Of Heart or Mind
“What makes a good photograph?” This is a question I ask my students often. Of course, there are a myriad of potential answers. These answers become increasingly more complex and nuanced as we march towards the academy or the ever-so exclusive fine art market. Despite working as a professor and participating in the “art marketplace,” I’ve become increasingly skeptical of these institutions in regards to cultivating good art.
When I finally gave up at 30 years old and admitted that I was an artist, I was deeply embarrassed. Throughout my 20s, my only understanding of contemporary art was under the oppression of postmodernism. What few conversations I had about art were laden with academic posturing and philosophical banter so cerebral that it killed any life the artwork might have had.
If art were just a means for scholars to impose their intellectual dominance, then I wanted no part of it. This was a narrow view of art, but I would argue that many average people feel this pressure - people like me that didn’t grow up with access to art education. But often I ran into a wall built out of intellectual exclusivity and classism.
Okay. Deep breath.
So it’s 2013, and my wife and I are visiting a friend in Washington DC. I’d never been, but was excited to check out some of the typical touristy galleries. I hopped on the Metro to spend the day in as many free galleries as I could find.
It was there that everything started to shift for me. I remember rounding a corner in the National Gallery of Art and running face to face with Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait. Like anyone that went to public school, I had repeatedly seen the painting in my history books. But as I gazed upon his face, it was like my heart leapt in my chest. There was a physical reaction to being in its presence.
I know what you are thinking - what a pedestrian art experience. What self-respecting contemporary artist would admit to having such a stereotypical conversion? Well friends, for me, this was the moment I realized what art could do. And I didn’t need to listen to a dissertation on Van Gogh to figure it out.
Intimacy. Somehow I felt a deep connection to this long dead Dutch man. It was as if part of his being was captured in those thick brush strokes. There wasn’t an intellectual wall to climb. There was no posturing. I didn’t need an explanation of the painting’s splendor. The experience was almost spiritual.
So what makes a good photograph? More importantly, what makes a good artist? I think it is vulnerability. I know this isn’t a very modern answer. And Lord knows, if we let the art market dictate what good art is, then I might as well give up now. But maybe if we were honest, we would agree with Robert Adams. Art can help us combat our greatest fear - that “our suffering is without meaning.”
Thanks for reading,
P.S. - Thank you to all that have supported the Kickstarter for The 13th Spring. We are just over 2/3rds of the way there. I can’ tell you how pleased I am to know that this book will go out into the world. So thank you again for your support. And if haven’t had a chance to order a copy of the book, please follow the link and grab one.