Category Archives: craft

Selling out and Influence

One thing I missed in my previous post on elitism and taste is the phenomenon of selling out. Art which is too popular is often overmerchandised to the point where it has become cliché. And the hatred/avoidance of clichés is a traditional component of art-appreciation.

Everybody though has a different definition of exactly what selling out means and we all end up sounding like hipsters when we complain that something has become overexposed. At the root of it all though is a worry that something which was good is cashing on on being popular just for the sake of being popular. And that the context which initially appealed to us about the artwork is going to be forever altered.*

*Something I’ve grappled with a few times as a sports fan.

Popular and cliché do go hand-in-hand. The trick is to recognize when something is popular because it is good. It’s not OK to be shitty. And it’s especially galling when something is considered good just because it is popular.

But the cliché question is a valid concern. Clichés are hated because they have undo influence and attract acolytes who only seek/emulate the popular.

I may like an artwork at first but, after seeing countless riffs and ripoffs of it, tire of it due to overexposure. The original may be good, everything else is likely crap. The complete package then becomes tired. How many technically-excellent views of Tunnel Overlook do I need to see?

Clichés are also a problem because they dilute the impact of art by reducing its impact to marketable commodities. These are often not why I like the artwork and, as such, add additional context which is not always welcome.

Can I like a photo the same way once it shows up on a coffee can or in advertising? Can I still like a painting if it’s been on a decade of Adobe splashscreens? Can I still like a song if it’s been used in beer advertisements all the time? Can I still like a play if all the lines are now idioms?

Yes. But…

New context to the artwork changes the way I see it. And that’s potentially problematic.

Obviousness, Elitism, and Taste

As an art junkie, one thing I find extremely interesting is the “is it art” question. I’m especially* interested in those artists which the art world proclaims to not be artists.

*perversely perhaps.

Roughly sketching the territory here. Anne Geddes and Thomas Kinkade are solidly in the not-art side of this camp. William Wegman appears to be the boundary line. Andy Goldsworthy is legit. Barely.

The “good vs. important vs. popular” question really is at the heart of this. Popular is the easy metric. What makes something good or important is much harder to define. I covered some of this territory in my posts on ruin porn and kitsch and on art photography. In short, the good or important metrics involve whether the works move beyond the obvious and actually take a position which adds to the our understanding of what is depicted.

This is why Richard Prince is art and the advertisements he appropriates are not.

But even within the “popular only” group it’s worth taking a look every once in a while to see if what we’ve dismissed as kitsch may have other merits. It’s worth looking at Kinkade*—or similarly, the appeal of Celine Dion—since his popularity itself can be seen as an artistic statement about what people find appealing. Anything which can stir extremely loyal reactions or extremely negative reactions shouldn’t be dismissed offhand as crap. It may still not be good or important, but it needs to be looked at with some seriousness.

*Note. That link made me rethink why I like Todd Hido. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around what that rethink means though.

An the flip side of this coin, I’m also interested in good or important artists or artworks which have become kitsch as a result of being too popular. The art world has a deep suspicion of things which are too popular and the backlash against popular things is its own weird phenomenon.

When I’m feeling generous, I chalk it up to a backlash against the obvious. Anyone who bothers to become an expert in something does so out of the intellectual curiosity to know more than just the obvious. So it becomes easy to think of people who don’t move past the obvious as being intellectually lazy—forgetting that there was once a point when all we knew was the obvious and that someone who only knows that may just be getting interested in the subject.

Also, it’s sad to give up on those things which initially attracted us just because they’re obvious and we want to distinguish ourselves as being experts. It’s perfectly fine to like Ansel Adams, Romeo and Juliet, Gustav Klimt, or La Boheme. They’re all fantastic and it’s important and expected to know them.

At the same time, there is a huge trap whenever an artist becomes too popular—namely, that a super-popular artist’s work often loses any deeper meaning and instead becomes a product of the artist brand.

