Is commercialism or self indulgence a greater threat to "art"? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

If “art” touches something in a broad range of people, it will be commercially successful, if it doesn’t it won’t. The taxpayers subsidize much of today’s “art”. After over 50 years of life, I have begun to be able to detect, by just looking, “art” that can’t stand on its own commercially.

I take pictures of what interests me and helps me tell the story, that I want told. I agree with those who say that they “want to” and “enjoy” taking picture number 413,942,975 of Half Dome. To my mind, not even St. Ansel, “captured” Half Dome, but maybe 1000 years from now, some Girl Scout with that day’s Brownie will. (Won’t we all be surprised if it looks best shrouded in a cloud of pollution?) When you pay for the camera and film, what you “want” is the only justification that you need. If you want someone else to pay for the camera, film or rent, then you should be able to find at least one other person that is willing to use resources that they created, from the sweat of their brow, to subsidized your efforts at “art”. I don’t count finding someone that is willing to say that your “art” is good enough to subsidize with MY money.

Wouldn’t “art” be better served if, instead of dispensing tax dollars to a politically well-connected elitist few, we just used the money so that every American could set aside one day to do “art”?

In America, at least, if you’re not willing to support your own artistic efforts by living the minimalist life style that can be obtained by working 20 hours a week cooking burgers, then maybe the problem isn’t what it costs to practice art, it is that down deep, you agree with the market.


-- Neal Shields (, January 05, 2002


A few years ago, American Photographer run an issue of snapshots done with point and shoot cameras by "average," non-professional, consumer-grade, didn't think they were artist Americans. They were superb and demonstrated the vitality, energy, creativity, interest in life and passion of Us Folks. Here, technology triumphed, acquiring that seemlessmess between the thought "I'd like to get a picture of this" and the eloquent results. Photography is in good hands-and digital cameras will bring back or help preserve the spontaneity and fun of family and personal "not really for sale" photogra

-- David Stein (, January 05, 2002.

Commercial success cannot be and should not be the judge of aesthethic merit or "artistic' content or value to a society.

Why is this? let's consider a different realm of artistic endeavor: music. Do you really bealieve that Michael Jackson or Brittney Spears is more important than recordings of work by Ludwig Van Beethoven's or Aaron Copland symphonies? Yet if you go by a criteria of what is commercially successful, those two "pop" stars sell more recordings in a week than the entire field of classical music sells in a year.

let's look at another field of "artistic" endeavor: the movie business. a movie like "Deep Throat" has made more money (i.e. been more commercially successful) than all ofthe great movies you can think of. Possibly in terms of the return to the original investors, possibly it has been more commercially successful than any other movie ever made. As a matter of fact the entire "sex industry" generates more money than all other forms of entetainment. Maybe we should stop building sports stadiums, movie theaters, concert halls and art museums andinvest in brothels instead.

I could go on, but I think you can follow the thread of my argument. Your argument is specious on the surface and hollow on the inside. Like porn and pop music it has shiny surface appeal but no substance. This isn't to denigrate porn or pop music, both actually have entertainment value, but the argument you are advancing is nothing but corrosive to any long range societal values. I just don't think that giving back the approximately ten cents a year that the average American citizen spends on "subsidizing" the arts in this country is going to encourage anyone to spend "one day" devoted to "doing' art.

Just because you or even possibly most American citizens don't immediate "get" a Philip Glass symphony, or a Diane Arbus photograph, or a quilt made by some woman in the West Virginia hills, doesn't mean it won't have value to others or even the majority of our society and culture a hundred years from now.

No one photographer is going to "capture" Half Dome (and by the way you do know that Ansel Adams was supported by US goverment commissions for much ofthe cretive part of hios career?) .On the other hand maybe you are on to something. What have really gotten out of the subsidy of space exploration except for Tang? and all this money we keep on spending on weapons, I mean really , what a waste. let's just drop the H-bomb on whoever annous us. Much more efficient don't you think! And the highways 7 bridges and other types of infra structure: Who needs to go anywhere now that we have Television and the world wide web? And isn't it abouttime that we stopped underwriting religion and got rid of the tax exempt status of the major religions. Think of all that property that could be put to better use, maybe as revenue generating brothels! And finally, doesn't everybody know that smoking cigarettes causes cancer, so why should we haveto pay for more cancer research? And damn it I'm tired of having to go through my life without ever tasting Whopping Crane. If nature cannot survive without a fedearal subsidy than maybe extinction is a good idea.

