What Do We Do After We Go “Wow”? • An Essay
The purpose of beauty in art photography
By Ted Byrne
I suspect that somewhere deep down in our reptilian brains – beauty has a utility. Someone once wrote that we use pornography up. If we didn’t, he asserted, there’d be no reason to publish more than one issue of Playboy.
Pornography apparently is linked to a primal drive to procreate.
Artists have been on an ageless quest to distill out the essential beauty in the human form – male and female. The girls do get prettier at closing time. Lady ‘cougars’ are on the prowl for stud-hunks.
And yet, that beauty that teases, entrances, seduces… loses its magic in the post-coital hangover. Regardless, all of us hunt for that initial burst of beauty which will cause us to tumble into the bubbling stew of love.
I wonder about this tendency to use beauty up. To seize it, then dispose of it. We seem drawn to to perpetuate the species…What Captain Picard called, “The Prime Directive’.
Art Historian and art photographer Jeff Curto in a compelling podcast questioned the artistic appeal of Alec Soth and Derek Henderson. And Curto wondered how it is that we are attracted to images that are not beautiful and which have even pushed beautiful images out of fashion.
Beauty snares us into deeper things. Marketers know that so they have surgically separated beauty from its evolutionary purposes in order to push washing machines or flat screen TVs. They tease in order to sell… but there’s a disconnect between packaging and product that we sense and which eventually leads us to distrust the tease: Distrust the beauty. To become at best skeptical about anything that is ‘merely’ beautiful. Anything that is no longer connected to the function we are hard wired to expect it to deliver.
And as people wear y of the way beauty’s triggers are exploited I wonder:
- Will we grow increasingly frustrated as stimuli arouse us but fail to lead to consummation of any sort?
- If beauty is a foreplay for some other matters, will we begin to reject it unless it is offered up in ever escalating doses?
- Will we increasingly yearn for a functional beauty which allows us to enter into a world of ideas, thoughts, or answers as their payoff.
Simply put: Is beauty enough? What do we do after we go, “Wow”?
Beauty, along with shock, humor, farce, pathos, drama, surrealism, awe, romance, narration, satire, and others are tools found in the photographic artist’s tool kit. They’re devices that inform a body of work… a life view. The danger comes when we confuse the tools for art. Their mastery in isolation is at best craft.
One way of determining a craftsperson’s worth is in the market. Dollars are numbers on a scorecard. “Wow” sells better than anything. Because in the commercial world we want to trigger viewers to action. It is the tease which makes a frequently unrelated message accessible by pointing it out to the viewer. “Wow” is not something that is bought for its own message – people who buy “Wow” want to exploit it to sell theirs. Commercial markets demand that the craftsperson separate the tease from its meaning.
Many of us confuse market success with art. We define art’s importance with its price tag. In many ways the photographic artist faces the same problem as the poet..
Just like poets those who work in the field of photographic art face much smaller numbers of potential buyers. Here, some of the most successful artists financially are also the best artistically but there’s no natural link in a system where very few artists are involved in the decision concerning who and what sells. Commercially successful art photography must first filter through the tastes of: gallery owners, curators, art historians, academics, agents, marketers, collectors, publishers, critics, and many more. Can anyone imagine Warhol’s ‘artistic’success absent the white wig and a circus of transvestites?
As I’ve said, beauty is one of the photographic artist’s tools. Beauty used exclusively as one note - results in a body of work which can bore. Only a great master, like say Ansel Adams, can continually mate it with awe to cause us to reconsider the significance of our role in the universe. His work deals more with humility than scenics. And that’s the point, an artist pulls you back to confront questions beyond the “Wow”.
We categorize photographers two ways: by genre (wedding, fashion, sports, nature, street, journalism, art… etc) and by dominant tools (beauty, shock, humor… Etc.). But we characterize the artist by depth of message. Tools like beauty can leave both the viewer and the photographer marooned at the “Wow”. Imagine if a playwright, novelist, or poet was limited to all good, or all evil. Imagine one limited to the one note of shock, menace, or beauty. There would never be a story arc, no narrative would occur. Their work might sell for a time, but would quickly languish. Who remembers for example, any of these astonishingly successful formerly household-names as artists: Dean Cornwell, Violette Oakley, Walter Biggs, Réne Bouché, Robert Peak, Lorraine Fox, Heysa McMein, or Dorothy Hood? Yet they made astonishing money for their art that was seem on a regular basis in the first half of the last century by hundreds of millions.
The torrent of beautiful images now available has led me to filter out those which I cannot look through as well as look at. I am searching for the portal to ideas or conclusions. Whether the window artists create leads me to ponder the human condition, the meaning of life, or the way we can alleviate hunger, or simply make happiness grow… Whether the consummation on the other side of an image is playful or fundamental, I value those images which lead me into a place which develops my thoughts or feelings something that Soth and Henderson are doing. I want beauty to bridge to a conclusion. And if the conclusion is veiled by ambiguity, that’s fine as well. Ambiguity engages me, causes me to ponder alternatives, a process which is satisfying by itself. Beauty is one element of accessibility… perhaps the most enthralling.
Too many photographer s of great craft also look to peel the “Wow” from its utility. We are drawn today to trivial image-making where “Wow” is the end rather than the means. Craft is a useful but insufficient condition for art, so is beauty. A work of craft or beauty will satisfy me once. A work of art will nurture me each time I return to ponder, and its power to bring me back is precisely the measure of its importance. Alone, beauty is cerebral/emotional junk food – taste without nutrition.
Because I suspect that somewhere deep down in our reptilian brains – beauty has a utility.