'Photography Is Art' – Do You Even Know What Art Is?

We have all heard photographers claiming photography is art, but what is art really? Moreover, who has the right to define it in the first place?

Art is probably one of the most discussed words on planet Earth and a great many artists, thinkers, and philosophers have tried to make a finite definition of the concept. With a background in educational philosophy, I have learned firsthand how hard it is to make a definite statement about anything.

In the above video from the brilliant YouTube channel PhilosophyTube, Olly introduces us to aesthetics and art. Without giving us an exact answer – after all, he is a student of philosophy – he shares some different theories on what the concept of art is. Essentialism, functionalism, institutional theories, historical definitions, anti-essentialism, and pluralism. Do these words make you want to pull your hair out? Do not worry, Olly guides us through the theories and even explain why he prefers one to the others.

In addition, why even have a definition? When is art, art and when is it “just” a craft? When does a craft become art? So many questions!

What theory do you resonate with? Are you an artist or are you an artisan? Check out the video and let me hear your thoughts.

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Deleted Account's picture

I applaud your attempt to tackle the subject. I think the problem is, people attempt to irrevocably tie together the terms art and artist. Art, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, is anything that evokes emotion in the audience and is thus subjective. I think an artist is someone who attempts to create art. Sometimes artists fail and sometimes non-artists create art. Creating art, without intent, does not make one an artist, any more than does an artist create art every time he/she takes a shit.

edit: I'm NOT an artist. I think you are! :-)

Keith Davis's picture

Sam you summed it up nicely. My thoughts are along your line if slightly different. Rather than strictly emotion, which is certainly a big part, I believe interest is a better word. Anything out of the ordinary, to ourselves, that sparks interest and elicits attention could be art if we choose it to be. For instance a simple printed advertisement that grabs our attention because of clever, out of the ordinary, content could be considered art if we were asked to classify it. As you and this article have stated art is subjective to each individual. If I see a piece of work that inspires no interest to me it is no more art then the common objects on my desk... BUT... to you it may be the work of the century.
To sum my thoughts up... art is just a shortcut word for...hey that's cool.


Kirk Darling's picture

Sam, after 50 years starting in painting/illustration and then going into photography, I agree with you. Defining art as "use of creative media to create emotion" becomes my best foundational definition of "art."

It can include the panoply of media and forms, from painting to sculpture to literature and even to stand-up comedy and propaganda. If the intent is to make the audience "feel," then it's art. If it's successful at making the audience "feel," then it's good art. If a person can deliberately "call his shot" then he's a good artist.

My guiding example is Holst's "Die Planets" suite, where he calls his shots with each symphonic movement, and actually scores every time. Every time I listen to "Jupiter, the Bringer of Joviality" and get to the part where the sudden tambourine actually causes me to chuckle, I think, "Dang, he was good."

And the stand-up comic who might intend to make you think--like any speechmaker--but MUST also make you laugh...that's art.

And it can include, when you think about it, quite a bit of what we might consider "commercial." Is a good "commercial" image of a Big Mac not really intended to create an emotional response in the viewer?

And so, in many cases we can make "intent to create emotion" a defining line in things such as photography, architecture, industrial design, et cetera. Sometimes there is intent to create emotion, sometimes not, and it might even be from the same person who is operating as an artist in one work and as a craftsman in another.

Deleted Account's picture

Agree with one small caveat. Die Planets does nothing for me! I don't hate it or love it, it's just there. For me, it's the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, fourth movement! Maybe cliché but, there it is. :-)

Michael McKee's picture

Even the emotion argument has problems. Much of post-modern art is based on abstract intellectual ideas and is not intended to engage emotion.

Kirk Darling's picture

No, that doesn't cause me a problem. I would call it an abstract intellectual idea...like an math equation is an abstract intellectual idea.

Deleted Account's picture

Not trying to play logic games, at which I'm told I excel (the game part, not the logic), but don't abstract intellectual ideas also appeal to your emotions by either challenging your current thinking (surprise, fear, disgust, anger, anticipation) or reinforcing them (joy, trust)?

Deleted Account's picture

Art is subjective thus there isn’t one definition or way of defining what art is.

Deleted Account's picture

The term "good tasting food" is definable while being subjective to each person's taste. You can't objectively categorize any particular item of food as tasting good but you can certainly define it as being pleasing to an individual's taste buds. :-/

Matthew Saville's picture

Indeed, "art" can be as simple as trash that fell out of a dumpster into a unique arrangement that becomes aesthetically....worth a second glance. It's that easy to be "art". I see "art" every day. On my morning walk, a beautiful fall leaf that fell next to a broken bottle and some dog poop, ...is all of a sudden a disturbing work of art that speaks to the decline of human society and its lack of respect for nature.

