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Why are we attracted to certain works of art? I believe that we are attracted towards specific works of art because of the emotional response we have to a specific piece, because of its elegance, and because of how it resonates within us. I also believe that there is nothing scientific or rational in this process. In other words, we like art for unquantifiable reasons. Furthermore, we frequently like art for reasons that we cannot adequately put into words, In other words we like art for emotional reasons that are sometimes indescribable.
The reasons why we like a work of art cannot be appropriately described by using specific amounts, or quantities, or “numbers”. Instead, art relies on an emotional response and on personal taste for both for its creation and its appreciation.
In this regard artists and art patrons share something in common: the knowledge that art cannot be described in such a way as to reflect everyone’s response. They share the knowledge that art, eventually, is to be enjoyed because it nourishes the soul more than the body. And finally, they know that art, and the appreciation of art, is eventually an intellectual pursuit that relies on emotional response and on personal taste. How "good" a work of art is, what it takes to create a work of art, and finally how much enjoyment one derives from a work of art, is unquantifiable.
The unquantifiable nature of art is troubling to some. Yet, it must be accepted for fact. Let me give you a few examples that consist of comparing what I consider to be fine art to what I consider to be commonplace. These examples come from endeavors other than photography.
One of the most famous book of French Cuisine, Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire, features no precisely measured amounts for the numerous ingredients used in the recipes featured in the book. The recipes are to be understood by the reader for being starting points from which the chefs are expected to invent, interpret and improvise according to their own taste, style and personal approach to cooking. In other words, these recipes are guidelines rather than absolute facts or precise "blueprints." They are loose roadmaps instead of carefully designed itineraries.
The approach used by Escoffier also demonstrate that in art -- because cooking as approached by Escoffier is an art-- personal style plays a preponderant role. In this instance, personal style is expressed, in part, through the choices made by each chef in regards to the exact quantities of ingredients used. Personal style is, of course, also expressed by the exact recipes chosen by each chef and by their interpretation and modification of these recipes. Finally, it is eventually expressed by a chef's invention of a new recipe. Invention, in art, is seen as a sine qua non quality. It is seen as a feature that one must possess in order to truly develop a unique style.
In comparison to Escoffier's approach, which places quality first, I would like to present another category of cookbooks that focus on cooking fast, on speed. Just about every cookbook that feature “quick recipes," includes carefully measured quantities for each ingredient used in the recipes. In fact, such cookbooks frequently include shopping lists with precisely measured quantities for everything that needs to be bought. The primary goal of quick recipe cookbook authors is not to help the reader create fine cuisine. Rather, their primary goal is help the reader cook a reasonably good meal in a short time. Therefore, the cook is to asked to bring-in his or her personal talent or inventiveness.
In fact, the goal is to "turn off," so to speak, the cook’s inventiveness. Why? Because inventiveness takes time and thus goes against completing a recipe quickly. Unlike Escoffier's approach, where quality comes before speed, here speed come before quality. Ideally, one would like to have both speed and quality. But if one of the two has to go, then speed will take precedence over quality. As a result, invention will have to go because, by nature, invention takes time, too much time in this instance.
The rationale here is that inventiveness –and by extension art- is non-productive, time consuming and will put you behind schedule in a pinch.
To fully understand my point, something must be said about the avowed goal of fine cuisine. The goal of fine cuisine is not to nourish your body. Any food can do that. The goal of fine cuisine is to nourish your soul. The goal of fine cuisine is to provide you with a unique experience of food, an experience that will be remembered. We do not necessarily remember each of the dishes that we eat everyday. We do not remember them because the goal was to nourish ourselves, not to engage in an artistic experience. However, we remember a fine meal --such as one cooked by one of Escoffier's students-- because the goal of fine cuisine is to be enjoyed for its quality and remembered for its uniqueness. The goal of a “quick recipe meal” on the other hand is to be cooked fast. If it is remembered it won’t necessarily be because of its taste or its presentation. Instead, it may be remembered because of how much time was saved.
Yucca Moonset, White Sands National Monument
Let’s take a second example. If you go to a clothing store and ask to purchase an “elegant outfit” the salespeople will most likely be at a lost. Why? Because there is no recipe for elegance. Elegance is an art and as such relies, once again, on personal taste and personaly style.
Elegance, for example, can be expressed through the use of daring combination of elements that are not necessarily meant to be worn together. Or, it can be expressed through less-noticeable garments highlighted by carefully chosen accessories. Many other approaches are possible of course. Which one is chosen depends on individual taste. Why? Because eventually elegance is an individual concept. Elegance follows no general rules. As a result, one person’s concept of elegance is different from another person's concept of elegance. There is no guidebook to elegance, no list of “elegant clothing outfits” and no checklist of what one needs to wear to be dressed elegantly.
It’s all up in the air in a way and soon enough the salesperson will be asking what event the client wants to attend, or what function, or other questions related to purpose and intent, because the intended use will allow them to refer the client to specific items, specific garments, shoes, accessories and so on. These specifics will get the salesperson "off the elegance hook" so to speak and put them on their way towards making recommendations based on facts rather than on emotion and personal taste. Personal style and salesmanship do not necessarily work well together.
On the other hand, if you go to a clothing store and ask to purchase a golf outfit, or a suit for a black-tie event, then the salesperson will be far more able to help you because these outfits require specific items for which there is a list that is most likely known to the salesperson. In that case the salesperson can refer back to the list and let the buyer decide between this pair or that pair of golf shoes or any other specific item that is “on the list.” The choice is no longer between "elegant" and "not elegant," something which is undefinable, but between different versions of a specific item, something which is a lot easier to do.
Elegance is something that cannot be precisely defined. You know it when you see it. The only way to know what is elegance is to meet elegant people and dress elegantly.
Similarly, to go back to my previous example, the only way to know what is fine cuisine is to eat in a fine restaurant. Finally, and to return to photography, the only way to know what is a fine print is to see one in person. One cannot acquire this knowledge by looking at reproductions on the web, in magazines or in books. It can only be acquired by seeing fine prints in person. It can also be acquired by owning a fine print so you can look at it any time you want, without glass, and under the lighting of your choice. A fine art print is art and as such it is about elegance, quality, emotion and other unquantifiable qualities.
Essay and photographs Copyright © Alain Briot 2007
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