I feel fortunate that occasionally I am asked if my photos are available for use in some way or other. Most recently I was asked about one of my images to be used for the cover of a book and just prior to that I was asked about another image to be used as a background to a web site. I have also been asked to have some of my images in galleries and coffee shops and I am most grateful and flattered that on occasions I have been paid for some of these images.
In light of this I would like to talk about something I’ve had problems getting my head around ever since I started posting images on the Internet. When I first looked at posting images online I asked around for advice, wanting primarily to know what site I should use. Surprisingly most of the advice I was given was about securing what some of my friends referred to as my intellectual property. I was given all sorts of advice about copyright to ensure that my images were safe. Ironically, without exception, every one who gave me advice about this seemed to have no qualms about downloading music, movies and even other people’s images regardless of copyright infringement. I found that amusing.
In any case, despite having reservations I followed the advice given to me when I finally opened my account with Flickr. I “protected” my “intellectual property”, albeit and all the while, with a nagging, underlying uncertainty. Much later when a friend suggested I create a web site to sell my images it was recommended to me that I use RedBubble. Once again the recommendation for this particular site was given with reference to their security.
My friends all mean well. After all, copying a Monet is no easy task and would need a significant amount of skill on the part of the forger but when it comes to digital art it is little more than “right click>Save As” and an exact copy is born. So it seems perfectly rational to take appropriate precautions when dealing with digital art. But in my case I cannot help but wonder: what exactly am I protecting? And why am I protecting it? “Because they’re your photographs,” my friends have said, “because you don’t want other people profiting from your work.” But I do want people to profit from what I do even if it’s only in some insignificant way; I don’t have much else to offer. But of course my friends mean profiting in terms of money and in terms of undeserved recognition. As one friend put it, “You’ve got to know what your photos are worth and accept nothing less for them.”
So I have to ask, what is the value of art?
I make photographs and write this blog as a means of expression and as a means to understand this thing I call my life. And it is precisely because of this endeavour that I have come to realise that in reality I do it mostly for fun, for the simple joy of creating and sharing. I have stipulated in the past that I am not an artist, at least in the sense that I do not feel driven to make photographs and I would not get too emotional if my camera was to stop working or if I was to lose it. Being the cheapskate that I am, I doubt I would even buy a replacement camera (as it is, I won the camera I am currently using). What I enjoy most about photography is losing myself in the moments of seeing things around me. The final images recorded by my camera sensor and then post-processed on my computer are incidental. They are not necessary to me even though I am exceptionally grateful for them. The thing is, no matter how often I am told otherwise, I do not see myself as their author. Instead I see each and every photograph as a gift. Creativity flows through this body-mind I refer to as me and leaves behind an image. So while I do not consider myself an artist I consider the images to be creative and artistic in nature. They are made as a means of expression, occasionally as a way to share a message that cannot always be fully expressed in words and most often, these images exist as a means to share the joy of being creative.
In the Western world I find that art is often discussed in terms of monetary value, Mention, Dali, Picasso, Monet or even Cartier-Bresson, White or Adams and people are as likely to talk about dollars as they are to talk of aesthetics and artistic merit. When I first saw the Mona Lisa I overheard someone say “That’s it? It’s so small. Why is it worth so much?”. Good question; why is art or some art, worth so much? Should the value of art be determined in terms of dollars? I can’t offer an answer as I don’t know. I understand that an artist deserves some compensation for his work, that’s just simple economics and I understand the principles of supply & demand but is money the best way to value art? When talking about the importance of art should we consider monetary recompense or elevation of esteem? I suspect when the question is put this way most people would answer: of course not.
So if its not about money and its not about esteem I ask again, what is the value of art?
