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What Makes Art Good? Probably Not What You Think

Before you start reading, note that there aren’t any images or subtitles in this post. This isn’t meant as a light read to scan through, this is an essay for if you feel like sitting down and getting into things in some depth. I wrote this mostly as a way to help me think about art, but ultimately decided to post it in case anyone finds it interesting. It’s not the most practical or entertaining article though, so if this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea I’d recommend reading some of the tutorials on the site instead.

As photographers, many of us want to create more than just good images - we want to create art. Art’s a nebulous term that can be defined differently by everyone, but good art is a different story. Good art is the kind of work that’s remembered for centuries. The Mona Lisas and Starry Nights. The Moonrises and Afghan Girls. So what defines good art, and how can photographers create it?

(The term “good art” is arguable, but for the sake of this article let’s assume good art refers to the above. Maybe a better term is great art, iconic art, or something else, but let’s keep it simple.)

Paul Graham discussed good art in his 2006 essay How Art Can Be Good, and he raises some great points. For one, he talks about how good art reaches a broad audience by targeting interests that are common to everyone. That makes sense - it’s probably why the top photos on 500px are always landscapes, women, and animals. Most people find those subjects appealing.

However, are those photos going to be remembered in 100 years? I don’t think so. Most are barely remembered after a week. Why is that? They’re good photos. An interesting, relatable subject, perfect technique, great colours and detail, most people would kill to take photos like that. And yet, they’re not good art in the sense that Afghan Girl is, despite being at least as good technically.

In his article, Paul Graham seems to suggest that 15th century painters created museum worthy pieces because not only were they intensely competitive, but they were surrounded by peers who were painting great works and thus knew they could do the same. This implies that effort is the most important factor, and painters today don’t put in as much effort, or haven’t honed their skills enough to make great paintings. But this doesn’t ring true to me - in every other field, there are people in modern history with far more skill than our ancestors. Mostly because we have a much larger population now, so there’s a greater talent pool as well as more people who are absolutely obsessed with being the best at any given thing.

Indeed, if photorealism was the goal of 15th century painters, many modern painters have completely eclipsed them. And yet, you don’t see those new paintings replacing the flawed ones in art galleries and museums. People don’t care if you paint something more realistic than the Mona Lisa.

So to me, that seems to suggest that technique isn’t actually the main factor in good art. It matters, certainly, but it’s not necessary. Additionally, effort doesn’t seem to be the defining factor either. But we are getting closer - things that are harder to do do seem to be more likely to be remembered. The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, for example, was technically impressive and also a very laborious process, and it’s regarded as one of the best works of art in history.

But what if someone did the same thing today? If a modern painter went out and spent four years painting the ceiling of a church, would they be renowned for it 500 years later? Quite likely no. No matter how good it is or how long it took, the Sistine Chapel would always be seen as the superior work of art.

So this is the crux of good art - novelty. It’s not about quality, or the difficulty of the art, it’s about whether or not it’s something new and unique. Quality and effort are largely byproducts of novelty. Anyone can do something that’s easy to do, so low effort and simple art has been done to death. Technical expertise and effort is a barrier to entry that increases the odds of such art being new and unique.

Let’s return to photography now that we’ve narrowed down the causes of good art. In Paul Graham’s essay, he mentions that faces are a common interest to everyone, and that’s why they’re common subjects in good art. This is part of it, but it’s not the whole story. Novelty is at play here - every face is unique. We’re very good at telling people apart, so most of the time a face in art is new and unique to us. Essentially, featuring people in a photo is a shortcut to novelty.

This is partly why Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work is able to be viewed so favourably. People doing things is hard to recreate. You have a mix of unique people and unique situations, and the end result is tremendous novelty.

Of course, this goes for more than just people photos. Ansel Adams’ famous collection of photos from US national parks is completely bereft of humans. And yet, his work is good art, or as good as it gets in photography. He may not have been the first to photograph the landscapes of the American West, but he was among the first to take high quality photos of many of the scenes, and was the first to have the photos widely distributed. That’s really what matters - if art doesn’t reach an audience, it can’t be good art since it will never be remembered. Getting the photos in front of people was key.

Now, there are thousands of people taking phenomenal photos of the same places Adams photographed. Every day you can check Flickr or 500px and see a new image of Yosemite that’s truly stunning. But it’s too late for those photos. Adams stole the novelty of it, so to create photos with as much staying power you’d need to do something really special.

Other locations may never end up having good art made of them. Take Iceland, for example. One of the most beautiful places on earth, with some spectacular vistas. If anywhere was a candidate for great art, it would be Iceland.

