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Curious Frame - Issue #15 - What is Art?

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #15 - What is Art?
By Leanne Staples • Issue #15 • View online
Let me begin this issue by telling you that I am a bit of a radical. A radical thinker. But actually it’s not all that radical to me and my ideas are not very likely novel.

I have arrived at where I am now through a series of continual failures to fit in. I am the square peg that doesn’t fit in the round hole, or perhaps whole.

It has taken me much of my life to finally give myself license to stop trying to do things in the ‘prescribed’ manner. It has been a journey of unlearning and creating on my own. Perhaps that could be considered one method of finding your own creativity and recipe for making art.

Maybe radical is too radical of a definition. But let’s talk about art in this issue. What a dangerous topic to attempt to conquer! But before digging into the subject, you should know that rather than providing you with concrete answers, it is more likely that I will be providing many questions.

It is my belief that in life, the best questions don’t have one size fits all answers. Rather, the best questions, in my opinion, typically lead to more questions.

Some questions may never have answers and other answers will vary from person to person. They are fluid and even change over time for each person as do our memories. 

Look at that, another segue from the previous issue. I assure you that it was not planned that way. Coincidences and chance are great for art and creativity! And perhaps all roads lead to the same place eventually.

Important Note - if you use Gmail, you will need to open this newsletter in your browser as the length of this newsletter exceeds Gmails’ limit. I only just realized this. So you may want to review what you missed in previous issues. Thanks!

Readers comments:
Curious Frame exists for you, the readers. It is fabulous how so many people are involved in the dialogue and with so many different opinions about what photography means to us.

Let the dialogue continue! Your opinions are valued. No advanced degrees or education required.

All you need to do to join the dialogue is hit reply. You can even reply about earlier issues as well. Comments below are from Issue 14 - Memory & Photography.

One reader wrote:
for me photography is in its essence documentary and as such it will always work to remind us of facts, people etc and such.
Who doesn’t have family photos hanging on the walls or photo albums stored on the shelf? 8 and super 8 films, videos, newspaper clippings or travel souvenirs, postcards …..
Yes! Memories appear in many different formats. Thanks for your comments.
Sharing is Cool! If you’ve been forwarded this email or are reading online, consider joining the dialogue by subscribing. If you are looking for past issues you can find them all in the archive at the link below.
BTW you can give this newsletter a thumbs up or down at the end and you can also share it on social media to Twitter or Facebook.
What is Art?
Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1503-1506, is "the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world".
Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1503-1506, is "the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world".
Preface - Before jumping into the deep end, it is important to note that I write about my personal experiences and my process of thinking aloud. It is always about my personal feeling. There is no gospel truth here.

Did I mention that I love dialogue? So this is my 2¢ worth on art and trying to arrive at a working definition what it is and it’s purpose and meaning. Yes, I look forward to hearing your comments.

One of the most important things for me is that I am so very tired of the use of loaded words and all the ’speak’ that fails to include people without advanced degrees in whichever area.

I immediately think of Oliver Sachs’ ability to write about neurology in a manner that everyone can understand. Who knew that we can understand and enjoy neurology without an advanced degree?
Andy Warhol; Triple Mona Lisa, 1963.Photo: © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc
Andy Warhol; Triple Mona Lisa, 1963.Photo: © 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc
For us, art is that which we find under this name: something which simply is, and which doesn’t need to conform to laws in order to exist; a complicated social product. Robert Musil

I think it’s safe to say that most everyone would consider Mona Lisa art even if they don’t like it. It is one of the most recognizable paintings of all time and it was painted more than 500 years ago.

Many major artists including Warhol (see above image) have reinterpreted it. And there are many versions on The Simpson’s as well. (image below.)
Mona Lisa Marge. Is this art?
Mona Lisa Marge. Is this art?
Art is a word that I’m not going to tell you that I entirely understand. Actually, I understand the word. The problem is how something comes to be given the classification as art. What is art and what isn’t?

Art is a dialogue with the past and the future and it includes society, culture, philosophy and the politics of the times that we live in. And like memory, our definition of art changes over time.

The problem with philosophers is that they do not see anything. Simon Hantai.

My preoccupation with language stretches to Plain English. I have arrived at this place in my life as a result of being frustrated by language which does not provide a clear understanding of what it is supposed to mean. 
Jasper Johns, Flag (1954–55), While the image of the Stars and Stripes appears elsewhere in American art, no one transcribed the subject as literally as Johns did here.
Jasper Johns, Flag (1954–55), While the image of the Stars and Stripes appears elsewhere in American art, no one transcribed the subject as literally as Johns did here.
Art can be described as our interior experience of it. It is possible to describe art as falling into two categories - the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) style of art as a surface expression or a flag is a flag, like Jasper John’s version shown above.

While it is capable of causing us to stop and think of what it means. We can also just say, hey that’s an American flag. It’s art? Well, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is one of many ‘authorities’ on art that believes it is. It’s entirely up to you to decide if that’s true for you.
Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889 was painted during his stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It is considered the number 2 most well known paintings after the Mona Lisa.
Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889 was painted during his stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It is considered the number 2 most well known paintings after the Mona Lisa.
Anything is art if an artist says it is. Marcel Duchamp.