When a museum mounts a huge blockbuster show? Look out. These shows are often specimen-based and have given up on truly editing the work in favor of being completionist. Now, this can be done correctly by using the extra material to illuminate the good stuff. But all too often the artist brand is used lazily to suggest that because the artist is good, the artwork must also be good.

This is not the case. It can’t be the case. And this laziness is what contributes to great artists being called overrated. Just because a great artist made something does not mean that piece is inherently great. Yes, it may be valuable, but that is a value phenomenon, not an art-quality issue.

Art Photographer

Here’s what I think: I think an art photographer is a photographer with an opinion.

An opinion about which of their photographs can truly stand as one of theirs, and about how the photograph ought to look.

—The Online Photographer:
The Difference Between
a Photographer and an Artist

This was a great post. I don’t agree with all of it. But it’s all worth thinking about and my response is way more than what would fit into a comment dialog.

First, the point about having an opinion. 100% agree. What are you photographing? Why is it interesting to you? How can you make the image be about what you’re interested in? And that’s all in the pre-exposure phase. Too many people take photos of things just because they think they’re supposed to photograph them. Many of them even learned all the other rules of composition and exposure and take perfectly nice photos. But there’s often something missing.

This is how people get sucked into the equipment acquisition spiral. They conclude that they “need” a better/wider/faster lens/camera/etc. instead of thinking about why they’re not satisfied with their images. Even if the goal is technically competent pictures of pretty things* many many people sense that their images are missing something. And that something is quite often the point of view of what is actually interesting.

*That group is a bit of an in-joke which references a much-older discussion. As easy as it is to knock this type of photography, we all do it. A lot.

Having an opinion is what distinguishes between artists and artisans. Artisans can’t choose between multiple technically-good images. Artists are looking to make a point.

Mike’s second point about editing is one I don’t agree with fully. In terms of presenting yourself? Absolutely agree. In terms of presenting other artists? It depends.

But even in presenting myself, I don’t fully agree. I should edit more. A lot more. But I also know that I’m a crap editor of my own work and I really enjoy the raw feedback from contacts on flickr, etc. I also know that only after I’ve had stuff posted for years do I see the patterns emerge. If I photograph in a zen state of mind, the results appear to approximate pu.

You’re damn right that pun was intentional.

With presenting other photographers? It really does depend. I hate the idea of displaying art objects as collect-them-all specimens. This does a disservice to both the object and the artist. But at the same time, if the not-good work is presented as context to help illuminate the way the artist worked or to show experiments which didn’t work out right? I’m fine with that. I love seeing contact sheets and process. If anything, seeing how the great artists edit, or are edited,* should help me become a better editor as well.

*Since, to me, it doesn’t matter who does the editing.

Edward Weston: Life Work

I’ve been wanting (needing) a Weston book for some time. Giant gaping hole in my shelf without him since he’s one of my favorite artists (in any media). Thanks for the recommendation and the deal. I don’t normally impulse buy anything over $50 but this is a special exception.

—My comment on TOP’s Weston Offer

It’s hard to explain exactly how excited I was to order and receive this book. And how scared I was that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Weston is one of those photographers whose work I’ve absorbed without realizing it.* I know that a lot of things I see and notice are rooted in images in my memory which I’m no longer conscious of. Many of those images are Weston textures and I know that I’m always looking for found still-lifes around me.

*Something I’ve noted previously when I visited the Cantor Center. 

I’ve already discussed how I consider Weston to be as cutting edge today as he was a century ago. This book just reaffirms it. Despite being organized thematically and biographically,* it’s impossible to not see how the consistency of vision results in the extraordinary exploration into form and texture without regard to the actual subject matter. Having a hundred images to look through and see this experimentation at my leisure just allows me to get a greater sense of it.

*I really love the idea of seeing Weston images in a sequence which puts similar forms together without caring about the content.

