Serious Art!/vossbrink/status/77768867560177664!/vossbrink/status/77775892591554560

Inspired by a blogpost from Colin Pantall.

The discourse of art photography is a discourse of pretension and deceit on the whole

And an article on the Online Photographer.

anybody want to tell me where the image sites are that are edited (moderated), where serious photographers present redacted bodies of work? I’ve heard that the founders of Facebook, flickr et al have raked in millions; now what we need are people willing to run some sites to present serious photography in a serious way and rake in thousands.

And expanding on one of my previous posts on how artwork is presented.

I’m not sure why photography is treated the opposite of other artwork in museums. Most museums distinguish between art and craft by describing art through its content and craft through its purpose or provenance.

One of the chief distinctions in a museum is between functional objects displayed as examples of craft and non-functional objets d’art. Curation, in general, tends toward suggesting that non-functional art is more important. Objects of craft are often presented as cultural artifacts. Purely non-functional items are presented as fine art.* I don’t mind the distinction but I have a problem with implied superiority of one over the other.

*An item for another post is the heavy western bias where non-functional items from the third world are assigned pseudo-functional descriptions such as “fetish figure” when the same kind of item from the west will be given a name and creator.

The distinction is good because it is important to know the purpose behind a given work. Is this intended to be used? Is it decorative? Is it ceremonial? Is it an intellectual exercise? Without knowing the purpose, you risk not understanding the piece at all.

Duchamp’s Fountain at SFMoMA

While I embrace the distinction, I reject the idea that non-functional items are somehow superior or more important than functional ones. It bothers me when museums and other art appreciators buy into that way of thinking.* What’s more annoying though is when that way of thinking starts to be applied to items outside of the museum.

*One of the reasons why I loved the Oakland Museum’s Marvelous Museum exhibition was because of how it mixed functional and non-functional items together. My favorite example of this was the large overhead powerline insulator amidst the rest of the art ceramics.

Visiting museums involves a willingness to be surprised and provoked. I attend with the expectation that my mind will be engaged and for the entire experience to be intellectual at some level. What is art inside a museum loses much of its context when it is taken outside. It is no longer curated and so I have to do it myself. While I can decide how I wish to approach things, I cannot presume that my taste in art is applicable to others. I can only state what I like, not what someone else should like.

Which brings us to the overuse of the word “serious.” Like the porn designation, serious is used as a way of dismissing things which aren’t Art. Unlike porn,where there’s an implied surface appeal and a gut-level critique at whether there’s actual meaning, the labeling of what is serious* is a conscious choice at distinguishing what is intellectually worthwhile. People who label things as serious also tend to do so in a way which suggests that there is some sort of universal criteria for making that choice.

*Except in cases where serious is used to denote an extreme quantity of something.

The entire point of art (especially modern art) is that there is no such criteria.

What is serious for one person is frivolous to another. And, often, vice versa. Is food for sustenance or for show? Are movies for entertainment or enlightenment? Is photography for family scrapbooks or gallery walls? Yes—while only some of them are art, all are serious.

Let’s go back to describing things as “art.” We don’t need a value judgement, just whether an object was created for a purpose beyond its usual intent.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

5 thoughts on “Serious Art”

  1. Pingback: MetaMaus | n j w v

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