It’s a tricky one, this. Funny how we let some things get to us. A little while ago, my old art teacher, a lifelong family friend, made a passing comment suggesting he didn’t reckon photography was an art. I took it a little too seriously; maybe. Sure, he’s a reasonably well ‘decorated’ painter, recognised by his peers etc and he turns out an evocative take on his local landscape, for which he’s gained notoriety and sold well. So I really don’t know why his possibly purely provocative and good humoured comment made me bristle. After all, I'm not sure about the ‘artist’ bit. I've got pictures on the Saatchi Gallery site but does that mean I’m an ‘artist’? Will a Steichen or an Adams ever be lauded the way a Monet, Turner or Rembrandt is? Unlikely. They should be.
Diving deeper though it made me start to wonder what it (this art thing) was all about?
Pop poet and coiner of truisms, Bono, sings “Every artist
is a cannibal, every poet is a thief” and there’s something in that that sounds about right. I mean when our very early forefathers spat liquid ochre at their hands against walls and sketched their world in blood on cave walls I suspect they weren’t looking at it and considering a ‘show’ or wondering whether a series would be appropriate. They were in many ways doing what I do as a photographer, capturing a moment, recording life around them as they saw it because they could. They were making almost instant representations of their memories, cannibalising and regurgitating them, for reasons of their own or their culture. It’s perfectly conceivable that those around them who couldn’t really express themselves or their world in that way looked at their work with a certain curiosity and maybe even applauded the ‘artist’s’ skills, but I figure that’s as far as it went. So why have we become caught up in the worship of art and why does the debate of what is and isn’t art interest us so much?
Last year I finally got to stand in front of the Last Supper in Milan. You get twenty minutes and no photos. It’s a fascinating experience. My shot of the feather on the grass was taken less than a minute after I stepped outside. Like my thing for truisms it seemed ‘so right’.
We (as animals) plant ourselves, make our mark, on this planet with such certainty while in fact it's so fragile that we could be gone tomorrow and our universe wouldn't even blink.
When he was commissioned to decorate the Mausoleum at Santa Maria delle Grazie, Leonardo famously took a risk with his media, which was a bad decision, technically, and from even relatively early on the painting began to fade and flake. Strangely it's as if the decay is a part of what makes the painting so strong.
The transient nature of this most famous painting however is just one of its wonders. It’s also a fictional record of an event that in itself may or may not be fictitious, yet it’s an icon that often requires a booking of up to a month ahead to see.
Obviously there’s no photos or video or even a diary of the night of Jesus’s dinner with his followers when he reportedly let them know that he knew that one of them was going to betray him. It's a legend. It’s at best hearsay.
In fact, I reckon, it’s at it’s best a great reference point for this
narrative portrait and Leonardo’s genius was his incredible skill at bringing life and meaning to that narrative.
That’s what I spent most of my twenty minutes observing, finally, in the flesh.The characters are caught as if they're on a frame from a contact sheet or a freeze frame from a film. What did Leonardo mean in the way he portrayed Jesus’s expression? He’s just dumped on his followers a pretty heavy piece of news. but he looks so resigned. As for the apostles, if it was a still frame from a film I’d probably be looking for another take to see if there was one where they weren’t over reacting as much. But that’s just me. Leonardo's intention was probably more direct. It’s amazing (awesome?) and the range of reactions from the disciples interacting is brilliant. It's such an iconic image even before you see it. But it's only when you immerse yourself in it that you really experience it.
For me that's what art does. It takes me on a trip. It makes me want to explore it.
What’s this done to resolve any art and photography debate? Hah, if you want answers please don’t look here. I’m a questions and truism kind of guy. Am I an artist? As much as anyone who uses a skill to represent his world and how he responds to it emotionally, for sure I’m an artist. Beyond that I really don’t care.