Wherefore Art Thou…? Contemplations on the nature of art

A few weeks ago, I watched a performance by the Top Shelf Big Band, directed by my friend Robert. I loved it. Hearing big band music takes me back to my flute-playing days in middle school band, when a love for the music compelled our director to sprinkle a little swing into our standard diet of classical and pep band music.

During the concert, I danced my way around the venue, taking photos when the mood struck. And other members of the audience were movin' too, sometimes standing to hit the dance floor as soon as they heard Robert announce certain upcoming songs.

When I caught up with Robert afterwards and asked how the show went, he lamented a few mistakes that the group had made during the performance. I countered that the sheer quantity and fervor of the dancers demonstrated that the group had done a pretty good job, regardless of any mistakes.

Thinking back now, though, it's occurred to me that the contrast between those perspectives illustrates some general points about art — and more specifically, about the relationship between an artist, the audience, and the work itself — that echo things I've noticed in my own 15 years of photography.

First and foremost, as an artist, part of your sense of identity is tied up in how your audience sees you, and in the nature of their relationship with your work. Enjoyment and trust are aspects of that relationship — "I trust that the nuances of this work are intentional, and that I should find meaning in them."

Mistakes can undermine that trust, and cloud the artist's ability to use their work to communicate with the audience. And as an artist, the knowledge that you tried to communicate clearly, but were hampered by technical mistakes, can be disappointing.

Beyond that, there's the perennial question of why an artist does art at all. Certainly, for many artists, there's some mixture of enjoying the struggle to improve, of actually seeing that improvement take place, and of actually achieving new levels of proficiency.

And the specific mixture of those forms of motivation will vary throughout an artist's career — there's usually a lot of struggling at the outset, but sometimes there's also some struggle toward the end, either as as the artist deals with the declining physical capability of their body, or as they struggle to reinvent themselves after a sufficient tenure in one particular style or focus.

In track and field, I've often heard the mantra, "trust the process." Likewise, "it's not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win, that makes the difference." In essence, they're both reminders that the struggle is part of what it takes to participate. And that regardless of whether or not one enjoys the struggle, they should still embrace it as part of doing track and field. Likewise with art.

But at the same time, the audience's actual experience of that work is also important, regardless of the artist's particular aspirations.

For instance, journalism often considers the notion of newsworthiness — "what stories are so relevant for the audience that we are compelled to address them?" And the judgement of newsworthiness frequently centers around the impact that some current event has on the surrounding community.

Art is similar. The impact of a work on the artist's identity and motivation are important, but the impact of that work on the community itself is also important. It doesn't take a perfectly-performed piece to bring the community together in celebration of big band music, and a performance with flaws still has the power to bring audience members back to the experiences of their youth, and to encourage them to have new experiences in the here and now.

Of course, the point of this post isn't really to come up with some snappy universal conclusion about the nature of art, but rather to acknowledge that art is messy and emotional and vague. It's simultaneously public and personal, distant and intimate, concrete yet confusing. And every artist approaches art a little bit differently.

I guess, the point of this post is to acknowledge that art doesn't have very many guarantees. Sometimes it makes you happy, sad, or disillusioned. Sometimes a messy work of art is unexpectedly satisfying, and sometimes the satisfaction that seemed nearly within reach was just an illusion. Sometimes we get frustrated and give it up in disgust, only to return with a new perspective, and sometimes we remain so dedicated to it that we end up losing our way.

And yet, for me at least, it still feels worthwhile.



Hey, it's me! I’ve been a documentary photographer for 17 yrs, software engineer for even longer, and plenty of other things in between.