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A Question Of Art

Posted by acdtest on December 15, 2002

A Question Of Art

n a recent discussion concerning the color landscape photographs of Galen and Barbara Rowell, and to the displeasure of all present, I declared the photographs to be “trash art.” I of course realized I was using the term due solely the context of the particular discussion in which I was engaged as ordinarily I would have referred to the rather spectacular landscape images of both these photographers (both of whom died in an airplane crash this past August) as kitsch. Pretty and superficially appealing kitsch to be sure, but kitsch nevertheless; the sort of stuff one might find as original illustrations for pricey wall calendars sold at certain mainstream retail outlets. In other words, not art at all, trash or otherwise, except by using the term carelessly and informally.

But what made me so certain — instantly certain — these images didn’t qualify as genuine art? What criterion or criteria was I using to instantly and subliminally make that judgment? And were real criteria involved at all, or was it simply a matter of my gut-level prejudices at work?

These were questions that occurred to me later that evening, and as it turns out, I’m pleased to relate, real criteria were indeed involved, although it’s easier to know them than it is to tell them.

But let me risk the attempt.

First, and easiest to tell and understand, is that, unless something abstract is intended, by the very fact of the photographs being color photographs of nature subjects, they’re incapable of nuanced manipulation, and the color image rendered is just about guaranteed to be hyper-real in both saturation and hue, and therefore just about guaranteed irredeemably vulgar. Color photographs of nature subjects almost always are (I say almost to allow for the unlikely possibility that somewhere, by someone, there exists a color photograph of a nature subject that’s not irredeemably vulgar).

Further, the color rendered in the image under any given natural lighting conditions is determined entirely by the manufacturer’s “build” of the emulsion and its subsequent absolutely rigid processing, and the results are therefore exactly the same for all users, only extremely limited post-processing alteration of the color image being permitted with negative stock, and none at all with positive. (One can, of course, go to a third-generation print from an internegative made from the positive, in which case the extremely limited post-processing alterations possible using original negative stock would obtain, but with all the deterioration of image quality that third-generation implies).

Also, and perhaps more importantly, brightness ranges in nature are the most extreme of any location, and color stock, both negative and positive, but especially positive, can handle only a very limited portion of that range (as compared with black-and-white stock), brightnesses at the top of the actual scale going very quickly and abruptly to detail-less and texture-less off-color whites in the image, and at the bottom, to detail-less and texture-less blacks.

And so the image color and capturable brightness range are, ultimately, rigidly determined by the manufacturer of the film (and of the paper as well in the case of color prints), the putative artist being entirely at the mercy of the emulsions he uses, and therefore having to accept whatever color image those emulsions and their rigid processing produce, unless he chooses to go a manifestly abstract route, in which case the nature photograph becomes not a nature photograph at all, but something quite different.

Less easy to understand for many is the fact that a color photograph, unless manifestly intended as an abstraction, pretends to reality; that is, it pretends to render with fidelity things in the natural world as seen normally by the eyes of Homo sapiens, and it’s due that very fact that the messing about with the color image is so severely limited. Go beyond that narrow limit and the color rendering is perceived instantly as in some way “wrong” or, worse, inept.

This problem, as well as the others noted above, is not a problem when working with black-and-white materials, negative and print, as a black-and-white print is instantly perceived as an abstraction from the get-go, and therefore the range and degree of manipulation of the image for expressive purpose — both in- and out-of-camera, and at just about every stage of production — is, at bottom, and within widely separated boundaries, limited only by the expressive gift and technical skill of the photographer.

The upshot of all this is that any color photograph of a nature subject, except in the rarest of instances (I’m again covering my ass here; I’ve never actually encountered such an instance), is just about guaranteed to have about it a sense of sameness with other such color photographs, and have about it as well a sense of the mechanically constrained, both of which are art-destroying at the most fundamental level.

And such is the case with all the Rowell photographs I’ve ever seen, on their Website and at first hand.

But there’s even more to it than that in the case of these photographs. Like all non-art, the Rowell images have no secrets, or having them, give them up all at once on very first apprehension. That’s a virtual hallmark of all non-art. No genuine work of art does that — ever. Genuine art, whatever its medium, always possesses secrets, and gives them up slowly, one by one, only to the most searching and probing eye or ear, the greatest works seemingly having an almost bottomless store which are never divulged entirely no matter how long and deep the searching and probing.

Which brings me to my initial rule-of-thumb criterion for judging whether a work is genuine art or not whatever its medium: The Jabberwocky Test. If a work fails that test on first and repeated apprehensions it’s unquestionably and irredeemably non-art, and to the extent it meets the test is it art of greater or lesser degree.

“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!” exclaimed Alice after reading Jabberwocky for the first time. The capacity of a work to provoke that feeling in an informed and experienced receiver is almost a very definition of genuine art, and regardless of its medium, any work absent that quality is most assuredly non-art.

The Jabberwocky Test in no way depends on the tester finding the work under test to be personally appealing. What it does depend on is the depth of the tester’s knowledge of the domain to which the work belongs, and his ability to put aside his personal likes and dislikes, and make his judgment based on the qualities of the work itself.

For instance, I’ve a marked antipathy toward 19th- and 20th-century French music, but that doesn’t in the least prevent me from at once recognizing that the works of, say, Debussy (whose works I particularly loathe) most decidedly pass Jabberwocky muster. My knowledge of music permits me to make that determination with some measure of confidence. Similarly, but on the flip side, I positively adore the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle, but my personal love of that classic and enduring canon does not in any way prevent me seeing clearly that as literature it most decidedly fails Jabberwocky as enduring as that canon has been for the past 100 years or so (its endurance beyond its time of novelty due a certain nostalgia peculiar to the last half of the last century in particular which is fast losing its power). Again, my knowledge of literature permits me that judgment with some measure of confidence.

So, neither a matter of being personally captivated by a work, nor of “I know art when I see it,” but rather a matter of sufficient knowledge brought to bear in cool detachment from one’s own personal quirks, prejudices, likes, and dislikes.

Not as difficult as it sounds, strange to tell.

As a first determiner of art and non-art, I’ve found The Jabberwocky Test virtually infallible, and the Rowells’ spectacular landscape photographs fail the test most resoundingly. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum said the ancient sage. But in matters as important as art, truth trumps…everything.

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