Can art — as opposed to craft — be taught?
I don’t think so, at least not directly, but artists can be taught things that allow them to find a path to making better art. There’s an analogy with creativity. I think the following statements are true of both creativity and artistic ability. Everybody’s got some inside of them. There are techniques that can be taught to unlock a lot of what’s there. Most people don’t use much of their potential.
Inhibition is one of the major killers in both creativity and art. In a classic creativity thought experiment, people are asked:
You are in a room that is an 8x8x8 cube. There are no windows or doors. In the center of the floor is a 12 inch pipe sticking 6 inches out of the floor. At the bottom of the pipe is a ping-pong ball with a diameter one millimeter smaller than the inner diameter of the pipe. You have a 12 inch piece of string, a match, a magnifying glass, a 6″ ruler and a paper clip. How do you get the ping pong ball out of the hole?
The simplest answer is to pee in the hole. Most people don’t think of that. There are places in our brains that we’ve been conditioned to avoid. That hurts creativity. There are definite parallels in photography. On the physical plane, many photographers don’t work well in the street because they are shy. In image design, some photographers won’t break rules even when following them weakens the image. Some people won’t consider some subjects because they are somehow off limits. You get the idea.
So what could an organization like the CPA do to help artists in their development?
The best way to improve as an artist is to make art. Yet, large numbers of aspiring artists simply stop trying. They grow discouraged and quit. They don’t achieve fulfillment and find something else to do with their time. For most people there are many things competing for their time, and if art slips down on the priority list, a death spiral can start, where less time spent on art means less progress means less satisfaction means less time spent on art.
There are many things an organization can do to provide useful support to photographic artists.
The first is to provide a meeting place where artists can find each other. Exhibitions, lectures, print critiques, and workshops all serve that function, even if is usually considered a side effect.
The second is to provide activities that encourage artists to communicate with each other on a deeper level than casual conversation. Workshops involving group discussion are great for this. Even better are workshops that take place over several days, where focused discussion, informal conversations, communal meals, and, sometimes, mild sleep deprivation combine to foster deeply meaningful interaction.
A more concrete thing to do is to offer education in art history. Principally photography, but not just photography – any flat art can have relevance to photography. The utility of such education is not to give artists things to copy, even though attempting to copy someone else’s photograph can be surprisingly difficult and informative to one’s craft. The main purpose of art history tutelage is to show artists where they fit in the great sweep of capital-A-Art. We all are influenced by those who went before, mostly for good, but sometime for ill. It’s a big advantage to artists if this influence is recognized, understood in detail, and integrated into art-making.
A form of support with a long history in photography is mentorship. A mentoring relationship differs from the usual workshop experience in two important ways. It takes place over an extended period – months or years. It consists of one-on-one sessions. The combination of these two qualities yields a deeper experience than a class. Many people have told me of mentor relationships that have changed their photographic lives.
Another potentially helpful thing to do is to target art-making enablers. This is tricky, but the creativity analogy yields some possible directions. These are highly speculative at this point. Some of them are certain to be bad ideas, but they may serve to stimulate productive thought.
- Photography is about seeing. Drawing is about seeing. Maybe photographers should take drawing classes.
- Photography is about turning the artist’s unconscious thoughts and emotions into images. Maybe we should have classes in meditation for photographers to allow them to explore their interior spaces on their own. Maybe we should have guided meditations designed to let artists dredge up suppressed thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
- Photography is about expressing emotion and meaning in visual ways. Maybe we should have seminars exploring the philosophy of visual expression. This has the danger of turning into a trip down the post-modern rabbit hole, but might be worth a try.
- Photography is about the visual depiction of spirituality. If we could find a way to foster a discussion of spirituality that is welcoming and small-c-catholic rather than prescriptive, narrowing, and carries the burden of orthodoxy, maybe that would enable photographers to be more effective.
- Photography is about beauty. Maybe we could have a philosophical discussion on the nature and visual vocabulary of beauty.
- Photography is about creativity. Maybe we could have a workshop that uses the tools and methods developed by James Adams (of Conceptual Blockbusting fame), Michael Michalko, and others in the service of artistic creativity.
It’s a lot harder to think of how to help artists move along their own highly personal road than it is to help them learn craft, but maybe the above is a place to start.