Free culture

Since writing “At face value” I’ve had a number of discussions related to the subject of “value” where art is concerned including some excellent comments on the post itself from Ray Ketcham and Andreas Manessinger. I don’t want to spend much more time on the subject as I am not qualified enough to explore the topic any further than I already have but I would like to share some thoughts that have come up on the subject in the last few weeks.

It appears that there is a huge surge of creativity these days, borne out of the digital age no doubt. I say ‘appears’ because it’s difficult to know if there is indeed an increase in creative flow or if we are simply able to share it more easily thus giving the ‘appearance’ that there is more creative work in the world. I am guessing that there is a little of both. Put a camera on every phone and suddenly everyone’s a photographer. It may not all be art but it is creative, for better or for worse.

Some of the discussions I’ve had of late have explored whether this proliferation of creative work is in fact, a good thing. We’ve wondered if the laws of supply and demand will come into effect and devalue all creative work, including all art work, not just in financial terms but also in terms of preciousness and uniqueness. After all if everyone out in the streets is shooting street scenes will we ever have another Cartier-Bresson and if all the people out in nature shoot landscapes will we ever have another Ansel Adams? And then there is still the question of Creative Commons versus Copyright. If there is so much work available for free what incentive will artists have to continue being artists.

My thoughts on this cannot be taken as academic or well-informed since I only consider myself creative and not artistic and furthermore I am not driven to create the way so many of my artistic friends tend to be.  Keeping that in mind, I have a few friends who have acquired a new-found, creative zeal with the advent of digital media and, having received much positive feedback from their “followers” decided some time back to make a go of it, that is, to try to make a living from their art. I can say that none has managed to throw in their day-job; some make enough to cover their costs; most feel disillusioned and all seem to blame, to various extent, the very vehicle that energised their initial artistic awakening, namely, the Internet. I am offering this purely as an observation and will refrain from drawing any conclusions — my “sample data” is too small to do so.

Where photography is concerned these friends believe wholeheartedly that the ease with which digital media is shared or copied is what makes it impossible for artists to make a living from their art. With that thought in mind I brought up the fact that there are a number of artistic forms of expression that are not in any way, shape or form protected by copyright laws and though they may not be quite as easy to copy are nonetheless copied fervently. Food and fashion are two such areas where intellectual property cannot be protected. There’s a TED talk given by Johanna Blakely called “Lessons from fashion’s free culture” which sheds an interesting light on the matter. Again, I am not drawing any conclusions and I am not proposing that what Blakely suggest is appropriate for all artwork. In fact, some of my friends refused to accept that recipes and fashion designs could possibly be thought of as art. For the record I disagree with them. Having been fortunate enough to have eaten in some excellent restaurants I have to say that I do regard food as being a wonderful vehicle for artistic expression — perhaps one of the best, as food can engage all of the senses when done properly. Fashion also can be an amazing medium for creativity.

As I’ve stated repeatedly, I do not wish to conclude anything or make any suggestions but all this talk with my friends has made me wonder: What would have happened if things like photography and music had never been protected by law? Would we have less music and less photographic fine art due to artists having no incentive to create or would we currently be experiencing incredibly original artworks in both these fields due to artists being forced to innovate in order to stay ahead? Are these questions pointless because the very medium in which digital art is created ensures that there will never be an easy solution? Musicians can go on tour to make money but what of photographers? Unfortunately I do not possess any answers though I do have faith in human innovation, especially when it comes to art and I feel quite certain that even the threat of financial poverty will never quash the creative flow when it demands to be manifested. Or perhaps I am too naive and idealistic.

At face value

She wanted more fun in her life so she bought herself a funny looking car but somehow that only made her feel like the dot in the exclamation mark of life.

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.

After a life-long search she had found love. Apparently it had something to do with recycling.

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?”

Watch that first step, it's a doozy

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.