Whose Art?

Who do you make your art for? No, really. It’s a serious question. A recent post discussed Finding Beauty. I think it is important to follow that by asking who determines the beauty and worth of our art. Whose art are we making? Who for?

For the whole world

If you are making your art for everyone, time to rethink your plan. Not everybody is going to like what you make. Sorry, that is the truth. And if your “style” is determined by what gets likes on Instagram or Facebook you are just chasing popularity.

You have your own style and you should stick to it. You may not recognize your style or know how to express it yet, but you do have one if you are authentically trying to express your values.

I don’t care much for a lot of images I see. I won’t say they are not art, just that they do not appeal to me. My style and values are different. The same with you. What you make will resonate with some people and not with others. Even if you become very popular I guarantee not everybody will love them. Accept that. Not everyone gets a ribbon for participating.

Be honest and do the work that appeals to you. Be genuine. If you spend your time trying to make images that “everybody” likes, you are chasing a false and impossible goal. You are not doing your own work.

It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not. – Andre Gide

Why did you shoot that?

Why will I/did I shoot it? That is a question we all should consider and answer every time we take a picture. If it has meaning for us on a personal level it is probably worth taking the time to capture it and process it. If it is to duplicate something that got a lot of Facebook likes, forget it.

You have probably figured out I like to use quotes to reinforce ideas. And to let you know that greater minds than mine have expressed some of the same ideas before. Here are 2:

If you shoot for the love of it, you know why you shot it. Jay Maisel

There is no way to know what others want as well as we know what we want, so trying to please them instead of ourselves is a mistake.David Vestal

As usual, I am only talking about the realm loosely called “fine art”. I wish we had a better term. In order to create our own art, we first and foremost have to please ourselves. If this image doesn’t blow us away, why waste time on it? Whose art is it? It has to be our own. If we get to where we can make images that make us very happy we will find a core of other people who share the same viewpoint.

Your style

Is it your style? Are you developing a style? Is your style acceptable to your peers? How do you know your style?

These questions can cause a lot of angst for artists. I say stop worrying about it. Your style is a result of who you are, not a skill you develop or an affectation you present.

Someone said to go through your portfolio and pick out your 20 best images. Lay them all out and examine them. This defines your style right now. This is what appeals to you and how you make your images. It will show the types of subjects you prefer, the lighting you like, the composition you tend to use, how you like to post process them, etc. This is you. You are not what someone else wants you to be.

Can a style be consciously changed? Yes, some people are able to do it. I’m thinking of Picasso as he went through several distinct periods. Or Joel Grimes who has redefined his signature look at least a couple of times. This is unusual. But even for the rest of us, our style evolves with time. We change and adapt as we mature and get more knowledge and experience. I know that the images I make now are very different from the ones I made a few years ago.

The point is, we each have a style and it comes from within. Don’t worry about what is in vogue today or what you see on social media. Be you.

What critic do you listen to?

But I posted an image I liked on Instagram and it didn’t get many likes. Or the judges in my camera club competition told me my treatment of the subject was not going to win any awards. Or a gallery I applied to rejected me because my images did not fit their needs.

There are critics all around. That doesn’t mean they should dictate our values. To paraphrase the famous George Bernard Shaw quote “those who can, do; those who can’t, become critics”. It is a lot easier and safer to criticize from the sidelines than to be in the battle trying to do something no one else does.

No critic can define your values, your vision, your art. If you have done your job well so that your image is technically correct as far as you want and composed the way you want and pleasing to you then it is nobody else’s business to tell you it should be different. They will try, but don’t listen to them. Maybe they are an artist, too, and have some good suggestions. Fine. Listen to them, but take it in and process it through your own values and style. Keep what feels right to you and discard the rest. No one is qualified to tell you what you have to do artistically. Notice in my description above what kept coming through was “the way you want”.

Your inner critic

If you’re not your own severest critic, you are your own worst enemy. – Jay Maisel

The great Jay Maisel is right. You have to decide what is right for you. Only you can truly criticize your work. You owe it to yourself to be hard on yourself. Be brutally honest. Throw away most of what you do.

You might feel that you need to get a lot of images to fill out a portfolio. No. You need some great images for your portfolio. If 5 is what you have then that is what is in your portfolio. Anything that is not a stand-on-its-own, awesome image you would be proud to show to anyone detracts from the collection. Weed out everything that does not show your best work

Let me give an example. I recently went on a car trip. I allowed plenty of time for slow travel with side trips and stops for pictures whenever I wanted. This is how I like to travel. I shot over 300 images during the trip. My editing workflow is a multi-stage culling process for selecting images. Just in the first stage I eliminated all but about 45 to be further considered and processed. I am still in process, but I expect that maybe 4-6 will make it into my final select group.

That seems fairly severe. Less than 2% of the images I shot will make it. But actually it is probably not severe enough. Realistically 2-3 of these would actually add value to my portfolio. I’m still in love with some that should be cut. That hurts. But I have really come to understand that a single weak image can bring down the level of an entire portfolio.

The only critic

So the only critic you should listen closely to is yourself. Only you are fully qualified to judge your work. Look at a lot of images from a variety of artists with different styles and interests. Get feedback from other people. Take what you can learn from everyone but stay true to your own vision.

Whose art are you trying to make? I hope it is your own. Then you have earned the right to be very proud of your art.

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