By Nick Baxter
Last year I started collecting my thoughts on the continual debate in my head about what art is, and how it can be (among other things) an effective form of communication. That effort was and still is intertwined with the process of further understanding my own art, and all other art, as well. In hindsight, I thought the initial writing (here and here) was a bit unfocused, and since it was also incomplete, I took the time recently to revisit those blog entries and rework them into a more cohesive essay.
The final part of that essay, as mentioned in the second of those prior blog posts, is about my belief that photojournalism can be viewed as a creative art form, possessing an almost-accidental form of raw beauty capable of inspiring other works of art (such as many of my own). This critique of photojournalism introduces broader questions about the “unintended” as art, and–for now–completes my investigation into the sneakily complicated debate “What is art?”
In the future I’ll post the final version of the essay in its entirety, but for now here is the “part 2″ continuation of those prior blog posts.
Photojournalism and the Unintended as Art
In the last 100 years, photojournalism has become a fixture of our visual landscape. On the surface, it’s simply defined as the use of images to tell a news story or to report on current events. In this role, the photos are not art, and their photographers are not acting as artists, which means their images are typically held to strict ethical standards of honesty, impartiality, and objectivity. But these attributes are graded on a scale that becomes increasingly inexact amidst the complexity of postmodern thought and the digital age of endless reproduction and re-appropriation. This is the point at which the question “What is art?” becomes relevant and fascinating to me, when applied to the medium of photojournalism.
I’ve always appreciated the naïve purity of an image that’s been produced with no pretense of art, utterly uninhibited by the finicky shackles of artistic rules or the whims of unreliable muses like inspiration. In this open and wild space, artistic qualities and natural beauty are given the chance to emerge on their own, unintended and raw, like the strongest of weeds in a perfectly manicured lawn, and photography seems to be an ideal medium for this phenomenon. This element of chance can produce quite powerful images, capable of communicating intensely to the viewer while remaining—and precisely because they remain—firmly grounded in the truth of reality “as it happened.”
And so the commonplace photos we’re bombarded with through ever-increasing media saturation begin ostensibly as visual data comprised only of ‘facts’ or neutral information, yet end up loaded with symbolism, embedded with the perceptions and beliefs of their creators and audience after becoming the subject of this artistic line of inquiry.
In studying art history, it seems this afterlife of the journalistic image became much more possible in the wake of the Dada movement, when artists (including photographers) carved out new niches for their work beyond mere decoration or commemoration of important people or places. Art in the 20th century became increasingly deconstructivist, philosophically charged, and conceptual in nature, filling multiple roles while having its meaning manipulated by the increasingly complex worldviews of both creator and audience1.
Because of this evolution, just about anything could be considered art in the right context, meaning that most contemporary art now resides as much in the blurry, ambiguous realm of provocative ideas as it does in the realm of traditional craft. Hence a museum visitor might encounter an exhibit of random paint splotches that, beneath its completely underwhelming, childlike appearance, contains a metaphor referencing complex political or psychological theories learned by the artist through years of intense academic study.
This can be maddening to the viewer who simply wants to marvel at a skillfully executed object of beauty, or it can be liberating for those who want to engage in debate, controversy, or social change through the arts. My own art has always attempted to straddle this fence by incorporating the best of both worlds: technical, precise handling of paint in the realism tradition, yet depicting modern subject matter and informed by the angst and alienation of postmodern philosophies. It is my belief that photojournalism in the modern age, thanks to that 20th-century process of expansion and deconstruction, straddles a similar fence, one separating objective observations from subjective beauty and meaning.
This ability of the journalistic photograph to transcend genres is confirmed in the academic community by the fact that “Breaking News Photography” is a Pulitzer Prize category. This prestigious yearly award started in 1917 as a way to honor impactful achievements in American journalism, literature, and music. Winning photographs are resurrected as art objects, receiving appreciation for their poignancy and beauty—a second life of sorts, after their initial purpose or function in the journalistic media has been served.
This second life also takes the form of photo essays, curated and arranged into cohesive narratives, which are now commonly presented in art and lifestyle publications, fine art galleries, and museums throughout the world. Depending on the intentions of the photographer and exhibiting institution or publication, as well as the sensibilities of the viewing audience, these photographs may be appreciated for their communication about the world events that comprise their content, or for their artistic qualities—or both.
In his 1995 essay about the modern age of photojournalism, writer Richard Lacayo wades into the debate surrounding artistic subjectivity and meaning:
“Photojournalists tend to stay aloof from talk about camera aesthetics. There is something about dodging gunfire in Beirut that discourages ruminations on style, understandably enough. More to the point, no one who catalogs bloodshed or poverty wants to be thought of as yet another vendor to the senses. Some news photographers spend half their lives chasing wars; who can blame them if they reach for the door when they hear the word art? …The stereotype survives: artists have visions; journalists have assignments. They may both think to themselves, ‘I am a camera,’ but each means something different.
