Friday, April 29, 2016

Zen and the Art of Art

Zen and the Art of Art

Forty years ago I, like many photographers of my generation, read a book called “Zen and the Art of Photography.”  I didn’t care for it much, partly because it’s title was derivative of the wonderful, and, for me and countless others, influential book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”  Somewhere in a box sitting somewhere on my farm, probably an old out of service grain bin, is my copy of “Zen and the Art of Photography.”  I looked it up on Amazon, and the 2011 revision sells for $80 used.  My copy from the 70’s is listed at $400.  If you want to buy it, and I can find it, I’ll sell it to you for half price.  The only line I recall from the book is this:  “The internal + the external = the eternal.”  That’s as close to profound the book got, in my opinion, and it’s likely I feel that way because that thought relates to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”


The image above is my favorite image from my last year of work, and is inspired by the ideas in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”  In the book,  Robert Pirsig, the author, examines the relationship between rational and romantic views.   The technical process of keeping his motorcycle operating on a long road trip versus the joy of riding and experiencing the world.  He begins the trip with a rational, technical view, and his riding companions represent an exclusively romantic attitude.  By the end of the book, Pirsig realizes the value of a middle ground and aims for a perception that embraces both sides.  The author proposes that rationality and Zen-like “being in the moment” can coexist.  

I referenced this concept in the creation “R9”.  Also known as “Artifacts of the Prairie”, this piece consists of “artifacts” from the history of farming and ranching in Montana and removes them from the junk piles and old sheds where they rested and arranges them together to make “Art.” 

“Art” is a tricky thing, as it is hard to define.  Fine Art photography is even more difficult, as it is usually considered as being less “Art” than painting, drawing, or sculpture.  As a photographer who considers himself to be an artist, I define visual art as “a personal creation that stirs our aesthetic emotions.”  There are three basic types of visual art: Representational Art, Abstract Art, and Non-Objective Art.    Representational Art represents actual objects or subjects from reality (or an alternate reality, but that’s a different story).  Abstract Art takes subjects from reality and presents them in a way that’s different from the way we see them in real life.  Picasso’s Cubist paintings are a great example of this. 

Non-Objective Art takes nothing from reality and is created purely for aesthetic reasons.  Examples of Non-Objective Art are the work of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
 “R9” might be considered Abstract, but all photographs (with some exceptions, of course) are Representational Art, due to the nature of the medium.   Photographs like “R9” are more properly categorized as “Conceptual Art,” a subcategory of  Representational Art that turns a concept or idea into art. 

My mission as a photographer has been to represent the culture and artifacts of the Northcentral Montana prairie.  In R9 (and it’s larger version R16) I took items from the past and represented them in a conceptual way.  A Model T radiator cap, a pinion gear from an old International Harvest crawler tractor, a rusted-out oil bucket—common items that exist as artifacts of farming history.  The resulting work meets my goal in Art—to represent the culture and history from my area of world in an aesthetically pleasing and meaningful way.

Every year in March, several hundred artists converge in Great Falls Montana to participate in “Western Art Week.”  The event began many years ago as an auction to support the Charles M. Russell museum in Great Falls, and has grown into a huge event.  I have been an exhibitor for a few years as a member of the Western Heritage Artists show, which is held at the Holiday Inn.  A unique feature of our show is the lobby exhibit, which shows one piece of work from each artist.  The exhibit is also a competition, and a judge scores the artwork, and awards are given for the highest scoring work in various categories.

Lobby Show

This year I decided to enter “R9” as my lobby piece, knowing full well that it would not fit in and would likely score poorly with the judge.  I was right, and furthermore, some of my peers also received it un-enthusiastically.  A painter wondered how it could be considered “western” art.  A photographer friend of mine, who does beautiful and technically impeccable scenics, said R9 had no “focal point.”  Focal point is another term for a specific area in the image that draws the viewer’s attention.  Having a focal point is basic in Representational Art, but usually non-existent in Non-Objective Art.  Conceptual art, like R9, can go either way, but the most important quality of any work of Art is whether or not it elicits a positive emotional response in the viewer.  Fortunately for my business, the image was well received by those who buy art.  I don’t know if those who loved “R9” ride motorcycles, but if they do, I’ll bet that they spend more time riding than they do maintaining the machine.

By the way, the judge did not have a positive emotional response—her comment was that the image “wasn’t about anything.”  I wonder if the judge would have felt differently if I had titled it “Artifacts of the Prairie” rather than “R9.”  I’d love to know what you think!  If you have an opinion to share, leave a comment here or send me a Facebook message.

R9 #2 at Homestead 89 Gallery, Bozeman, MT
If you're in the Bozeman area and would like to see it in person, stop by Homestead 89.  Just a few blocks south of the intersection in Four Corners.

This 48" R16, printed on metal, found a new home in Great Falls, MT.