About Art

When I was in my late teens and early 20s I used to take candid photos of people on the streets of New York City. I remember finding myself focusing on people who looked troubled or who had hard lives. When I reflected on that observation, I said to myself that there’s so much suffering in the world, just depicting more of it would be to easy. I thought “I’m alive. I want to keep on living. I should take photographs than that express why I think life is worth living”.

Though my subject matter and style have changed a lot, that is still how I approach my art today. I don’t understand contemporary art’s obsession with ugliness and suffering. If you’re reading this or if you’re someone who likes to look at art, chances are you’re very aware of the condition of the world. You know about our destruction of the planet and you know about man’s inhumanity. You don’t need art to inform you of such things. The New York Times, CNN and the Daily Show can do a much better job of getting you depressed. You don’t need art to motivate you to change the world. Those who want to change the world will and those who want to stay home will.

So, what is the purpose of art? In my opinion it’s to uplift you. It’s to remove you from the pain and suffering of the world and of your life and for a few moments or more, free you. We all know how horrible we can be. But we’re also capable of great feats of love and compassion. Art should celebrate beauty, love and compassion. Leave the bad news to the Times.

~ by danbaumbach on August 24, 2013.

8 Responses to “About Art”

  1. I agree with the point that art can be obsessed to show us the ugly sides of humanity, and it might not always be appropriate, simply because there is nothing artistic about war for example.

    However, I think there are photographers out there who use the artistic approach of showing something beautiful in order to make people aware of destruction. I was thinking for example about Paul Nicklen’s SeaLegacy. His photos bring us closer to wild animals and make people scream “Awwww – how wonderful!”; at this point he would typically ask “So why do we continue destroying their habitat?”. In such cases, I do think art can be informative…

    • Thank you for commenting. Do you really think that the people who would be interested and moved by the seal photos don’t already know and care about habitat destruction?

      • Some! Still I think these photos can help to reach a new audience; people who aren’t aware how serious it is. I guess many heard about “global warming” due to the daily news, but they don’t really care cause they are not directly affected (yet). They have trouble to visualize the consequences. That’s where such artistic photos can help. They are far from being average seal photos. They make people stop and ask for the story behind the image. Feel free to call me naive – I hope 😉

  2. While I understand where you are coming from Dan, I don’t know that I totally agree. The purpose of art for you, as an artist, may be to celebrate beauty and love. But the purpose of art for a different artist may be different. For example, art may be used as a therapy to help someone traumatized by cruel events to help deal with those events – that artwork will likely not be uplifting. Another example, next month I am slated to act as a mentor to at-risk youth, helping them to use photography to illustrate their world. I doubt many of the photographs that come from this program will celebrate love, but they will be art. So in a very real way, the purpose of art is up to the artist. (For me personally, I am more a celebrate beauty kind of guy like you.)

  3. It is an interesting thing to contemplate Dan. Sometimes I think it can be a little too one-sided if we are only exposed to the good things. Art helps us explore how we feel and react to something, whatever it may be.

    • Thank you for responding Mark. I think people are misunderstanding me. There’s a prevalence in modern photography away from beauty toward the depicting of ugly and grotesque images. That’s what this rant is about. I believe that photographs of sad and even catastrophic scenes can be beautiful even if what they’re depicting is awful. Sebastiao Salgado’s work comes to mind. I’m not talking about that. I do believe, however, that in most cases, if you’re photographing climate change and habitat destruction to awaken people, you’re preaching to the already converted.

  4. While a number of environmental photographers at Magnum would disagree with you and some of the world’s best photographers and artists have done a beautiful job of raising awareness about social issues by showing “ugliness,” I tend to agree with you myself and believe that my father did overall as well. Dad did make quite a few “devastation photos” of the Redwoods clearcutting and flooding aftermath, but the Sierra Club found the book “The Last Redwoods” did not sell as well as other titles in their ground-breaking Exhibit Format Series that popularized coffee table photography books. People just don’t like ugliness as much as beauty. Is that so strange? While death and ruination sells newspapers, when it comes to art, people throughout history have prefered to be uplifted, that is, until the post-modern era we are in. Today, the public is being educated to enjoy weird and ugly and anything else that has for 1,000 years been the antithesis of art. There are many exceptions and I’m glad you’re one of them. Your essay reminds me of one by Ansel Adams in which he declared that his purpose is to uplift through his work. You’re in good company, Dan. More power to you. The photograph at the top of this post in my opinion beats any good muckraking photo hands down. I’d rather look at it for a short time or long than any image that “raises awareness.” Who knows? In some regards the image above “raises awareness” more, in ways we don’t necessarily understand consciously, but that can be explained by neuroscience.

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