“Yet aesthetic questions have a moral dimension. Color is pretty; misery is not. How does one keep the simple appeal of color from confounding the full range of meanings a photograph may convey? If pictures of genocide come to us in the muted pastels of a GAP ad or the vivid hues of a rock video, how does a photographer keep atrocity from looking palatable?”2
While the moralist in me sympathizes with this sentiment, the artist and rebel in me, raised in an age of cynicism, desensitization, and ambiguity, views adjectives like ‘palatable’ as mere subjective opinions, impossible to resolve into an absolute truth for all to agree on. Human culture is so diverse that practically anything could be considered palatable art, by someone. And so I answer Lacayo’s question with another question: “Why should the photographer keep atrocity from looking palatable?”
I want to ask this question not because I enjoy atrocity, but because I am capable of the postmodern complexity of holding multiple feelings and competing appreciations within me simultaneously. In this case, that multiplicity includes the horror and revulsion at the tragic events occurring in our world as well as the aesthetic delight at the spectacle of color, shape, line, emotion, symbolism, and meaning on vivid display, emerging somewhat accidentally (and perhaps with more purity) through the photojournalistic medium.
As if to concede this very point I’m making and pay homage to the “What is art?” debate, the author goes on to admit, “The most capable photojournalists…have learned to incorporate the unruliness of color into a deliberate statement. …Barbaric rule can operate in the broadest daylight, suffering can happen in sensual settings, a place can be cruel and inviting at the same time.”
And so we see that through the inescapable conduit of subjectivity, passive observation becomes intentional communication, and thus, photojournalism can also be the highest of art forms, loaded with inspiration for artists working in any medium. I’ve always appreciated the best journalistic photography for this transcendent ability, the point at which the happenings of this world become awe-inspiring images, and the deepest truths contained in the human condition are put on poetic display.
So once and for all, “What is art?” This question may never be fully answered. But with an integral approach and an open mind, artists and viewers alike can use this line of inquiry to enrich their experience of reality, to deepen the communication that is the purpose of all art, and to find beauty everywhere, even where it may be unintended.
1The Situationists of the 1960s took this evolution to the extreme, espousing radical anarchist views on art that embraced destruction and merciless re-appropriation of all imagery, in the service of transforming society and conscious reality into a powerful and playful dialogue with the present moment.
2Lacayo, Richard. “IV: Resurgence 1980-1995.” Eyewitness: 150 Years of Photojournalism. New York CIty: Time, 1995. 166. Print.
By Nick Baxter
Here’s a process sequence for a tiny diptych painting I did a few months ago related to the recurring theme in my work of healing wounds.
This tiny little pair will be included in the forthcoming art catalogue Pint Size Paintings Volume 2, which compiles these small paintings completed by members of the worldwide tattoo community, and features them in a traveling art show.
I wrote about the Tibetan Buddhist symbolism surrounding my use of the hook symbol last year, after completing Shenpa I (which now resides in the collection of the amazing and prolific figurative painter Shawn Barber!).
By Nick Baxter
Here’s a recent piece I completed for submission to an upcoming charity art exhibit at The Egan Gallery in Fullerton, California, curated by friend and fellow artist Cody Raiza who is a passionate animal welfare activist.
By Nick Baxter
In a delightful twist of fate last week, an email appeared on my computer screen (via my subscription to the Core Integral newsletter) that advanced and expanded the concepts I attempted to shed light on with my last blog post, about what art is and how to use it as an effective communication. So, in an impromptu Part 1.5 of my ongoing inquiry, here is the text of that newsletter with a link to the lecture it refers to, followed by a brief review of its major concepts.
“Think of a piece of art that you are particularly struck by. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a painting, a piece of music, a film, or any other expression of beauty that you find yourself impressed with or inspired by. Visualize the piece in your mind’s eye—or, if you like, open a new tab in your web browser and Google it, so it’s right in front of you. As you admire your preferred object of beauty, ask yourself a simple question: how can I tell what this means? How do you answer?
By Nick Baxter
“If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”
This is the kind of existential crisis I circumnavigate when considering (read: having anxiety about) the effectiveness of my paintings and the symbolism I choose to communicate with. Am I effectively expressing my intended meaning? And is my intended meaning aligning with the viewer’s perceived meaning? Does it even matter?
It can be argued that what makes something art is the group participatory act; it almost always requires someone other than its creator to see it. Art is, in general terms, a unit of cultural information that is put forth by participant A, and taken in by participant B. Hence, a communication. Always. A message is always put out, whether the artist intends to or not. This visual communication is even more fundamental than our ever-present and taken for granted verbal communication. At its most primal level, visual art certainly is more direct–it’s sub-verbal, it requires no complicating exchange of written or oral language.
Mike Rubendall: Before I was physically active and aware of what being in good health was, I had major back and neck pain. It seems to be a common problem amongst tattooers due to poor posture and long hours of tattooing throughout the years.
