View­point Mike Smith

What is art? Mike Smith adds his thoughts to this eter­nal ques­tion by re­fer­ring to an in­fa­mous cen­tury-old work

Amateur Photographer - - 7 Days - Mike Smith is a Lon­don-based wed­ding and por­trait pho­tog­ra­pher. Visit­

Iwas re­cently read­ing Alain Stephen’s thought-pro­vok­ing Why We Think the Things We Think: Phi­los­o­phy in a Nut­shell (2017) which posed the end­lessly provoca­tive ques­tion ‘What is art?’ Well, be­cause it’s beau­ti­ful and pleas­ing is a com­mon start­ing point, al­though the ques­tion then be­comes – what is beau­ti­ful? How­ever Eugène Véron went fur­ther and said that art is the ex­pres­sion of hu­man ideas and emo­tions. As a pho­tog­ra­pher that re­ally struck a chord with me, al­though it left a slight taste in the mouth be­cause there are clearly some highly re­garded pho­tographs that I don’t like (and to get a sense of the breadth of the pho­to­graphic canon, just look back over some of Roger Hicks’s ‘Fi­nal Anal­y­sis’ col­umns).

Leo Tol­stoy de­vel­oped this ar­gu­ment fur­ther by sug­gest­ing that good art is able to suc­cess­fully com­mu­ni­cate ideas or emo­tions, whilst bad art isn’t. I like that – as an ar­gu­ment it has a few holes in it, not least the propo­si­tion of ‘I know what I like’ – but in fact I like it be­cause I can re­late to it as a pho­tog­ra­pher, be­ing both a con­sumer and cre­ator of art. I can look at a photo and de­cide whether I like it, but I can also try to un­der­stand the idea, mes­sage or emo­tion that is be­ing com­mu­ni­cated to me and whether it is suc­cess­ful at do­ing that. And I like Roger’s col­umns be­cause they not only make me think about what is be­ing com­mu­ni­cated, but re­mind me that Roger and I only par­tially see the same things. There is much we see that does not over­lap.

Fu­ture gen­er­a­tions

And per­haps that is what is fas­ci­nat­ing about pho­tog­ra­phy as art. The im­age at best presents a sin­gu­lar­ity, at worst is en­tirely de­cep­tive and is usu­ally am­bigu­ous. And those ideas are not only con­strained by the back­ground and so­cial mores of the pho­tog­ra­pher, but also the viewer. Which ex­plains why pho­tos can be seen as bad art when they are first cap­tured, but may well be viewed as good art by later gen­er­a­tions.

Alain Stephen’s ar­ti­cle fin­ishes by point­ing the reader to Duchamp’s ‘Foun­tain’, a piece of art that I hadn’t, un­til that point, come across. This was sub­mit­ted by Mar­cel Duchamp to the So­ci­ety of In­de­pen­dent Artists 1917 ex­hi­bi­tion in New York (go and look at the Wikipedia page be­fore read­ing on).

Yes, that re­ally is a uri­nal – Duchamp sup­pos­edly pur­chased this from his lo­cal B&Q (or Man­hat­tan equiv­a­lent) and sub­mit­ted it in protest (and as a so­cial com­men­tary, aka waste prod­ucts!) on art at the time. Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, the So­ci­ety didn’t dis­play it and its fi­nal rest­ing place is un­known. It is ac­tu­ally the pho­to­graph of ‘Foun­tain’ which peo­ple know the art­work by, al­though what fas­ci­nated me was that it was taken by Al­fred Stieglitz (by then well- es­tab­lished) at his gallery 291. The pho­to­graph has re­placed the art­work and, along the way, meta­mor­phosed the idea with its own em­bel­lish­ments and con­no­ta­tions. View­ing this im­age above, what does this say to you about art and pho­tog­ra­phy?

‘I can look at a photo and de­cide whether I like it, but I can also try to un­der­stand the idea’

If Mar­cel Duchamp and Al­fred Stieglitz can do it... is Mike’s im­age as ar­tis­ti­cally valid?

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