The term "artist", and actual ARTISTIC VALUE, however, are indeed a whole different subject. To create art is to use creative vision which you draw from both internal and external realms, to produce a work that actually speaks to many viewers, not just weirdos on their morning walks.

Thus, photography is art. Sometimes it's art purely because of "The Decisive Moment" in a single un-altered click, and sometimes it's art because you created something from a thousand different pieces in Photoshop.

Either way, if its created in an attempt to be art, then it's art. Viewers and society and market conditions will dictate the final element, of course- artistic value. To that end, most art isn't very valuable, of course, but that doesn't stop it from being an attempt at art.

Deleted Account's picture

Just curious how, on the one hand you say, "if its <sic> created in an attempt to be art, then it's art" but just prior state, "photography is art." Do you think all photographers are attempting to create art? I know I don't. I merely attempt to record art (the thing I photograph), with the artist being God. If someone values my photos as, themselves, being art, that was never my intent.

Matthew Saville's picture

Well, if you want to get truly metaphysical about it, I guess so. Even a forensic crime scene photo could be art, to the twisted minds of some viewers. It's in the eye of the beholder indeed. Just like all types of scientific imagery, captured purely for the purpose of factual research, can still be art. I've seen plenty of Hubble telescope images that were breathtakingly beautiful, for example.

I think that saying "God is the actual artist" is a cop-out. It could only be true if you literally never paid attention to framing, juxtaposition, timing, balance, etc....ever in your entire life. Which I doubt is the case.

The minute you pay attention to framing, or composition or anything, then you're just as much an artist as the scene itself, if not more so.

Matthew Saville's picture

Also, that was the point of my whole original post- the difference between something being PERCEIVED as art, and the actual ARTIST behind it.

In other words, all photography can be seen as art, depending on the viewer, even if NOT all photographers are actively /trying/ to be artists. I hope this makes sense.

Deleted Account's picture

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I don't really understand what people mean by metaphysical but I do enjoy a philosophic debate.

Your first paragraph agrees with your original comment about seeing art everywhere and the crime scene forensics photo agrees with your leaf, bottle and poop example and I agree.

I'm not sure what you mean by your second paragraph. If it was a lead-in to the third paragraph, it still doesn't make sense to me but then, I'm not very bright! I would much prefer live, interactive discussions for complex topics. I will say, to my way of thinking, God is most definitely the artist in all occasions, having created everything, including both the mind of the artist and the individual who appreciates art.

I see your point in the third paragraph but think it goes back to the subject of intent. According to your logic, it would also apply to the museum curator who decides on the location and lighting for an exhibit or even where the viewer chooses to stand while observing it. Maybe it does!?

As for your follow-up, I wholly agree that all photography CAN be seen as art but, and this agrees with the "depending on the viewer" provision, it won't necessary BE seen as art.

I think we generally agree but for the nits we each choose to pick. :-)

Matthew Saville's picture

My point with the "it's a cop-out" comment is that you can't say you're /not/ an artist if you /do/ pay attention to elements of creativity and artistry when you click a photo.

Regarding the complication of intent: if you're paying attention to visual aesthetics when you click a photo, then that makes what you are doing at least a little bit of an artistic act. It may be a very small act, but it's there.

Rob McDonagh's picture

If art exists in the eye of the beholder, then you cannot create art, you just create images, objects etc and the viewer creates the art

Deleted Account's picture

I think I had the first discussion on this subject roughly 50 years ago. I think there is a relatively simple way to define it. Art (wether a painting, sculpture, photograph or whatever) is created first in the mind of the artist and then produced with the tools of the art. This says nothing about whether or not it is good art.

Frank Davis's picture

Taking a photograph merely documents a moment in history! The thought process that goes into creating an expression of what one sees in his or her mind and creating that moment then conveying it through whatever medium, which might include photography, is what creates art!

Deleted Account's picture

I don't know about your photographs, but very few of mine are recording moments in history.

Michael McKee's picture

No snapshots? No records of trips or occasions? No idea sketches? You are an outlier, then.

Deleted Account's picture

No snapshots in the last fifty years. No records of trips for occasions. I've been a photographer for over 65 of my 77 years. I've done all of those. I avoid them now with great particularity. There are snapshots and then there are photographs and Neve the two shall meet.

Deleted Account's picture

Your comments caused me to visit your website. The photos definitely support your assertion and I really like some of them.

Frank Davis's picture

Sorry, I don't think I made my point very well. What I meant was the camera only records what is in front of it when the shutter is pressed Whether you have spent months creating what's in front of it or accidently press it in the camera bag. Much as if Picasso drops his paint brush it's going to leave a spot of paint on the floor. It's the creative process that makes it art!

Deleted Account's picture

My camera records what may have spent months planning for as a point of departure to realize the image (photograph) I conceived of between my ears. My camera is no more a record of history than my paintbrush was when I painted.

Charles Metivier's picture

Everything anybody does or says is part of history. If you take a photograph of anything then you have captured a moment in history. This doesn't mean it's important or relevant to anyone. The mere fact that happened makes it history.

Deleted Account's picture

My photographs are merely points of departure to the image I conceived of, maybe years before.

Matthew Saville's picture

John, you seem very keen on avoiding any correlation whatsoever between your images and the casual act of clicking an un-planned, "candid" or journalistic photo.

I get it, especially personally as someone who does spend 12+ months to plan a single photo sometimes. It's an exciting project to make those types of things happen! Some of my photos are years in the making, thanks to failed attempts and/or lack of opportunity.

So as I said, I get it. Based on your comments here and your artist's statement, I can tell that a camera is just a tool, a brush and canvas rolled into one. The click of the shutter isn't even "just the beginning" before you go into the darkroom. The click of the shutter is in fact just one step of the artistic process, somewhere in the middle.

However, I think you're missing something about both the casualness and the historical relevance of photography, even the "serious landscapes" and other nature stuff. So to explain, it I'll reference /THE/ landscape photographer: Ansel Adams' own body of work has begun to take on historical relevance, because many of his images depict scenes which are extremely different today than they were in the 40's, etc. Heck, in a few more decades, something as simple as snow on the valley floor of Yosemite might be exceedingly rare! Simply put, whether or not we go nuts with burning & dodging and/or manipulating a scene when we create our next work, there is still a probability that eventually it will gain historical relevance. In fact I'd argue that it would still do so even if the photo itself didn't have immense artistic value.

Also, Hernandez, NM is not only significantly different today than it was in Ansel's photo, but also, by your own standards it would have to be categorized as a "snapshot", since it was apparently a relatively impromptu roadside shot. Sure, once he got there he obviously paid close attention to his composition, exposure, etc. And the image took years in post-production to be optimally printed. However, it was still a relatively impromptu "click". In fact only in recent years have (most) landscape photographers been able to stop relying on pure serendipity for certain things, since we now have apps on our phones that can use augmented reality to show us exactly where and when the moon will rise.

My point is this: I do believe that your attitude towards your photography is both admirable and even noble, however it's not very humble, and it's rather narrow in the grand scheme of which images wind up being timeless art, and which "snapshots" wind up gaining artistic value.

Personally, I find it really helps keep my creative eye sharp, to be "snapping" photos during my daily life. Plus of course there's the posterity of it. :-)

Deleted Account's picture

I had the great pleasure and privilege of knowing and working with Ansel Adams during the last ten years of his life. Ansel had several of my photographs in his personal collection that are now curated at the Center for Creative Photography. Much of my approach to photography I learned from Ansel. I remember the summer of '68 in Yosemite when we went out every day with a group of photographers. Everyone of us, including me was "snapping" picture at every location we went to - but not Ansel.
I asked him about why he was not shooting things and he said it didn't fit the image he had in his mind -- the clouds weren't right the light was wrong, etc.
I spent time in Ansel's darkroom and he in mine. Ansel's mantra was "revisualization." He knew in great detail what his final image would look like long before he ever packed up his tripod.
I do use the Photographer's Ephemeris for planning many shots. I'm currently planning two shoots: One at Big Bend National Park and the other at White Sands. I know the days I will be there and when and where the sun will rise and set. I've been planning the trip for over a year and have my reservations, etc. even though it is over a month away.
There was very little, if any, serendipity in Ansel's work, or in mine. I'll grant you that in large part that comes from decades of taking photographs. Digital photography has dramatically changed how I work. In that month in Yosemite, Ansel exposed only one sheet of film. Today I would probably shoot thousands of images to get the one. Many would simply be workups to confirm precise locations, EV, etc. There is a reason I have over 70TB of storage attached to my iMac Pro. There is a lot of work that goes into a single image or series of images -- most long before the camera is in hand, but also much afterwards.
Here is a link to one of my sites: https://youpic.com/photographer/JohnEllingson/

BTW I hold a number of patents on the use of digital images as a source of information entropy which we use in the company I founded for system security, cryptography and device authentication.