Have you had to see a doctor, chiropractor, masseuse therapist, acupuncturist or anything similar because of problems or because you want to avoid them?
I would regularly see a massage and physical therapist. They have been helpful for me for the most part. However, I feel maintaining a healthy diet and exercise is a more effective method to avoid any type of chronic pain caused by tattooing… (more…)
Get ready, the Paradise Tattoo Gathering is this week!
Tattooers, apprentices, collectors and the curious have been registering for the Paradise Tattoo Gathering which is coming up September 13-16 in Keystone Colorado. Hotel rooms and Condos are being booked, and seminar registrations are coming in every day. Jeff Gogue’s seminar only has 15 spaces left out of 100, so don’t snooze on registering!
This years lineup is truly amazing: Tattooing, workshops, seminars and live painting are being led by the likes of Bob Tyrrell, Adrian Lee, Tommy Lee, Nick Baxter, Jeff Gogue, Tom Strom, Chet Zar, Damon Conklin, Nikko Hurtado, Alex De Pase, Big Gus, Shawn Barber, Jo Harrison, BJ Betts, Megan Hoogland, Cory Ferguson, Seth Ciferri, James Kern, Jason Kundell and many, many more. We hope to see you there! (more…)
So what would our society look like if everyone wholeheartedly explored their personal limits, found their edges, played with them, gracefully forgave themselves for inevitable shortcomings and learned to remain steadfast in that shaky, uncertain, sometimes excruciating inner territory? My guess is that the resulting paradigm shift would have vastly positive effects on both the collective and personal levels… (more…)
Living with these concepts begins to have another, more subtle transformative effect: you begin to embrace doing things now for the benefits you’ll reap later, like an expert chess player who thinks 5 moves in advance. Lifting weights once doesn’t guarantee an Olympian’s physique, nor does one meditation session result in total liberation of the mind. But small daily challenges and rational, calculated risks, repeated over a long enough span of time, help cultivate patience and an unshakable trust in yourself that helps you stay focused on your larger goals… (more…)
One important distinction becomes apparent sometime after embarking on a personal challenge program: that you are suddenly at odds with the prevailing cultural attitude of convenience and pleasure craving. Someone obsessed with meeting and mastering challenges easily develops a counterintuitive yet healthy relationship to discomfort. The uneasiness of this feeling becomes a signpost letting you know you’re following the correct path, rather than a warning sign to turn around or shut down. Suffering (in appropriate amounts) becomes a valuable commodity, a friendly companion in a sometimes-lonely quest for betterment… (more…)
A great way to picture all of this visually is to represent yourself or any person as a circle. Since a circle has no beginning or end, and no corners, openings or angles, it’s perfect for representing the psychological concepts of wholeness and growth… (more…)
The Path Of Resistance
Another way of explaining this practice is through the concept of physical resistance. All weight training, bodybuilding, and other fitness modalities are built upon this one inescapable law of physics. For example, a person’s muscles may reach failure and soreness after their first attempt at lifting a designated amount of weight. After the proper sequences of rest and further attempts are followed, the 20th attempt at lifting this same amount of weight may feel effortless, and the weight must then be increased so that the muscles can be challenged to grow stronger once more. In essence, if you undertake some type of challenge enough times in a controlled manner, the task will eventually become easier. Apply the weight resistance metaphor to anything difficult you’ve worked on in your life, and you’ll quickly see a correlation… (more…)
Introduction: The Terrain
Imagine walking a tightrope stretched high above the ground, a wire so taught and thin that to slip to either side would result in certain injury, like traversing the edge of a razor. Behind you lies the wreckage of your former limitations—no turning back! On the horizon awaits the realization of all your life’s goals and dreams. To either side, nihilism and oblivion. Slowly, surely, forward is the way… the only way… (more…)
Petri Aspvik: What type of physical problems have you encountered due to tattooing?
Nick Baxter: Obviously tattooing can put strain on your fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders, neck, spine and lower back. In broader terms, all of these body parts are connected, like a series of stops on a train. The physical action of sitting and extending your arms, making small, repetitive hand motions over long periods of time puts stress on the body that just goes down the continuous line of interconnected body parts. I deal with pain, strain, and discomfort in all of these areas on a regular basis… (more…)
By Chet Zar
I only discovered the tattoo community about 3 years ago when I was invited by tattoo artist Jon Lane to paint live at 2009′s Visionary Tattoo Art Festival. I was impressed from the start. Not only were these artists creating truly cutting edge art work on skin (conceptually, tattooing blows every other artistic statement out of the water, in my opinion), they were also painting as good as or better than a lot of well known contemporary painters I’ve seen. I was truly blown away at the variety of styles, techniques and ideas and wondered why I wasn’t seeing a lot of this stuff at the galleries I was showing at and going to, especially when a lot of the artists were expressing interest in showing at these galleries… (more…)