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu felt that the value of art was in gaining social standing, distinction and prestige. He saw that people valued art according to their social position in society and that art was akin to cultural capital. In other words people — with the financial means — would invest in art purely as a medium to show off their good taste and rise in cultural esteem among their peers. He saw the art world as being out of limits to those of lower social standings because he saw art as being beyond the social and economic necessities of life. At first this may seem somewhat elitist and obnoxious but it’s hard for me to deny that there have been times where I have gone to an exhibition expecting to be astonished, charmed and enraptured by art from the Masters only to be left feeling dejected and flat. My experience with the Mona Lisa was somewhat like that. I entered the Louvres in Paris filled with excitement and anticipation believing that I would soon be feasting my eyes on a transcendent piece of art. The experience, however, was far from uplifting or enlightening. The portrait was small, well out of reach with security guards on either side, multitudes of tourists pushing and shoving and throngs of students chatting loudly. I couldn’t get out of there quickly enough. The thing is, for a long time I couldn’t help but wonder how different my experience might have been had I say been able to purchase the portrait (pure fantasy of course) and then view it on my own wall in my own house. Bourdieu would say that my woeful experience in the Louvres had less to do with ignorance and stupidity on my part and more to do with class and social status. He saw art museums and galleries as vulgar and while I think that is too harsh I would agree that such places are not the most conducive to art appreciation but as Bourdieu would suggest, for us middle-class bourgeoisie, it’s the best we can hope for. In any case for Bourdieu, art’s value lies in its import to one’s social standing but that, to me, is nonsense.
Alright, so I’m ruling out social standing as the answer to “what is the value of art?”
It’s likely that any value art may hold will be personal in essence and I could list many more ideas on the topic from various philosophers, sociologists, historians, art critics and art lovers. Each idea will be correct to each individual and some ideas will resonate with some of us but most likely, never with all of us. So allow me to share my own conclusion, one I share in part with the philosopher and social theorist Herbert Marcuse who suggested that the value of art is in its contribution to the full gamut of human experience. Art contributes to our experience of life, our experience of reality. It does not displace reality or quash it in any way, it does not try to maintain the current state of affairs nor does it try to offer a means to deny life. Marcuse suggests that art, at its best, can be transformative within the experiential fabric of reality. Art allows us to experience deep, joyful and multifarious engagements between ourselves and the world around us. And I totally get that because that is exactly what art generally (and photography specifically) brings to me. But if I leave it at that then it may seem that art’s value is purely in the hedonistic space. I do not want to misconstrue my view on the value of art as nothing more than a gateway to joy and happiness. That, to me, would simply be selling art short. For Herbert Marcuse, and me as well, the rich experiences afforded to us by art goes a little further; art encourages the recognition and celebration of freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from all of life’s distractions. And once freed from the distractions we can venture out on a journey of self-discovery aided by harmonious perception and child-like imagination. Give art the attention it deserves and cosmic order emerges out of the chaos like a rainbow’s appearance after a storm.
And that, I dare say, is what I see to be the value of art. For me. Because as I’ve said the value of art is personal, and intangible, and as such its value can legitimately be an investment, a tax write-off, a mere decoration, a boost to self-esteem, a status symbol, a bit of creative fun. It’s important that I take care not to fall into the trap of believing this particular value to be the only value that art can have or worse still to get myself too attached to art solely because of this value I hold against it. That would only make art another distraction. It’s also worth reminding myself not to take art too seriously because art and any value it may hold is temporary. Like everything else in life. And just as the value of life is in living, the value of art is in creating.
Of course, as always, all of this is nothing more than opinion, a perception filtered by a lifetime of memories but from where I am standing, that is all I have to go by. For a long time now I have “protected” my images as advised by my friends but I cannot deny the underlying feeling that the images I am protecting are gifts and that their real value, as I see it, can only be fully realised when they are shared. I have never said no to anyone who has asked me for one of my images and I have changed over to Creative Commons rather than “All Rights Reserved” copyright. Do with them what you like. You’re welcome to give me credit if you so wish but it’s not necessary. If you remix them in any way I’d like to see the results but again, it’s not a condition.