's stamp of approval and so are reluctant to purchase art from an acquaintance no matter how much they like it. It might be easier selling it to a stranger. For some bizarre reason, buying an office colleague's print for $25 is a step too far, while a $10 designer latté is a socially acceptable purchase.

  6. Quite a lot of what has been designated 'art' (including photography), by which is always meant 'famous art,' is badly reproduced, scaled up, cropped, sometimes with an aphorism or the artist's name in all caps with exaggerated letter-spacing prominently along the bottom, and sold in museum gift shops and department stores, or by mail order, usually quite cheaply but sometimes not... what are we to make of this?

  7. This is sort of a follow-on to the Barnett Newman comment above. You dismiss what you call “essentially decorative masses of color and form” as not rising to the level of art. (Or should that be Art?) Well, if you do so, you’re going to take down a number of people who occupy elevated positions within the canon, such as Robert Ryman and Dan Flavin. I’m not saying you’re wrong (I’m not a champion of any of the three artists mentioned herein), but I do think that you should recognize the sweep of your statement.

    1. I absolutely do ;)

      It's not that there's anything particularly mere about, say, colorists. The point is that there is this other, more difficult and more powerful thing that can be done with a photo, a painting, a piece of music, and that someone who is only pushing color and line around probably isn't doing that thing.

    2. Minimalism and its immediate predecessor, color-field painting aren't about "the more powerful thing." "the more powerful thing" (you may call it 'Maximalism') can be bombastic, even oppressive. Minimalism et al is meditative. I can't say I personally like much of it, but I can see the point and value of it. If everyone [still] did minimalism, that would just be tedious. But we/they don't.

    3. I think you're missing the point. The more powerful thing to which I refer to hasn't anything to do with the way the thing is made, to what genre or style it belongs to.

      It's entirely about the effect the piece has on you, the viewer, and by extension, most/many of the people who interact with the thing.

    4. "someone who is only pushing color and line around probably isn't doing that thing"

      Well, that is exactly the thing one does in painting, whether you are trying to arrange it into an imitation of something that may be seen, or it is purely abstract. Whether the result has an effect on you, or anyone is purely subjective, but don't we all like to be considered authorities?

    5. I like to think that a good painter is pushing color and line around with intent.

      Also, it's not "purely subjective" as evidenced by the fact that a great deal of art seems to take large numbers of people more or less the same way. The operative word here is "intersubjective" which is a coinage designed specifically to cover that thing that Art does.

    6. "a great deal of art seems to take large numbers of people more or less the same way"

      Power of suggestion, following the herd etc.

  8. Many of the print sales on TOP are all about "How hard it was to make" giving credibility and proving craftsmanship to the artwork. How photographers look at photographs is vastly different than how the general public looks at photographs. Photographers look at sharpness, dynamic range, color accuracy, etc., as criteria to whether in the end they like or dislike a photo. They look at the message, the visual impact as well, but the technical criteria will disqualify some works from being purchased outright, whereas for the general public, the technical aspects don't come into play.

    I remember a Ctein TOP print sale of prints made from a micro 4/3 camera and the subject matter (I think it was a suspension bridge) was chosen purely for the fact that the suspension lines would be a good way to prove that a micro 4/3 camera could print large. I think for many people who purchased that print, it was a way to validate that their micro 4/3 purchase was the correct one and that yes, if you work hard, you can print large too.

  9. I have no opinion about Flavin et al, to be honest, and it's perfectly possible that they're doing something more than mooshing around appealing blobs of color?

    Jackson Pollock, while not a colorist, certainly did A Thing that is widely panned by the unwashed masses, but beloved by the annointed academic set. I find myself somewhat on the fence with Pollock, just as a for instance. While I have not found that his work "reaches" me as such, I do believe that he does "reach" other people in some way that is deeper and more meaningful than a bunch of splashed paint.

  10. There's a Dan Flavin in the museum here in Portland, and it has a kind of serene spirituality, like the Buddah's in the Asian wing, and that's before you start making the other little discoveries about light and color that it has to offer -- oh look, there on the wall... Yeah, I'd have to call it art.

  11. A pretty good post,and some interesting comments in response...

  12. I think it depends on how you think about Pollack, surely?

    My layman's grasp of Pollack is that he was working with raw emotion, without the benefit of any semiotic structures. Emotion, as it were, without meaning.

    In those terms you could compare reasonably with Stieglitz' "Equivalents" which are very much the same thing (and to my eye roughly as successful). You could maybe lump in the 12-tone composers, or Stravinsky, on similar terms.

    But, I suspect there are other ways to consider Pollack which would yield quite different comparisions.

    I look forward to your Big Reveal!

  13. My reaction to Stieglitz' "Equivalents" and Pollack's splatter paintings is roughly similar. I can detect the work trying to get under my skin, as it were, but neither body of work quite manages it. I can detect that Pollack was rather more worked up about things that Steiglitz, not least because of the sheer amount of paint involved.

  14. I will allow as how the very best of Winogrand's photos are like that, yes, and that it is a fair comparison!

    It is interesting to me that you and I are the only people I have ever observed to state that it's the sight lines that Winogrand is interested in. It's obvious if you actually look at the pictures, and I suppose other people must have observed it, but I haven't noticed it written down anywhere.

  15. No. Winogrand is more directly comparable to Willem de Kooning. Jackson Pollock to Wynn Bullock.

    Compare the photos and the paintings: very similar structures, and approaches to subjects.

    (game shows are very seldom a source of valid, or even useful knowledge; their primary purpose is selling audiences to advertisers -- by any means necessary)