Ten cents a year is what you spend on subsidizing the arts. Wow what a high price, what an onerous burden.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, January 05, 2002.

I think another way of phrasing my question would be: do we get better “art” because we subsidize people to do it, that could do it on their own, if they were willing to make the personal sacrifices that it took? (“You have to suffer if you want to sing the blues”) If someone doesn’t think that their own “art” is worth personal sacrifice, then how as a society can we ask the auto mechanic with three children to support someone else’s “art”?

I would, for example, feel more comfortable subsidizing fine art glass than photography, on the theory that no amount of personal sacrifice will enable the average person to afford the equipment that it takes to make works of art in glass.

The moral issues of taking the fruits of someone else’s labor and subsidizing something that enough like minded friends think is important, is useless to debate logically.

Some government expenditures provide virtually universally utilized services to individuals. In America, you benefit from roads even if you don’t drive. As wealthy and envied as this country is, most Americans can be said to benefit from national defense.

The space program separated from national defense, could to my mind, be classified as “art”. What else would it be? However, if all one got out of the research that funded the space program is Tang, then they must live in a cave and eat bugs.

The Constitution basically provides the Federal Government with the authority to collect taxes and provide services, that everyone benefits from, and that cannot be provided otherwise. Even that can be said to be on moral thin ice.

Taxes are collect by threat of implied force. You either think it is ok to use force to subsidize art, or you don’t. I will not even go so far as to say that those that do, are wrong. However, I would never force someone to pay for a single sheet of 4X5 film for me, even if I knew that I could use it to “capture” Half Dome better than Ansel Adams and I could not get it any other way.

I personally can’t get on board with the “it’s not very much” argument when it comes to right or wrong. If a businessman defrauds 1 million people out of 10 cents each should we ignore his crime?

Also, “some commercialism produces trash”, does not logically imply that all commercialism produces trash. Just as not all subsidies produce self-indulgent art. However, commercialism does shield us against self-indulgent art, if it is allowed to work.

If St. Ansel would have been an auto mechanic without government aid, then so be it. However, I suspect that his talent would have virtually forced him to be a photographer. Further, food clothing and shelter weren’t the economic cakewalk then that they are today in America. Back then you could be able and willing to work and get cold and hungry anyway.

While ten cents a day, might not fund an “Art Day”, one half of the fruits of the average American’s labor is collected in taxes. Maybe we could take that ten cents and put something with it, and fund a day where everyone could be an “artist”.


-- Neal Shields (, January 05, 2002.

Note to Ellis: I tried Whooping Crane. It tastes a lot like Bald Eagle.


-- Doug Paramore (, January 05, 2002.

Another note to Ellis: we also got Velcro out of the space program. It tastes nothing like bald eagle.

-- Chad Jarvis (, January 05, 2002.


Whooping crane is what you refer to. It taste is between that of a spotted owl & a bald eagle, much less gamey than a California Condor.

-- Dan Smith (, January 05, 2002.

I think we also got teflon out of the space program. If you cook any of the above on teflon it tastes like........chicken!

So if every thing always taste like chicken....why not just eat chicken?

But back to the original subject, sort of, until I get my check to produce my art, I want my ten cents back.

-- Marv (, January 05, 2002.

You guys are just a little old flock of Do Do birdies.Just kidding!

-- Emile de Leon (, January 05, 2002.

Perhaps we should require both.

I can remember when college loans were granted whit out any expectation of academic performance. Billions of tax dollars were wasted on a "few semesters of college parting". Only when loans were awarded based on performance did the waste stop and the money went to serious students.

My wife is a poet and has just submitted a collection of poems for a $25000 grant. To participate she has to be published in 20 different mags over a two year period. This restriction is part grant and part commercialism. It weeds out the rediculous and ensures that her art is aligned with the community. It grounds the art in reality. It dillutes the decission of foolish buearacrates and awards money to those who are truely committed to their art.

-- Stephen Willard (, January 06, 2002.

