What's an Artist?


That tuckered-out argument we've been having here for ages...you know, the one about who's an artist and what makes something art...reared its ugly head in my consciousness again while reading an article in the Science section of The New York Times this morning. It's a profile of photographer, Felice Frankel, who has virtually revolutionized the way images are presented in science education:

With her help, scientists have turned dull images of things like yeast in a dish or the surface of a CD into photographs so striking that they appear often on covers of scientific journals and magazines. According to George M. Whitesides, a Harvard chemist and her longtime collaborator, “She has transformed the visual face of science.” [...]

In her book, “Envisioning Science” (M.I.T. Press, 2002), Ms. Frankel instructed researchers, in words and many pictures, in the kind of visual depiction of scientific processes and subjects she and Dr. Whitesides produced in an earlier book, “On the Surface of Things,” (Harvard University Press, 1997). Now they are finishing a book about “small things,” as Dr. Whitesides put it, things at the limit of what can be seen with light, even through the microscope.

Meanwhile, Ms. Frankel has been organizing conferences around the country on “Image and Meaning,” and working to establish a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation on the uses of visual imagery in teaching science.
Her images are indeed captivating:



But in the Times article, she explains why she's not comfortable with her photographs being described as "art":

When people call Felice Frankel an artist, she winces.

In the first place, the photographs she makes don’t sell. She knows this, she says, because after she received a Guggenheim grant in 1995, she started taking her work to galleries. “Nobody wanted to bother looking,” she said.

In the second place, her images are not full of emotion or ideology or any other kind of message. As she says, “My stuff is about phenomena.”

Phenomena like magnetism or the behavior of water molecules or how colonies of bacteria grow — phenomena of nature. “So I don’t call it art,” Ms. Frankel said. “When it’s art, it’s more about the creator, not necessarily the concept in the image.”
There's not a lot of information about her experience with galleries in that statement, but it's not difficult to image the details. What gets me about this, though, is the notion that someone doing something so fundamentally related to what true "art" does (i.e., help us see the world in a new way) has decided what she does isn't "art" because of some degree of rejection by the commercial gallery system. Without knowing whether that experience was limited to walking into some big name spaces and asking the gallerinas if someone would look at her prints, it's difficult to conclude whether such a response was premature or not (and I'll admit, the work's not quite right for our program), but it's merely the idea that Ms. Frankel permitted someone else to decide for her whether she was an "artist" that bothers me here.

In this 1998 interview on The NewsHour, the interviewer called what Ms. Frankel does "a marriage of art and science," and she doesn't object to that characterization, suggesting perhaps back then she was still actively seeking gallery exhibitions (or, obviously, that she wasn't presented the opportunity to object), but clearly at one point she wanted to be taken seriously as an "artist." In fact, when she first became affiliated with MIT, according the Times article, it was as an artist in residence. What changed her mind about whether she was an "artist" appears to have been the gallery system.

But let's back up to her definition for more insight into this decision:

In the second place, her images are not full of emotion or ideology or any other kind of message. As she says, “My stuff is about phenomena.”

Phenomena like magnetism or the behavior of water molecules or how colonies of bacteria grow — phenomena of nature. “So I don’t call it art,” Ms. Frankel said. “When it’s art, it’s more about the creator, not necessarily the concept in the image.”
Ouch.

Now I don't imagine she meant that as the criticism it reads to me as, but still. Yikes.

Or is she right? Is art more about the creator than anything else? What is an "artist" minus the ego? Is ego a primary component of "art"?

Even more disturbing perhaps than this assertion is the initial conclusion that her photographs are not "art" because "the photographs she makes don’t sell." Perhaps that reflects nothing more than Ms. Frankel's personal assessment. But it was alarming to read it in print, so matter-of-factly stated by someone so clearly intelligent and creative.

Like I said, we've been over this terrain with a fine tooth comb, but I wasn't aware of how much such notions have seemingly seeped into the conventional wisdom. I mean she's now convinced...where did her doubt about the definitions go?

Can I just say Yikes, again?

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posted by Edward_ at 7:44 AM
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