"Art, huh, what is it good for?"...(Part Two)
Following on from my last post on Art it seems appropriate to discuss a question posed at a recent talk I gave. A member of the audience asked, "Do you feel that it's your duty to lobby for protection of the environment through your work?" From her manner I think the enquirer was probably expecting a resounding, "Yes!" but I'm afraid that I disappointed her.
A deep love of the natural world is fundamental to my photography but I don't think that it's my job to act as a crude propagandist through my images. I'm happy to write or talk about respecting the creatures around us and protecting the future of our planet and, more than this, to follow this up (as imperfectly as humans do) by trying my best to "do my bit". But for me this debate doesn't have a place in my images, at least not in any unsophisticated and obvious way.
It seems to me that I was also being asked the question, "Why do you only make positive images of nature?" Well one strong reason is that I don't believe that making negative images of environmental destruction is going to change anything. Negative imagery is a turn off. Apart from a tiny minority of committed people everyone else looks the other way. They don't want to see bad things and adopt the visual equivalent of the fingers in the ears "La, la, la I can't hear you" pose.
A subtext of this question is an accusation that by making positive images of the natural world I am somehow complicit in the destruction that goes on everyday. I don't think so! This is a kind of "If you're not with us you're against us!" argument, a bullying attitude adopted by the radical tendency of many different political movements including the environmental one. I refuse to be bullied.
The word "duty" in the question is telling. Who or what do I owe a duty to? This question goes to the heart of the relationship between the public and private persona of the artist. In the minds of some there should be no separation between the public and private realm for an Artist; the Artist should live their Art. From this standpoint, since I am a lover of the natural world, it is my duty to proselytise; to convert the great unwashed to my point of view, to get them on-side in the crusade. Actually I think this is what I'm doing, but in a subtle way.
I make positive images and I refuse to apologise for that. The natural world makes me feel positive and that emotion is one of the prime reasons for me making images. I am convinced that positive emotions are much more likely to effect change than negative ones. Seeing something as beautiful is much more likely to motivate somebody to fight to protect that thing than seeing something as having already been despoiled is. It's simple human nature that negative images cause negative reactions. They cause the majority of viewers to withdraw from the debate because they feel the battle is already lost. Rather than causing an uprising, as the propagandists would have us believe they do, negative images are just too depressing and cause the majority of the populous to run and hide.
Portraying something in a positive light isn't necessarily denying that negative things are happening, it may be a denial but it doesn't have to be. Life is more complicated than that! I'm not advocating support for an apologist position, such as that of Nazi sympathiser Leni Riefenstahl. By making positive images of nature I'm not being an apologist for the governments and multi-nationals who are raping our planet. Saying that something is wonderful absolutely isn't the same as saying that it's OK to destroy it. In Riefenstahl's case she was praising the Nazis, the agent of destruction. If we transferred her position to landscape photography it would be like me praising a particular company or government that was implicated in an environmental disaster. It would be like me making heroic images of chain saws and earth moving equipment – that's not something you'll ever see me do!
The original question belongs, I think, to the Marxist tradition of seeing Art's role in quite simplistic terms as a kind of supercharged propaganda. I'm absolutely certain that Art can be deeply affecting on a personal level but I'm not convinced that it can work effectively as a means of changing the world on its own. Picasso's painting Guernica is probably the most famous piece of 20th century art inspired by a political will to protest, in this case against the Nazi bombing of a Spanish village. Did Guernica change the course of the Spanish Civil War to any significant degree? I don't think so. Visual Art is a weak tool when used against guns. The pen might be mightier than the sword, as Edward Lytton wrote in 1839, but I'm afraid that images aren't a match for armaments. Partly this is because it's just too easy to look the other way and partly it's because of a deeper philosophical problem: there is no consistent interpretation of a single image, no language in common between the artist and the viewer or even between one member of the audience and another. The message in Art and photography is too unfocused without written words, a caption, attached. The message is literally ineffable.
The visual arts can lend their weight to a debate but they're never going to be instrumental in causing a political u-turn. The will needs to be present already.
I want to show my wonder at the natural world and to explore notions of vision and perception through my images. I am not interested in creating images of the natural world whose sole purpose is to act as a polemic, I'll leave that to those who are more suited to it. Part of being an artist is about being true to oneself. If we force ourselves, or even worse are coerced, into producing Art to fit somebody else's agenda that work can only ever be third rate. Great works spring from the heart of the Artist, they are not imposed from outside. Saying that I don't want to make propaganda doesn't make me any less worthy as an artist or as a human being. That's a nonsensical argument; it's like accusing a plumber of being a bad person because they don't want to be a prima ballerina. If you're moved to make polemical work fine, if you're not that's equally fine. Art is big enough for both approaches.
Workshop at Linhof & Studio
Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.