“An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.” -Jean Cocteau
Art is by nature self-explanatory. We call it art precisely because of its sufficiency. Its vivid detail and overall cohesion give it a clarity not ordinarily apparent in the rest of life. And so if the audience lives in the same time and culture as does the artist, and if the audience is familiar with the history of the medium, there is no need to append to art a preface or other secondary apparatus.
Photographers are so often asked to spell out the significance of their pictures, something they resist trying to do. Yes, they can say a little about what brought them to begin, though this is not to discuss what resulted, and they can describe the equipment they used and the processes they followed, but they know that if these are the secrets then the pictures are not very important.
The frequency with which photographers are called upon to talk about their pictures is possibly related to the apparent straightforwardness of their work. Photographers look like they just record what confronts them - as is. Shouldn't they be expected to compensate for this woodenness by telling us what escaped outside the frame and by explaining why they chose their subject? The assumption is wrong, of course, but an audience that knows better is small, certainly smaller than for painting. Photographers envy painters because they are usually allowed to get by with gnomic utterances or even silence, something permitted them perhaps because they seem to address their audience more subjectively, leaving it more certain about what the artist intended.
Years ago when I began to enjoy photographs I was struck by the fact that I did not have to read photographers' statements in order to love the pictures. Sometimes remarks about the profession by people like Stieglitz and Weston were inspiring, but almost nothing they said about specific pictures enriched my experience of those pictures.
Photographers, like all artists, choose their medium because it allows them the most fully truthful expression of their vision. Other ways are relatively imprecise and incomplete. Why try the other ways? As Charles Demuth said, "I have been urged, to write about my paintings…Why? Haven't I, in a way, painted them?” Or as Robert Frost told a person who asked him what one of his poems meant, "You want me to say it worse?”
Photographers are like other artists too in being reticent because they are afraid that self-analysis will get in the way of making more art. They never fully know how they got the good pictures that they have, but they suspect that a certain innocence may have been necessary.
The main reason that artists don't willingly describe or explain what they produce is that the minute they do so they've admitted failure. Words are proof that the vision they had is not fully there in the picture. Characterizing in words what they thought they'd shown is an acknowledgment that the photograph is unclear - that it is not art.
C S. Lewis admitted, when he was asked to set forth his beliefs, that he never felt less sure of them than when he tried to speak of them. Photographers know this frailty. To them words are a pallid, diffuse way of describing and celebrating what matters. Their gift is to see what will be affecting as a print...without words.
At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect - a sense of inclusion. Our subject thus redefines us, and is part of the biography by which we want to be known.
Why People Photograph
“Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it. For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find. What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in a state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from its actually being worked out.
Thus, what concerns us here is not imagination in itself, but rather creative imagination: the faculty that helps us pass from the level of conception to the level of realization.”
-Igor Stravinsky, The Poetics of Music
Everyone thinks, but not everyone thinks equally well. For real intellectual feasts we depend on master chefs who have learned to mix and blend and savor an entire range of mental ingredients. It's not that what they do in the kitchen is any different from what we do, they just do it better. We like to suppose master chefs were born that way, yet even the most promising individuals spend years in training. It follows that we, too, can learn the tools of the trade and thereby improve our own mental cooking. This process, however, requires us to rethink what gourmet intellection is all about. And rethinking shifts our educational focus from what to think to how to think in the most productive ways possible.
Our tour of mental cookery begins in the kitchen of the mind, where ideas are marinated, stewed, braised, beaten, baked, and whipped into shape. Just as real chefs surprise us by throwing in a pinch of this and a handful of something else, the kitchens of the creative imagination are full of unexpected practices. Great ideas arise in the strangest ways and are blended from the oddest ingredients. What goes into the recipes often bears no resemblance to the finished dish. Sometimes the master mental chef can't even explain how she knows that her dish will be tasty. She just has a gut feeling that this imagined mixture of ingredients will yield a delicious surprise.
To think creatively is first to feel. The desire to understand must be whipped together with sensual and emotional feelings and blended with intellect to yield imaginative insight. Creative thinking and expression in every discipline are born of intuition and emotion. Artists are characterized as mainly visual thinkers but draw only partially upon visual stimuli. Emotions, kinesthetic feelings, philosophy, life itself, are other sources of artistic ideas.
Painter Bridget Riley describes her paintings as "intimate dialogue[s] between my total being and the visual agents which constitute the medium...I have always tried to realize visual and emotional energies simultaneously from the medium. My paintings are, of course, concerned with generating visual sensations, but certainly not to the exclusion of emotion. One of my aims is that these two responses shall be experienced as one and the same."
Whether we are attempting to understand ourselves, other people, or some aspect of nature, it is imperative that we learn to use the feelings, emotions, and intuitions that are the bases of the creative imagination. That is the whole point of gourmet thinking.
Josef Albers may have expressed this process most succinctly when he wrote that art is "the discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect ... [a] visual formulation of our reaction to life.
Georgia O'Keeffe wrote, "I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at, not copy it."
Sparks of Genius. The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.
Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein