What makes "fine art" fine?
I hope I manage to post this correctly... I've read through this thread, and it's a good one because the intial question was one line and it has spawned umpteen lines of back-and-forth. Just a few things I'd like to rebut, because they're nonsensical in various ways. First: "Ignore the art history academics because they know nothing". Not so. There are a great many "art academics" active today who do a great service to art by bringing unknown, unrecognized and important artists to the attention of the public -- by writing about them, championing their cause. Art that is radically new, different and difficult is almost always ignored unless it is recognized and championed by people in a position to do something to make it known. These visionaries are indispensable and we would all be much the poorer without them. They have the eye to recognize greatness and they have the training and cultivation to explain why it is great. Of course, one can question their judgement and the modern art world is nothing if not full of question marks regarding the significance of the art that is being displayed. Recently I went to see a photographic exhibition of the work of Wolfgang Tillmans in Helsinki's "Art Hall". Tillmans was the first photographer to win the Turner art prize. I was expecting something powerful, but this exhibition is perhaps the most boring and unimaginative photographic exhibition I have ever seen.
Second, someone wrote something along the lines of "the great artists have never discussed art they have just done it". This sort of belief is akin to the old saw, "Those who can't do, teach", which so often comes out of the mouths of people who should know better. The great artists of history have discussed every facet of their art -- its role in society, its craftsmanship, its narrative possibilities, its historical significance -- with their contemporaries and colleagues, throughout their lives, at every possible opportunity. Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest draughtsman who ever lived, spent a lifetime discussing art with his knowledgeable patrons and contemporaries and wrote down his philosophy of art for posterity in his Treatise on Painting. A great many artistic movements have been born of intense discussions on the political nature and role of art that have taken place between like-minded artists and hangers-on -- surrealism and impressionism are perhaps the most famous examples. Not only have great artists discussed art ad nauseum amongst themselves and everyone else who cared to listen, they have founded artistic movements based on ideologies that explicitly reject contemporary politics and societal norms of behaviour. Their arrogance has
reached as high as the belief that art can change the world.
I don't believe there is any value in distinguishing between "art" and "fine art". The fine arts are generally acknowledged to comprise painting, sculpture, dance, theatre, music and cinema. Like painting, photography consists of creating the illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface. Painting is as old as humanity and photography is less than two hundred years old, so we can expect that some time will pass before it is admitted to the canon. The fine arts have always existed in a commercial context -- all artists have had to making a living or starve. Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel by the Pope.
Photography has been dominating the walls of galleries and modern art museums for over ten years, at least in Europe, at the expense of painting. Anybody who believes that photography is under-recognized or under-appreciated has not been visiting modern art museums or galleries. There is almost nothing but photography -- much of it arid, intellectualized nonsense straining after the thinnest of ideas. God only knows where the poor painters and sculptors are showing.
Photography's domination of the modern art museums and galleries is, I believe, a reflection of photography's ubiquity in modern life. Painting and drawing has virtually disappeared from printed publications, replaced by photography and computer-rendered illustration based on photography. The only holdout is the venerable editorial cartoon, still drawn by hand, and I'm waiting for these to be replaced by computer renderings when the current generation of editorial cartoonists retires. Their replacements won't be able to draw anything by hand. There are still comics and comic books, bandes dessinées, still done by hand so perhaps there is hope. Television and cinema are essentially photography-in-movement, and the influence of these media is overwhelming. The question is not "Why isn't photography appreciated as an art form?", it is rather "How can art escape from under the colossal weight of photography?".
As to "What is art?", well, it's the ever-present question and the answer is entirely subjective, a matter of taste. Art is truly in the eye of the beholder. For me, in order to qualify as art a visual work must show a mastery of technique, graphical potency, feeling, and above all originality. Originality is the greatest problem of the photographic artist, so many get lost chasing it with ideas that perhaps can never be fully realized with photography. One must know what has been done before in order to avoid repeating what has already been done, and with the millions upon millions of photographic images produced every day, this is well nigh impossible. And there are so many inherent limitations on photography that do not exist with painting: the characteristics of the camera, how the optics work, the characteristics of the film or CCD, given to the photographer by the manufacturer with very little room to maneuver. One must understand all the limitations intimately before one can transcend them. And the greatest limitation of all: the camera must be pointed at something in order for an image to appear on the film. A painter can paint purely from the imagination, with his fingers, blind-folded, and create a work of art. Without his camera, blind-folded, the photographer can do nothing unless he tries his hand at painting.
The point is that it all comes down to the seeing. A photograph can certainly be a work of art, but it depends on the originality of its seeing. Some of the world's most revered photographs have been taken as 35 mm snapshots in a split-second with no advance preparation of any kind except the photographer's highly developed ability to see. Taking the totality of a scene in, the play of light and dark, the sound of wind and dogs barking, the swift movement of people and things, Cartier-Bresson imposed a geometrical order and human meaning on his pictures that was not there except for the angle of his Leica, the speed of his film, and the precise moment his finger released the shutter.
Avedon did the simplest of things to create his famous Western "portraits on white". He stood his subjects against a plain white background, so that his camera's ability to draw his subjects -- all their wrinkles, spots, physical idiosyncrasies -- would be as powerful as possible. And he chose people that looked interesting and odd, a saintly-handsome Latino oilfield worker, a care-worn mother with haunted eyes, people who would photograph well.
I suppose that for me, a work of art is one in which the joy of seeing flows out and envelops me, uplifts me. I am swept away by the artist's celebration of sight.