Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself.
A new calendar year is upon us. A couple of readers wrote to ask whether I intend to write an end-of-year summary as I have in past years. It was in fact after reading those previous posts that I was finally convinced I should not write more of them. In prior years I struggled to reconcile, never quite convincingly to myself, my desire to highlight my most recent work with the recognition that in truth nothing noteworthy in my life begins or ends when the Gregorian calendar year rolls over.
There is no need to visit with me on any specific date to see what I’ve been up to in the previous year (or any other period). I update this blog and the photographs in my Recent Addition gallery regularly, any time I feel I have something worth sharing.
With that said, regardless of whether you are one who associates some special meaning with the Gregorian year count or whether, like me, you appreciate that a new year begins with every passing moment, I wish you a happy New Year!
Of course, I am especially grateful for those of you whose continued financial support on Patreon helps make my living in these uncertain times, a little less uncertain.
My thoughts have been scattered widely since I last updated this blog, which is to say that I have not given especially deep consideration to any one photographic topic in a while. Broadly speaking, much of my recent thinking involved stoicism-inspired examination and attempts to distill some useful lessons—perspectives on life—from so many trends and momentous events now unfolding in the world and in my life.
It came as a bit of a surprise to me recently when someone asked why I care so much about photography as art. My surprise did not come from the question but from the realization it led me to—that I have, in fact, spent a great deal of time recently speaking and writing about formal and historical aspects of art. This even though in my daily life and work I rarely give these subjects much thought unless prompted to do so by others. Perhaps by being so vocal in recent weeks about my views on what art is (and is not), I may have inadvertently neglected to explain why I consider an artistic life important, and the role that artmaking plays in my life.
Put succinctly, in my experience the most important and valuable reason to make art, is not to make art. Rather, it is the cumulative effect of engaging in creative work and thinking as a way of life, as an attitude, as a constant prompting to think seriously about what is most meaningful to me, as a way of engaging with and interpreting the world, as a worthier use of my time, skills, and faculties than so many other—lesser, pettier—distractions.
Beyond any other benefit that art may have, I believe (and have been validated in my belief) that the most important purpose of creating art is not to produce any artifacts but to elevate the living experience of the artist. This, much in the same way that the habit of philosophical thinking may elevate the life of the thinker, and the pursuit of knowledge may elevate the life of the student or the scientist.
Being that we live in a so-called “information age,” we have the privilege of unprecedented, broad, and deep access into the three great domains of human accomplishment: science, philosophy, and art. Considering that each of these domains may yield profoundly more satisfying experiences than the daily news, the workaday grind, or other mundane trivia, and considering also—without prejudice and undue platitudes—the short and unpredictable nature of a life, I think it is worthwhile for any person to become interested and immersed in at least one of these domains. For anyone aspiring to become “well-rounded,” I suggest that a degree of knowledge in all three may be nothing short of life-changing.
Understanding, even at a layperson level, the genealogy of existence as we understand it at this point in human history: how interactions among quantum fields may yield the building blocks of matter, how quantum mechanics gives rise to the classical laws of physics, how physics gives rise to chemistry, how chemistry gives rise to geology and biology, how geology becomes geography, how biology gives rise to life, how life gives rise to sensory perceptions, to ecology, to psychology, to emotions, to abstract thinking, to language, to philosophy, to art, and to then consider one’s living experience in context of this vast realm of knowledge, is the most potent salve I know of for the frustrations, anxieties, and disappointments that may arise in the course of daily living.
No, I did not forget consciousness. It is in there, at least as I understand it, woven from every term that relates in some way to enabling an arrangement of particles to possess the sense, or at least the illusion, of having subjective experience, which is… in one sense or another, all of them. Just be mindful, as to not be led astray, to separate science from pseudoscience, mysticism, and fiction.
The reason I believe such well-rounded knowledge is helpful in combating the challenges of daily life, is that such knowledge puts one’s own being and experiences in the grand perspective of all existence, at least as far as we humans living today may claim to know, let alone understand it. Still, even what little we know about such things as the nature of matter, the scale of this universe (and the possibility of others), or just the puny span of so-called “geologic time” on this tiny clump of cosmic dust where we happened to have evolved, is more than sufficient to overwhelm completely any sense of importance or meaning beyond one’s immediate experience. Nothing we do is, ultimately, of any great importance except in the context of our subjective experiences, which is why our primary task must be to gain the most from these experiences as we have them.
In the proverbial “grand scheme” not one being, not one species, no one system of belief, no tribe, no people, no country, no planet, no star, no galaxy, matters in any universal, objective sense. All are temporary features of a young universe, in time to mature into a serene, dark, and lifeless vastness. Whatever subjective experiences we manage to accomplish, and whatever meaning we ascribe to these experiences within the tiny blink of time we each get to be a conscious living animal at some coordinate in space-time is, by any practical consideration, all that matters.
As I have mentioned before, my literal “word of advice” to anyone seeking some next level, some great insight, some significant improvement to one’s quality of life, remains this: read. But if I’m allowed a few other words to better make the point: experience, learn, assimilate, feel, dare, philosophize, live. Then, when you have discovered in these activities something significant and worthy, express this thing—photograph, write, make art—for your own sake first, although no doubt a thing of such power may benefit others, too.
This may be your most potent short essay. At least, I receive it that way.
Thank you, George!
I wish I could read all of this on paper, in a book. It would lie together with Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust and others scattered round my bed on the floor, and I could pick it up early in the morning or at bed time and read by little bits. Can’t read such beautiful, deep stuff on a computer monitor! It’s meant to be read in a different dimension. Will there be a book, Guy?
Thank you, Loreta!
In the last few years I’ve been weaving more and more philosophy and science into my writings on photography (art was already there for the most part). The book I am currently working on will be the 3rd in a series of essay books focused loosely on photography and art (the other two are “More Than a Rock” and “Another Day Not Wasted”). I have not decided what I will work on after that, but the trend seems to be pointing me in the direction of more philosophical writings.
No words to adequately express my deep appreciation for these insights.
Thank you, Jared!
Thanks for the small kick in the butt. I have been sitting around pondering why I photograph at all (winter weather sometimes does that to a person), which means I have forgotten that the real reason I photograph is to walk, to see, and to do. As ever, thoughtful words.
Thank you, Gordon! Winter has the same effect on me, and writing sometimes helps me remind myself of these reasons, too. I hope you are well!
Beautifully conceived and eloquently expressed. A recent conversation with a photographer friend led to my much more rudimentary observation that artists make art because they can’t stand not to. The urge to create is a beast whose rage can only be tamed by release.
I had a wonderful English teacher (who was also a poet and a terrific basketball coach) in 7th grade and much of high school. He would ask us, “Gentleman, what is the meaning of life?” That question took hold of me with a vice like grip for decades. I now wish I had had access to this essay to help me find a way to be with that question. Thank you Guy.
Thank you Guy for your passionate expression and honesty in your comments. I loved it that you admitted to your winter blues. Maybe after all we are not that different as we may think at any given moment of our daily lives although I tend to be more spiritual about the meaning of life or to draw conclusions from spiritual literature and experience.