Is this art? Or is this self-indulgence? - The Visual Experience
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Thomas Ruff, Substrat 10
Is this art? Or is this self-indulgence?

Strictly linked to my previous article, and to complete my response to Colberg “On Trends”, I’d like to add some further considerations.

First, the philosophical notion of being an “artist” in our post-modern world.

This notion is laden with heavy romantic over-tones about struggle, being true to oneself, overcoming the psychological and economic difficulties of surviving in a world which seems to ignore the beauty of truth and those who search for it. Frankly speaking, and I don’t want to offend anyone, but there’s a lot of bullshit in those notions which avoid the confrontation of who you are with what you do. There’s this dichotomy between being true to oneself and the “truth” and selling out to a commercial world, including the fine-art of photography world, that you so precisely capture in your article. But I’d like to make another distinction which, I believe, might help the discussion.

What is the difference between self-expression and, what we consider in the long run, art? Is self-expression potentially art? Or is it a slightly childish self-indulgence in our infantile self which declares our uniqueness and intrinsic eternal value in a desperate attempt at being loved on a social scale? I know I’m being aggressively provocative, but you’ve made some interesting points on the value of being an “artist” which, I believe, can be made clearer through our discussion. Or at least, through my attempt at delving into the finer points that your article exposes.

We live in a narcissistic, self-centered world (our Western world) where what “I” want seems to be what governs my life and my concerns. Our basic concept of “freedom” is totally biased by our narcissistic self-indulgence. “We” can decide our own future, choose our own life-styles, marry and divorce whomever we wish in a totally free atmosphere of self-construction. But, and it’s a very large but, it also puts us in a very fragile position of needing confirmation and acceptance on a larger scale in order not to succumb to our interior anxieties and fears about who we are. In fact, in our total inebriation of self-indulgence and self-importance, we seem to be flying like Icaro towards the blinding Sun which will eventually lead to our deaths. I know, big words, big concepts which some may take offense to. Sorry, I’m just trying to think this through.

What does this “flight into the Sun” have to do with being an artist? What IS being an artist? Well, your article seems to say, “What truly matters is for an artist to remain true to her or himself, and thus by extension to the work, however much resistance is going to be encountered.” Does that mean I can defecate in the street and call it art? Obviously not. But your affirmation leads to that conclusion, and here’s the point. Art is NOT an object, a photograph, a painting, an installation or a piece of pottery. It’s a way of doing things. You don’t MAKE art, you make things WITH your art, which is your domination of techniques and thoughts in a constructive process of expression. How, and this is the real point, can THAT be useful, interesting, or even, acceptable to a society? To find that answer, I’d like to look at the history of art for a couple of seconds.

All, and I say all, that has become “art” in our society, world or civilization has a profound relationship with “meanings” relevant to society itself. There is no art which is not relevant to society. It is society which eventually deems an object or process worthy of it’s praise and reflection. Art is not a collection of self-indulgent finger-paintings which anyone can do for the fun of it. But it is exactly this attitude which has filled our colleges and universities with fledgling “artists”. Teach them technique and then say, “express yourself”. But what, if anything, can an introverted, delicate minded being say if they’re not immersed in the confusing and dirty world which surrounds us? Does self-indulgence, camouflaged as a search for the “truth” within, justify our auto-referential definition as “an artist”?

This is the kind of justification, I believe, is what most people are doing in the “art” world. I think you agree with that because I’ve always felt your aggressive words are often trying to pin-point the forgeries which go by the name of “art”. But the question lies in interpreting the values of life in our society (not simply documenting it, which can also be a form of “art”) and visualizing the contradictions of life so that others, finding meaning in those visual representations, elevate the object into the realm of things we treasure and need in order to understand ourselves. A flimsy self-indulging diary of my own feelings through my use of a medium, such as photography, is nothing more than that: a flimsy self-indulging fooling of oneself. I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone.

The other question is how and why society determines certain objects of expression to be worthy of global acceptance. That is truly a hermeneutical question which, obviously, interests those like you and I who are trying to maintain our mental authenticity in a world which buffets any and all, endlessly, until we return to the stars. But I won’t delve into THAT question at the moment because it is a complex one indeed. However, being true to “what the work requires…” should involve, at least, a deeper reflection on what the work is worth to people at large and not only to a very select few high-priests who determine its profound value. Otherwise, we risk creating a caste of high-priests totally out of contact with the real world. I think Jesus had something to say about that one…


David Birkin, Revisited, 2006, c-type print mounted on aluminium, 76 x 95 cm
Is this art? Or is this self-indulgence?

Edward Rozzo

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