The World is Going to Pieces and the Artist Needs to Respond…or Not

A quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson crossed my desktop the other day: “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” I find the quotation offensive on several levels.  The first level is the arrogance it takes to make such a statement.  Now it is true that Cartier-Bresson was no slouch as a photographer, but I can see no reason, other than arrogance, for him to think that he was the arbiter of the proper use of world-class photographic time and talent.

The immediate implication of the quote is, of course, that Adams and Weston were not spending their time as photographers “should.”  My assumption is that Cartier-Bresson would have preferred that they be out documenting the world going to pieces and somehow photographically commenting on the situation or at least making it known to others.

As to what events comprised the world “going to pieces,” I can only speculate, but can see no reason that Adams and Weston needed to be recording it. There were many others doing that.

Also implicit in the statement is the notion that a photographer’s work ought to be political or social, or, at a very minimum, editorial or documentary. I can find no reasonable basis for such a belief. Ansel Adams believed that his work was of benefit; he responded to Cartier-Bresson’s statement by saying, “the understanding of the inanimate and animate world of nature will aid in holding the world of man together.” So far as I know, Edward Weston did not respond.

To take the question out of a historical context, does the quote suggest that because the world is going to pieces today (or so it seems), all artists should have a social or political component to their work? I hope not. Artists do what they do and make the art they make because it is important to them. Sometimes there is overtly editorial content; sometimes not.

For many artists, some photographers, many not, making a social and/or political statement is very important. Some statements are obvious; some subtle. Some are strong enough to elicit public reaction. Some political/social art is very good. But it’s not what all artists do, not what they want to do. I cannot think that adding another political/social voice in the creation of art is a proper approach for everyone.

There are many ways that you can make your voice heard politically and socially, and, certainly, there is no need to enumerate those ways here; you know what they are.  Art is a personal statement about whatever the artist needs it to be about. It may be political, or social, or something else. There are many aspects to existing in this world and any of them, all of them, are the proper subjects of art. Surely politics and society are important, but so are other things, other aspects of the human condition, other aspects of living.

Art is not what one artist decides it should be; it is what each artist decides for him/herself. As Seth Godin has said:

Art is what we call…the thing an artist does.

It’s not the medium or the oil or the price or whether it hangs on a wall or you eat it. What matters, what makes it art, is that the person who made it overcame the resistance, ignored the voice of doubt and made something worth making. Something risky. Something human.

Art is not in the eye of the beholder. It’s in the soul of the artist.

Date: Sunday, 27. February 2011 23:58
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Creativity, Photography

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  1. 1

    One needs to note the period when Cartier-Bresson made his statement: Just before WW2. And people like Roman Vishniac were following the Cartier-Bresson model. I can look at the images of Adams with admiration. It is more difficult to look at the images of Vishniac, because one is constantly wiping away tears.

    I am a devotee of Ansel Adams. I keep his artistry of light and texture as I attempt to apply his principles to my landscapes.

    But I am solidly with Cartier-Bresson. The photographer with skill and vision was a rare combination then and now. There were great forces on society then (pre-WW2) and now. There were great political lies driving humanity, then and now.

    Some chose to apply their talents to move the world toward action. They captured truth in a way that transcended language and culture. The images of fire hoses on protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. Of Nazis driving Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto. Of Russian tanks in 1956 Budapest. Of a sole protestor standing before a column of tanks in Beijing. Of Martin Luther King enunciating his dream. All the photographers capturing the dust bowl suffering. And the suffering of Somali refugees. And the Syrian conflict. And a napalm-burned Vietnamese girl running in pain and terror past our jaded eyes.

    And all the while, Adams and his followers were photographing rocks. There was great world complacency that needed to be shaken, indifferent populations that needed to be pulled upright. Terrible wrongs noted and righted. Meanwhile, the rock-shooters averted their gaze, and sought to lead other to avert their gaze, too.

    Adams and his devotees have the right to use their talents as they see fit, and they can produce lasting images of beauty. But the world is only incrementally better by their efforts to capture the face of nature. Their images are historically and ethnically inferior to the images of those who have dedicated their talents to a larger, human role.

    It is interesting that those who photograph rocks are so defensive of their choice of subjects, whereas those who chose to focus on the human condition are much more confident in the application of their talents.

    And from my perspective, for good reason.

  2. 2

    It was a statement about political commitment.

    You seriously can’t understand this?

  3. 3

    Yes, I understand it. I simply cannot support the temerity it takes to tell world-class artists, or any artists for that matter, what the subject of their art should and should not be.

  4. 4

    I love this quote…and had said literally exact same words about Ansel Adams…not knowing that such an esteemed photographer as HCB had thought the same thing.
    He is only pointing out the truth…that certain things are more important than others.
    A mountain is always there….so it doesnt really need to be remembered. People on the other hand…wont always be there…and therefore truly need to be remembered. I rest my case.

  5. 5

    Thanks for reading and thank you for your comment. But I must take issue. First, the mountain may not always be there; just ask the people who live near the more than 500 mountains in the US that have been destroyed by mining or have experienced the human toll of that mining. Second, as I pointed out in the post, the falling apart of the world in that time was very well documented photographically; it did not need two more photographers to publicize it. Indeed, Cartier-Bresson himself did not do a great deal of work documenting the falling apart of the world. Last, the world of photographic art would be all the poorer had Adams and Weston not photographed those “rocks.” There have been many, many images made of those same subjects, but none to equal the art created by those two photographers.

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