“What is art?” (With a nod to Robert Henri)

The approach of Christmas. They say you can hear the dismal cash-register lullaby from afar on a moonless night when the chill winds from the fens stalk the living.
Hmm, this time of year puts me in a strange mood. Here’s another thing that does it: the question “What is art?” It shows its face immediately after the question “is this art?” (often referring to some new fashion).

Talk about this in a forum and see how soon someone posts “define art”. Make no mistake, this is an attempt to shut down the discussion. I used to reply “don’t be such a lazy fellow, look it up yourself”. Now I just write: define “define”. Though I think these criminals miss the fact that I am really asking them to POQ. Never mind, art is a spirit that lives in the heart and touches everything that its possessor does, whether it is carving a sculpture or making dinner. Some have it and some don’t, and the two will probably never understand each other. Which is as it should be, else the world loses its balance.
Perhaps this is one underlying reason for the futility of questioning whether something is art. Why would I raise such a question when the real consideration should be “is this good art?” This has more meaning for me. Alas, sometimes we need go no further than look at the artist’s statement to arrive at the answer “no, it isn’t”. Artists’ statements are often the first step on the road to perdition and need to be treated circumspectly. Some have made me want to place a Welsh mass choir outside the gallery singing “Stand on your head and fall through your arse” to the tune of “Toréador, en garde” from Carmen. Excuse the vulgarity but the medical version “Stand on your cranium and fall through your gluteus maximus” lacks the Anglo-Saxon bluntness.
Sometimes I get past that “front door” to find the work leaves me fairly cold, but I admire it as art in a sort of abstract way. I know that sounds odd, but it can’t be helped. The work of Oscar Rejlander or Andreas Gursky comes to mind.
And sometimes I enter an exhibition and fall speechless to the floor.

When we begin to photograph there are so many technical hurdles to cross we often forget to enjoy the process and just work with what we have, mastering that. The real issues we will face will have nothing to do with whether we have learned all about blend modes. A colour-managed workflow, Photoshop, Lightroom and the like are just useful tools, but if treated as ends in themselves make us complacent. They become the enemy of our art. In the end we have to throw our bodies at our work and find our own solutions. Sometimes when I see a post “my prints are coming out too dark” I want to reply “WELL STOP IT!”

When you learn to decipher something of the artist through their work, all sorts of doors open. A painter shows his character with the placement and intensity of each brushstroke. Likewise, listening to a solo musician, each stroke of the fingers clearly bypasses their reputation to reveal their true character. Every brush stroke, every note, speaks of the person who created it. Some works have been difficult and achieved through pain and suffering. Then that’s what they really are about and when looking or listening to them we sense that and flee the room.
When the struggle we have with turning our inner vision into an outer reality becomes a joyous one it too shows. People respond.
I’ve tended to focus on landscapes because I find them so hard. Weird, I know. In the end when we photograph or paint landscapes we can’t escape being who we are and our notions of the thing we are looking at. And it shows the moment we press the shutter or make our first sketch. Look at the role of landscape images in the formation of national identity or the process of political legitimation. This is the meaning behind “we are the landscape”
For me the hardest thing is working out what an image is about. A common mistake people make is thinking the object photographed is the subject of the work. Take this photograph of Corfe Castle.


I was standing on the hillside nearby talking to another photographer. He was on leave from serving in Afghanistan, and roaming the mountains alone with a camera for two weeks was his way of regaining his sanity. He explained how the castle was besieged from the valley floor, just outside of cannon range.

“The peril of taking an entrenched position” I commented. “Tell me about it!” he said. I shall never forget that look in his eyes as he replied. That’s what this image is about. Taking an entrenched position. Complacency.
Now I still do landscape but sometimes it takes a different form. Here is a landscape from a few weeks ago, and the subject is still about complacency.


Knowing it was made in a city flattened by an earthquake should make it easy to decipher.
I realise that over the last year I have become happy with my use of Photoshop, and my intuition has warned me about complacency. Now I understand that the sale of all my Canon gear and my shift to Fujifilm has been about making myself uncomfortable enough to attempt new things and about pushing myself to make what I have work. That’s probably behind my taking 100-year-old film cameras to the Antarctic on the centenary of Amundsen reaching the pole. It’s behind my terror of never producing a work that polarises its onlookers. How cool to make an image that so divides its viewers that its supporters and opponents take to each other with cudgels in front of it. I’d rather fall on my face than live a life of safety.

The creation of beauty is not the same as beautiful subject matter! Think of Turner’s “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons”, or Munch’s “The Scream of Nature”. Oh to make some images that have force. Let there be some blood on the floor in front of our work.
Enough of the pretty pictures! Burn your bridges! Live in terror! You only have one life to live.

Go out and chew the scenery.