It’s interesting reading the text since it includes a lot of the reactions to the images. The still lives are often considered highly erotic while the nudes are expressly not erotic. Despite being all about the form as photographed, because of people’s expectations regarding the content, the reactions to the images are very different. I’ve reached the point with Weston where I don’t really care what the image is of, but I can see how other people get hung up on that aspect. It’s a fascinating thought experiment too which has me thinking about what kind of baggage certain content comes with.

I also can’t write about this book without mentioning the actual quality of the publication. This is an impressive printed object. Different paper types. Nice typesetting. And fantastic image quality. The commitment to making these images look as close to the original contact prints means that I’m fighting the urge to tear this book apart and start framing the pages. Most books, I feel like I’m looking at printed pages. This book feels like pages and pages of prints.

2012 Tech Awards

The true power of money is the ability to give it away

—N.R. Narayana Murthy

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

—JFK’s Inaugural Address

HIGGINS: About you, not about me. If you come back I shall treat you just as I have always treated you. I can’t change my nature; and I don’t intend to change my manners. My manners are exactly the same as Colonel Pickering’s.

LIZA: That’s not true. He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.

HIGGINS: And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.

Pygmalion by G.B. Shaw

I was lucky enough to be go to the 2012 Tech Awards last Thursday. One of my previous jobs always printed the collateral for these and I’ve been going to The Tech ever since it was known as The Garage. Attending their big gala event looked like something that would be an interesting experience—provided that I didn’t get hives from the corporate backslapping which these charity dinners always risk becoming.

Toward the end of N.R. Narayana Murthy’s acceptance of the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award, it became pretty clear that we wouldn’t experience that. Murthy ended up discussing how technology brings people together, provides opportunity to the poor, and levels the playing field for the classes. Technology treats everyone the same and does not discriminate.* Technology in this case is not about the cutting edge either. The Tech Awards are really about the innovations of appropriate technology and solving big problems with simple ideas.

*I’m not sure if technology is Pickering or Higgins.

The two best examples of this this year were the BioLite stove and the Embrace infant warmer. Neither is cutting-edge technology but both are hugely innovative in terms of the problems they solve and the way the solve them. It’s not enough to have a good idea, it has to be applied in a way which encourages adoption. Both of those products don’t force people to do anything truly different—they’re both pretty obvious in how they’re working and what they’re doing—but will make huge differences in lives.

But there is also some heavy research on hand too. This year, Pamela Ronald won an award for her GMO submergence-resistent rice and, in the process, helped open the discussion about what’s good and bad about GMO foods. It’s clear that we’ll need more flood-resitant crops in order to feed the world. Anything which improves this is welcome. It’s easy to hate on GMO food because it’s new technology that seems odd. The real danger is that it locks farmers into a seeds-as-service scenario where they’re no longer allowed to save seeds since those are now intellectual property. If the GMO food is distributed without licensing? I’ve got no real problems with it. After all, we’ve been genetically modifying our food for centuries.

Changing topics

Another aspect of this year’s awards was a recognition of photography and photojournalism—in particular, Steve McCurry, Frans Lanting, George Steinmetz, and Doug Menuez. I had mixed feelings about this part. These are all great photographers and their photographs are both good and often beautiful. But they were used in this event as decoration only. Aside from Afghan Girl, none of the other images received any mention or context. Which is too bad since the intent of all of the images is to educate and inform the viewers.

These aren’t supposed to just be pretty pictures. They’re supposed to inspire and inform us. The event program even acknowledged as much. While it’s fantastic to see the images and, for the ones I recognized and remembered the context, quite wonderful to see them projected large. Turning the rest into wallpaper minimizes the impact.

As much as National Geographic has been a fantastic proponent of good photography to everyone, its photojournalistic travel photos have inspired too many travelers who think that travel photography is all about taking photos of the locals without regard to them as humans.

—My aside to Un surtido de fotos mexicanos

I know the Tech’s intent with picking these photos was mostly good. I’m just worried when the execution encourages lazy photography and people traveling with the goal of getting pretty pictures rather having experiences. I don’t have the same aversion to travel photography as other people do but I sensitive to the issue. McCurry, Lanting, Steinmetz, Menuez, etc. all immerse themselves in their subjects and try to present images which tell us about them and inspire us to action. Most of the rest of us just try and mimic their visual results without thinking about the rest of the process.

