Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The photographic show. What is the role of the viewer?

I visit a photo show at our local Artspring Centre for the Arts and cruise along at a distance at first, trying to get an overall appreciation before stepping closer to view each individual piece. One of the photographers, on duty being a minder of the exhibit, asks me which is my favourite image. I realize that I have no pat answer, but choose an interesting image of stacked chairs and indicate that I liked that one. But really that question was not on my radar today and I still dislike the assumption that lay behind it. Yes I know that it is the usual question, along the lines of discussing the weather, or how are you, but why must we stand in judgement, and use our likes and dislikes as the ruler to measure the value of a piece of work?

In 'The Song of the lark', Willa Cather's book about a pioneer girl finding her singing voice in America, she notes that the only certain remark about a performance was that it felt good, the listener liked it if it moved them or fitted into their idea of beauty. It was always self referential. In the far west in the late 1800s listeners had little except their feelings with which to understand a piece of unfamiliar artistic expression. Are we still stuck in that mode of thought some hundred years later?

As I looked carefully at the images before me I realized why I had reacted so strongly. I was trying to understand each piece, not judge it as to whether I liked it or not. ('Understanding' assumed of course that the photographer was actually trying to communicate something more than 'Aren’t I pretty, buy me!') The task for me, the viewer of art, was to attempt to get into the mind of the maker. As this was a very eclectic show with a dozen or so exhibitors with each artist having only three images presented, there was not much there to allow me to understand where they were coming from. 
Photography is such a vast and varied field: is this image social commentary, is that beside it simply a beautiful flower, is that one in the next room aiming at a psychological, almost literary theme? It is important that I make some tentative categories if I am to approach each image with the right mind set and I need to do all this with my thinking mind wide open. This is the pleasure for me, rather than seeking a beauty hit and then moving on unchanged. 

Do I like it or not may be my final thought, but that will be based on how successfully I think the photographer may have hit his personal mark: was he successful, rather than does this fit within my own personal parameters of artistic expression. I feel good about an image because by pausing to examine it closely I have had a view into another creative sensibility. I leave the show knowing more than I did before, my world view is expanded, and that surely is the real objective of the arts. 

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