And then there’s the intuitive process that aims to draw the viewer in to a deeper maybe even a metaphysical experience. Oh, metaphysical need not be thought of as spiritual or difficult to understand. Rather, meta + physical = beyond the physical. Maybe there’s something more there than the facade of paint on canvas.

Art should always aim to draw us in to question or to complete the meaning. It can be seen as a form of thinking. Yes, that includes photography and a method of communication without being confined by language and words.

Since we are not robots that are programmed to all think the same thing, that leaves interpretation wide open. Perhaps it is a good time to move into some photographic examples.
Saul Leiter Walk with Soames, 1958 Chromogenic print; printed later ©Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.
Saul Leiter Walk with Soames, 1958 Chromogenic print; printed later ©Saul Leiter Foundation, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.
You may know that perhaps my favorite photographer of all time is Saul Leiter. Before he took up photography, he was a painter and he continued to paint throughout his years as a photographer.

I recently received the best ever gift of a photography book of Leiter’s work and the above photo is on the slip cover. To me, this photo is true art! Of course, you could say that he was already an artist when he became a photographer. ‘What hope do I have of my work being considered art?’
Saul Leiter, Rain, 1950s, silver gelatine, 5x7 inches.
Saul Leiter, Rain, 1950s, silver gelatine, 5x7 inches.
This is what we might call street photography and it too is considered art. It is also far more accessible than much of the art that we see in museums and galleries which often need lengthy descriptions to explain/justify why it is a piece of art.

Photography uncovers meanings even where none might be intended. Ian Jeffrey.
One of my criteria for defining art is, would I display it on the wall of my studio? This is not a very objective method of making a determination. But there isn’t anything objective about art. It is entirely subjective.

But because photography and art don’t need translation like language does, we can have an immediate feeling about it. There are many different preferences that we have without thinking about them.
Me and Mona Lisa and Antje, New York City, 21 December 2021
Me and Mona Lisa and Antje, New York City, 21 December 2021
I can tell you that things that rate highly on my list that could lead to defining a photo as art include a particular color palette or a particular monochrome processing which can be either digital or film. Certain compositions also rate higher than others.

Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even it is clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work. William Klein

I also really appreciate creativity and photographers who have their own style. Breaking or stretching the so-called rules and blurring the boundaries of photography are other aspects that are high on my list.

Ironically, when I look at a photo, I don’t have a conscious thought, this is art or that is not. That is not something I do nor is it necessary.
William Klein painted on a number of his contact sheets. His photography was already considered art. But these contact sheets really push it up a few notches. Dance in Brooklyn, New York, 1955 20 x 24 inches Hand-painted gelatin silver print; painted 2005
William Klein painted on a number of his contact sheets. His photography was already considered art. But these contact sheets really push it up a few notches. Dance in Brooklyn, New York, 1955 20 x 24 inches Hand-painted gelatin silver print; painted 2005
Maybe it’s really a good thing that there isn’t one gospel definition of what art is. Yes, art is very much subjective. It IS in the eye of the beholder! Your feeling about it is all that really matters when observing a piece. Perhaps this is the radical aspect of my definition of art.

The fact that there is no single definition means that we also have a wide variety of artistic styles. It is not necessary for a work of art to have only one definition.

We should celebrate that art doesn’t fit neatly into one category. And yes, photography is also art so long as you view that way. I do! Just because someone calls it art doesn’t mean that you have to like it. Do you know of a universal definition of art?
portraits in (de)construction 1, New York City, August 2016.
portraits in (de)construction 1, New York City, August 2016.
It is possible that the things we choose to remember often have an element of art to them. Certainly a photo or a painting can manage to imprint itself on our minds. That in and of itself is a kind of art.

What are the criteria that you use to define something as art? I hope that if nothing else, you will come to regard art as those things that have an impact on you. You don’t need an expert to tell you what art is. It is whatever you choose.
Photography Is - Part Nine
Love + Be Loved, New York City, May 2019
Love + Be Loved, New York City, May 2019
Truth resides in photography only as much as the person who took it believed it was worth shooting it.
Truth in photography exists when the viewer can relate to the image that is represented in a photo.
Reading list:
  •  de Duve, Thierry. Kant after Duchamp, The MIT Press, 1998.
  • Freeland, Cynthia. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Girst, Thomas. The Duchamp Dictionary, Thames & Hudson, 2014.
  • Jeffrey, Ian. How to Read a Photograph: Lessons from Master Photographers, Abrams, 2008.
  • Rodgers, Paul. The Modern Aesthetic, Paul Rodgers/9W, 2017.
Further viewing:
William Klein: In Pictures
You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
Art, Etcetera | That Other Space Shop
Shop for Art, Zines & Publications - Leanne Staples
Did you enjoy this issue?
Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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