Aside: according to my math, it is only a dime if you pay $1000 per year in income tax. If you're not living under a bridge and pay that kind of federal tax, please post your tax accountant's telephone number.


-- Neal Shields (, January 06, 2002.

Everyone go look at Ellis’s new web site. He demonstrates that “art” and “professionalism” are not mutually exclusive. I don’t even like color photography and his bowled me over.

My point is, that often when people complain that the community won’t support art, what they really mean is that the community won’t support amateurish art, or poorly marketed and managed art. I believe that real “art” will touch something in a high school drop out living under a bridge. He may not understand it, but it will connect on some level. If in today’s mass communication age, if you can’t find a market to support your art, ( I certainly can’t) the problem isn’t likely to be a lack of federal government support. -- Neal

-- Neal Shields (, January 06, 2002.

One of the greatest artists ever was a paid ceiling painter. Subsidized by the Catholic Church. Once a civilization has passed on its art, paintings-buildings- writings, are pretty much all that remains. How sad it would be if Andy Warhol or Jeffrey Koons was all that was left of ours. Every great civilization has subsidized art in some form. I have no problem with that at all. Art will be around long after Ford Motor Company has passed from the scene.

-- Dan Smith (, January 06, 2002.

what they really mean is that the community won’t support amateurish art, or poorly marketed and managed art. I believe that real “art” will touch something in a high school drop History has shown this to be flatly wrong. Dead wrong. Completely wrong.
The community has always been more than thrilled to support poor art. Look at television. What the community has not been willing to support is Mozart (subsidized by the court, died broke), Bach (payed by the church), Van Gogh (not payed at all). All of these examples had contemporaries that were fabulously successful in a commercial sense that have been forgoten like yesterday's breakfast. Most great art is challenging and often difficult to appreciate in the time it is created. Yet somehow these works end up being a representative of it's times--not the artistic equivalent of friut-loops that are commercially successful in every age. Read up on the premiere of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring.' The people revolted; there was a riot. So does this mean it is "amateurish art, or poorly marketed and managed art?" That's ridiculous.

-- Mark Meyer (, January 06, 2002.

"ensures that her art is aligned with the community"

Does this remind anybody but me of "1984"?


-- Neal Shields (, January 06, 2002.

I don’t mind getting beat up. But at least beat me up for my opinion.

I will stipulate that: Art is as important as it gets. One of my favorite quotes is from William Faulkner who was asked some inane question by a journalist. The question doesn’t survive in my memory but the answer does: “Ode on a Grecian Urn, is worth any number of old women”. ( I don't however, agree that bad(most)TV is art.)

Second, I will stipulate that sometimes, bad art (experimentation) is required as a path to extraordinary art.

Third I will admit that there is a lot of very good art that the majority of people don't like.

However: because something is important, doesn’t necessarily mean the government needs to subsidize it.

Second, government intervention is often counterproductive.

Third, history teaches us that enduring art, (a judgment I accept) tends to be the fruit of sacrifice, discipline and dedication. The discipline and dedication of someone that is a commercial success in a field, is likely to directly benefit their more “artistic” efforts.

Forth, in today's "information age" even extremely esoteric art can recieve a world wide exposure. If there aren't enough people in the whole world to support an artistic endevor, it is quite likely that history will have the same opinion.

Fifth, and this seems to be where we will split, I don’t believe that beltway opinions on “art” are superior to anyone else’s. There is something very primal about art that goes beyond: ”the eye enters a photograph on the lower left and moves to the upper right”.

If I took more pictures, I would be a better photographer. I don’t need a grant to do that. I simply need to place a higher priority on it. It may be "catch 22"…maybe the very act of asking for a grant should disqualify you from getting one.

Every day in America people are forced out of their homes to satisfy tax leans. I think on this very web site, I have seen questions such as: “I have just received a grant which includes the purchase of a camera, what should I buy?”

Who of us, would want to tell someone that even an very small part of the reason that they are losing their home to help buy some grant recipient an expensive camera?

(I started paying into social security when I was 16 and have paid in for over 35 years, now I am told that the government might not be able to afford to honor their agreement with that 16 year old. Is 10 cents too much? Maybe.)

-- Neal Shields (, January 06, 2002.