Thanks for taking the time to respond and I enjoyed reading your thoughts and your depth of interest in what has been a driving force in my life for over 65 of my 77 years.

Matthew Saville's picture

Indeed, I read that not-so-humble brag on your website already, which is why I brought up AA. And I know Ansel's body of work, and his methods, and his quotes... Although I forget if it was him or Edward Weston who said that just 12 significant photos in a year was a good crop.

Either way, I think you've still missed my point a little bit, or have avoided it- which is that even Ansel had SOME images which began as relatively un-planned moments of serendipity. So, even if it took years to realize the final product, (the negative is the score, the print is the performance, of course) ...the bottom line is that sometimes, a /truly great/ image in a /truly great/ landscape photographer's portfolio does indeed begin as what you'd call a "snapshot". And I think that's a good thing, not something to be avoided.

I've been on many trips over the years which were planned more than a year in advance, to capture specific photos. And yet, often my favorite images wind up being some of the "snapshots" I grab along the way. Yeah, I put a years' effort into being in the right place at the right time, but the serendipity of the moment itself, the weather, or whatever else, was unplanned, and I had to think on my toes. And that made the final image all the more exciting to produce, in the end.

Deleted Account's picture

Matthew, Ansel, like all of us changed over the years. I think snapshots and photographs fall into two very different categories -- both legitimate. This discussion started over what is art. Art is the product of a creative process. My distinction is that photographs that qualify as art started in the creative mind. Snapshots don't start that way. That is not to say that some snapshots are not great captures. The snapshot falls into the reportage realm, not the art realm. What you refer to as snapshots in landscape photography I see as part of the creative process. Just because the individual image is not the product of a deep creative effort does not mean it is not part of an arduous process leading to the final image. Once you reach your 75th birthday you have pretty much lost your ego along the way, so I take your "humble" comment with a grain of salt. Ansel and I became acquainted quite apart from photography. Ansel was one of the founding board members of the Sierra Club and I founded a small organization that worked with government, the private sector and The Nature Conservancy to create a bald eagle management area on the middle Skagit River in Western Washington. It was in that context that a mutual friend introduced us.

Deleted Account's picture

Serendipity certainly plays a role in photography -- but it also fits in with the old saw about the harder I work the luckier I get. Seasoned photographers all develop the "eye" and it is their individual "eye" that we recognize in their images. I think the point you make and that I m elaborating on is that after you do this for a while -- maybe decades -- you do run into those inspirational moments and maybe more frequently as time goes on and we all take a shot (or snapshot) of that moment -- but that typically is a beginning and not the end of the process.

I certainly agree with you on the best laid plans not always working out. My last trip to Grand Canyon was much that way. Mother Nature does not always cooperate. I try to bring something fresh and that is my view to the well worn subjects. I try to stay away from replicating those grand shots others have done so well - unless I truly can contribute something fresh. This last trip I was planning on shooting some very long exposures at the canyon in low light -- unfortunately 35-40 knot winds killed that in that I could not steady the tripod sufficiently in the high wind. My backup plan was to shoot the ravens that are such a prominent part of the canyon. That too was very challenging, but I did get a half dozen images of ravens soaring over the canyon in two days of shooting at a very high frame rate.

I differentiate my definition of a snapshot from what I think you are referring to. In my definition a "snapshot" is seen as the finished product and not a grab shot that is just one step along the way to the finished product. In my definition the "snapshot" is neither planned, nor a part of a preconceived idea.

Yesterday I went to the National Botanic Garden in DC (I go a couple of times a month). I'm never quite sure what the staff will have changed, but I have the general image in mind and it is the same image that I have been shooting there over the years. So far, it stays fresh. Once it gets stale I will move on.

My other thought -- particularly in my dotage -- is that I want to contribute to the art and process. This is why I share so many of my images. I work with Topaz software as a beta tester and I run a Cybersecurity company that uses the numeric content that images can generate as a source of entropy for encryption and other authentication uses. I hold a number of patents in this space -- all following my picking up that first D1 so many years ago.