Unfortunately, everyone came upon Iceland at the same time. Every day hundreds of great photos are made at each popular location, and posted online. We’re inundated with images that are all remarkably similar. Adams had the advantage of a decades long head start, where distributing images was very difficult. He’d cemented his status as a good artist well before it became possible for people to share photos to the world themselves. In Iceland however, no one has that advantage. Because of that, all those great photos will possibly be remembered in the aggregate, but 200 years from now you’re unlikely to see the popular Icelandic landscape images in the Louvre. As amazing as the photos are, there’s simply no novelty to them - you can get the same image from a hundred other photographers with a quick online search.

What about good art that isn’t actually technically good, but is still famous and likely will be for some time? The best example I can think of for this is Terry Richardson. His photography is terrible. Let’s not mince words here - as far as I can tell, he gives zero thought to the aesthetic of the image, has minimal technical ability, and puts little effort into any of his photos. And yet, his work is hailed as some of the greatest portraiture of our era. Why is it his work is so great, yet when I accidentally leave on the pop-up flash all my photos are considered rubbish?

Terry Richardson has cultivated novelty in two ways. Firstly, his style of photography is not used on celebrities. The reason why our lousy shots of family gatherings or whatever suck is because there are innumerable such images, and anyone can take them. But apply that same snapshot style of photography to celebrities and it’s a totally different story. Everyone else uses elaborate lighting and great composition to create amazing photos of celebrities, so Richardson’s approach contrasts heavily with the norm. Additionally, he’s intentionally or not stirred up tons of controversy about himself. Bad for the reputation, good for notoriety. This further sets him apart from most other photographers, and when you combine it all he has an extremely unique body of work.

Finally, what about photos that seem to lack it all - effort, quality, and novelty? The photo, Rhein II, is famous for selling a 4.3 million dollar print in 2011. And yet it’s probably one of the most boring photos anyone could ever imagine. Additionally, it’s not even taken at a unique moment in time - it’s just a normal cloudy day, and people in the scene were removed in post-production. Anyone could take such a photo, and I’d imagine similar photos have been taken. So why is this photo going to be remembered over all the amazing shots on social media?

Novelty remains the cause. Even though there’s nothing novel about the photo, the fact that it sold for $4.3 million is novelty enough. The very act of paying so much for it made it valuable. And the fact that it’s such a boring photo adds to that novelty - no one would expect such a pedestrian image to be worth so much. So the novelty doesn’t actually have to be inherent to the photo itself, novelty of circumstance can contribute as well. You might also categorize someone’s brand in the same way. A piece of art by a famous artist is more likely to be remembered by virtue of the artist’s name alone. This is still novelty in play, because that artist hasn’t made many art pieces. Even if they took 1000 photos, that’s nothing relative to the trillions of photos out there, so every photo of theirs is rare and special for having their name on it.

Looking at all this, is it even worth making good art? Would you rather have your photo in a museum 200 years from now, or take an image that people actually like?

Unfortunately, it seems that the two are, if not mutually exclusive, close to it. People photography is perhaps a noticeable exception. If you can get a stunning photo of someone with an interesting enough backstory, and many people view the image, it may end up being well regarded as well as being a good photo. Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl image is a great example of this. Photojournalism in general seems like a great candidate here.

In other genres though, good photos are likely to be swiftly replicated. Iceland was swamped with photographers before anyone could capture iconic images, and Patagonia might be next on that list (if it’s not already too late). Some extremely remote regions, like the Arctic, might still offer some potential for good art that’s also amazing, but if your images are that good they might cause enough people to follow in your footsteps that you’re unable to cement your body of work as iconic.

So while it might be nice to take an image that goes down in history as a piece of art, I don’t think it’s an attainable or even a healthy goal for most photographers. It seems to me that photography that amazes and delights is more worthwhile, even if it doesn’t receive critical acclaim. In terms of income, this is also generally a better route. If you’re a professional, clients want good photos, not good art. Sacrificing good photography in the pursuit of good art is a very risky endeavour that likely won’t pay off. Especially if you try to imitate current artists - the world certainly doesn’t need two Terry Richardsons, and attempting to replicate his style or anyone else’s guarantees that your work won’t be novel, and thus it won’t be good art.

Focus on creating images that you and others enjoy and appreciate, and if it so happens that you end up stumbling upon something new and unique then all the better. Ansel Adams didn’t set out to become famous, he just took the best images he could. Maybe your work will be in national galleries in 100 years, or maybe it’ll be forgotten, but if you just try to take great photos you’ll be sure to inspire yourself and others today. And remember - people seeing your work is the first step towards it being recognized as good art.

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Lauchlan Toal is the creator of UnlockCreativePhotography.com, and a Halifax based food photographer. Outside of food photography, he enjoys most genres, finding fun in any kind of photography challenge.

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