If you marinate whooping crane in either buttermilk or ginger ale, you'll get rid of the gamey taste. I don't know if this works for bald eagles or spotted owls.

-- John Kasaian (, January 06, 2002.

"My point is, that often when people complain that the community won’t support art, what they really mean is that the community won’t support amateurish art, or poorly marketed and managed art."

No that isn't what "they" mean. I say this having been on the sidelines (as opposed to the cheap seats in the stadium) of several of these fights and discussions (I guess I am on the field in this diuscussion, though!). what 'they" mean is that some narrow minded bureaucrat or elected official gets scared that a few narrow minded self appointed censors will raise a hue and cry over the work they are threatened by and the work will become "controversial". Usually all it takes is one or two people who feel secure enough in their position to stand up to the self appointed bullies. And there are self-righteous bullies on both sides of the fight: People who have mouths wider than their ability to comprehend that it is a big world.

After all who are you to say what is amateurish, or not well marketed? McDonald's is great at marketing inoffensive products that appeal to a huge range of people. So is the "Painter of Light' (a trademarked slogan) Thomas Kincaid. That doesn't mean Kinkaid's work isn't complete pablum smeared on canvas or that a Big Mac tastes the same as fresh bread, a real salad and a small piece of steak that is well cooked.

looking back on your argument it reeks of the 'anti-elitism" practiced by the Bolsheviks and the far right brand of socialists. There are things in the world that have value beyond dollars. Most "artists" I know work extremely hard, harder than most of us do in our 'day jobs" , at what they do with extremely little fiscal gain to show for it. And one day a year to "do" art won't result in art, it will result in millions of pieces of crap.

Finally I didn't appreciate you publishing that web address. The site isn't finished and I only sent it to you privately as a courtesy. If I had wanted it generally known I would have made it widely available.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, January 06, 2002.

If I remember correctly Saints Ansel and Edward received governmental and corporate support.

-- Kevin Kemner (, January 06, 2002.

Lest those vegetarians among us get offended, I meant no offense on the whooping crane, spotted owl, bald eagle & california condor taste test remarks. I am a confirmed vegetarian myself, only eating steaks from cows that don't eat meat.

-- Dan Smith (, January 06, 2002.

A couple of random thoughts.

1. Neal: you seem to really be complaining about taxes. I doubt there's any value to making those complaints on this forum. If you're going to complain, complain effectively. (That means do something to cause a change to alleviate your cause for complaint, don't just whine.)

2. Strict vegetarians cannot be photographers, since all photo materials use gelatine, derived from animals, mostly cows. Of course you probably can't use electronic equipment, since photographic negatives were used in the production of most electronic equipment.

-- Charlie Strack (, January 07, 2002.

Ellis, I suspect your mastery of argumentation will clear the playground. I haven't heard such sophisticated name-calling since 8th grade. (What the h**l is a "far right brand of socialist," anyway? But it doesn't matter, does it, if there isn't any such thing? It sounds bad.)

Charlie, the subject is art subsidies. The money for the subsidies comes from taxpayers. See?

E. Grim

-- E. Grim (, January 08, 2002.

E. Grim:

I understand that. I'm suspect Neal's true complaint is sub rosa, based on some of his follow up comments.

As a taxpayer, I'd rather my taxes go to the arts than some of the other pork. Even art I don't particularly appreciate.


-- Charlie Strack (, January 08, 2002.

"Last evening, I had printed, and ready to show all shell negatives: two "interested" girls, pubils of B. wanted to see more of my work after B. had shwon them a print she has of hte first shell.

Of course, they were "interested,"--"thrilled,"--but not to the point of spending money, yet they were wealthy girls. Do they think I show my work to be flattered?--That I am hungry for praise? Well, I'm hungry for money & discouraged...

I don't know what move to make next...

I have to show my prints so often that I detest every one of them. I suppose this is all right if I am forced by my reaction to create new." Edward Weston, 8 June, 1927

"My one thought is money! I have tried to make a living here, ina quiet unobtrusive way,--because of M. But no such way is possible: the American public want noise, steam-roller methods,--they must be forced to buy. Woman, who is the buyer here, is not genuinely interested in art: with her, it is a pose, along with other ways of culture hunting: all she wants is sex, and all her gestures are directed by sex,--she would not spend one cent on art,--yet pretending to be deeply moved, if a new hat would make her more attractive,--for sex sake! And the poor boobs of American men are but money machines to further her ends." Edward Weston, 9 June, 1927

"The money question is disturbing me mentally."