Still, a good event with good food and a lot of stuff to think about. I’d like to go again too.


A conversation which sprung up as a result of a conversation about Dieter Rams. It’s so odd. We try out furniture, try on clothes, and test drive cars but suggesting that we try out flatware before buying gets you all kinds of weird looks.

And yes I did this. I even got my wife to do it too. It’s probably a good thing we didn’t know about how the metal content can change the taste of things.

Obsolescence and Design

It’s an interesting comparison with visual art, a world in which objects are valued for their permanence. A great painting never changes or undergoes annual updates, yet it manages to remain relevant. High design pieces like Eames lounges or vintage wristwatches are things that can be passed down to children and grandchildren, gaining significance as they age. In comparison, a ten-year-old computer or  five-year-old PDA is basically unusable. In the realm of technology, permanence has very little value. It would be to our benefit to value it more.

Apple’s iPhone 5 and
Getting Angry at Planned Obsolescence

by Kyle Chayka

Very few artists even consider how their work will age. As a result, the question of how to preserve a piece is one of the most important debates you can have in art. Should a piece look its age? Should it always look brand new? Are previous conservation attempts worth preserving as part of the piece’s history?

—My Post Archival Life

frontBabbage Engine
1890 CensusHollerith 1890 Census Tabulator
QWERTZEnigma Machine
curtaCurta calculator

As a self-confessed design geek whose primary thought for much of the Dieter Rams exhibition involved thinking and worrying about how we would be able to understand the designs once we had forgotten how to use the products, I should have realized that the answer to my question had already been addressed by technology museums. In fact, I had even seen an exhibition of completely-obsolete technology done in a very good, completely fascinating way.

I visited the Computer History Museum over three years ago to see the Babbage Engine but also took in their Visible Storage exhibition. Both exhibits were fantastic examples of how to mix technology with use and really explained the long-obsolete technology specifically from a use point of view.

And these objects were, in many ways, much more abstract than any consumer product. This was about data storage/entry/retrieval. Sounds boring. But completely fascinating because the exhibit emphasized exactly how the function mattered to us.*

*Especially how the data we collect and find interesting runs hand-in-hand with our ability to enter, store, and retrieve that data. Compare the difference it took to tabulate the 1880 census (8 years) and the 1890 census (1 year) and you can extrapolate that out to the massive amounts of data being collected and processed today. And how it matters. And why it matters. 

Instead of this being a liability for design, this is a strength. It’s often difficult to present art with its function in mind whereas design is, by definition, concerned with use at some level. When displaying design, telling the story about the problems it solves and why it eventually went obsolete actually helps us understand the user, and thus the design, better.

In 20 years when records and reel-to-reels are long-forgotten, people will still be listening to music. We’ll still need power switches and volume adjustments* and so seeing how we interfaced for this functionality will be both familiar and interesting. What will be added is that the technological details of how we recorded the sound will be displayed as well. In 20 years, it’ll be necessary to show a reel of tape or an LP with the explanation that this object stored 45 minutes of stereo sound on each side. And we’ll look at the record and the record player and start to see how it had to be used and understand the problems it solved.

*Both of which will be difficult to do with voice controls. An object which is off may not have the juice to wake up to a voice command. And adjusting volume with voice controls amounts to shouting, “louder, louder, louder, too loud!” at a machine.

Whereas in the art side of things, we’re going to be dealing with how to preserve and display all kinds of deteriorating modern art. How long is a vivisected shark supposed to last? Are all those color photoprints really archival? How do we handle low-resolution digital ipad-generated artwork?

Design—even planned obsolescence—considers the future. And in our current cradle-to-cradle world, designers shouldn’t be considering that their designs will be permanent. Good design now should break down and have its lifecycle completely considered. It’s only the rare product which should be expected to last forever. The iphone is not such a product.