Matthew Saville's picture

By the way, your B&W work is indeed stunning; I'd love to see those tones and textures in print someday. Every time I see imagery of the caliber of someone like Ansel, it reminds me to step up my game with regards to tonal control. :-)

David Pavlich's picture

Funny thing about art; every person that's answered so far, including me, could go to an art show and look through the gallery and have different answers as to what struck his/her fancy and what didn't. Does that mean we see art in degrees? That's terrific, that's not so terrific, I wouldn't hang that in my root cellar. Doesn't mean a piece isn't more or less art. Pretty much impossible to pigeon hole.

A good example is one of the prints I sell; it's a tone mapped shot of a dismantled diesel engine. Some gag at the thought, but last Saturday at a market, a lady asked, "who would have thought that you could make art out of an old engine?" But it's the kind of shot that the next person wouldn't hang in his root cellar. :-)

Deleted Account's picture

Agreed and, again, I think there's a difference between the definition of art, which most reasonable people can agree on, and classifying a particular object as art, which we doubtlessly would have differences of opinion.

Perseus Eraclito's picture

The problem with any attempt explained in the video is that none of them approaches the matter from a semiotic standpoint, that is why there are so many, different interpretations and approaches.
The always reductive one is, "art is in the eye of the beholder", or "art is what triggers an emotion, a feeling".

Deleted Account's picture

I had to look up "semiotic" and still have absolutely no idea how it relates to the task at hand. Maybe I should have paid more attention in school! :-(

Perseus Eraclito's picture

Sorry, Sam

Maybe my translation is off!
I'm not a native speaker...

I guess you could say it's a very boring discipline, but I was lucky enough at school to have a teacher who was funny and who was smart enough to teach us the principles.
To me, it is the study of the signs and I believe there's a lot of different opinions about art not simply because is a personal interpretation that comes into play, but rather because generally, people miss the fact that art has its own language and we tend to judge from an emotional standpoint.

Mind you, I'm not saying emotion and feelings don't play a role. What I'm saying is that emotion and feelings can be fooled if there's no understanding of the language. I can read a poem in Chinese and laugh or cry listening to the sound of the pronunciation without understanding that maybe the poem is the opposite of being funny or being sad.

Perseus Eraclito's picture

More on the topic of semiotics and how it's related to the art.
I remember one day this guy brings in his painting. In one part of the painting, there was depicted a rope. The teacher asked him what was that and he said a rope. The teacher kept asking him the question and the guy thought he didn't do a good job, the rope maybe wasn't realistic enough and didn't look like a rope at all.

Deleted Account's picture

Your translation was perfect. I kinda understand semiotics, thanks to your additional clues, but again, I'm not sure how it relates to defining art or deciding what is or isn't art. It seems like it would be more related to interpreting art, which I totally suck at! ;-)

Dan Marchant's picture

"art is what triggers an emotion, a feeling"
So being in a car crash is art? Being dumped by your girlfriend? Your friend dying?

Perseus Eraclito's picture

Dan, I think you misunderstood my sentence. Are you sure you're replying to the right comment?

Lawrence White's picture

Art is the creative spirit speaking through us.

Deleted Account's picture

That video was "doing my head in" which ironically may be a piece of video art. Ha ha! However lately i have been pondering the question of art myself and i do think that my images r more of a "nice scene" "lovely photograph" "love to hang on the wall" than actual art which i would personally define as "thought provoking" or draws a general consensus of emotion. I think both have their place but keeping in mind of the latter when taking the photograph or planning an image (as John Ellingson describes below of Ansel Adams) to me is what i come to understand i must do to take my images to the next level. But on top of that is the creative experience which is a space of mysticism which i have experienced through writing and photography which is hard to describe. It is that magical place of unconsciousness which i can only tangibly describe as flow or happy accidents. The only way i have got there is to keep taking the "lovely photographs" until the magic just happens. Very interesting timeless topic.

Jordan McChesney's picture

I think this a great question and a discussion that may never be settled. I'll be the first to admit, that I don't have a clue how to define art. It's quite an abstract idea, and it seems like describing a colour, yellow for example, to a person without sight.

I often see people saying "anything that evokes an emotion" or "intended to evoke an emotional response", but then I remember that farting in a crowded elevator also "evokes an emotional response" but I wouldn't call that art per se. Also, for something to evoke an emotion it has to be seen by someone other than the artist, so if they never show the public, does it then fail to become art? Furthermore, while I feel that "emotion" is one possible point, I don't think it's the only point.

For me, it's better not to define "art". I'd rather just enjoy it, even if I don't "get" it... which is usually the case, haha.

Jens Sieckmann's picture

Hm, let's try it the opposite way. Exclude! What isn't art? E.g. copycat images with people wearing yellow jackets on instagram.