Edward Weston, 18 June, 1927

"To really blossom, one must feel wanted, loved: must feel a place os open for one's especial capacity--not just any job. One;s work must have social significance, be needed,--to be vital. Art for art;s sake is a failure: the musician cannot play forever to an empty house. There must be balance--giving and receiving--of equal import whether in sex or art. The creative mind demands an audience, must have one for fulfillment, to give reason for existance. I am not trying to turn the artist into a propagandist, a social reformer, but I say that art must have a living quality which relateds it to present needs, or future hopes, opens new roads for those ready to travel, those who were ripe but needed an awakening shock,--impregnation. Nor am I in any way suggesting that the artist consciously tries to put a message into his work--he may, as Orozco does--who, chipped into a flame by injustice, releases himself with scathing satire: but his work will live, one migh say, despite the social theme, as done by a creative mind, a visionary functioning positively, giving direction and meaning to life, which had been suffocating in sunless middle- class parlors, or falsified in "Bohemian" attics. The same theme put down by a lesser artist, be ever so fiery a radical, would no more live than a skyscraper erected by a schoolboy.

Edward Weston, 20 March 1931

"What started me on yesterday's subject was a desire to find the reason why my work has meaning to many people in many walks of life: not only artists & intellectuals respond, but businessmen, the butcher, the baker, etd.,--children too. And now I have been adopted by the left wing!--though my work has no trace of political propaganda. But it is none the less radical,--it predicates a changing order: and that is why it is so disturbing to the bourgeoisie--I have watched them--who fear change...

Universal need?--Yes, but not universal acceptance!

but have I not wasted several pages in putting down the obvious?"

Edward Weston 21 March, 1931

Even Edward Weston wondered what he was doing, how the demands of trying to make enough money for his limited needs, felt the commercial demands on his time and talent. He often quit using materials because he could no longer afford them, one such was the change from platinum to chloride printing papers for his work.

He sold images but was never a commercial success especially if one compares him to the master of marketing (learned in painful steps over a long career) his friend Ansel Adams.

Living "the minimalist lifestyle" is highly over rated, usually spoken of in reverent tones by those who don't have to worry where to get $5 so they can eat the next week while balancing that against the real need to purchase another box of film or chemistry to keep creating, to keep feeding the need to create new images. The "minimalist lifestyle" may well be a choice made to keep ones artistic work in progress.

Every great civilization has subsidized the arts in some form. I don't begrudge the money even if I don't like some of the artwork. Better that Robert Mapplethorpe had received a whole years Federal Budget than that jackass Jesse Helms getting a dime for his stupidity... yet Helms gets fat on the public hog trough while artists of every stripe get castigated because of what they create, even if they do NOT get a dime from the public hog trough.

Artist grants should have no strings attached. The freedom to create & the acceptance of what is created are not the same thing. If you want a house built to specs, hire a contractor. If you want art you have no realistic expectation other than you will get "something...", you cannot & do not control it, you accept it and live with it. Or, in the case of the fat, bloated controlling prigs, you censor it & piss & moan about how your money is spent.

Government money or not, art will still be created. Firing the artist won't stop that. Firing the author of LEAVES OF GRASS did not stop him from writing poetry and stopping funding won't stop an artist from creating new works. It may influence the amount of work produced, the ease in getting supplies or in finding time to produce more work, but it won't stop it.

As for "the market", art will continue to be produced whether it sells or not. And if the government or a private party makes available funds to allow me or others to work without financial worry for a time, that is fine. If they don't like the work produced, then... in the words of the philosopher, "If they can't take a joke, fuck 'em".

-- Dan Smith (, January 08, 2002.

I read a nice quote from the first director of Fermilab, whose name I have forgotten. When Fermilab was set up in the 60s he was quizzed by a panel of politicians who - understandably - equated particle physics with nuclear bombs. They wanted to know how the very new, very expensive accellerator would help to defend America. The response was that it wouldn't, instead - and vitally - it made America *worth* *defending*.

-- Struan Gray (, January 10, 2002.

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