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Thursday Morning Roundup


by Stephen Becker 11 Dec 2008

Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta, Chamaeleon Cristatus, 1896; Photogravure/SFMOMA THE NATURE OF THINGS: I love a good “is this art?” debate. And it seems one is brewing in San Francisco. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has organized “Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840-1900,” a collection of scientific photos that explore […]

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Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta, Chamaeleon Cristatus, 1896; Photogravure/SFMOMA

THE NATURE OF THINGS: I love a good “is this art?” debate. And it seems one is brewing in San Francisco. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has organized “Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840-1900,” a collection of scientific photos that explore the medium’s ability to further what humans can see. For example, X-rays and images of microscopic objects.

The reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle throws out the question of the show’s artistic merit right at the top. By the end of the review, it doesn’t seem like much of a conclusion is made. Which is fine — this is a topic that has no right answer, only opinions.

What’s interesting in this case is the idea that the motives behind the creation of the image might be considered in determining its artistic value. These photographs were made for scientific purposes, but does that exclude them from also being viewed as works of art? It’s the other side of the argument that says if an artist hangs a blank canvas on the wall and calls it art, then it’s art.

I suppose the next step in the “is it art” conversation should always be “is it good art”? In the example of the blank canvas, my argument is no. That’s just lazy. At the same time, if someone were to view the canvas and assign some deep meaning to its emptiness or something like that, it can get hard to argue with their personal sentiments.

I’m not sure that my brain is awake enough to probe this question much more. But I know we have a lot of artists who read this blog, so I would be interested in your take on these questions. And if any of you would like to take a crack at defining art for the purposes of determining this specific exhibition’s worthiness, the floor is yours. I realize this is a subject that people have written books on, but who says we can’t extend the conversation a little?

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