Repeatedly say something is good, loud enough and long enough, so that anyone who listening to you believes it. Raise that single voice to a chorus and then that belief becomes fact. So is fine art photography the classic con job?
It might start with a fine art or photography degree. You are asked to produce a conceptual piece of work that pushes the boundaries of emotional or physical states, shooting a new subject, or shooting in a way that hasn't been done before. Maybe the banality of daily life: grubby hands, the dirty mirror, washing strewn over the floor, shoe clad feet, a toilet brush, or biscuit crumbs on a seat. The images are produced in black and white, or under saturated with a little grain applied. They are proudly displayed at your end of year show where you proclaim them as providing new insights into the human psyche, building on the hard work of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, and Mark Cohen. Your supervisor agrees and the following day you get a few column inches in one of the broadsheets.
On the back of that mention you receive a commission to produce a series of images in a similar style. They are subsequently displayed at a national gallery where you receive a favorable review, along with a grant, obtaining government funding for a year long project. Your images are now fetching four figure sums at fine art galleries.
Let's go back to first principles. What is art? The simplest and probably commonest refrain is that it is pleasing and beautiful. The strength and problem with this approach is that what I find pleasing, you may well find distasteful. Eugene Veron believed that art should be able to express human ideas and emotions. Of course, that doesn't mean I'll like it. Leo Tolstoy thought good art should be able to communicate ideas, while bad art won't. However, that brings us back to our own personal tastes, although as a photographer I can relate to it as being both a consumer and creator of art. As a result, I can look at a photo and decide whether I like it, as well as trying to understand the idea, message, or emotion that is being communicated to me and whether it is successful at doing that. For me, this is the key acid test for contemporary art.
For every successful artist derided as a fake (think about Tracey Emin's detractors), there are plenty of subsequently well regarded artists that history finds worthy of valuing (such as the work of Vivian Maier or Van Gogh). What sets these kinds of artists apart?
Given that art really, at least, begins in the eye of the beholder (what is it that draws you to a photo?), anyone can be an artist as long as there is at least someone else who likes it. Consensus is when there are lots of people who like a piece of artwork. However, this is where it gets Machiavellian as it's not so much how many upvotes you receive as who upvotes you. Yes, when it comes to art, status is important so that if Will Gompertz at the BBC likes your photo or Roger Ebert liked your movie, then you immediately carry some social clout. The role of the reviewer is to mediate understanding about what is and isn't art to the masses. It's not just the size of the crowd and how loud they are shouting, but also how important they are. We might call them the pundit or, more contemporaneously, the social influencer.
The biggest social promotion you can get is from an organization that represents lots of pundits and there is no better example than the Oscars. Getting the nod of an Oscar nomination not only suggests you are producing art but can add millions to movie takings, which is why so much self-promotion goes on in the lead up to the awards ceremony and why the Academy has come in for much criticism concerning the make up of its members. The Oscars are an example of how popular movies usually don't make it onto the shortlist. Just look at the Marvel Universe or “The Greatest Showman.” Popular movies but not an Oscar in sight.
Pundits and art organizations therefore wield a disproportionate amount of influence when it comes to deciding what is art and, more particularly, what is fine art. It's what they like and their skill comes from placing that in context. Of course that doesn't necessarily mean you will like it, but part of our satisfaction with art is liking something that is popular and, indeed, liking something before it is popular. This plays to Thorstein Veblen's classic theory called "invidious consumption" which is the outwardly public "consumption" of goods in order to provoke envy in others. Is fine art, or at least popular fine art, playing to this notion? Does it really matter what a piece of artwork is like, as long as it is popular? The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize is held in this regard by some commentators. Celebrating contemporary portrait photography, it has been accused of promoting neither portraiture nor positivist views of human nature.
A great example of shouting louder than anyone else, is that of rock musician Jered Threatin with his "Breaking the World Tour" of pre-booked gigs and backing bands across Europe. Except it was a sham based upon paid Facebook likes and YouTube views. The first gig had about a dozen people in the audience and the Internet watched on in wonder as the tour slowly imploded. The BBC's Jessica Lussenhop undertook a more in-depth investigation and was still left wondering whether it was a fake tour gone badly wrong or a deliberately orchestrated social media experiment that would succeed regardless as to the outcome of the tour itself. The power of news, fake news, and commanding the limelight.
So where does that leave fine art? It's notable that photography competitions tend to promote contemporary photography, or at least contemporary within the context of photographers. Award nominations often play to technical competence and while there are always highlights of serendipity and decisive moments, the capacity of the fantastical work of Von Wong, technical brilliance of Paul Colley (British Wildlife Photography Awards), or deceptively dreamy worlds of Sandra Bartocha to shine through never ceases to amaze me. As photographers we naturally see the intertwining of technique and art which is why the capability of fine art pundits to highlight increasingly banal work is frustratingly short sighted. But then maybe I'm just a narrow minded photography pundit.
On the arc of photographic art, where does fine art sit for you? Has society got this about right or is there a grand conspiracy of the upper echelons of the art world to dictate and direct our tastes as a means to self-promotion and maintaining the current status quo? Is it the greatest con job ever pulled?
Lead image by StockSnap via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.